The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range runs 400 miles along California’s eastern edge. These mountains offer miles of trails, serene meadows, mountains towering to 14,000 feet above sea level, deep canyons, and free-flowing, pristine rivers.
All this beauty comes with remarkably good weather and plenty of sunshine. John Muir called these mountains “the range of light.” The crown of the Sierras, a vast plain of meadows surrounded by lofty peaks, is Tuolumne Meadows.
Tuolumne Meadows lies within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is considered a horse-friendly park. Essentially, you can ride most of the 800 miles of trails in the park, unless they’re closed due to hazardous conditions.
* Make advance reservations. Yosemite maintains four campgrounds for campers with private stock. Reserve your spot at horse camp well in advance. Although a 25-unit camp is planned at this site, there are currently only four units available. You can make reservations up to five months in advance through the National Park Reservation Service; call (800) 436-PARK. Each site at Tuolumne can accommodate six people and six horses.
* Stay a while. Reserve enough days at the camp to acclimate your horse to the elevation (see below), enjoy multiple rides, and take time to enjoy the sights. Near the campground entrance is a small grocery for supplies. You can get fast food at Tuolumne Meadows Grill. For family-style breakfasts and dinners, head for the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, a rustic canopy tent located beside the Tuolumne River.
* Bring your own feed. Plan on bringing your own horse feed; grazing at the stock campground is prohibited. Weed free hay is encouraged, but not required at this time.
* Contain your horse. There are no corrals at the current camp, so plan on highlines or portable corrals. We used electric corrals during the day and HiTies on the trailer at night.
* Acclimate your horse. Tuolumne Meadows is located at 8,600 feet above sea level; surrounding trails can easily reach the 10,000-foot mark. Acclimate your horse for a few days at this elevation before doing any tough riding.
We approached Tuolumne Meadows from its closest access point, Lee Vining, on the park’s eastern side. Just south of Lee Vining is the intersection with Highway 120. Turn right (west) to get into the park. At this intersection, there’s a gas station for last fill-ups and a recreational-vehicle dump. Just past the gas station on the left, keep an eye out for a water sign. The United States Forest Service has provided a drinking-water station with two faucets. It’s a great place to top off your unit. The water is delicious and right out of the Sierras.
It’s roughly 17 miles from the intersection to Tuolumne Meadows. The first 10 or so miles climb steeply up to Tioga Pass and the park entrance. This is the highest highway pass in California. We were a day ahead of our reservations, so we decided to spend the night at the base of Tioga Pass. The USFS allows horse camping at Cattle Guard Campground.
Between this camp and Tioga Pass is a steady climb to an elevation of 9,943 feet at an 8 percent grade. We had no trouble going up, but coming down, our brakes began smoking! It’s about seven miles from the pass to Tuolumne.
Check in at the campground ranger station for a map of horse trails that access the campground and how to get to the stock camp located at the back of the main camp. On the map, you’ll notice that you can ride from camp and travel to trails on all sides of the valley in a 360-degree fashion.
Parking is scarce! If you drive in for a day ride, and don’t have camping reservations, try the parking lot next to the restroom at the stock-camp entrance. Just across the road is the stock trail, which accesses all trails.
Another parking area is across the valley at the Yosemite Stables. Although you can ride there from the stock camp, this is a good spot to park to shorten the ride to Glen Aulin and Young Lake. We were told you can also park at the Dog Lake parking lot, which accesses trails to the Dana Fork, Lyell Fork, and Vogelsang.
The Tuolumne River Trail
After coffee around a toasty fire, we saddled our horses for our first ride aboard our Missouri Fox Trotters, Buddy and Scout.
We rode from the stock camp onto the horse access trail, turning left (east) to go to the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River trail. The trail up the Lyell Fork is the John Muir Trail. This section coincides with the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This trail crosses the longest stretch of undeveloped, roadless wildlands left in the lower 48 states.
This isn’t the most remote area in terms of being the farthest distance from any road in any direction — that spot is at the southeast corner of Yellowstone Park. However, this is the longest trail in wilderness between two roads in the Continental United States. It leaves the road at Tuolumne and doesn’t cross another road until over 200 miles to the south, where it reaches the Sherman Pass Highway.
The trail up the Lyell Fork is an easy first ride. Starting at 8,600 feet elevation, it’s a pleasant trail with very little elevation gain for the first eight miles. If you access this trail from the Dog Lake parking lot, note that there are three bridges to cross in the first couple of miles. Your horse should be used to bridges over rushing rivers. After the third bridge crossing, don’t turn left and follow the river, as we did. This is a fisherman’s trail and soon dwindles out. Instead, go straight.
