By Land and By River: Yosemite Backpacking at May Lake and Mt. Hoffman

Tioga Road ferries thousands of RV’s, car-campers, and tourists across Yosemite.  Its smooth asphalt and expansive vistas invite even the most urban visitor to appreciate their surroundings and feel connected to nature. But as we turned off Tioga onto the two-mile, one-land road to the May Lake trailhead, we could sense we were entering into a different part of Yosemite. At the trailhead, we shared a parking lot with High Sierra campers, equestrians, and all different kinds of intrepid explorers. With our packs cinched up and full of clothes, food, and bear canisters, we hit the trail for our 1.2 mile climb to the lake.

A pensive Cynthia looks across May Lake

Perched in the High Sierras and in the shadow of Mount Hoffman, May Lake is so still and clear that it almost seems fake. We broke for lunch on its secluded side, appreciative of the calm, contemplative setting. As we rested near shore, we chatted and watched merganser ducks swim back and forth. It was only a few hours into our trip, but already our surroundings made us feel differently. In fact, the setting was so peaceful that we almost lost track of our other plans: to find a campsite and then set off for the formidable Mount Hoffman.

One of the most exciting parts about backpacking in the High Sierra of Yosemite is that you can choose almost anywhere to break camp. Although there is a backpackers’ camp established on the shore of May Lake, we preferred to find a campsite that felt more like our own. With total trust in our lead guide Ryan from YExplore, we trekked a mile off trail, past forest and meadow and dry creek beds, until we reached a wide open granite site overlooking miles of Yosemite valleys and peaks. Immediately, we knew we were home.

By now, it was already 3pm in the afternoon, and our largest task still loomed: Mount Hoffman. So we set up our tents, secured our bear canisters, and retraced our steps towards May Lake.  At an elevation of 10,845 feet, Mount Hoffman dominates the sky above May Lake. To reach the summit from the lake, you have to climb 1,600 feet over three miles. We began our ascent with determination to summit and return before nightfall. The first third of the hike follows trails through forest, but soon enough we were scrambling up loose granite, with no trail in sight.


As difficult as the hike upwards was, it only took a moment to look around and realize how special this place was. As our paces slowed, we made sure that each hiker could see the person  behind and ahead them – that way,  no one would be left behind. Slowly but surely, our group ascended the middle, rocky portion of the Mount Hoffman hike. Soon enough we were above the tree line, almost high enough to see the summit. We were finally approaching Mount Hoffman’s most famous residents: marmots! Although a few of us had seen marmots before, it’s safe to say that no one in our party had seen that many marmots at once. Within this place so barren of other life forms, almost everywhere we looked there was a furry, brown creature scurrying across the ridge or chewing on roots. It was a very special experience to be so high above the world, in a desolate, rocky landscape, but with dozens of marmots roaming around.

Finally, a couple hours after we had left May Lake, our party crossed a ridge and we could see the summit.  We carefully navigated a treacherous boulder field which required us to use all four limbs to climb and maneuver and manipulate our bodies up towards the summit. And then, up in the thin air, we reached our goal: the summit of Mount Hoffman.

Atop Mount Hoffman, proud and tired
Atop Mount Hoffman, proud and tired

We celebrated and took in the views, which offered us a 360 degree perspective of Yosemite National Park and the Tuolumne watershed. We admired familiar landmarks like Half Dome. And then, still determined to beat the sunset, we began our descent. As you might guess, the trip down Mount Hoffman was not nearly as daunting as the trip up. We took each step with extra caution, careful not to slip on loose rocks, but our bodies thanked us with the decrease of each hundred feet of elevation. A little over an hour later, we were back within sight of May Lake.

Back at camp that night, we relaxed, unwound, and enjoyed some of the most satisfying tacos we had ever had (prepared by our incredible guides Ryan and Tim!). We chatted about all things from yoga, water diversions, to the history of Yosemite Valley. Most importantly, we appreciated how connected we were to the environment, sitting atop granite slabs, breathing in High Sierra air, and listening to the sounds of the nearby forests. Everyone slept soundly that night, proud of their summit and content with their place under the stars.

We woke up to peach crepes and instant coffee, reenergized and nostalgic for yesterday’s adventure.  looking-down-on-may-lakeSome of us spent the morning hiking; others rested their sore lower bodies. Eventually, we broke down camp and hiked the 2.5 miles back to the parking lot where our journey had begun. And as we slowly drove down that pothole-filled, one-lane road towards Tioga Road, we were each slightly different people: less stressed, more connected, and appreciative that we are all part of this beautiful world.