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Yosemite National Park, California, United States

Clark Range Circuit

A multi-day loop in Yosemite's High Country without the crowds.

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Difficulty: Difficult
Length: 40 miles / 64 km
Duration: Multiple days
 
Overview: Spend several days circling Yosemite's Clark Range, and the source of the Merced River, enjoying big mountains, open spaces, and cold blue lakes without the crowds normally associated with the words "Yosemite." The lack of crowds is because this is not an easy loop to reach, requiring either a really long approach hike from Yosemite trailheads or driving on twisty Forest Service roads. Another reason might be the 5 passes (3 over 10,000 feet) that the route goes over and all of the climbing (and dropping) that goes along with them. In any case, if you're willing to invest the time and effort, you will be paid back handsomely. Expect to spend 5 days on this hike, although a strong hiker could do it in 3 (but why?).

This guide covers the approach from the Quartz Mountain trailhead, which has the shortest approach hike. There are many other trailheads that can be used as a starting point, however, such as Chiquito Pass (the drive to which is all paved), the Fernandez Trailhead, or even Yosemite Valley itself (although that involves a 16-mile 5000' approach to the loop).

Entering Yosemite from the south, at Chiquito Pass, the trail meanders through the forest before reaching a junction to the Chain Lakes -- an excellent place to stop for a mellow first day's hike. From the Chain Lakes junction, the primary trail heads west and then north to Moraine Meadows and the South Fork Merced River, where the moraines are barely in evidence and the meadows not much more. From here, take the long climb to forested Merced Pass; Upper Merced Pass Lake is a lovely place to stay and the first reliable water since the South Fork Merced River.

After Merced Pass, you continue winding upwards and soon break out of the trees, getting great views of Red Peak, Ottoway Peak, and Merced Peak. Lower Ottoway Lake is heavily used, but for a reason: it is a stunning campsite, with a beautiful subalpine lake surrounded by peaks 2,000 feet taller. Upper Ottoway Lake, "only" 800 feet higher, is stunning too but for its austerity, with only tiny plants surviving amidst the talus. The camping here is limited and windy. From Upper Ottoway Lake it is another 800 vertical feet to Red Peak Pass, where a panorama across much of Yosemite unfolds.

The descent from Red Peak Pass and across the high open country of the north side of the Clark Range is gorgeous, and should be prolonged as long as possible, with wide-open country and expansive views. Camping and water are readily available through this entire area until the descent to the Triple Peak Fork of the Merced River. At the Triple Peak Fork you could head north to Washburn Lake and the High Sierra camp there, but this route climbs back up towards Post Peak Pass. You'll reach a big open bowl at 10,000' which is -- once again -- stunning. Once you finally decide to leave this basin, there is an 800-foot climb to the crest of the Clark Range and a traverse to Post Peak Pass, then a leg-jarring descent to geologically-intriguing Porphyry Lake. At this point you've left Yosemite for the Ansel Adams Wilderness and the trail gets noticeably harder to follow. After Porphyry Lake, the route descends once again into the forest and while water is available the camping isn't great until you climb back up to the Rutherford Lake area.

From Rutherford Lake, the route climbs up to Fernandez Pass (and a false pass first), and then plunges back into Yosemite towards Breeze Lake and its downstream siblings. Camping is good at the siblings. From here, descend back to Moraine Meadows, to the Chain Lakes Junction, and out across Chiquito Pass and to the trailhead.


Tips: Difficulty
When done as a 5-day hike, each day's distance is moderate (8-10 miles per day), but the altitude (mostly above 9000 feet), gain (1000-2000 feet per day) and cumulative exertion add up. Do not take this trip lightly.

Routing
Multiple starting points are possible, such as Quartz Mountain (shortest time to Chiquito Pass, but getting there involves twisty dirt Forest Service Roads); Chiquito Pass Trailhead (paved most of the way, but involving 2 extra miles and another 800' of gain/loss at the start/end); and the Norris or Fernandez Trailheads (both would add considerably to the approach hike) -- all in the Sierra National Forest south of Yosemite, making them the permitting agency.

You could also start from Mono Meadows, Glacier Point or even Yosemite Valley within Yosemite -- but these would add considerably to the hike and also to the amount of climbing involved.

Scheduling
The best time of year for this is August and September, after most of the snow has melted (and the bugs have mostly gone away).

Itinerary
My recommended itinerary (adjust or ignore as you like) would be:
Chain Lakes on night 1;
Lower Ottoway Lake on night 2;
Lake 10,000' (below Post Peak Pass, in Yosemite) on night 3;
Rutherford or Anne Lakes on night 4

... but it is hard to go wrong. The northern side of the Clark Range is full of open country and campsites everywhere. It is a good place to linger. The area between Post Peak Pass and Fernandez Pass is more forested and comparatively harder to find an excellent campsite.

