Yosemite National Park features some of the most beautiful backcountry in all of the Sierra Nevada. Surprisingly, however, most people stick to a few main trails – namely the John Muir Trail between Yosemite Valley – Tuolumne Meadows – Donahue Pass and the High Sierra Camp trails leading to Merced Lake – Vogelsang – Sunrise. Often times the northern portion of the park above Highway 120 and the southern portion of the park towards the Sierra National Forest and Ansel Adams Wilderness are overlooked by backpackers.
For this trip, we asked ourselves a few questions:
- What is the highest trail point in Yosemite? That would be a fun place to check out.
- How can we construct a ‘loop’ hike to that high point starting and ending in Yosemite Valley
ANSWER: the highest Class 1 trail point in Yosemite National Park is Red Peak Pass – a steep and narrow mountain pass that crosses over the Clark Range in the southeastern portion of the park. The Clark Range – and the Cathedral Range to its north – are the two main mini-mountain ranges in eastern Yosemite that come off the main Sierra Nevada range to their east. The Cathedral Range is a bit more famous, as it features Vogelsang High Sierra Camp and eventually Donahue Pass to the east.
It is fairly straightforward to construct a Red Peak Pass Loop from Yosemite Valley – either clockwise or counter-clockwise. Most people will either start from the valley at Happy Isles (IF you can get a permit!) and either head south down Illiloutte Creek or head east towards Lake Merced. For ease of permit acquisition, we decided to start up high above the valley floor at Glacier Point and head south and counter-clockwise.
We decided to not follow Illiloutte Creek across to Merced Pass Lakes, but instead go directly south and explore Buena Vista Lake, Royal Arch Lake and Buck Camp before heading back north and east towards Red Peak Pass. This extended version of the Red Peak Pass Loop would give us a great 6 day / 57.6 map miles backcountry adventure.
Why enter at Glacier Point instead of Happy Isles / Yosemite Valley? Several reasons:
- Glacier Point has 15 permits per day as a quota, whereas Happy Isles > Illiloutte only has 3 permits per day that are desirable to John Muir Trail hikers. Much easier to get the permits and the dates we wanted via Glacier Point.
- By starting at Glacier Point, we start up at 7,700 feet and head down to start – nothing wrong with that on day one.
- We can park our car in the Valley the day before we start, pick up our permit, stay at the Backpackers Camp in the valley, and take the Glacier Point tour bus to the trailhead the next morning – then when we end in the valley, we are at our car.
Planning the Trip
We booked our backcountry permit online through the Yosemite backcountry permit system exactly 168 days prior to our entry date. Once we had our permit, we then booked our Glacier Point bus tour tickets online as well. The map we used to plan our route was the Tom Harrison Yosemite High Country Map. This one map shows the entire route. We chose the following schedule for our trip – hoping that this would keep our average miles around 10 to 11 miles per day for the first five days and also land us at a good water source each night:
- Travel Day One: Drive to Oakhurst, CA and spend the night at a motel. Since our departure was on Labor Day Weekend, we wanted to be able to get into the park the next morning as early as possible to insure getting a parking space at the Happy Isles trailhead parking lot.
- Travel Day Two: Drive from Oakhurst into Yosemite Valley early a.m. and get a parking place in the Happy Isles trailhead parking lot. Once secured, stow our gear and pitch camp at backpacker’s camp. Then go the Wilderness Office in Yosemite Village and pick up our backcountry permit and parking pass. Then go to Yosemite Lodge and pick up our bus tickets for the ride to Glacier Point. Do a little sightseeing in the Valley, then crash in our tent at backpacker’s camp that night.
- Day One – 10.7 miles: Take the free Yosemite Shuttle from Backpacker’s Camp to Yosemite Lodge and pick up the tour bus to Glacier Point. Hike south from Glacier Point to the point where Buena Vista Creek crosses the Buena Vista Trail near Hart Lakes.
- Day Two – 10.7 miles: Hike south to Buena Vista Lake and over Buena Vista Pass. Continue South past Royal Arch Lake and then east and up to Buck Camp. Then continue Northeast and up to the Moraine Meadows Trail Junction.
