Backpacking Young Lakes | Yosemite National Park
Young Lakes | Written by Brian Callender | Photography by Julie Boyd
Backpacking Young Lakes: Hike Details
Starting Elevation: 8,720 ft.
Distance: 18 miles (completing this trip as a loop)
Elevation Gain: 2,850 ft. (more if you go out and back on the Dog Lake trail)
Hike Type: Backpacking
Difficulty Level: Difficult-Strenuous
Food Storage: Bear boxes are available at both the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Permit Center parking lot and the Dog Lake Trailhead.
Restrooms: Flush toilets at the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Permit Office, and pit toilets at the Dog Lake trailhead.
Cell Service: None. I did find a small patch of service in one of the meadows along the way, but nothing at any of the lakes or trailheads.
Crowd Factor: Low-Moderate. We only saw a handful of people throughout the hike and most were backpackers at the lakes.
Permit: A Wilderness Permit is required and available through Yosemite.org. Permits are available 168 days in advance of your scheduled trip dates.
Date Hiked: June 12-13, 2021
Backpacking Young Lakes
Young Lakes had been on our backpacking wish list for a couple of years in a row, but the timing just never seemed to work out. In 2020, we were hoping to visit in late summer, but the Creek Fire derailed that plan (and many others). Instead, we decided to get this trip on the books for early summer in 2021. Since this was a low snow year, a trip in early June ended up being the perfect time to visit.
We left the Bay Area in the morning and headed straight to Tioga Pass with the hopes of getting on the trail around lunch time. Parking for overnight camping is at the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Permit Center and then a walking path connects over to the main trailhead for Dog Lake and Lembert Dome. You’ll end up adding in an extra 0.40 miles each way for good measure.
The trail starts off and you’ll immediately cross on open section of granite. Make sure you stay to the right here and you’ll see a sign ahead for Dog Lake and Young Lakes. An open meadow on your left looks out across Cathedral Peak and the Cathedral Range. Within a few minutes, the trail begins to climb, gradually, as you walk through the forest and parallel the creek. We took this section pretty slow, since we had only arrived a few hours earlier from sea level, and the elevation got to us.
At 1.35 miles in, the trail flattens out a bit, before descending slightly and crossing a small creek. A quick detour takes you to Dog Lake, and with a bit more climbing, we reached the shore at 1.9 miles. Note: the park sign indicates that Dog Lake is just 0.1, but we tracked it as 0.2. Just a bit more than expected, and a common theme we find while tracking with our GPS.
Continuing on to Young Lakes, the trail switches to single track, staying mostly in the trees and providing some relief from the sun. Just before the 3 mile mark, and after more climbing, the trail flattens out and descends again. A short walk leads to a meadow with expansive views of the surrounding mountains. Here, you’ll cross your second and slightly larger creek. At this point we found the mosquitoes, that had otherwise been non-existent, were out and ready to feast on us. We paused to spray ourselves before quickly continuing on.
If you’re starting to sense a pattern, you would be correct. After more uphill, we were once again met with a flat section, followed by downhill. We caught our first views of the peaks where we were heading around 3.5 miles in, and then crossed another small creek before heading back into the trees again.
Just before reaching 5 miles, the trail opens open to sweeping 360 degree views. After a long slog through the trees, this was a welcome sight, even if it came at the expense of shade. You’ll cross two more small creeks here, as the trail continues northwest. More uphill follows and then at the 5.5 mark, you’ll descend again, keeping with the theme of the day. It’s definitely a bit disheartening to do so much downhill after the hard work it took to get to the meadow.
At 6 miles, we had a small celebration as we reached the junction for Young Lakes. This is where the Tuolumne Meadows (Soda Springs) trail meets up. Here the sign indicates 1.5 more miles to Young Lakes, but we had a feeling it would be another 2 since we were already tracking at 0.8 longer than the official sign indicated. You’ll cross two more creeks at 6.45 and 6.75 miles, following a mostly flat trail. After the second creek crossing, the trail once again goes uphill.
Once you reach 7 miles, the trail relents a bit and the first views of Ragged Peak come in to focus. We finally made it to Lower Young Lake at 7.75 miles and 1999 feet of elevation gain. If you’re content to camp at Lower Lake it’s a beautiful spot and there are plenty of places to set up your tent. We saw a number of people fishing, but our plan was to continue on to Upper Young Lake. We reached Middle Young Lake at 8.35 miles. The lake was smaller than lower lake, but equally beautiful against a mountain backdrop
At 8.6 miles, we reached a small waterfall that outflows water from Upper Young Lake down to Middle Young Lake. The rest of the way to Upper Lake is a bit of a scramble as you’ll follow the side of the waterfall to the top. We reached the final lake at just short of 9 miles and 2300 feet of elevation gain.
After wandering around for a bit, taking photos, and hunting for a camp spot, we finally settled in for some much needed dinner. A long day of hiking makes the backpacking meal taste even better, but I think we both would have been happy with just about any food at that point.
I never sleep all that well in that backcountry, and that was the case at Upper Young Lake. It was cold, and this was the first time trying out or new quilts, which we still need to get the hang of.
Waking up every few hours, it was time to get up for sunrise, so Julie could shoot Middle and Lower Young Lakes from above. I worked on packing up our campsite so we could hit the trail shortly after and get back to the Bay Area by the afternoon. We retraced our steps, and coming down the waterfall was a bit trickier than going up, but manageable.
Back at the junction at 11.8 miles, we decided to turn this trip into a loop by descending the trail to Tuolumne Meadows (Soda Springs). With so much up and down on the Dog Lake trail, we weren’t eager to go back that way, and are generally big fans of doing loop hikes.
Any thought that we had that this would be the easier route was quickly put into question. After crossing a short creek, the trail immediately began to climb and left us second guessing our decision to go with the unknown. Fortunately, the uphill was short-lived, and we began to descend, which was a welcome sight. Most of the next section of trail was an unspectacular walk through the forest.
At 14.5 miles, you’ll leave the forest and shade behind and open up to some pretty incredible views. We reached a junction to continue on to Tuolumne Meadows or Glen Aulin and Waterwheel Falls. Our hope is to do the latter two on a future hike, but today we were excited to be closer to getting back to the car. Surprisingly, we had our biggest stream crossing of the trip at 15.75 miles as we were nearing Tuolumne Meadows.
The final portion of the hike follows a dirt road that passes by the Dog Lake trailhead before connecting us back to the Wilderness Center parking lot. Hot, sweaty, and tired, we were relieved to be back at the car, cleaned up and ready to eat! We stopped at the Tuolumne Meadows Grill for a couple of burgers before heading back home to the Bay Area.
Final Thoughts on Backpacking Young Lakes
Julie and I were so glad to have finally made the trip up to Young Lakes. Doing the hike as a loop was definitely the way to go, particularly since there was so much up and down on the way in. All three of the Young Lakes are stunning and you can’t go wrong camping at any of them. But we firmly believe that making it all the way to Upper Young Lake is the way to go. This is a gem of a hike in Yosemite National Park and one we highly recommend!
More adventure ideas in Yosemite National Park:
Hiking North Dome