Red Peak Pass Loop is a 50 mile hike into some of the least visited reaches and over the highest bit of official trail in Yosemite National Park. It’s a great way to combine iconic Yosemite features – Nevada Falls, Merced Lake, Half Dome or Cloud’s Rest side trip – with a more remote backcountry experience, all in a tidy loop. Since it’s more of a trip concept than a single codified trail, here are some thoughts and resources for planning in addition to my trail journal.
The Trail: I took inspiration from Jeffrey Schaffer’s Yosemite National Park Complete Hiker’s Guide, trip 75 “Glacier Point to Merced, Washburn and Ottoway Lakes.” My version starting from Yosemite Valley was almost exactly 50 miles, with a cumulative elevation gain and loss of about 11,000 feet each.
Schaffer details a clockwise loop, which was my initial plan. I really liked doing the opposite though, ending by following the Merced river, which I find more spectacular than the Illilouette. The downside, particularly if you start from the valley, is that you have further to go before a good campsite on the first day. Either way, permit availability will most likely dictate your path. You will need to specifically add Half Dome to your permit if you plan to make the side trip. As will all Yosemite backpacking, wilderness permits and approved bear canisters are mandatory.
My Actual Route: I took the John Muir Trail from Happy Isles, turning south at the junction before Nevada Falls to head up the Panorama Trail. At the next signed junction, I turned south toward the Clark Fork of the Illilouette, and then Lower Merced Pass Lake, Ottoway Lake, over Red Peak Pass (11,078 feet), and Down the Red Peak Fork of the Merced. Basically, stay left at all the signed junctions once you leave the Panorama trail, and you will end up back at Nevada Falls, 45 miles later.
My Recommended Route: I recommend beginning at Glacier Point (or Mono Meadows) heading down the Panorama trail and up the Illiloutte (counterclockwise loop), skipping the long and often very hot ascent out of the Valley. If you arrive by the bus (and do not want to pay/wait for another one), have trouble getting specific permits, or just love bonus elevation gain, start at Happy Isles as I did. Most people seem to take 5-6 days to do this trip. I easily managed it in three and a bit, but had a light pack, (less than 25 pounds with 4 days food, bear can and some water), and was still trail-strong from a summer of Pacific Crest Trail hiking.
Maps: I used the National Geographic Yosemite map, which was perfectly adequate since all the trail junctions were well marked. Bring the more detailed USGS maps, which you can download and print for free, if you plan to make any of the tempting off trail detours. I would love to go back and climb Triple Divide Peak or stay at Red Devil Lake.
When to Go: The Clark Range tends to be the last part of Yosemite to melt out in the Spring, making this a perfect late summer/early fall trip. Fall was amazing, with zero mosquitoes and much solitude. Snowstorms are a very real possibility in October though, so double check the forecast if you go as late as I did (October 9-12). September would be safer weather-wise, especially if you are planning to take more time, since forecasts get pretty inaccurate more than a few days out.
Water: Water can be scarce along the upper reaches of the Illiloutte by late summer (between Clark Fork and Lower Merced Pass Lake), so inquire at the Wilderness Center before heading out. Otherwise, water was plentiful even in October of a record drought year.
Campsite Suggestions: Clark Fork, especially for running water late in the season; multiple spots beside the Illilouette a few miles further up stream from Clark Fork; Ottoway Lake; the really pretty unnamed lake beside the trail about two miles east of Red Peak Pass or head half-mile cross country to Red Devil Lake downhill; trail junction at the Triple Peak Fork of the Merced River; and the obvious Washburn Lake, Merced Lake, and Little Yosemite Valley.
If you use the Schaffer guidebook, note that I failed to locate either of the two packer camps along the upper Merced (lots of fallen trees), and that the Moraine Dome campsite in Little Yosemite Valley is one giant burn area now.