- Day Three – 10 miles: Hike north over Merced Pass then northeast to Ottoway Lakes. Ascend Red Peak Pass, then descend and head east into the Clark Range basin to an unnamed trail lake and camp.
- Day Four – 10.5 miles: Hike east and down to the Triple Peak Fork Trail and then north to Washburn Lake.
- Day Five – 11.5 miles: Hike north to Lake Merced and then west to Little Yosemite Valley.
- Day Six – 4.2 miles: Hike west and down to Yosemite Valley. Shower at Curry Village then drive home.
Total (Tom Harrison Map) Miles: 57.6 Miles
(NOTE: Actual GPS hiking mileage as recorded by the Gaia GPS for iPhone app was 60.72 miles)
Day One – Glacier Point to Buena Vista Trail / Buena Vista Creek Crossing
Most Red Peak Pass Loop-ers will stay on the Illilouette Creek trail and head east directly towards Lower and Upper Merced Pass Lakes. We chose the long route to head south and visit Buena Vista Lake, Royal Arch Lake and Buck Camp. So here, we take the junction and join the Buena Vista Trail and head south.
From here on out, we are alone on the trail. The Buena Vista Trail is a low altitude, dusty trail that follows a partially wooded, partially exposed path south. To the east there are great views of Mt. Starr King – and still farther east we can see views of Red Peak and the Clark Range…our eventual target. As this was late in the summer, seasonal creeks are mostly dry and we are careful to monitor our water supply and fill when we can.
As we get closer to the Buena Vista Creek trail crossing, the trail heads up and into the forest on a ridge known as Horse Ridge. We get back up over 8,000 feet after a fairly steep switchback climb up onto the ridge and are welcomed by the shade of the forest again. Then, as our GPS signals we are close, we spot our friends Mark and Mia who had headed out the day before and had already found the creek crossing and pitched camp. They found a nice flat campsite near the creek crossing and it already had a built-out rock fire pit.
Unfortunately, Buena Vista Creek wasn’t flowing anymore, but Mark had found a small trickle and pool with clean water and we were good to go for the night. For those that take the shorter version of the loop via the Illiloutte Creek trail, water is not a problem. For this longer, Southern route towards Buena Vista Lake, be aware that late season water is limited unless you do a full 13+ miles to Buena Vista Lake on day one. But with our clean pool at Buena Vista Creek, we were just fine! Time for a campfire, dinner and night one on the trail.
NOTE on CAMPFIRES: Yosemite Campfire rules are a bit different than other parts of the Sierra. Fires are ONLY allowed in improved campsite areas with rock fire rings and only above 6,000 feet and below 9,600 feet. You should have a California Fire Permit with you along with your wilderness permit at all times. Get the permit at http://www.preventwildfireca.org/Campfire-Permit/. I also carry a lightweight collapsible bucket. Not only does it work for washing clothes and feet, but you simply fill it up and keep that 5L of water next to the campfire so that when it’s time to put it out, you have a way to completely extinguish it quickly and safely.
Day Two – Buena Vista Trail / Buena Vista Creek Trail Junction to Moraine Meadows Trail Junction
We continue south and arrive at Buena Vista Lake.
Buena Vista Lake is a beautiful alpine lake that sits at about 9,100 feet, surrounded by gorgeous rock cliffs and overlooked by Buena Vista Peak.
The trail winds its way along the north side of the Lake, and then heads up a series of switchbacks to Buena Vista Pass at a little over 9,300 feet which crosses a rock range called the Buena Vista Crest.
The trail then heads directly south again towards the southernmost east-west trail in Yosemite National Park that runs from Wawona and Chilnualna Falls to Buck Camp. Before arriving at that trail junction, the trail winds through some gorgeous rock formations to arrive at Royal Arch Lake at about 8,700 feet.
Royal Arch Lake gets its name from the amazing arch-shaped granite wall that borders the east side of the lake. It’s simply breathtaking! We stop at the lake, filter some fresh water, have a snack, take a few photos, then then we’re off again.
We arrive at the trail junction at 8,490 feet and then turn directly east towards Buck Camp. The climb to Buck Camp is a steep, forested trail that grabs a quick 400+ vertical feet and definitely gets your heart pumping. Our friend Mark saw a large bear run by and it was soon followed by a few hikers coming the other way. After the quick hard climb, the trail drops back down the other side of the ridge through some gorgeous flowery meadows and water lilies to arrive at Buck Camp.
