My recent visit to Yosemite National Park was unforgettable. Really, I can’t recommend this beautiful place enough. You can check out my post Here on some of the gorgeous places we hiked during our stay. By far one of the most amazing experiences was the overnight backpacking trip to the North Dome with my sister. It was our first time backpacking and what an incredible experience!
I can’t say that backpacking was something I have always wanted to do. I love to be outdoors and find beautiful places to explore, but I really hadn’t considered heading out into the wilderness with everything I need to survive on my back. The thought of being away from civilization, surrounded by the Yosemite wilderness and dependent on my own resources sounded somewhat terrifying. It also sounded really exhilarating! I loved the idea of having an epic adventure so I started planning, and realized quickly there is a lot more to this than heading off down the trail.
For backpacking to North Dome, as well as all of Yosemite, you will need a wilderness permit. This is true of most National parks. You can find all the information you need for planning a backpacking trip at Yosemite here.
I had a lot of questions when I was planning this trip. I hope this post will help answer some of the questions you have if you are planning to take on this route, or if this is also your first time backpacking. You absolutely have to be prepared when you head out into the wilderness on your own because anything can happen. I’m happy to share some of the resources that I used and gear that I tried and can recommend. Below is a list of basic essentials that you will need for backpacking. It is not exhaustive and different situations may require more or less.
The trailhead for the North Dome starts at Porcupine creek, which is on Tioga Road. There is parking available and a bathroom. No water is available at the trailhead. There are bear lockers available to store food or anything else that has a scent. You absolutely cannot leave anything scented in your car, food or otherwise. The bears will get it! Beware though, this is shared with other hikers and unfortunately we did have food stolen from the bear lockers here. It’s about 5 miles from the trailhead to North Dome.
The trailhead starts off at a downhill slope but before long you begin to climb. It is absolutely not downhill all the way to the North Dome as I was led to believe from multiple sources. Actually a good portion of this hike is uphill on the way to North dome. We started our hike in the morning and it really was a beautiful hike through the trees. The trail was easy to follow in the forested area, and well marked.
Carrying a heavy pack definitely made this hike more challenging. We took our time, stopping for rest and snacks along the way. It was so peaceful, just resting on a boulder next to the trail and listening to the wind whistle through the tall pines.
There are few water sources available along this trail anyway, but in August the few creeks were basically dry, so we had to bring all the water we would need with us. We had planned to bring 5L of water per person, thinking that would be plenty of water for cooking and hydration. It’s a tough call, because water is heavy! And every ounce adds up when you are backpacking. Still, we reasoned it was better to be over prepared.
Unfortunately, when we arrived at the trailhead, my 2 L hydration pack had completely drained! The hose was compressed by my heavy pack and there went 2 liters of precious water. So, I was down to 3L and 32 oz of bottled water. Between the two of us we had 8L, and I quickly decided that I could make it to camp by rationing my 32 oz of bottled water.
Backpacking to North Dome, and all of Yosemite in August can be hot! Cool nights quickly turn into scorching, relentless heat. As we emerged from the coolness of the forest, onto the granite, the sun was intense. There is no shade on the granite, and to make it more challenging, its also difficult to follow a trail there.
On the exposed granite, everything looks like everything else. The boulders, the sparse trees; they all look similar. It was unnerving at first and I really had to force myself to take a deep breath and figure it out. I had taken screen shots of others’ pictures of the hike, which didn’t help as much as I’d hoped. My GPS watch was helpful though. I’ll post a link below of the watch I used. It was perfect for backpacking; the battery lasts forever. I had downloaded the GPX files of the hike, On All Trails, and it was comforting to glance down at my watch, and see that I was on course, or headed in the right direction.
When I looked carefully, I began to find clues that lead us in the right direction. Look for stones lining the path, as you can see behind the North Dome trail marker. Sometimes it’s a matter of looking for footprints in the dirt to reassure yourself that you are still on the trail. Look for the rock cairns, stacked rocks that will clue you in on the trail direction. I was very thankful for whomever took the time to leave those trail markers.
