Home » 2018 Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne Meadows, CA

Wednesday, August 22, 2018 - 11:45am by Lolo
236 miles and 5.5 hours from our last stop - 6 night stay


Day 1 - Hiking to Elizabeth Lake and Unicorn Peak

View of Lembert Dome from Tuolumne MeadowsView of Lembert Dome from Tuolumne MeadowsWe had arrived in Tuolumne Meadows last evening, too late to do much of anything but a quick walk out into the Meadow just to absorb the peace and beauty of this incredible place before turning in for the night.

Today we had the whole day to ourselves before the arrival of our guests for the weekend, so we decided to spend it hiking, which is pretty much what one does in Tuolumne Meadows. We had hiked most of its trails in previous visits, so Herb suggested one that we do a new one, the hike up to Elizabeth Lake.

Herb sort of lured me into this hike before I knew what I was getting into. He billed it as a 5-mile round trip hike, right from our campsite, to a lovely alpine lake - and oh, we could continue on for a bit towards Unicorn Peak if we felt like it.

Lolo attacks the ravineLolo attacks the ravineWe packed up a lunch and set off through the campground to campsite B49, next to which is the trailhead to Elizabeth Lake. The trail started off with a moderate climb through a forest of lodgepole pine and mountain hemlock before joining up and running alongside Unicorn Creek.

The views got better and better as we climbed out of the woods, with the imposing Mount Conness and Ragged Peak behind us and Unicorn and Cathedral Peaks laid out before us.

After about 2 ½ miles we reached the shores of Elizabeth Lake (elevation 9,580 feet) and followed the path along the northeast shore of the lake. Before continuing on and up to Unicorn Peak, we stopped for a picnic lunch on the banks of the lake, all the while staring up at this unique rock formation, wondering just how the heck we were going to get up there, as there is no designated trail. We also took note of a cliff below it to hopefully ensure that we would not come down that way and find ourselves at the brink of it.

Lolo loving the talus fieldLolo loving the talus fieldAfter much deliberation, we decided to scramble up the rocky ravine to the left of it, hoping to find a navigable trail to the right once we got on top. It was a long, tough slog up a rocky 1,300 feet to a height of 10,752 feet, made even more difficult by the fact that we were not acclimated to high elevation yet, having driven from near sea level the day before.

On top of the ravine at last, we thought it would be quite obvious as to how to get to the base of Unicorn Peak. However, Unicorn Peak turned out be not as unique as we thought, and we at first mistook another rock formation, the Cockscomb, for our real goal. After pulling out a map and orienting ourselves based on recognizable features, such as Cathedral Peak and Budd Lake, we were able to get back on track and found Unicorn Peak’s saddle.

That was the good news. The bad news was that we had to make our way across a vast talus field, along which we had to use our trekking poles to test the stability of each rock before we trusted stepping on it. It was probably only about 300 yards, but it felt like it took forever.

Herb enjoying the view of Elizabeth LakeHerb enjoying the view of Elizabeth LakeFinally, we managed to get near the base of Unicorn Peak, which was our goal for today. Getting to the summit is quite technical. The South Summit is the only one that doesn’t require climbing gear to get to the top, but it still requires doing class 3 – 4 scrambling to get to the top. Perhaps we would save that for another day.

However, the fun wasn’t over yet as we had to decide how to best make our way back down to Elizabeth Lake when there was no obvious trail. Plus, we wanted to avoid winding up at the top of that cliff we had noticed from our lunch spot on the lake. There was no way we wanted to work our way back to the ravine that we had climbed up, so we just kept heading down, taking the path of least resistance, and keeping the lake in our sights. There was quite a bit of bushwhacking involved along the way. Some cairns would certainly have been nice.

Finally we made it back down to the lake and continued on back to the campground. It was probably the hardest 8-mile hike we have ever done. I would take 5 miles on a trail over 300 yards on talus any day.

