Once you’ve decided which direction you’re traveling in and where you’re starting, you’re ready to dig into the planning of a Tahoe to Yosemite section hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). See “Tahoe to Yosemite PCT Section Hike-Permits and Planning” for additional information.
15 Day Itinerary
When Steve examined the locations of campsites with reliable water sources, it appeared that they were about 10 miles apart in many cases. That wasn’t always the case when we had boots on the ground as seasonal creeks come and go. Some water sources were not easily accessible and some had camping restrictions. I noted that several “official,” accepted or obviously well-used campsites did not follow LNT (Leave No Trace) principles. Some were located practically on a trail or at the very edge of a water source. I accepted the fact that the land was less than pristine wilderness in national forests where grazing was allowed. It was hard to get worked up over campsites that weren’t ideal from an LNT perspective when cow patties blanketed the land.
While we hiked an average of 10-mile-days, they ranged from 5 to 14.6 miles per day. We ended up hiking only five miles the first day since traveling from Lee Vining to the trailhead took half of the day. We elected to only hike five miles the next day to preserve our itinerary (meaning that we split our first 10-mile segment into two days). The second day was a bit too short but it was a nice way to ease into the trail. Even though the trail is relatively low, I’m sensitive to the altitude at around 10,000 feet so it was a good strategy for me to have two easy days to start. If you’re starting in the early morning on Day 1, you can easily combine the first two days into one.
Most PCT hikers were covering 20 miles a day with a minority in the 30-mile a day range. A few were doing 15 miles a day so presumably they found the right combination of water and campsites at those intervals.
Here is our itinerary for a 15-day hike with a nero (nearly zero) day in the middle. Because fewer landmarks on the trail are named (in contrast to the JMT) we often used PCT miles to note our location. These mile numbers correspond to the PCT mileage on Halfmile’s maps. These numbers increase as the PCT progresses north.
- Day 1. Mile 1092 (Echo Lakes) to Mile 1087 (creek beyond Echo Summit); 5 miles
- Day 2. Mile 1087 to Mile 1082 (Showers Lake); 5 miles
- Day 3. Mile 1082 (Showers Lake) to Mile 1073 (creek); 9.5 miles
- Day 4. Mile 1073 to Mile 1060 (creek); 12.5 miles
- Day 5. Mile 1060 to Mile 1050 (Upper Kinney Lake): 10 miles
- Day 6. Mile 1050 to Mile 1041 (Asa Lake); 9 miles
- Day 7. Mile 1041 to Mile 1028 (creek); 13 miles
- Day 8. Mile 1028 to Mile 1020.7 (Wolf Cr Lake); 8.5 miles
- Day 9. Mile 1020 to 1016 (1 mile past Sonora Pass Highway); 2.5 (AM) & 1 mile (PM)-RESUPPLY
- Day 9: Mile 1016 (Sonora Pass) to Mile 1006 (Kennedy Canyon); 10 miles
- Day 10: Mile 1006 to Mile 996 (Dorothy Lake, YNP); 10 miles
- Day 11. Mile 996 to Mile 985.4 (creek beyond Wilma Lake); 11 miles
- Day 12. Mile 985 to Mile 975 (small lake past Seavey Pass); 10 miles
- Day 13. Mile 975 to Mile 965 (Wilson Creek); 10 miles
- Day 14. Mile 965 to Mile 956 (Canyon Creek); 9 miles
- Day 15. Mile 956 to Mile 941.4 (Tuolumne Meadows); 14.6 miles
We started on August 22, 2017. This year was notable for the near-record-breaking snowfall in the winter, which made for an unusually wet summer. Seasonal streams were active longer than usual and we had a number of snowfields to cross after Sonora Pass. We had originally planned to start in late July but the high water in the rivers and persistent snow caused us to delay a month.
