Of the more than three million people who visit Yosemite each year, 95% never leave the valley, but the brave 5% who do so are well rewarded. A wild, lonelier Yosemite awaits just a few miles from the crowds, where you'll find some of the most grandiose landscape in the Sierra. Most hikers, especially serious backpackers, head into this high country -- a backpacking paradise. Tioga Pass via CA 120 is the gateway; once through the pass, the high country presents meadows of wildflowers, stark granite domes, and shimmering rivers and lakes.
Most backpackers set out on their own, as we discuss below, but guided backpacking trips (including overnight trips) are also available with Yosemite Mountaineering (tel. 209/372-8344; www.yosemitemountaineering.com), Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides (tel. 800/231-4575; www.symg.com), and California Alpine Guides (tel. 877/686-2546; www.californiaalpineguides.com). Rates typically start at about $100 to $150 person per day and go up for smaller parties or expeditions that include Half Dome. Techniques and skills are taught along the way. Meals are included on longer trips. Private excursions are available, as is transportation to and from the trail heads. Gear is available for rent.
A car is much more vital in Yosemite's high country than in the valley. If you don't bring your own vehicle, there is a once-a-day shuttle bus from the valley to Tuolumne Meadows. The bus leaves the valley at 8am and will let you off anywhere along the route. The driver waits in Tuolumne Meadows for 2 hours before heading back to the valley, where the bus arrives at about 4pm. The fare is about $15 one-way, slightly less for those who hop off midway. In addition, the park offers a free summer-only shuttle bus from Olmsted Point to Tioga Pass, with stops at the lodge, campground, and visitor center.
Tuolumne Meadows is a wide, grassy expanse bordered by the Tuolumne River and tall mountains. Several peaks rise high overhead and offer challenging hiking and rock climbing. In spring and midsummer, the meadow fills with wildflowers and turns an emerald green. Fishing in the river is popular, and a number of hikes begin in the meadows. Facilities include a general store that stocks last-minute hiking supplies, a slew of canvas tent-cabins (often all full in summer), and a restaurant.
In addition to Tuolumne Meadows, Tenaya Lake, set in a bowl of granite surrounded by sheer slopes, is a beautiful destination spot en route to the high country. Tenaya Lake offers canoeing, hiking, fishing, and sailing. It's also open to swimming for those who don't mind dunking in the chilly water -- it generally remains frigid until late summer. There's ample parking and a picnic area, and many hikes lead from here to the high country. White Wolf is midway between the valley and Tuolumne Meadows (west of Tenaya Lake). It offers a campground, canvas tent-cabins, a small store, and a restaurant. The scenery here is less dramatic, but it serves as a starting point for many hikers going into the Hetch Hetchy area. In the winter, this region is accessible only on snowshoes or cross-country skis.
Like any backcountry experience, staying in the high country -- or anyplace outside the valley -- requires advance planning and, if you're a beginner, a reasonable itinerary. Planning a 5-day excursion your first time out wouldn't be wise. But an overnighter, or 2 nights out, is reasonable, and Yosemite has hikes that can accommodate and reward those who venture -- even briefly -- off the well-paved path.
In addition, the park has five High Sierra Camps that provide food and shelter, allowing hikers to shun heavy backpacking gear with the knowledge that someone a few miles ahead has everything under control. All camps fill quickly via a lottery system, and advance reservations are necessary. The camps -- May Lake, Glen Aulin, Vogelsang, Sunrise, and Merced Lake -- are situated about a day's walk apart, and each is a sort of rustic resort. Tent-cabins are furnished with woodstoves, folding tables and chairs, and beds with blankets or comforters -- but guests must bring sheets and towels. Soap and candles are also provided. Most tents sleep four, but some accommodate only two people. This means you'll often be sharing your tent with strangers, but the camps tend to attract people who rank high on the camaraderie scale, so that's not usually a problem. Breakfast and dinner are served family style in a dining tent. The food is excellent and portions are generous. One dinner meal included pasta, filet mignon, soup and salad, eggplant Parmesan, and cookies. Breakfast is substantial as well. Box lunches are available for an additional charge. All you need to bring is day-hike gear (including plenty of water or a purifier), plus a flashlight, personal toiletries, something to sleep in, a change of clothes, and bed linen. In spring, trekking poles are also handy for crossing streams.
Camps are open from mid-June to around Labor Day, conditions permitting. Each camp accommodates 30 to 60 guests; demand exceeds supply, so accommodations are assigned by lottery. Applications are accepted from November 1 to November 30. The lottery drawing is held in mid-December, and guests are notified by the end of February. Cancellations are frequent, however, so it's worth a last-minute call to see if space is available. Overnights at the camps cost $151 per adult and $91 per child for lodging and meals (breakfast and dinner; sack lunches are available for an extra fee); there are also packages for multiday saddle trips and guided hikes. A meals-only option is available (about $46 per adult, reservations required) if you want to bring your own tent and eat at the camp. Sack lunches run about $15. For information or to request an application for High Sierra Camp accommodations, call tel. 801/559-4909 or visit www.yosemitepark.com.