Day 2 - Hiking to Dog Lake and Hanging out in the Meadow

Dog LakeDog LakeBeth and Richard (Erin’s parents) arrived at our campsite bright and early Friday morning, ready for a full day together before the kids arrived later tonight. What a different feeling from last year, when we were meeting them for the first time, with 8 hours to spend alone together before Tommy and Erin’s arrival - which could have been awkward if we hadn’t been so compatible. I guess it says a lot for Tommy and Erin’s judgment of their parents that we would get along just fine and be great friends before they even arrived. They were right.

Once their tent was set up and all food stored in the bear box, we decided to go on a hike to Dog Lake, one of the easier to reach alpine lakes in Yosemite.

View of Unicorn Peak from the MeadowView of Unicorn Peak from the MeadowWe parked at the Dog Lake parking area just west of the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. From there, we crossed Tioga Pass Road and followed the trail, which rose pretty steeply for the first mile as it wound its way through a lodgepole pine forest. I felt bad because I had told Beth that the trail was pretty flat and easy - Oops.

At the ¾ mile point we came to the junction for Lembert Dome, which is really a worthwhile hike with great views of Tuolumne Meadows and the surrounding peaks from its summit. It does, however, require a bit of scrambling up a steep slabby section towards the top, so we figured it would be better to save this for another day when our guests were more acclimated to the altitude.

So, instead we continued on for another mile to the shores of pretty Dog Lake with views of Mount Dana and Mount Gibbs in the distance. Although there is a path that circles the lake, we satisfied ourselves with a picnic lunch on its shoreline.

All in all, the hike is a moderate 3.5 miles (RT) with a 600-foot elevation gain.

Lovely Tuolumne MeadowsLovely Tuolumne MeadowsOne of the loveliest places to spend late afternoon / early evening in Tuolumne is wandering around the Meadow. So, we packed chairs and a cooler of wine and cheese, loaded up the car, and parked along the road where a wide trail ( 0.1 mile east of the Visitor Center) led out into the meadow.

In about a ½ mile the trail crosses a footbridge over the Tuolumne River and leads to a rocky beach along its shore - the perfect place to enjoy the lovely views of Cathedral Peak, Unicorn Peak, the Cockscomb, and Echo Peaks to the south and Lembert Dome to the north, enhanced greatly by the wine and cheese in our cooler.

I would have to say that I looked at Unicorn Peak a lot differently now that we had actually hiked up to it from our campsite. I was pretty proud of myself.

The kids didn’t arrive until close to midnight, but once a mother, always a mother, so I waited up for their arrival.

Day 3 - Hanging out at Tenaya Lake and Hiking up Pothole Dome

Lolo kayaking on Tenaya LakeLolo kayaking on Tenaya LakeIt is not difficult to see why Tenaya Lake is referred to as the “Jewel of the High Country.” With its glacial blue waters, surrounded by granite domes, it has to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the Sierras.

So, today we decided to spend the first part of our day, lounging on its sandy beaches, swimming in its chilly waters, and paddling in our kayaks around its shoreline.

Herb stores the kayaks on top of the motorhome when we travel, which requires quite a bit of heavy lifting to get them up there, but feels worth it when we find a lake like Tenaya. Although we have kayaked around Tenaya several times, it was nice to give our guests a chance to experience paddling around this beautiful lake.

Since we are not a group that just sits around well, afterwards we decided to take a hike to the top of Pothole Dome, a short hike that has a lot of bang for its buck. The parking lot for Pothole Dome is located about 1 ½ west of the Visitor Center.

View of Tuolumne Meadows from atop Pothole DomeView of Tuolumne Meadows from atop Pothole DomeThe trail begins along a meadow before reaching the base of the Dome. From that point on, there is no trail, but rather an easy scramble up whatever route you choose to the top. And, as its name implies, there actually are lots of potholes on Pothole Dome, formed by glaciers trapping flowing water, in which swirling rocks slowly drilled out a hole.