Bears
Bear canisters, as always in Yosemite, are required.

Points of Interest

Parking
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Quartz Mountain Trailhead

This is the highest trailhead(8300') and has the shortest approach hike of any of the trailheads one can use for this loop. The trailhead can be reached by following Sky Ranch Road (FS10) almost all the way to the end -- just before the very end of the road, there will be a duck to the left (recognizable by a stop sign on the road to turn onto).
Junction
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Chiquito Pass (approx.)

Chiquito Pass is your entry into (or exit from) Yosemite. There is a wire fence along the park border and a wire gate to go through - please close it after you! From here there are 2 trail within Yosemite, the one you want when starting follows the ridge/fence line towards the Chain Lakes, and there is another heading directly away from the fence towards Gravelly Ford and Buck Camp.

On the return you will want to go along the fenceline and uphill towards the Quartz Mountain Trailhead - the Chiquito Pass trail heads straight away from the fence.
Junction
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Chain Lakes Junction

Go eastbound (uphill along the creek) from this junction to Chain Lakes, northwest (downhill along the creek) towards Moraine Meadows, and southbound (across the creek) towards Chiquito Pass and trailheads.

The Chain Lakes provide nice but popular camping.
Water
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Chain Lakes

The Chain Lakes make an excellent stopping point a short distance from the Chiquito Pass trailheads. This waypoint is at Lower Chain Lake, but the middle and upper lakes are reputedly even more beautiful.
Water
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South Fork Merced River

The South Fork Merced River is an indication that you are almost at Moraine Meadws -- literally; the trail junction is barely 100 yards ahead. There may not be very much water in this "river" by late season.
Junction
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Moraine Meadows Trail Junction

At Moraine Meadows, just north of the South Fork of the Merced River, go west (left if coming from the Chain Lakes junction) from this junction to go to Merced Pass, go east towards Fernandez Pass and the Breeze Lakes (if doing the loop in reverse), or south (towards the river) to go the Chain Lakes and the Chiquito Pass trailheads.
Junction
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Merced Pass Trail Junction

Head north (right when coming from Moraine Meadows) here to climb to Merced Pass. The trail will stay in the forest until you are nearly at the pass.
Viewpoint
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Merced Pass

Break out of the forest, get some views of your upcoming hiking (Red Peak and the Clark Range), and check out glacier polish around Merced Pass. A short descent will bring you to the intersection of the Red Peak Pass trail and the Ililouette Creek trail. You want to stay on the Red Peak Pass trail - go right at the junction.
Water
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Upper Merced Pass Lake

This lake provides the first reliable water since the South Fork Merced River and is a decent spot for camping. It is not directly on the trail but can be reached by just a few minutes' walk from the trail junction of the Red Peak Pass and Ililouette Creek trails. From here, the route heads north towards the Ottoway Lakes and Red Peak Pass.
Water
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Lower Ottoway Lake

Lower Ottoway Lake is a beautiful near-timberline lake with good camping, lots of water, and an amazing view.
Water
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Upper Ottoway Lake

There are actually two lakes here, and some limited camping amongst the talus. This is the last reliable water and camping before Red Peak Pass but it must be awfully windy. From here there is another 800 feet of gain to Red Peak Pass.
Viewpoint
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Red Peak Pass

At the pass, the highest trailed pass in Yosemite proper, you have an amazing view north and south. Red Peak is off to the west, and you can see all the way towards the Tuolumne Meadows region in the northeast.
Junction
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Triple Peak Fork of the Merced River

The Triple Peak Fork of the Merced River is your lowest point in a while and a short break before the next big climb. At this junction, you will head east (across the river) but there is also a northbound trail heading back towards Washburn Lake and Yosemite Valley - stay eastbound towards the other side of the valley.
Junction
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Merced River High Trail Junction

The trail from the Triple Peak Fork meets the Merced River High Trail here. This route goes southbound with even more up -- including some marvelous granite staircases -- towards Isberg and Post Peak Passes.
Water
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Lake 10K.

A giant lake in the basin below Isberg and Post Peak Passes, with incredible views and a LOT of wind. A good place to while away lunchtime and the only reliable water in the basin.
Junction
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Isberg-Post Peak Pass Junction

Heading out of Isberg Basin, you run into a trail junction towards the two passes out of Yosemite. You want the southbound trail towards Post Peak Pass, NOT the northbound trail to Isberg Pass.
Viewpoint
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On the Crest

Here you reach the crest of the Clark Range for the second time, and leave Yosemite/enter the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The trail becomes harder to follow from this point, so watch where you're going -- it starts with a spectacular walk right along the ridgeline to the south, reaching Post Peak Pass in just a short distance.