Buck Camp is the southernmost ranger station in Yosemite National Park and sits less than 3 miles from the southern border with the Sierra National Forest. It is a very old log cabin-style building and has an old outhouse and a small corral/tie-up for horses and mules. When we arrived, four women from the Buena Vista Lake trail camp were resting and filtering water and we chatted with them for a bit. They were nice enough to show us the location of the Buck Creek water source and we filtered/filled up as well.
The trail now heads directly northeast towards Moraine Mountain and the Moraine Meadows trail. After 4 miles and a vertical gain of about 500 feet, we finally arrived (tired) at the Moraine Meadows trail junction in the southeastern corner of Yosemite National Park.
We were concerned about water, but all of my maps showed that there was a permanent tarn just East of the trail junction on the Moraine Meadows trail. Everyone dropped their packs at the trail junction and I volunteered to go look for the tarn. I took my water bag with me in hopes of success. Thank you Tom Harrison!…your map was correct. The tarn was there and FULL and we had water! Everyone took turns going back and forth to the tarn and we filled up for the night and next morning. While others were doing water and camp chores, I took it upon myself to build a rock fire pit so we could have a campfire. That’s a workout in itself! We were now set with water, a good camp site, a campfire, and a perfect 8,800 foot position to attack 11,060 foot Red Peak Pass the next day!
NOTE: the Moraine Meadows trail heads directly east towards the eastern border of Yosemite National Park and the Ansel Adams Wilderness. If you head east on this trail about 4 ½ miles, you end up crossing over the southern portion of the Clark Range at the famous Fernandez Pass. This is part of the old Theodore Solomons Trail route that you can also read about here on the site.
Day Three – Moraine Meadows Trail Junction to Red Peak Pass and the Clark Range Basin East of Red Peak Pass
After breakfast and coffee, we headed north, climbing 500+ vertical feet over 1.8 miles to Merced Pass at 9,300 feet. Merced Pass is at the eastern end of the Buena Vista Crest that we had crossed the day before.
From the pass, the trail winds downward to the trail junction of the Illiloutte Creek trail. We are now back at the point where the traditional Red Peak Pass Loop would arrive from Glacier Point. The trail junction sits right between two lakes – Lower Merced Pass Lake and Upper Merced Pass Lake. We bid goodbye to our friends Mark and Mia who decide to head back to the Valley via Illiloutte Creek, and we are now on our own to tackle Red Peak Pass!
The trail junction sits at 8,900 feet, so we have 1,200 feet of northeast climbing to do to get over the Pass. Ready, set, GO!
The first 2 miles of climbing is steep, forested, dirt trail combined with some rock steps and switchbacks. Once you get above the tree line, the trail turns to all granite and granite steps. Like most of the trails in Yosemite National Park, the granite step trails are meticulously constructed and demonstrate the best of 1920s and 1930s trail building techniques.
The next landmark is Ottoway Creek, which is fed from the Ottoway Lakes above and then flows down and feeds into Illiloutte Creek below. Some beautiful water features and small waterfalls decorate the creek on both sides. I find a tricky rock crossing, but my wife chooses to put on her sandals and do it as a wet crossing for safety. Always better to wade through then risk a fall. After drying off her feet, we continue up to Lower Ottoway Lake.
Lower Ottoway Lake is a gorgeous alpine lake at the base of the Clark Range at 9,600 feet. The trail comes right up next to the lake on the West edge, and we find a beautiful flat granite outcropping and take off our packs for an early lunch and water refill. The fish are swimming and jumping in the lake, and as with the entire trail, we are the only ones there.
We could have stayed there for hours and done some swimming too – but we had a date with a PASS! And so we saddled up and headed UP! 1,500 vertical feet to go in about 2 miles.
The trail switchbacks upwards through the granite, with more incredible granite step trail building. We were amazed at how much greenery and flowers and water were still on the trail the first week of September! It looked like the Alps in some places, and another great benefit of a big snow year.
