• Marina Neal

Secret Dispatches from a Yosemite Backpacking Guide

Updated: Aug 17

For the past three summer seasons, I’ve been a backpacking guide in Yosemite National Park. I’ve explored countless climbing crags, backcountry trails, and hidden lakes. Every season, I have clients who ask for recommendations and tips for this incredible place. I’ve decided to compile them in this blog so you can have an adventurous time there as well!

Yosemite Valley
Photo courtesy of Great Runs

1. Why is Yosemite Valley so popular and where should I go?


See the valley, and then explore elsewhere. This is probably my number one tip for visiting Yosemite. The valley is the classic image you think of when you picture Yosemite, a winding river and meadows surrounded by massive granite walls. The home of features like El Capitan and Half Dome, it’s an astonishing natural beauty. The valley is beautiful, but in reality, it is only a tiny piece of the massive park. To put that in perspective, Yosemite National Park is the size of Rhode Island or 1,168 square miles, and the valley is only 7 square miles.


Yosemite NP map
Photo courtesy of NPS

The valley is constantly packed with people, making traffic and lack of solitude a very frustrating experience. Another fun fact, 95% of the 4 million visitors who come to Yosemite every year… only stay in the valley. That’s a lot of people.


2. What is the most popular trail to hike in Yosemite?


The Mist Trail is a beautiful trail in Yosemite, it starts on the Valley floor and guides you up to a lookout over multiple waterfalls. I highly recommend that everyone does this trail, as it’s entirely worth the challenge and a fun day's adventure! However, it’s also one of the most popular hikes in the Valley. For the most fun experience, I would recommend getting up very early to start this hike and eating breakfast or a solid snack at the top. You’ll skip the crowds, and get an incredible morning view.


3. If not the valley, where do I go? And how do I get permits?

Lyell canyon map
Photo courtesy of NPS

Get into the backcountry! The backcountry of Yosemite is the most epic and wild part of the place. If you have the knowledge, time, and permit- this is the place to be. Backcountry permits will be a lot easier to snag than a car camping spot in the valley. There are hundreds of miles of trails and so many places to explore! My personal favorite route starts in Lyell Canyon, moves through Vogelsang and along alpine lakes, goes through a burn area called Lost Valley, and finally takes you down to the valley. If you happen to get a Half Dome permit, you can also pop up there on your way!


4. What is Tuolomne Meadows?


If you don’t have time for a backcountry trip, there are some truly incredible day hikes that will also be a great way for you to see the park. Tuolumne is the high country of Yosemite, meaning the altitude hovers somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 feet! Remember that this can be quite the altitude adjustment for a lot of people, there are some helpful tips in this post. This is a great starting place for a lot of trails that will be less busy, with similarly incredible views.


Tuolomne meadows
Photo courtesy of Marina Neal

For example, if you were aching to summit Half Dome but didn’t get a permit, Cloud’s Rest is a great alternative. The trailhead starts in Tuolumne, and finishes at a summit higher than Half Dome with the same view! It’s a 14.5 mile round trip day, and the summit sits at 9,926 feet.


5. Where should I hang out in the valley?


There is one spot I adore in the valley, and that’s El Cap Meadow. I love watching the climbers make their way up El Cap as I eat my hummus. Bring a hammock or a quilt, and layout and watch the clouds pass by. There are also plenty of spots to jump in by the Merced River that snakes through this area.

Climbers at the top of half dome
Photo courtesy of Marina Neal

6. Where is the best place to drive to for a view?


Glacier Point is a great spot to go for some drive-through beauty! It’s an absolutely incredible lookout point that once again, can get quite busy. However, you can see so many rock features throughout the park and it’s a great place to catch the early morning light!


7. Where is the best place to get lunch?


The stores and restaurants in the valley are incredibly expensive and busy. I’ve seen the line for the pizza restaurant last for over an hour! And that’s not even including the wait time for the pizza! Bring your own lunch and snacks for a more affordable time, if you want inspiration for meals to make on the go- check out our recipes blog here.


8. What if I see a bear?


There is a lot of wildlife in Yosemite NP. You can expect to see bears, deers, squirrels, and even marmots. A real important tip, and warning, is to leave them alone. Every year I see so many tourists holding and feeding squirrels, chasing after deer, and getting dangerously close to bears. You are visiting these creatures' home, they are not a tourist attraction for you. The more you interact with them, the more difficult it is to keep them away from people and food. All food and smelly toiletries should never be left alone in the park or in your car, put them in a bear canister or bear box provided.


One more word of advice, especially don’t feed the squirrels. These critters carry really dangerous diseases in Yosemite, there have been recent cases where their fleas carry the bubonic plague! You don’t want that! Leave them alone and if they get too close, shoo them away.


sunset over half dome
Photo courtesy of Marina Neal

9. Yosemite is too expensive and too busy, where else can I go?


The surrounding wilderness areas by Yosemite are equally beautiful and much less busy. This means it’s easier to get permits, camping spots, and silence. Hoover and Ansel Adams Wilderness areas are a great place to start, or anywhere along the John Muir Trail!

10. What is the most important tip?


Have fun and bring a camera!