Make sure to enjoy the views of the Minarets and points east from here.
Viewpoint
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Post Peak and Post Peak Pass.

This is the second-highest point on the trip and marks the start of a long descent towards Porphyry Lake.
Water
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Porphyry Lake

Porphyry Lake and some nearby lakelets offer the first water since Lake 10K and the last easily-accessible water for a while. The trail also gets harder to follow and more overgrown from here.
Junction
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Slab Lakes Trail Junction

A hard-to-notice side trail heads off and up towards the Slab Lakes. Your route continues forward.
Junction
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Fernandez Creek Trail Junction

Finish the long slow descent from Post Peak Pass and start climbing again here, up towards Fernandez Pass. This is the last reliable water until Breeze Lakes (on the other side of Fernandez Pass) unless you take the side trip towards Rutherford or Anne Lakes.
Junction
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Rutherford Lake Trail Junction

Pass a side trail to Rutherford and Anne Lakes; this route continues straight towards Fernandez Pass.
Junction
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Fernandez Pass

Welcome back to Yosemite! The trail here is a bit tricky and ducks immediately down, rather steeply at first.
Junction
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Breeze Lakes Junction

Breeze Lake and its smaller sibling are the first opportunity for water since at least Fernandez Pass Meadows. There is a well-used (and signed) trail to the lower lake. From here, the route goes on to Moraine Meadows, the Chain Lakes, and the trailhead.
Junction
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Moraine Meadows Return

Back at the Moraine Meadows trailhead, time to head south (left) towards the South Fork Merced, the Chain Lakes, and the Chiquito Pass trailheads.
Junction
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Chain Lakes Junction (return)

On the return leg, head across the creek to go to Chiquito Pass and its trailheads, or uphill towards the Chain Lakes.
Junction
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Chiquito Pass (return)

On the return head directly away from the Yosemite Park boundary towards the Chiquito Lake/Chiquito Pass trailhead or go along the fenceline, in the same direction you started, towards Quartz Mountain trailhead.
Viewpoint
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Towards Fernandez Pass

Going up pleasant benches. Note that the trail winds along here and skips the "expected" pass for the next one, also, it takes a sudden jog. For a trail, the route here can be surprisingly non-obvious (not hard, but pay attention!).
Viewpoint
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Buena Vista Crest

Enjoy a view of the Buena Vista Crest during a rare break in the forest cover while hiking from Moraine Meadows.
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Heading up towards Lower Ottoway Lake

The forest finally opens up and the trail crosses open granite.
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Intrusion

Despite the multiple colors, it's really all granite. Enjoy some of the interesting geology of this area while hiking through it.
Viewpoint
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Ottoway Basin

Lower Ottoway Lake as seen from near Upper Ottoway Lake. The view is a good excuse to stop and catch your breath.
Viewpoint
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Red Peak Pass Switchbacks

The trail to the pass is thankfully well-graded but the price to pay is seemingly endless switchbacks.
Water
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Subalpine lake, northern Clark Range.

This lake, right by the trail, is just an example of the many wonderful places on the north side of the Clark Range. A wonderful spot to while away the time, sadly lacking in a name.
Viewpoint
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Edna Lake Canyon

This large glacial valley is below Merced and Triple Divide Peaks - Edna Lake is actually in a hanging valley above. There is decent camping in this area.
Viewpoint
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Porphyry.

The descent from Post Peak Pass has as one of its side attractions the wild, wild geology of "porphyry" which here refers to the very large chunks of dark rock scattered throughout the lighter granite giving a unique look to the rock throughout this small area.
Viewpoint
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Fernandez Pass Meadows.

Open meadows below Fernandez Pass (no water during late season).
Viewpoint
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Red Peak Bowl

The bowl on the north side of Red Peak is a giant talus bowl with fascinating views and marvelous colors.
Viewpoint
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The Minarets.

Enjoy the view of the dark, threatening Minarets off to the east towards the Sierra crest. The Minarets are made of metamorphic rock rather than the granite found through most of the Sierra, hence the dark appearance. This is the last time you'll get to see these on this route - enjoy the view!
Viewpoint
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On the trail to Fernandez Pass.

Looking down into the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Pictures in this guide taken by: steverod

Clark Range Circuit Map


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About the Author

steverod
steverod
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I've been backpacking and hiking for 20+ years, the last 15 in California (and am now a thoroughly spoiled...

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