Six Wilderness Areas
The SOBO (southbound) route goes through six wilderness areas, in this order:
- Desolation Wilderness
- Meiss Country Roadless Area
- Mokelumne Wilderness
- Carson Iceberg Wilderness
- Emigrant Wilderness
- Yosemite National Park
Halfmile (the trail name of a very helpful individual) offers a set of free downloadable and printable PCT topographic maps. Each section is comprised of several maps. Tahoe to Sonora Pass Highway is California Section J, while Sonora Pass to Yosemite is California Section I. The PDFs can be loaded onto a mobile device and printed onto paper. I don’t feel comfortable without paper maps but many of the PCT hikers only use apps (described below).
This is an excellent resource that covers this section of the PCT in detail: Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Northern California: Section Hiking from Tuolumne Meadows to Donomore Pass by Philip Kramer (Mountaineer Books).
The Pacific Crest Trail Data Book (Wilderness Press) contains lines of text that describes detailed milestones such as towns, resupply locations and water sources in a small booklet. This used to be a critical resource but apps that provide the same information have largely supplanted the data book. I bought this but didn’t use it.
There is a series of PCT guidebooks. Pacific Crest Trail: Northern California (Wilderness Press) covers Tuolumne Meadows to the Oregon border. I don’t have this book, but my copy of The Tahoe Sierra by the same author, Jeffrey Schaffer, is excellent and well worn.
Halfmile offers a free Apple and Android app. It’s not exactly a map app, in that you can’t visualize a topographic map on the screen. Instead, the app identifies your GPS location and displays text that lets you know where you are on the trail mile by mile. It also lists water sources, campsites and other pertinent information. This information is also available as downloadable Trail Notes on his website.
Hikerbot has a free Android map app for the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s a traditional map app that displays a topographic map and identifies water sources and campsites. A valuable asset is the crowd-sourced information that will continue to grow as this relatively new app gains momentum.
CalTopo is a free computer application that allows the user to create routes and waypoints anywhere in the U.S. The route can be exported into a number of free and paid map apps such as US Topo Maps (by Atlogis) and the maps can be printed. There’s a bit of a learning curve but it’s a powerful application.
Sierra Mapper is another free computer application that is similar to CalTopo.
If You Hiked the JMT
After completing the John Muir Trail (JMT), many hikers seek similar trails. This 150-mile PCT section is shorter but is a natural progression since it ends near the start of the JMT. Those who are looking for something closer to the 211-mile length of the JMT can look at alternative trailheads on the PCT to lengthen the trip. Suggestions include starting further north, such as Sierra City or Donner Pass, or connecting part or all of the Tahoe Rim Trail. Another option would be to continue south through Yosemite on the Theodore Solomons Trail (TST). The partially maintained TST runs parallel to the west of the JMT. It starts at Glacier Point and ends at Horseshoe Meadow (some navigation challenges exist in the central portion).
- Water sources are a bigger driver for planning than on the JMT especially in late season and dry years.
- In general, the altitude is lower, rarely exceeding 10,000 feet. Altitude sickness is less of a concern for most people.
- The lower altitude means that it’s also warmer
- Since you’re not above treeline, some would say that it’s less striking. However, the scenery varies from day to day, often dramatically.
- Do not assume that because it’s not as high as the JMT, every day will be easier than the JMT. A couple of days in Yosemite are brutal due to extreme elevation gain/loss the V-shaped canyons known as the Washboard. Snowfields can be extensive and a couple of river crossings are notoriously dangerous in early season.
- Permits are easier to get and there are no quotas going SOBO from Echo Lakes.
- Passes are often not named so there can be less of a shared vocabulary for describing where you are and where you’ve been.
- There is less of a wilderness feel in certain areas where you cross highways or mingle with cows. Paradoxically, there is more of a sense of self-sufficiency because there are fewer people. You can often camp alone and you may only see people a couple of times in a day.
See my other article for information about how we planned our trip: “Tahoe to Yosemite PCT Section Hike-Permits and Planning”