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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!