As you look back, you get great views of Lower Ottoway Lake. We saw our other friends from Germany in the distance and gave them a yell and a wave as they arrived where he had just been. As we continue to climb, Upper Ottoway Lake comes into view to the South, again surrounded by the bare peaks of the Clark Range and patches of leftover winter snow.
The final push to Red Peak Pass is a straight up switchback trail that goes directly in between two rock spires. It’s some of the coolest trail design and construction we’d seen yet. We couldn’t believe THAT was where they decided to put the trail! We arrive at the top – Red Peak Pass – and our feature goal of the trip is complete. The views to both the south and the north are breathtaking and we quickly grab some photos and videos.
We are surrounded by 11,000+ foot peaks including Gray Peak and Red Peak to the northwest and Ottoway Peak, Merced Peak and Triple Divide Peak to the southeast. The north side of the pass is all above-the-tree line granite basin, making for a gorgeous hike down through the rocks. BUT, in all our glee to reach the top, we didn’t notice the thunder clouds rolling in…until JUST NOW!
As we begin our decent on the north side of Red Peak Pass, the raindrops start to fall. We quickly get our rain jackets and pack covers on. We are hopeful that it doesn’t get too bad – and we’re also thankful that almost all the snow and ice has melted off the north side switchbacks and we don’t have to put on micro spikes. Unfortunately, the clouds let go with FULL force including thunder and lightning, and our adventure at 11,000 feet of exposed rock just got interesting!
First came the stinging hail. Then, as we hustled lower, the heavy rain. The trail turned into a river in places, and we hiked as quickly and carefully as we could. When the thunder and lightning was directly overhead, we tried to take some shelter under some big rocks, but it wasn’t very effective. In between bursts we kept going as quickly as we could. After more than a mile from the pass, we finally reached some trees and we were no longer the tallest thing on the rocks. We kept going until we reached the largest unnamed tarn on the map at 9,900 feet that we had targeted during map planning. By this time, we were pretty wet.
The rain lightened up long enough for us to get our tent set up and get everything stowed. Then the thunder clouds let go again and we hunkered down in the tent for several hours. The tent held up, although we had water underneath which was a bit unnerving. At 7 p.m., five hours AFTER it had started, it finally blew through and we could get out and evaluate. Kevin and our German friends had arrived during the storm – thought about going even lower on the trail – and then decided to stay and pitch camp near us.
We kept some stuff dry, while other stuff was wet. Sleeping gear was all dry which was great. We’d be ok tomorrow – but with wet shoes which is never fun. We ate some food, filtered some water, and went to sleep as things began to dry out. It was our BIG day in so many ways. Never a dull moment in the Sierra Nevada – and its baby brother the Clark Range gave us everything it had.
NOTE: once the hail and rain started coming down, I tried to take some photos and videos but my hands and my iPhone cover were so cold and wet that I couldn’t get it to activate my password and turn on. So unfortunately I don’t have any good storm photos or videos coming down the North side of Red Peak Pass. Better to stow my phone and keep it dry and functional anyway. You’ll have to take my word for it.
Day Four – Clark Range Basin to Washburn Lake
The trail out of the Clark Range Basin zig zags east as it makes its way into the river basin that will eventually become the Merced River. The three miles of eastern trail was beautiful – up and down, gorgeous views of the Clark Range to the south, and some pretty water features coming down from remote Edna Lake to the south. Up and down we zig zagged, including one wet creek crossing that gave our feet a nice morning wake-up call. Then, as the trail drops steeply down towards the river basin, we hit the wildlife lottery and spotted a big California black bear. He was a healthy big boy and had no tracking device or ear tags. He was a true wild Yosemite bear. It absolutely MADE our DAY to see him. He was magnificent.
We soon arrived at the bottom of the trail and the trail junction that would turn us north and up the river. This main tributary of the Merced River is called Triple Peak Fork, getting its name from Triple Divide Peak to the south. Its source is mainly the waters of Turner Lake to the south. It’s a beautiful river at the trail junction – wide and clear. If you cross the river, the trail heads two miles east and over Isberg Pass and into the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Yes – we are still in the corner of the park.
