PCT: Tuolumne Meadows to Sonora Pass

Yosemite National Park

Miles 942.5-1016.9 of the northbound PCT: Continuing through the northern reaches of Yosemite National Park, among a labyrinth of granite far removed from the park’s crowded areas.

Hiking Moderate

Distance
115 km
Ascent
4.1 km
Descent
3.8 km
Duration
1 day +
Low Point
2.3 km
High Point
3.3 km
Gradient
10˚
VIEW ON MAP
PCT: Tuolumne Meadows to Sonora Pass Map

Description

The Pacific Crest Trail covers nearly 70 miles inside Yosemite National Park. Though it skips the quintessential sights of Yosemite Valley, the trail delves into the park’s northern wilderness that comparatively few visitors ever see. This landscape, nearly void of people, is a vast maze of granite monoliths carved over millennia by the grinding of glaciers in past ice ages. Forest and flowing water have now reclaimed the valleys, but much of the land remains bare, polished stone. By twisting among the complex topography of ridges and gorges, the PCT somehow finds a way through the labyrinth, and emerges at the northern boundary of the park.

What awaits from there, however, is yet another wilderness area in the High Sierra. The mountains here take a more familiar, triangular form, but rise even higher than the rounded domes of Yosemite. By traversing talus slopes and tracing a rugged crest above the timberline, the trail eventually meets a road at Sonora Pass, making the highest paved road crossing anywhere on the PCT. This is the entirety of CA Section I, covering nearly 75 miles of completely roadless expanse in the Sierra Nevada.

Starting From Tioga Pass Road in Tuolumne Meadows, the trail enters forest in the shadow of Lembert Dome––a towering mass of granite. Most of this stretch is either flat or downhill, along the forest edge with views of the meadows and meanders along the Tuolumne River, with domes and peaks defining the horizon. The trail frequently emerges on bare rock slabs, where cairns mark the way across.

The scenery shifts once the trail crosses the river on a bridge and pitches more steeply downhill. Soon comes Tuolumne Falls––a sheet of water dropping to a rocky pool, and making the start of continuous cascades as the river plummets into a canyon. On stairs and switchbacks the trail descends further, and the water careens through granite narrows nearby. At several viewpoints you can pause and gaze into the gaping gorge below––the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.

Eventually the trail levels out and crosses another bridge, then comes to a junction where Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp and backpackers camp are located (NB mile 948.3). From there, instead of proceeding down the river canyon the PCT turns uphill into a stony drainage. This stretch can go dry in some years. A gradual climb among forest and rock slabs leads to a meadow which sometimes has flowing water, but a reliable source comes later at the ford of Return Creek (NB mile 956.2).

Next, the trail begins a broad zigzag among outsized granite ridgelines, crossing a few small streams and meeting one lake (NB mile 959.8) over the course of the next several miles. Good campsites can be found scattered along. Eventually the trail climbs into the cliff-lined canyon of Wilson Creek, and continues uphill all the way to Benson Pass (NB mile 966.4). This is a small, sandy meadow between rock ledges––rather unassuming but still perched at more than 10,000 feet.

With sheared-off peaks on the horizon, the PCT drops into a glacially churned sea of granite. While walking disjointed rock slabs where few trees can grow, views are unobstructed to the giant sculpted features on all sides. In a tiered descent the trail first meets the rock-rimmed Smedberg Lake (NB mile 968.4), then passes close to Benson Lake (NB mile 972.7) where a short detour leads to a glorious camp spot on a sandy beach.

From there the trail marches on through the labyrinth, over rocky ridges and through timbered canyons. Expect a lot of up and down, and a rugged trail for quite a few miles. Water sources are generally frequent, but some can go dry. There is one ford in Kerrick Canyon (NB mile 979.8) which can be dangerous in early season.

The next major lake is Wilma Lake (NB mile 987), which is immediately followed by a ford of Falls Creek (NB mile 987.4). Good camps can be found near the lake and on ledges near the creek above. From there the trail progresses steadily upward for several more miles, through lots of forest and some open meadows, never far from flowing water.

Near the top of this long valley is Dorothy Lake (NB mile 996.4), the largest lake along this section and a popular zone to camp. Just ahead is Dorothy Lake Pass (NB mile 997.1), which marks the northern boundary of Yosemite National Park, and here the PCT enters a national forest. Continuing on, the landscape makes a remarkable transition––the solid, rounded granite suddenly gives way to fractured volcanic rock and cliff-banded, pyramidal peaks. As the northbound PCT crosses over mile number 1000, it encounters this entirely new character of Sierra Nevada mountains.

After dipping into the forested Kennedy Canyon, the PCT rises steadily along a stream. There are some campsites near the highest water source in this canyon (NB mile 1005.9), where it’s wise to fill up because the next water may not be for 10 more miles. The trail soon breaks above the timberline and continues to carve upward on ashen talus slopes. Upon reaching the ridge it begins a fantastic skyline traverse, overlooking the range in all directions and circular lakes below. Snow may linger on these slopes throughout June, and the trail very nearly reaches 11,000 feet on a shoulder of Leavitt Peak (NB mile 1011.8), but then angles downhill and aims for the road at Sonora Pass. There’s a water source just before, in Sardine Creek (NB mile 1016.3).

From Highway 108 at the pass (NB mile 1016.9), it’s common for hikers to hitch to Kennedy Meadows North (not to be confused with the other Kennedy Meadows in the southern Sierra), where there’s a guest resort with a campground, restaurant, store, and other services for hikers. The resort can also accept resupply packages, and they sometimes offer a shuttle to/from the trail. North of Sonora Pass is CA Section J, another expanse of about 75 miles with no easy option for leaving the trail.

Permits Most of this section is within designated wilderness of Yosemite National park. At-large camping is allowed along most of the trail, but requires a Yosemite wilderness permit. Near Sonora Pass the PCT enters the Hoover Wilderness of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, and also crosses into the Emigrant Wilderness of Stanislaus National Forest before reaching the highway. Both of these areas require permits for camping, but if you plan ahead you can arrange your permit from Yosemite to cover camping in these national forests as well. Another option is the PCT long-distance Permit, which greatly simplifies the logistics of permitting from multiple agencies. Note also that bear-resistant canisters are required for backcountry camping in Yosemite. Additional regulations apply as well, and the number of permits may be limited, so it’s recommended to research and plan well in advance.

Sources: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/jmt.htm https://pctmap.net/trail-notes/ https://pctwater.com/

Difficulty

Moderate

Hiking along trails with some uneven terrain and small hills. Small rocks and roots may be present.

Medium Exposure

2 out of 4

The trail contains some obstacles such as outcroppings and rock which could cause injury.

Remoteness

3 out of 4

Little chance of being seen or helped in case of an accident.

Best time to visit

June, July, August, September, October, November

Features

  • Wildlife
  • Historical
  • Picturesque
  • Wild flowers
  • Water features
  • Forestry or heavy vegetation

Similar routes nearby

Guidebooks in this area