Mount Lyell from Tuolumne Meadows via Lyell Canyon









Distance Comments: 

Round trip distance

Distance in Miles: 

25.00 miles

Trip Type: 

Out and back


Tuolumne Wilderness Office

Trailhead Elevation: 


Elevation Gain/Loss: 


Elevation Min/Max: 



Easy (1 out of 5)


This hike takes in the highest peak entirely inside Yosemite National Park as well as a long stretches of scenic meadows filled with birds along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, culminating in spectacular Kuna Falls at the head of Lyell Canyon. From there you enter steeper and more forested terrain as you gain access to the High Sierra. The trail is relatively crowded since it is part of the both the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail, but like most trails outside Yosemite Valley, you will still spend most of your time alone once you get past the first couple of miles.


You can start from the Tuolumne Campground, the Tuolumne Wilderness Office, Tuolumne Meadows Lodge or the Dog Lake parking lot, depending. All of these are roughly the same distance, but it's probably easiest to just park at the Wilderness Office, get your permit and start walking. Please note that this is a quota trail and there is no camping in the first four miles, so you don't want to start too late in the day.

You start out along the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River, crossing that in about a half mile. It's about another .75 miles to the Twin Bridges over the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. Here you meet the John Muir Trail proper, which is also the trail from the campground. The Twin Bridges area is a gorgeous site — nice meadows, gracefully formed granite cascades and views off to Mammoth Peak — and worth a quick walk in and of itself if you are just spending the night in Tuolumne.

In another half mile, you come to a trail junction. The righthand branch takes you up Rafferty Creek to Vogelsang High Sierra Camp in 5.7 miles. Our hike stays left on relatively flat ground that alternates pleasantly between lodgepole forest and meadows. You'll eventually arrive back at the Lyell Fork and soon find meadows, shade trees and rock bluffs that all call for a break. At the first small outcrop, one day I saw a man fly fishing off the outcrop, hikers having lunch, a man with a hammock strung between two trees, and some folks dipping their feet in the creek. All in all, it's a shame to move too quickly through here.

You are now in the large meadow created by the Lyell Fork basin. Across the creek is the Kuna Crest and on trail side, Potter's Point looms ahead. You will leave the river and then rejoin it again. A little further on you are out of the no camping zone and there are lots of established campsites in the small groves just up and right from the trail.

About six miles from the start (4.2 miles from the last junction), you reach the Ireland Lake Trail, which takes you to Ireland Lake, of course (4.3 miles), but also to Vogelsang High Sierra Camp in 6.3 miles. So if you wanted a nice loop, you could head to Vogelsang that way and then end up back at the previous junction on your return trip. Above you, Potter's Point provides a handy mileage marker reference point for the remaining miles in the canyon.

In another three miles or so, you reach the head of the canyon, where Kuna Creek comes cascading impressively down the mountainside. The next good campsites are a ways up, so if darkness or fatigue are coming on, this is a good place to stop. That said, you never go too far between camping opportunities and water is common along the trail.

From the head of the canyon, you enter steeper, more forested terrain with white heather giving way to mountain heather and, eventually, lodgepole pine giving way to whitebark pine. About 1.5 miles on, you come to a crossing of the Lyell Fork, now a relatively small stream, but fresh from the glacier and bracingly cold. You now wend your way up steep slopes for another half mile, emergine at about 10,500 feet with nice views of Mount Lyell. Where the trail takes a horseshoe bend at the crest and head down to cross the stream and then up and over Donahue Pass, summit-bound hikers leave the trail and start up the shallow canyon straight towards Mount Lyell. The rocky subsidiary peak you see between you and the summit looms at aobut 12,400 and is a good measuring post for your progress. Easiest is to work your way up and right around the foot of that peak, passing it on your left. From there you can either kick your way up the steep snow slopes on the north flank of Lyell or wind your way around to the southeast flank and scramble up easy third class terrain to the summit. The northern snow slopes are more spectacular and more amenable to taking in Lyell and Maclure in one outing, but also more difficult and dangerous.

The summit of Lyell can have incredible displays of Sky Pilots (Polemonium eximium) if you get lucky with your timing. In mid-July we saw thousands of American Lady butterflies pollinating the Sky Pilots and being in turn eaten by a bird that we didn't get a great look at.

