Trail Running in Yosemite National Park
March 29, 2010 by Bryon Powell · 24 Comments
Yosemite National Park is a tribute to the wonders of nature and the wisdom of man. While, doubtless, there have been a few transgressions on our part, it’s a miracle (Muir-acle?) that such a treasure has been so well preserved since Europeans first took notice a century and a half ago. This place remains a trail runner’s paradise with the incomparable granite formations of Yosemite Valley; vast expanses of forest sprinkled with stately Sequoias; and the High Sierra, which in our minds tower above all, both literally and figuratively. We’d be remiss not to warn you that a majority of the park’s trails are snowbound from November through April, while snow can clog the High Sierra trails for even longer stretches.
Below we’ll provide you with examples of easy, moderate, and advanced trail runs in Yosemite. However, with more than 750 miles of trail one could hardly expect us to touch on even a fraction of the possibilities. Fortunately, excellent trail maps exist. We recommend getting an overview with the National Park Service’s map and then more fully exploring the options with either the Yosemite or Sierra Nevada editions of National Geographic Trails Illustrated Explorer.
As always, if you’ve run in Yosemite, please share your favorite or most memorable experiences. Have a resource to share? Leave comment! Have a question? Lay it on us. We’ll do our best to get you an answer.
Easy Trail Run – Valley Trails, Yosemite Valley
A series of glacial periods carved the wonder of the natural world that is Yosemite Valley. At the end of the last ice age a glacial moraine (wall of debris) dammed the western end of Yosemite Valley near Bridalveil Falls creating Lake Yosemite. Over time, sediments filled in the valley leaving a flat, dirt floor.
Early last century, paved trails were constructed along the full length of both the north and south sides of the valley. More recently, most of the pavement has been removed from the pair of valley trails leaving trail runners an excellent and relatively easy way to tour Yosemite Valley and its sights, including El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Bridalveil Falls, and Cathedral Rocks. (A significant stretch of pavement is still maintained near Yosemite Falls due to high visitation.)
The valley trails can be accessed quickly from any accommodations or major facilities in the valley, so ask your concierge, camp host, or the nearest ranger for access points if the trail is not self-apparent. The Merced River splits the valley and the Valley Trails; however, loops can be formed by crossing the valley (in order, from west to east) at Pohono Bridge west of Bridalveil Falls, at El Capitan, at places just to the east and west of Yosemite village, and at no fewer than three spots from Curry Village to the east end of the valley. Out-and-back runs to one or more of Yosemite Valley’s landmarks are also enjoyable.
Insider’s Scoop: During winter and most of the spring (until Memorial Day), Yosemite Valley is the place to trail run in Yosemite National Park. In part, this is due to reduced visitation; however, the northern valley trail is rarely crowded away from El Capitan and Yosemite Falls and the southern valley trail is infrequently used at least in comparison to the rest of the valley. In winter, Yosemite Valley’s relatively low elevation (just above 4,000′) and the Sierra’s long breaks between snowstorms gives the trails a fair chance of being snow free. In spring, Yosemite Valley and its trails are the spot to see the waterfalls at their peak (April and May).
For more seclusion and less heat, stick to the southern valley trail in summer. More broadly, you can plan your Yosemite Valley trail runs year round based on the fact that the north side of the valley is appreciably warmer that the south side. In addition, while the northern valley trail brings you to the base of El Capitan and Yosemite Falls, you’ll get a better view (and less of a crick in the neck) from the southern Valley trail.
Moderate Trail Run – Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias
Tucked just inside Yosemite’s South Entrance is the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Run here to see some of the biggest organisms in the world. The combination of the awesome trees, elevation (5,600-6,800′), and hilly terrain will leave you breathless.
Grab an official park map and run the 6 miles of trail ringing the grove. Whichever direction you choose, you’ll climb about 1,300′ (1,100′ in net elevation gain) in the first 3 miles. From the midpoint, you can add another mile and few hundred feet of climbing by summiting Wawona Point (6,810′). Want more mileage? Add some trails within the perimeter to create smaller loops or run out-and-backs on the single track trails that head west toward Wawona or east toward Yosemite Trails.
Insider’s Scoop: Check out the Mariposa Grove once the snow melts mid-Spring. For starters, the crowds will seem small compared to those in Yosemite Valley. Even if the trails seem crowded as you start off, rest assured that the people will thin out considerably within the first mile from the trailhead. The area around the Grizzy Giant will always have the highest high foot traffic and you may have to take a free shuttle to and from the grove from the Wawona General Store area on the busier summer days. However, both the elevation and the forest cover will keep you cooler than in the Valley.
Advanced Trail Run – Vogelsang – Lyell Canyon Loop from Tuolumne Meadows
Looking for some adventure in the High Sierras? Park your car in the lot to the east of the Tuolumne Meadows Ranger Station and get running! Twenty miles and a climb from 8,600′ to 10,600′ awaits!
Follow signs for the John Muir Trail. When you hit the JMT turn left (east) and continue for half a mile. Next, turn right (south) and head up Rafferty Creek toward Tuolumne Pass and Vogelsang. Just before 5 miles you’ll crest Tuolumne Pass. Keep bearing left (east) for 1.1 miles. DO NOT head toward Merced Lake or Vogelsang Pass. Instead turn left toward Evelyn Lake, Lyell Canyon, and the combined JMT/Pacific Crest Trail.