We begin the six-mile, flat and downhill hike north along Triple Peak Fork. Along the way, we encounter a solo male hiker who is headed to Isberg Pass. It’s the first stranger we’ve seen since Buck Camp, more than 20 miles earlier. Yes – we are truly in the backcountry. About three miles into our northern hike, the trail drops down a series of massive granite switchbacks and Triple Peak Fork becomes an incredible series of waterfalls.
We are dropping down into the next major basin where Triple Peak Fork and Merced Peak Fork meet and officially become the Merced River. It’s an incredibly gorgeous area and the trail building is spectacular. We cross a bridge over the Merced Peak Fork and then stop at a beautiful granite beach to snack and filter water. It was warm and sunny and it would have been a perfect place for swimming and sunbathing.
We saddle up again and finish the last two or three miles to Washburn Lake. Washburn Lake is about three miles before Merced Lake, but unlike its more famous brother, Washburn Lake isn’t filled with a massive High Sierra Camp and a huge backpackers camp. It’s still pristine backcountry and an absolutely gorgeous and unspoiled place to camp.
We grab a sweet spot along the East side of the lake with a fire pit already in place and pitch camp. We spread out all of our wet stuff to dry on hot sunny rocks and take a long foot soak in the lake. The fish are jumping and we are happy!
The Germans come by a few hours later one by one, but they continue on to Merced Lake, as they have a few extra days in their schedule to grab Sunrise High Sierra Camp, Clouds Rest and Half Dome. We wish them safe travels and take a photo by the lake with our good friend Kevin Muschter before he heads out. We start our campfire, fold up all of our now dry clothes, celebrate our now dry shoes, and enjoy a quiet dinner and evening alone at Washburn Lake by the fire. We are blessed.
Day Five – Washburn Lake to Little Yosemite Valley
The hike along this section of the Merced River is quiet and beautiful. We soon arrive at the Merced Lake Ranger Station and Trail Junction which are about a mile prior to Merced Lake proper. It’s a beautiful ranger station with a big horse/mule corral, but it appears to be locked up for the season. The trail junction heads northeast for those hikers on the Yosemite High Sierra Camp loop to Vogelsang. We continue west to Merced Lake.
First you arrive at Merced Lake High Sierra Camp. There are a few large wooden buildings and then dozens of concrete platforms where the High Sierra Camp tents go. Everything is taken down for the season so we stroll through it without seeing a soul. Beyond the High Sierra Camp is the backpackers camp – a huge area with room for dozens of people / tents. We see about a half dozen folks packing up their stuff from the night before – we are back in “hiker civilization” now.
The trail heads directly west along the north side of Merced Lake. It’s another pretty lake – but we actually think Washburn Lake is prettier. The fish are jumping and it’s a pretty morning. At the western end of the lake, the Merced River exits and heads down into the granite canyon that we will follow downward for the next eight or so miles to Little Yosemite Valley.
The beautiful Merced River canyon winds its way through three distinct valleys – Echo Valley, Lost Valley and finally Little Yosemite Valley. Echo Valley is where the trail junction is that heads north towards Sunrise High Sierra Camp. Once you head west beyond the trail junction, the trail winds its way through gorgeous granite features, across a huge bridge, and then up up up and around the mountain and down to a beautiful waterfall called the Bunnell Cascade and the entrance to Lost Valley.
We stop at the cascade to take some photos and filter some water. It’s windy so we don’t stay too long. Then we enter Lost Valley which is the start of the fire zone left over from the 2014 Meadow Fire. From here until Little Yosemite Valley, we walk through the burned remnants of a destroyed forest. It’s very sad and a bit spooky, but hopefully over the next 10 or 20 years things can heal. Ground cover is healthy, but the forest has yet to renew itself. As we exit Lost Valley and enter Little Yosemite Valley from the East, Half Dome comes into view and we know we are close.
We finally arrive at Little Yosemite Valley campground – one of the biggest backcountry campgrounds in the Sierra – and stake out a site next to the community fire pit. I’ll be the fire builder tonight. After we pitch camp, we go down to the Merced River to filter water and wash/soak our feet. It’s a beautiful afternoon and there’s a ton of people there. We are no longer alone. We do some firewood gathering and take a walk to the solar powered latrine.
