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Right around the autumnal equinox, dependable as your trusty compass, Yosemite National Park spins into a lower gear. Peak visitation has passed, traffic lightens up, and hiking trails – even in Yosemite Valley – are far less traveled. Early to mid-autumn is known by Yosemite insiders as prime time to be outside, and Yosemite National Park’s higher elevation trails hold best-of-year appeal.

Continuing on this contrarian vibe, the weather actually gets better after summer. The sky goes a deeper shade of blue, temperatures trend lower, and photographers rave over a golden range of Sierra sunlight. Magic all around.

Here are some favorite high country escapes to share (with only your best friends). Get ready for that satisfying, sandy crunch of crushed granite under your boots.

Tioga Road Hikes

Hiker standing on Cloud's Rest looking at Half Dome

Get a cloud’s-eye view of Yosemite Valley from Cloud’s Rest, a destination described as having views similar to the top of Half Dome, except that Half Dome is also in your view.

Tioga Road (Highway 120) is the elevated ribbon of highway that provides access to Yosemite National Park’s Sierra Nevada crossing. Tioga Road starts outside Yosemite Valley and goes for 47 fantastically scenic miles until reaching the town of Lee Vining on Highway 395. It reopens sometime between Memorial Day and Fourth of July, depending on the snowpack – it’s no small feat to clear a winter’s worth of snow, ice and rockfall. As beautiful as the region is from the dashboard, it’s even better from a hiking trail. Here are just a few of the hikes above the “El Capitan” side of Yosemite Valley:

  • North Dome The North Dome trail starts at Porcupine Creek Trailhead on Tioga Road. Your destination: the northern rim of Yosemite Valley, from where you’ll experience a face-to-face encounter Half Dome. Well worth the 10+ mile round trip.
  • Cloud’s Rest Cloud’s Rest is a sizable complex of granite just to the north of Half Dome, visible throughout Yosemite Valley. The trail yields amazing valley views. The straightest route is by taking Sunrise Lakes trailhead on Tioga Road, near Tenaya Lake. The route begins pretty tame, but eventually the seven-mile (14 round-trip) climb gains 2,300 feet, including a thousand-foot thigh-burner over the last section to the vista.

Tuolumne Meadows Hikes

View from May Lake in Yosemite

The views from May Lake are well worth the short hike.

There are few places in Yosemite more celebrated than Tuolumne Meadows, and the accolades are absolutely earned. At 8,600 feet, it’s one of the largest high-elevation and most accessible meadows in the entire Sierra. Three creeks feed Tuolumne Meadows as well as the Tuolumne River, which courses through the golden splendor before cascading over a granite riverbed. Bestowed with Wild and Scenic River status, the Tuolumne originates in the high country near the east side of the park. Fun fact: most of the water that filters through Tuolumne Meadows eventually reaches Hetch Hetchy Reservoir (later becoming the tap water of San Francisco).

A network of wonderful alpine hiking trails start near Tuolumne Meadows. Here are just a few:

  • May Lake In addition to the popular High Sierra Camp located here, May Lake is an easy, out-and-back high country hike of two miles. Access is via the May Lake Trailhead just north of Tenaya Lake on Tioga Road.
  • Dog Lake / Lembert Dome Another nice high country hike, Dog Lake trail begins at the Dog Lake parking area (Shuttle Stop #2), just west of Tuolumne Meadows on Tioga Road. The relatively flat 1.4-mile hike concludes at the lovely, shallow and highly wadable Dog Lake (named in 1898 by early topographer Robert Marshall for his discovery there of a sheepdog with a litter of pups). On the way there or back, Lembert Dome rises up with an inviting granite face made for scrambling and can be added for a perfect four-mile round trip saunter. From the top of Lembert, there are expansive vistas of Tuolumne Meadows and surrounding peaks.
View from the hike to Dog Lake

Hike out to see the clear cool waters of Dog Lake or any of the other high country lakes – true gems in the Yosemite landscape.

  • Tenaya Lake Tenaya Lake is sometimes called the “jewel of Yosemite’s high country,” and it’s a well-earned accolade. A beautiful alpine lake adjacent to Tioga Road at 8,150 feet, Tenaya Lake is popular for kayaking, boating, swimming and sun worshiping. There are public restrooms and a public beach.

Glacier Point Hikes

Nevada Fall from the hiking trail

The Panorama Trail in Yosemite is aptly named for the many panoramic views, including this one of Nevada Fall.

High above the “Half Dome” side of Yosemite Valley, hiking opportunities await via Glacier Point Road, which provides vehicle access to the trailheads. Glacier Point is seasonally closed due to snow, usually in November, and typically reopens by late May / early June.

Many of Yosemite National Park’s most iconic trails start at or nearby Glacier Point and are commonly taken in one direction from Glacier Point to the floor of Yosemite Valley (see Yosemite National Park’s website for information on Glacier Point transportation, seasonal warnings, and trail logistics).

  • Four Mile Trail The shorter but steeper option from Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley, Four Mile Trail is actually nearly five miles of switchbacks that render wonderful views of Yosemite Valley and its world-renowned landmarks including Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and El Capitan before concluding near the base of Sentinel Rock. Allow at least three to four hours for your descent.
  • Panorama Trail From Glacier Point, Panorama Trail also takes you down to Yosemite Valley but on a different and longer 8.5-mile route via Illilouette Canyon, Panorama Point, and the Mist Trail alongside Vernal and Nevada Falls. The strenuous hike requires an all-day commitment of 6 to 8 hours.
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