This delightful trip takes you through some of the most accessible and spectacular parts of Yosemite's High Country and its glacier-carved landscapes. It can be done as either an "independent" backpacking trip or through Yosemite's High Sierra Camps, providing meals and shelter at the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp in-season.
You start out from the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Permit Station and head towards the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River; shortly after crossing the river, head east (away from the campground), and you'll soon run into the return leg of the trip, coming down from Rafferty Creek/Vogelsang. Continue straight, along the John Muir/Pacific Crest Trail towards Lyell Canyon and Donohue Pass. The route continues through the remarkably flat and lovely Lyell Canyon until its junction with Ireland Creek. Enjoy the fields of wildflowers through the canyon, especially in early summer.
Once you reach the Ireland Creek Junction, you leave the John Muir Trail and turn towards Vogelsang and Ireland Lake. You are soon reminded that you're in the mountains as the trail climbs up, up, up through the forest to the top of the ridge between Lyell Canyon and Rafferty Creek, gaining an expansive view of the Cathedral Range at the top of the ridge. Towards the top of the ridge there are numerous places for camping but there are only a few places with readily accessible water.
From the top of the ridge, it's a slow drift downwards past a number of lakes to Vogelsang High Sierra Camp: both Lake 10,425 and Evelyn Lake offer nice, if windy, campsites and views towards the center of the Cathedral Range. After Evelyn Lake, you descend grassy benches on the way into Vogelsang High Sierra Camp. Vogelsang Peak is a popular side excursion from here, although you should be comfortable going off-trail and doing some rock scrambling (the route starts by following the trail towards Vogelsang Pass).
From the High Sierra Camp, the trail drops to Tuolumne Pass and then gently descends the valley of Rafferty Creek until a last drop to meet the Tuolumne River and the trail you started on. Cross the river and head back to the permit station to finish the hike.
This trip is doable during the summer and early fall, roughly from July through October, with August and early September being the perfect time for the hike. July brings green meadows and lots of mosquitos, late September brings very chilly nights and no services at the trailhead.
The trailhead is just off the Tioga Pass Road in the Tuolumne Meadows region of Yosemite; this is a summer hub of activity for the park and a beautiful place to visit. If you are carless, there are shuttle services to Tuolumne Meadows.
For an independent backpacking trip, a hiking permit is required; permits can either be reserved up to 6 months in advance or obtained the day before first-come-first-served. For the described hike, you will enter via Lyell Canyon, or the hike can be reversed, entering via Vogelsang. The reversed hike has a more steady climb up front versus the long, flat approach via Lyell Canyon. Saturday permits are hard to grab first-come-first-serve during the summer, except possibly during early season - be prepared to show up at the Permit Office as soon as it opens the day before.
As a High Sierra Camp trip, you will need to enter a lottery for places, usually in February. See the High Sierra Camp page for more information.
Weather-wise, expect warm days and cool nights; temperatures in the 40F range are common even at the height of summer, while it can warm up to 85F at the height of summer.
Bears are active day and night, and bear-resistant food canisters are required.