Now comes the difficult part of backpacking to North Dome. There is a technical descent near the end of the trail, with a few tricky switchbacks that take you down into the saddle area. From here the trail gently rises up to North Dome. Now, if you are hiking with a light day pack, this likely won’t be a big deal at all. If you are backpacking, and carrying 45-50 lbs on your back like us, this is a bit tricky. I have a feeling that many people find a camping spot before the descent to avoid carrying their heavy packs down (and back up?!) We really had to go slow, and be very careful not to lose our balance. It was unnerving and we were already pretty tired from the hike in the heat, but we made it! I’ll post a few pictures of this section. Pictures just can’t capture the steepness of it. Don’t let this deter you from hiking here. It’s doable, just take your time and be careful.
When backpacking to North Dome, and all of Yosemite, you are supposed to find an established campsite in the backcountry. I had heard that there were a few sites in the saddle area that had excellent views of Half Dome. As we followed the trail through the trees we came across the perfect camp site! Half Dome was right in front of us, it felt close enough to touch. The view was very hazy from the fires that night, but still amazing. The site we chose gave us some shelter between two small pines. No fires were allowed when we were there, but earlier in the season they are.
Once we set up camp we relaxed for a while, and then explored the area. We saw only a handful of people while we were there, which was a little eerie but that’s the point of backpacking right?
I highly recommend taking dehydrated meals, and a backpacking stove. That way you only have to boil water to cook your meals. I admit I wasn’t expecting much out of these meals but I was pleasantly surprised! They are lightweight, easy to make, and delicious. Every variety we tried was great, even the breakfast. I will put a link at the end of the post with a good brand to try, as well as other gear I tried out during this trip and recommend.
Despite clear weather in the forecast, thunderstorms rolled in at 2 AM. Bad weather was my biggest fear in planning this trip. You just can’t control it. Being near a granite dome in a lightening storm was terrifying. You haven’t heard thunder until you hear it echoing off the canyon walls all around you. We were not only afraid of being struck by lightening but also that a lightening strike would start a forest fire nearby. It was pretty unnerving to know we were 5 miles away from any help if there was an emergency. That’s part of the adventure I suppose!
I think we chose a good location for our campsite. You can see our little tent tucked into the tree line on the right hand side of the picture below. We had some protection from smaller trees around us, and a granite shelf a distance behind our tent provided protection from the wind during the storm. By the way, the right hand side of that shelf is where the trail steeply descends as you are heading down to North Dome, to give you a different visual.
The storms passed, and we woke the next morning to the most amazing sunrise lighting up the sky! It was absolutely breathtaking. Morning coffee has never tasted so good. There was nothing like the fresh crispness of the mountain air and that beautiful view. And having it all to ourselves was incredible! This is what makes the heavy pack and the long hike worthwhile when backpacking to North Dome!
I did think the hike back to the trailhead was a little more challenging. The technical climb back out was difficult, and a bit scary with the heavy packs. It took us a while to navigate safely. We struggled a bit again to follow the trail through the granite section, and were so relieved when we finally reached the easy to follow trail through the forest. That shady, cool forest that we walked through the morning before wasn’t shaded any longer though, at noon. It was pretty hot, and exposed.
The altitude was also a factor I think in how we were feeling. North Dome itself is at about 7,500 feet elevation, and the trailhead is higher at around 8100 feet. We had about a liter and a half of water per person left when we broke camp, and we reached the trailhead (all up hill at the end) with a mouthful of water each. That was cutting it way too close in my opinion. I would recommend you have 5 liters of water per person minimum if you are backpacking to North Dome in the dry season.
If you are just starting out like I was you will have a lot of gear to purchase. I left links below of gear that I personally tried on this trip and highly recommend. Let me know if you have any questions. I do recommend visiting your local REI store and getting your pack fitted if you haven’t already done that. I was really impressed with how helpful the staff was in helping us choose the right equipment, from a stove to a sleeping bag. The gear is an investment I know, but well worth it. Once you have everything, you can really go anywhere!
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“If you never get out there, you’ll never have a story to tell.”Random cool hikers in Yosemite
Would I do it again? Absolutely! It was such an empowering experience and I cannot wait to plan another backpacking trip. We really left a piece of our hearts in Yosemite! As we were hiking out the following morning, we passed a group of seasoned hikers who were impressed to see us out there, lugging our heavy packs, and braving the wilderness on our own. We talked about the storm we had weathered the night before and they left us with a memorable quote, “Now you have a story, if you never get out there, you’ll never have a story to tell.” So that’s my challenge to you, get out there and have an adventure!