In any case, it will have excellent views of its neighbors, Maclure (12,880), Mount Florence (12,561), Rodgers Peak (12,978) and further peaks like Banner (12,945) and Ritter (13,140). You can also see all the way over to the Buena Vista Crest and Horse Ridge above the Ostrander Ski Hut.

From here you simply trace your steps back down. If you came up the snow slope and are travelling light (i.e. without ice axe and crampons), you will likely find it more comfortable and quicker scrambling down the rocks heading towards Rodgers (SE ridge). Of course, if the snwo slope is not suncupped and you have an axe and are ready to glissade, nothing's faster that going down a nice snow slope. Typically, however, by the time the highway and the trail are snow-free, everything will be suncupped and not a very fun glissade.

Runner's Notes: 

I rated this easy running, but that's only for the first nine miles or so (18 miles round trip). On this first part, it's about as flat as Yosemite gets: only 400 elevation gain in 9 miles with very little up and down and generally a smooth and good running surface. After that, it starts to climb to Donahue Pass and the bit up to the actual summit of Lyell would require a strong runner indeed.


Just the info I wanted!

Thanks for the report and pictures. My wife and I are already planning for this exact trip in 2008 and information on the Internet was desperately light. Thanks!


I have plans to go to the summit august 2nd, whats the weather going tobe like at that of year,and I plan to camp at the last medow,any suggestions, thanks. ps maybe me and my pals will see you on the trial

August 2nd sounds about

August 2nd sounds about right. You'll likely be on snow a bit before Donahue Pass.

The last meadow is a good place. It means that you do most of the vertical without hauling all your camping gear.

Have fun!

Crampons for Lyell? Hmmm

Crampons for Lyell?

Hmmm I've only been up it once, and I grew up in the snow and have done a lot of ice climbing and mountaineering, so perhaps not the best to ask. But my wife, did it with just running shoes and ski poles with no issues.

Perhaps if you were planning to summit very early in the morning before the snow softened up you might want something on your feet (full on crampons or Katoolas or something). Or if you aren't super comfy on snow.

As for an ice-axe, the side by McClure is pretty steep (look at the photo gallery). If you feel, you'd take a ride, but we still just went with ski poles ready to do a ski pole self-arrest. The other side, where we came down, had a lot less steep snow and we didn't worry about it at all.

See this photo especially for a look at the steepest snowfield on Lyell

Before REI and cool hiking gear

Thanks for the report. It brought back memories. When I was about 10 yrs. old my dad and I climbed to the top of Mt. Lyell. I remember that we had no special hiking gear, just my favorite pair of Adidas sneakers and a bag lunch my mom had made. A rancher met us and some other "hikers" at the parking lot while the sun was coming up. She hiked with our group to the top. I remember reaching the summit so tired that I ate my lunch and fell asleep on a rock. My dad eventually woke me up and we hiked backed down. Returned to camp at dusk fully exhausted.

I have to giggle now when I see people getting ready to "hike" with $100 of dollars worth a gear...when dad and I only had our tennis shoes and bag lunch.

Thanks Sara, You don't need a

Thanks Sara,

You don't need a lot of stuff to get started, but like much of Yosemite, things can vary a lot depending on the season. That's why I say I've only been up Lyell once and sneakers were fine except for wet feet (there were about 2 miles of hiking on snow when we did it).

But I don't have enough experience up there to know if that's always true. I know some gullies in the Sierra that are a mellow ski early in the season and hard, glare ice by late summer that would require crampons.

fishing in lyell canyon

Has anybody done any fishing (or flyfishing) in Lyell Canyon? I'd be very interested in the results--Thanks!

I'm not a flyfisherman, but I

I'm not a flyfisherman, but I did see someone who looked like he knew what he was doing up there, but I didn't see him catch anything.

In general, there were no fish in Yosemite above 4000' before they started stocking the lakes (which sadly, has resulted in the collapse of the mountain frog population). They quit stocking when they figured out the damage it was causing, which means fish populations in Yosemite are not generally that large and, from what I hear, fishing tends to be better outside the park. Look in Tom Stienstra's Califorinia Flyfishing book - he has a good writeup on Yosemite and that's where the above information comes from.

So why was I reading a flyfishing book if I don't fish? Good question. I think it's because I'm one of those people who reads what's put in front of me. But since I'm not a fisherman, I might not have gotten it really right. Best look at Stienstra's book yourself.

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