Our night is tweaked a bit by a visit from a Search and Rescue staffer who asks us if we had been on Half Dome today. We had heard a helicopter earlier…and the picture became clear. There had been a fall on the cables earlier that day and a young woman had died. He was simply investigating the accident at the campground. A sad thing for sure.
We lit the fire and had a visit from a Utah family with four kids and an older couple on an overnite. We put the fire out before the 10 p.m. campground requirement and headed off to bed. We saw some clouds rolling in so we put up the rain fly on the tent, staked it out and stowed the backpacks in the vestibule before crashing out. Good thing, as it started to rain at 11 p.m. for about an hour. Then it was quiet the rest of the night. It would be our last night in the Yosemite backcountry.
Day Six – Little Yosemite Valley to Happy Isles Trailhead
As most of you reading this have probably hiked the JMT or the Mist Trail from Yosemite Valley to at least the top of Nevada Falls, I won’t spend too much time describing the route here. Suffice it to say we had dozens and dozens of Half Dome day hikers passing us on their way up as we were heading down. Another little fun experience was the fact that there was NO ONE at the top of Nevada Falls when we got there (as everyone was coming up the Mist Trail and heading straight up to Half Dome). That was the FIRST time we had ever been at the top of Nevada Falls and on the bridge with NO ONE in sight. Strange but fun for our last morning in Yosemite.
We took our time and walked down the JMT. We passed a few backpackers coming up and a ranger on horseback with a mule team going to service the bathrooms at Nevada Falls and Little Yosemite Valley. Other than that, not too many people until the bridge at the base of Vernal Falls. From there, it was “back to civilization” until we got to the trailhead and the trailhead parking lot where our car was waiting.
And just like that our six-day adventure was over. Next stop, Curry Village for a $5 shower and then heading home.
Red Peak Pass Loop Trail Map & Elevation Profile
Red Peak Pass Tips and Notes
- Wilderness permits are required to stay overnight in the Yosemite backcountry. All trailheads are based on a quota system, and permits can be applied for 168 days prior to departure. For all information on Yosemite wilderness permits, trail quotas and applications, go to https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm.
- With the exception of Little Yosemite Valley, all of the campsites we used on the trail were backcountry sites with NO bear boxes for storage. Therefore APPROVED bear canisters are required for this loop to store all food and items with a scent. As you read above, there ARE bears in the park.
- We tracked the trip via Gaia GPS for iPhone. Our GPX track can be downloaded above.
- Due to our late season start date, water was scarce in some spots and plentiful in others. Lakes and major streams should be used in late season. Earlier in the season will yield water from all seasonal creeks.
- Although we did not fish, there were great places along this loop for Golden Trout and other species, including Buena Vista Lake, Royal Arch Lake, Washburn Lake, Merced Lake and the Merced River – so plan accordingly with proper gear and a fishing license if you choose to fish.
- Campfires are permitted above 6,000 feet and below 9,600 feet in elevation in improved rock fire rings only. We had campfires every day except our rainy night in the Clark Range Basin.
- We had heavy rain on Day 3 and light rain on Day 5, so make sure you have proper rain gear, pack covers and shelters on this loop.
- Stream crossings were easy during this time of year and micro spikes were not needed over Red Peak Pass. Earlier in the season would have required traction on the pass and would have included more wet crossings.
If you are as passionate about Yosemite National Park as we are (after all, we were married at Glacier Point), then a trip to the southern half of the park should be on your bucket list. Being able to cross the Clark Range at Red Peak Pass – the highest Class 1 trail point in the park – is a box that should be checked off.
Another benefit of this route is the complete lack of people – it is a true backcountry experience.
This loop is perfect for beginner backpackers and experienced backpackers alike.
Given the shorter option of the Illiloutte Creek trail and the longer options of extending the northern portion to include Sunrise, Clouds Rest and Half Dome, the Red Peak Pass Loop can be configured for anywhere from 4 to 8 days and from 40 to 70+ miles depending on how you want to do it. The ability to customize the trail gives you so many options depending on your schedule, the weather and your experience level.
There’s no better way to see the southern half of Yosemite National Park than the Red Peak Pass Loop.
Yosemite National Park Weather Forecast
Originally hiked on September 1-6, 2019 by Greg Glass, Barbara Hale and friends. All photos by the same.