From the top, there are superb views of the Tuolumne River flowing through the meadow, as well as many of Tuolumne’s famous domes and peaks, such as Fairview Dome, Lembert Dome, Mount Dana, and Mount Gibbs. Not bad for a 1 ½ mile hike with only a 200-foot elevation gain.

That view of the river flowing through the meadow was just too tempting to resist, so that evening, we loaded up chairs, cameras, fishing rods, hors d’oeuvres, and wine and spent a lovely evening fishing, laughing, and watching the light change over its surrounding peaks.

Day 4 - Guests Departure and Hiking the John Muir Trail along the Lyell Fork

Lolo chillin' along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne RiverLolo chillin' along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne RiverSunday - time for working folk to head back to the real world, while us retirees tried not to gloat about being able to linger around paradise for another day or two.

While Beth and Richard got an early start on their long drive back to the LA area, Tommy and Erin stayed for a while, mostly hoping to meet up with Ethan, one of his co-workers who was speed hiking the John Muir trail from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney, hoping to do its 211 miles in 7 days, while hikers take 3 weeks.

Fortunately, there was just enough cell coverage in Tuolumne, for Tommy and Ethan to plan a brief meet up at the Tuolumne Meadows Store, before he had to forge on. He needed to get out of Yosemite National Park that day because he was traveling light and didn’t have a bear canister, which is required of all backpackers in the park.

View of Unicorn Peak from the MeadowView of Unicorn Peak from the MeadowWhen he arrived, he looked great - just like he was out for a Sunday stroll. We gave him a tuna sandwich and bought him an ice cream in the store, which he very much appreciated, although he confessed it did put an * on his totally unsupported through hike. Still, he said it was worth it.

We wished him well, and off he went.

Tommy and Erin left shortly afterwards, and Herb and I spent the rest of the day hiking from our campsite along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, on the Pacific Crest / John Muir Trail. An easy hike, as we were saving ourselves for the big hike to Clouds Rest tomorrow.

Day 5 - Hiking to Clouds Rest

Lolo getting ready to hit the trail to Clouds RestLolo getting ready to hit the trail to Clouds RestThe hike to Clouds Rest has been on our bucket list for literally 10 years, but I have avoided it and made excuses for not doing it equally that long, not just for its strenuous 14 miles over rugged terrain at high elevation, but for its somewhat dicey ending, described in one book as “a promenade across a narrow and precipitously edged ridge composed of piled sheets of granite resembling huge stacks of pancakes or a line of toppled dominoes, with terrifying drop offs on either side.” My palms sweat just reading that.

However, I was braver now (having become a rock climber of sorts some 5 years now) and we were probably in the best hiking shape we have ever been. It was now or never.

We were up early and on the trail by 7:59 am - early for me, but necessary as the hiking time estimates were 8 to 11 hours. When we got to the trailhead at the southwest end of Tenaya Lake, there were a few cars already there, but we had no trouble finding a parking spot - probably because this was a weekday.

The first 2 ½ miles of the hike was a repeat for us, as it is the trail that also leads to Sunrise Lakes, which we had done two years ago. It starts off pleasantly enough, wandering through mini meadows and forests on fairly level ground for the first mile and a half. Don’t get lulled into complacency though, because at that point the trail gets rough and steep, climbing 1,000 feet in a 1-mile stretch.

Lolo approaches the Clouds Rest summitLolo approaches the Clouds Rest summitAt 2.3 miles we came to the junction for Sunrise Lake, but continued straight towards Clouds Rest, 4.7 miles more. This first section is really the toughest part of the hike.

From the trail junction, we began to descend for about a half mile to a lovely alpine meadow and a tree-ringed pond. I wasn’t particularly happy about the descent, as I knew that what goes down, must come up, and I much prefer my return to be all downhill. We continued along on fairly level ground through a lupine forest until about the 4.3-mile point, where we once again began to climb.

At 4.9 miles, we beared right at the T junction for Cloud’s Rest and got our first sighting of Clouds Rest, which we were sneaking up on from behind. As we climbed through a forest of western white pines, we began to get glimpses of some of Yosemite’s iconic rock formations.

