May Lake Trailhead to May Lake

May Lake

When is a backpacking trip not a backpacking trip? While such a question sounds like either a riddle, or a rhetorical question, it actually is a question with a solid answer. In my mind, a backpacking trip is not a backpacking trip when it is an introductory backpacking trip. Simple, right? Wordplay aside, what I mean by this is that when you are starting out as a novice backpacker, or whether you are trying to interest someone in backpacking, the thing to do is start out slow – don’t start out with the fifty mile, multi-day trip with no experience; or all new gear. If you want to be a backpacker; start out with smaller one to two day trips – such an approach allows you to test out your gear, and it allows you to test out your conditioning. Also, if you’re trying to introduce someone else to the sport, it allows them to become acclimatized to being immersed in the wilderness without becoming overwhelmed. Finally, this approach allows you to enjoy what you are doing without the pressure of having to be somewhere on a deadline; and allows you to appreciate the experience.

A video of the hike up to May Lake and Mount Hoffmann in the high sierra of Yosemite National Park

One of the best introductory backpacking trips I can think of is the May Lake Trail to May Lake. Ever since I worked in Yosemite and this area was on my patrol circuit, this has been one of my favorite destinations within the park. In terms of full disclosure, this hike is not just for backpackers – as it is short, it is a great destination for day hikers as well. What makes this trail ideal for an introductory backpack are four things: 1) short distance; 2) great scenery; 3) opportunities to explore; and 4) a place to camp with some modern amenities. In terms of the distance, this is a 2.5 mile roundtrip hike.

No matter what angle you look at it from, May Lake is a great spot.

That’s right: 2.5 miles. Now, before you tell me that this is too short, and too easy, think for a second: this short distance and this ease is the whole point of an introductory backpack. Also, keep in mind something else: the trailhead elevation is at 8,710 feet; and May Lake is at 9,270 feet, which means that over 1.25 miles, you will gain 500 feet. Again, this is not world-class, but, with a backpack, I guarantee that this is not as easy as it sounds due to the elevation. With respect to the scenery, you will be in the high country of the Sierra Nevada Mountains; which is some of the most beautiful country in the United States and the world; and you will be camping at a high alpine lake, and I guarantee that no matter when you go, you will not be disappointed. In terms of exploring, the short distance to the lake means that you will have time to set up your camp before dark, and either explore the lake, or head up the trail toward Mt. Hoffmann which rises above the lake. Finally, because May Lake is also a High Sierra Camp, the Lake boasts two things: 1) running water; and 2) a flush toilet(!). Trust me, these two things are not standard fare for most backpacking trips, so appreciate it, and enjoy a little “glamping”.

The trail to May Lake offers great views of the entire park.

Directions/Red Tape:  The trailhead is located almost in the exact center of Yosemite (and, if you climb Mt. Hoffmann while at the lake, you will have a great 360 degree view of the park), right off Highway 120 – the Tioga Pass. The trailhead is located up a short mixed use road – gravel/dirt/pavement that is not paved in winter, so depending on the snowpack, the road may be closed until late spring/early summer. The National Park Service does a good job of keeping people informed of when the Tioga Pass will open, and this is a good gauge to when the May Lake access road will open/melt out. The area is well signed on both sides of the 120 – Tioga Pass.

Even at the lower elevations, the trail provides great views of Mount Hoffmann in the distance.

For a one-night backpack, you will need a Wilderness Permit from the National Park Service. These permits are free, and can either be reserved online, or acquired the day before (or same day, if you are lucky) at the Tuolumne Meadows Backcountry Office; the Yosemite Valley Backcountry Office;  the Big Oak Flat Backcountry Office; or the Wawona Backcountry Office. There are no bear lockers at the lake, so you will be required to carry a bear canister or other National Park Service approved bear food storage device. If you are a day hiker, you will not need a permit; and there are bear lockers at the trailhead for day hikers and backpackers alike.

May Lake, Yosemite National Park

From the end of the road, the trailhead is readily apparent on the West side of the parking area. Do note that this parking area is the jumping off point for several trails into the High Sierra; but do not be alarmed – the trail to May Lake is well signed at the trailhead. From the trailhead, the trail sets out past some seasonal pools, and then winds through a stand of trees, before gradually ascending up a series of switchbacks to the lake. Take your time, and enjoy the views of Yosemite to the East, before cresting the final rise to May Lake. You will know you are at May Lake when you pass the bathroom; at that point, the High Sierra Camp is located to the North; and the National Park Service Camping is located on the West end of the lake. Once you find your spot, set up camp, relax, and enjoy your night out under the stars. In the morning, return to the trailhead the way you came. 

During the winter, the lake freezes, providing a spectacular winter scene for visitors.