The climb to Evelyn Lake and the lake’s surrounding meadow are the highlight of this run. From there, you can take in the High Sierra. Look north at Lembert Dome and Tuolumne Meadows. To the southwest is the peak of Vogelsang. Look east for Kuna Crest with Mammoth Peak at its north end. Scan a bit further north from Mammoth and you’ll spot Mount Dana. Soak it up!
Once you’ve had your fill, continue past Evelyn Lake. You’ll begin the descent to Lyell Canyon about three miles after the turn at Vogelsang. Three miles later you’ll be 1,500′ lower in the depths of Lyell Canyon. Unlike the stark immensity of Yosemite Valley, the tight meadows of Lyell Canyon cradle you as you turn left and follow Lyell Fork downstream for 4.7 miles. Here, turn right and you’ll retrace your first steps of the day. You’ll be back to your car within a mile.
Insider’s Scoop: Tioga Road, which you drive on to access Tuolumne Meadows, is closed in winter, meaning this route is inaccessible from the first major snow storm (often mid-October) until most of the snow melts and is plowed by park road crews (often mid-May). Even after the road is open, this route climbs more than 3,000′ higher than the road so deep snow persists even longer. For near assured access, few people (Yosemite’s crowds thin considerably after Labor Day), and a horizon full of stark alpine beauty, hit this route in mid-September.
Don’t Make Me Beat Your Ass: When running the Tuolumne-Vogelsang-Lyell Canyon route or out for any other High Sierra trail run, please do not leave the trail while crossing meadows. These areas are among the most fragile ecosystems in the Sierra. While there are not signs telling you to stay off (thank goodness), be sure to leave no trace – not even a footprint.
Get Your Gear:
Folks, come prepared. There are large tracts of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land that separate Yosemite National Park from the surrounding small gateway towns. For example, Oakhurst is an hour south of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa is an hour and fifteen minute drive west of the valley. If you forget basic gear, you can take a look at the Village Sport Shop for items hikers would want such as clothing and hydration packs. The Curry Village Mountain Shop or the Tuolumne Meadows Sport Shop (their names are their locations) may also have gels. If you need something more, try Blue Heron Sports in Mariposa for a small selection of trail shoes and technical apparel. If you forgot something but are coming to Yosemite’s east side from Las Vegas or Southern California, you’re in luck as you’ll find Sage to Summit, a full service outdoor gear store with a large selection of running items, in Bishop.
Get Your Grub On:
To be honest, there aren’t many dining options in Yosemite. If you are putting in a hard week on the trails, get up, get out, and get back early on Sunday. It’s time to pull out your wallets and pull on your Gucci… ok, Patagucci and do Sunday brunch at the Ahwahnee. At around $50, it’s certainly not cheap, but it’s a wonderful, gluttonous experience that you’ve earned. You can find a sample menu here.
Looking for something cheaper, yet still quite tasty? Try the local and organic focused Mountain Room restaurant at Yosemite Lodge. Look at a sample menu or make a reservation here.
We think the best value and best atmosphere in Yosemite dining are found at the Mountain Room lounge. There you can get a snack, a low key meal (prepared across the courtyard at the Mountain Room), and a glass of your favorite adult beverage. There are a few large screen with sports scattered around the room and a huge fireplace roaring in the center of the room in colder months.
If you want to get a feel for what it’s like to live in Yosemite, cross your fingers and hope you visit on the right Thursday night. You see, Sal’s Taco Truck comes to El Portal (just west of Yosemite Valley) every other Thursday. Check the chamber of commerce website first. Bring a six-pack, some patience, and a friendly attitude as you’ll be waiting in line for a while with many folks who work in the park… and know it VERY well.
If you’re camping in the park, please adhere to the posted bear regulations. While not particularly dangerous, the bears will shred your tent or break into your car if you leave scented items there overnight.
- Sage to Summit High Sierra Runs List – Sage to Summit have put together a great trail run list that includes nearly two dozen High Sierra routes. Only a few of them are in Yosemite, but all are readily accessible from the east side of the Sierra.
- Yosemite Explorer’s Yosemite Hiking Trails – Want elevation gain numbers, mileage, AND a subjective quality rating of a trail in or near Yosemite before heading out? This is your site… at least for the dozen trails rated here. In truth, we should all glance at this as (1) the list was put together by a runner, not a hiker and (2) once you click through to each trail there’s a wonderful thorough page with trail facts, highlights, what to see, a long “details” section, and even “runner’s notes.”
- Yosemite Trail Running Records – Want to set a record while you’re in Yosemite? Take a look here first.
- iRunFar’s Yosemite National Park Articles – Yosemite is but a long run away from iRunFar’s headquarters. (In fact, we have run there!) We often work (really) and play in the park, so we’re likely to publish articles about our adventures in the Park. As we moved here just before winter, all of our Yosemite articles are about snowshoeing as of publication. That will change.
- Yosemite Bicycle’s Local Mountain Bike Rides – Yosemite Bicycle in Oakhurst has pulled together a list of local mountain bike rides outside the park. Where there are mountain bikes, there is single track and where there is single track, there are trail runs! Each documented trail includes trail descriptions and a printable map.
- Shadow of the Giants 20k & 50k – Looking to combine your vacation with a race? Hit the Shadow of the Giants races run in June. It’s just two miles from the Park’s southwest entrance.
- Bishop High Sierra Ultramarathons – If you’re going to be on the east side of the Sierra in mid-May and want to race or to check out the dramatic profile of the east side in person and with support, consider running one of the Bishop High Sierra races. There are 100k, 50 mile, 50k, and 20 mile options.
Please leave a comment letting us know of other valuable trail running resources in and around Yosemite National Park!
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