At 6.8 miles, we came to the marker for the Clouds Rest Foot Trail to its summit. This was it. I must admit my body had a Pavlovian response to that sign - my palms began to sweat a bit and my heart quickened a few beats.

View from atop Clouds RestView from atop Clouds RestI took a deep breath and continued onto the narrow footpath, scrambling across rocks, with the steep drop-offs I had been promised on either side of me. I was comforted that the drop-offs were not straight down, but rather at a steep angle, giving one the feeling of more room, although the effect of falling would be the same. This went on for about 300 yards before emerging on the much wider, and safer, summit.

I would have to say that it wasn’t as bad as I had feared, and, although still a bit anxious, I was not totally dreading the fact that I had to cross it again on our way back.

The views at the summit were totally worth it. All of Yosemite was sprawled out before us - the ever popular Half Dome looming over Tenaya Canyon, North Dome, Mt. Hoffman, Yosemite Valley, the Clark Range, and all the Yosemite top hits. It was breathtaking.

We met a hiker from Arizona that was doing an impressive hiking “hat trick” over a three day period - Mt. Hoffman, Clouds Rest, and the Half Dome cable route. We have since become friends on facebook, enjoying each other’s adventures.

After eating lunch, we headed back out across the narrow section, and although I was less scared than before, it was still nice to finally place my foot on wider, solid ground. A guy less than half my age, who looked very hesitant to start his trek across, asked me how it was. “Not so bad,” I proudly responded. “Good,” he said, “because I don’t feel like dying today.” So, apparently I wasn’t the only one that had been dreading this.

Lolo escaping from the Clouds Rest summitLolo escaping from the Clouds Rest summitThe way down was long, and not helped by my rolling my ankle a bit on a root on totally flat ground shortly after coming off the summit. How ironic that I had gotten through the tough parts and messed up on the easy stuff - probably because I had been so deliberate in my steps on the rocky, steep parts, but a bit too nonchalant afterwards. It hurt a bit, but I was able to continue - not sure what my choice would have been.

The way back seemed much longer than the way there, even though it was mostly downhill. I guess we were tired and there was no longer the anticipation of the summit to distract us.

When we got back to the car, I took my hiking boot off, and my ankle was fairly swollen and black and blue. Lucky for me, and Herb who would have had to carry me, that it wasn’t any worse. This was the end of our trip anyway, so at least I wouldn’t be missing out on any more hiking opportunities.

I would have to say that I was proud and exhilarated by having finally faced my fears and experienced this truly incredible trail.

Another awesome Yosemite adventure had come to a close. Tomorrow we would head home, stopping for a night in South Lake Tahoe along the way.


In my past Yosemite National Park trip stop descriptions, I have focused on Yosemite Valley. However, this time our foray into Yosemite included a few days in beautiful Tuolumne Meadows along the Tioga Pass Road in the northern part of the park.

Tuolumne Meadows is very different from Yosemite Valley. At an altitude of 8,600 feet, it is high country and therefore, considerably cooler and wetter. As its name implies, Tuolumne is a beautiful sub-alpine meadow along the Tuolumne River, surrounded by rugged snow-covered mountain peaks and glacially-carved granite domes. The rock is porphyritic granite, which has a tendency for exfoliation, resulting in the distinctive dome shapes that are found here.

Hiking and rock climbing are extremely popular in this section of the park and tend to be much less crowded than the Valley. In contrast to the big walls in the Valley, the rock climbing routes on the major domes in the Meadow are shorter.

There are very few services in Tuolumne and the Tioga Pass Road is usually only open from Memorial Day through late October / early November, depending on the snowfall. During the summer (mid-June to mid-September), camping is available at Tuolumne Meadows Campground. It is extremely popular, so reservations are strongly recommended. However, there are also many sites saved as first-come-first-served. There is also a small grocery store, grill, post office, and gas station.

Tuolumne Meadows location map in "high definition"

Javascript is required to view this map.