Lyell Canyon is one of the most popular backpacking and day hiking trail in Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park. The is also a section of the John Muir Trail (JMT) and Pacific Crest Trail. To prevent any confusion, the JMT runs from Yosemite Valley through Tuolumne Meadows along the Lyell Canyon down to Mt. Whitney. So by doing this trail, you will be doing a portion of the JMT.

This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen to my entire life. The long stretch of canyon and the towering mountains along both sizes of the canyon, the stunning expansive view from the top of the pass, and countless numbers of lakes and streams. This is simply a must do for any backpackers.

The final push before Donahue Pass

overview

Trail: Tuolumne Meadows to Island Pass via the John Muir Trail

Where: Yosemite National Park and Ansel Adams Wilderness in Inyo National Forest

When: These pictures were taken in July, 2013. Snow condition varies year to year. This was a very low snow year.

Distance: 34 miles round trip, 3,000 ft in elevation gain total

Days: 2 days, 1 night

Conditions: trail is extremely easy to follow. Popular trail but plenty of solitude.

Water: plenty of lakes and streams

Highlights: Lakes, great views, meadows, and waterfalls

Permit: Required from the permit station. Walk-In permits available on first come, first served basis

Camping before & after: If you want to camp before & after because of the long drive home or to acclimate, there’s a backpacker campground in the Tuolumne Meadows. You will be given permission to camp there once you pick up your permit. It is guarantee that you will get a site. There may not be any site left but there’s not really a limit to how many people can stay in each site, so make friends if spots are full. I slept in other people’s campsites when i was there as well.

Parking: You will park at a lake overnight camping area. You will be given more instructions when you pick up your permit.

Me on top of donahue pass

experience

You will start from the Tuolumne Meadows campground and get on the John Muir Trail. Then you will take a long 6-7 miles walk along the Lyell Creek. This part of the trail is almost completely flat, so enjoy it while it lasts. Although it’s flat, it’s not less scenic than the passes, so take your time and really absorb in the view of the canyon. This area in particular has a lot of bear activities, so make sure that you carry bear canister to store your food.

The Lyell Canyon John Muir trail

Once you get to the base of the Donahue Pass, you will immediately notice the significant elevation gain for the next few miles to the top of the pass. Well, it’s been flat the whole time, so now you will work your butt off to get over this pass. Don’t worry, just take your time and you’ll get there. The key here is to give yourself enough time to get through everything at your own pace.

Approaching Donahue Pass and the view of Lyell Glacier
Before Donahue Pass
A lake right below Donahue Pass

If you feel like you won’t be able to get to Island Pass because it’s almost the end of the day or whatnot, i suggest that you get over Donahue pass and camp on the Ansel Adam Wilderness site. So basically, get over the pass and hike maybe a mile or two down. There are a lot of running creeks and there are spots to find campsites in this area. Camping on top of the pass can be very windy, exposed, and in case of thunderstorm, not a good idea.

Another view of Lyell Canyon from the last push before Donahue pass

Once you get to the top of the Donahue Pass, take a short break! There are some high country small lakes on top of the pass. The view is absolutely stunning. On the other side of the pass, you will enter Inyo National Forest. The view expansive! Check out video below.

Panoramic view of Lyell Canyon from Donahue pass
Lake at the top of Donahue Pass

Once you’re ready to keep going, just make your way down the pass and follow the trail. It will be a lot of down hill from now until you get to the base of Island Pass. Don’t worry, Island Pass climb isn’t nearly as intense as climbing over Donahue Pass.

Entering into Inyo National Forest, Ansel Adams Wilderness
A running river before Island Pass
Lakes before Island Pass

A lot of people will take a few days to do this trail, and they would get all the day to the famous Thousand Island Lake. If you seek alone time or don’t want to be surrounded by other campers, i’d suggest that you camp on top of the Island Pass. It’s more flat and less exposed than Donahue Pass with a couple of large lakes. It’s beautiful and when i was there, i didn’t see anyone else. Earlier in the summer, there will also be less mosquitoes on passes as well due to wind and colder weather.

Top of Island Pass
Where i camped on Island Pass!

This concludes my journey! i headed back to Tuolumne Meadows the next day on the same way that I came in. I’ve never done this  but you can make it into a loop by exiting at Mono Pass. More detail should be available on the yosemite website.

Have fun and stay safe!

Written by Snook

I do one cool thing every weekend!

20 comments

      1. It’s my dream to do the John Muir Trail! When do you think is the best time to go up there? I’m guessing the best time to go up there is during the early or late summer months because it is probably too cold from October – April and too hot in July/August.

        Also, I am curious to know what kind of training (if any) you have/do for traveling on remote trails such as this. I’ve done several short trails in remote locations and really want to take on something long (like this and some of the other hikes you wrote about near LA) but I am afraid that I either don’t have the endurance or that I wouldn’t how to deal with emergencies or encounters with wildlife. I read and follow a bunch of blogs that review hikes all over, but training seems to be the one thing that no one talks about so I’d be really curious to hear your take.

      2. Thanks for your reply! I’d say that late summer is better because early summer you run into a chance of snow. Especially in a big snow year, the trail could be largely covered in snow until late july in high elevation places. I wouldn’t worry about hot temperature too much because the JMT is consistently pretty high elevation so you won’t be too hot.

        For training, i’ve never actually trained at all for any of this even Mt. Whitney. I would never consider myself an athlete or a very physical person but what i have, i guess, is hell of a determination to keep going.

        I’d say that the best training to backpacking long distance is start carrying a lot of stuff on short trails that you usually take and see how you feel.

        The usual weight that is comfortable for most backpackers to carry, depending on your physical abilities, is between 20% to 30% of your body weight. If you can go lighter, go lighter, and you will have a better time.

        I’d start by carrying that much weight on a day hike and see how you feel about it. This is where you will really get a sense of how much you can really carry. Trying on a pack for a few minutes won’t. If you can generally hike about 8 miles in a day, i’d cut it down to 6-7 with a backpack on.

        You can start small. Maybe begin with carrying a 10 pounds pack, then next weekend make it 15, and 20 while increasing the length of your hike.

        I always tell people that hiking and backpacking has more to do with time. If you give yourself enough time to hike, there’s no need to rush, you can go slow and you will have a better time than having to rush trying to get from point A to point B before sunsets.

        Planning ahead is important. It’s always nice to set a big goal for yourself but know your limit and plan a second camping site in case you can’t make it to your original campsite location.

        For example, my friends and i went on a trip two weekends ago and we ran into a hail storm and thunder shower. We were going to hike 12 miles the first day but had to cancel before going over a pass can turn us into a piece of KFC. but i knew that there’s a great lake to camp half way, so we camped there.

        But yea, i’m not sure if this is very helpful because i don’t really do any training at all. I just go on hikes and hopefully i’ll make it.

        Let me know if you have any other questions!

      3. Thanks so much for the long response! That is super helpful information. I didn’t know it would be snowy in July so that is really good to know.

        I think you are right – determination is a huge factor. Even when I did a hike at Bryce Canyon I never noticed any of the steep climbs or got tired because I was way too distracted with the nature and beauty of the experience. That is great advice, though. I will try hiking with different weight packs and see how it is. It would be my dream to do the hike to Havasu Falls at the Grand Canyon or to do this hike that you blogged about!

      4. You’re welcome! Snow really depends. This year was a very low snow year, so the trail and most of sierras have been snow free since May, but on a heavy rain year, snow can be around for pretty much the whole summer.

        Havasu Falls is really my dream as well, and i’m thinking of doing it in Oct. or whenever reservation isn’t needed. Let me know if you have anymore questions.

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