Note: If you ride from the horse camp, you’ll avoid these bridges. Watch for a sign indicating Tuolumne Lodge. It’s well worth the short ride from there to the bridges and a very scenic area.
After the bridges, the gentle, flat trail generally follows the course of the Lyell Fork as it passes through wide Lyell Canyon. This is marvelous scenery at its best. The river features pools, gravel bars, and cascades to explore and enjoy. As our horses alternated between walking and fox trotting up the valley, we happily gazed around, soaking up the surrounding beauty. Our lunch spot was in a sheltered meadow next to a small waterfall.
In the Lyell Canyon, you can see how ancient glaciers changed and shaped the landscape. Glacial action eroded steep-walled canyons to create a U-shaped canyon. As glaciers receded, they left behind boulders (called erratics) here and there throughout the area. Look for huge rocks scattered across huge flat rock slabs, as though they were placed by a landscaper.
Upper Cathedral Lake
Our next ride would take us to John Muir’s favorite spot, Cathedral Lake and Cathedral Peak. It’s a 5.2 mile ride from the campground to Upper Cathedral Lake, with an elevation gain of 1,000 feet.
We rode out of camp on the same trail as before, but this time turned west, riding about 1.5 miles on a fairly level trail above the campground until it intersected with the Cathedral Lake trail. Most of the 1,000-foot elevation gain occurs in the next couple of miles after this intersection. A fair amount of this portion of the trail has rock stair-steps. Buddy thought he was going upstairs in a building rather than up a mountain!
We did this ride in July, and yet came to a point where the entire trail was blocked by a huge snow bank. Working around the snow, we came into an area where the trail leveled out, and we started to glimpse the surrounding mountains between the trees.
Finally, we came to a point where we could see Cathedral Peak, 10,823 feet above sea level, on our left. From this angle, the peak appears to be a perfect point. At the lake, the same peak looks like an inverted horseshoe.
Shortly after the first good view of Cathedral Peak, we came to a point where the trail splits to upper and lower Cathedral Lakes. We selected the upper lake and arrived there a short time later. What a picturesque spot for a picnic! Nature went all out painting a calendar scene for us at Upper Cathedral Lake; it was a virtual fairyland. Scattered around the lake were peninsulas, small inlets, and tiny islands. Ride a short distance past the lake to Cathedral Pass, and look back for a classic view of Cathedral Lake and Cathedral Peak in one scene.
You can access four other trails from the horse camp or by trailering to other locations in Tuolumne Meadows. Here’s a rundown.
* Elizabeth Lake. You can reach this lake immediately out of the stock camp. It’s only 2.3 miles to the lake, but the trail features a 1,000 foot elevation gain. The lake is framed by Unicorn Peak, Johnson Ridge, and Johnson Peak. This makes for a pretty location for picnic.
* Glen Aulin. You can access this trailhead from the stock camp or by trailering across the valley to the Yosemite Stables parking lot. After the stables parking lot, ride over and check out the naturally carbonated Soda Springs. These springs were owned for many years by the Sierra Club, which built the nearby rock building, Parson’s Lodge, as a center for its activities.
The ride to Glen Aulin follows the course of the Tuolumne River for seven miles to a delightful spot decorated with aspens. Glen Aulin, which means beautiful valley or glen, is located several hundred yards beyond the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. (See “Horse-Friendly Park” on page xx.) Watch for Tuolumne Falls and the White Cascades along the route. The return trip is gradually uphill, gaining 800 feet back to your starting point.
* Dog Lake. You can access the trail to Dog Lake from the campground by going east toward Lyell Canyon, then turning north at the trail junction to Tuolumne Lodge. Or, you can trailer to the Dog Lake parking lot on Tuolumne Meadows Lodge Rd. From the parking lot, you’ll have a 1.5 mile ride with an 800-foot elevation gain to the lake. There are impressive views of Mt. Dana and Mt. Gibbs from the lakeside.
* Young Lakes. From the Yosemite Stables parking lot to Young Lakes is a distance of 7.5 miles and an elevation gain of 1,400 feet. You’ll gain this elevation riding to the upper two out of three lakes located at the base of Ragged Peak. Check with the folks at the Yosemite Stables for current trail conditions on this route.
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type “supplier:1314” in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.