May Lake
Credit: The Last Adventurer

Yosemite. The very word conjures many mystic and awe-inspiring mental pictures. But, in 2014, the word has also taken on some negative connotations because it has come to mean “crowds” in the minds of some people, as Yosemite is one of the most popular national parks in the United States. Sadly, certain areas of Yosemite will always remain crowded as it and the great outdoors are more popular than ever; but as Yosemite is as large as Rhode Island, and ninety-five percent of that area is designated as wilderness, there are many more areas of the park that will always remain empty. One of the best hikes with the best views in the park won’t be found in any mainstream guidebook, and it isn’t found in the popular Yosemite Valley. The best hike for hikers of all skill levels in Yosemite can be found in the geographic center of the park, far from the valley crowds. It heads up to a high alpine lake, and for those willing to scramble a bit, the hike provides amazing views of the entirety of Yosemite and a good portion of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. 

YosemiteThe Last Adventurer

This hike is the May Lake hike to Mt. Hoffmann, and if solitude and stunning views weren’t enough of a selling point for the hike, it can also be completed as a short two-day backpacking trip. The latter option is also a great way to beat the crowds present in Yosemite: rather than staying in one of the busy National Park Service campgrounds around the park, one can obtain a backcountry wilderness permit for May Lake, and backpack to the lake for a night – or longer. While backpacking is not for everyone, and does require a certain set of gear, including bear canisters, the trek into May Lake is only 1.25 miles one-way. The May Lake trek is therefore also a great spot for an introductory backpack as it is a short distance that allows for trial-and-error, and a route that ends at a scenic destination. The main difference between attempting the hike in one day or more is that for multiple days, one needs to obtain a wilderness permit, whereas day hikers can head up to the lake and the mountain without a permit.

Irrespective of whether one is attempting the May Lake – Mount Hoffmann traverse in one day or two days, the trailhead is at the same spot, slightly off of Highway 120, or as it is known in Yosemite, the Tioga Pass Road. Visitors to the park should be aware that from November to mid-June, and in some years, July, the road is closed due to snow conditions. The National Park Service does a great job of plowing the road, and a great job at keeping visitors informed about when the road will open via its website. If you are planning on visiting the park during this period of time, you will want to check if the road is open before attempting this hike.

The turnoff to May Lake is well signed and marked from the Tioga Pass Road, and the trailhead is located at the end of a short graded dirt road. From the parking area, one immediately feels the serenity and solitude of the real Yosemite that John Muir experienced many years ago. The trail is located on the West side of the parking area, next to a series of seasonal pools. The trail departs the parking area, and begins to wind up through a stand of trees, toward the looming granite mass of Mount Hoffmann. Over the course of the next mile and a quarter (1.25) to May Lake, the views of the park gradually become more and more impressive. While this is a short distance, it is worth noting that the route may feel difficult due to the elevation present. The route starts at 8,710 feet, and at the lake, the elevation is 9,270 feet. Further, visitors should be aware that while they may be attempting the hike during the summer months, due to the elevation present, there may be snow along the route, and around the lake itself.

Mt. HoffmannThe Last Adevnturer

After a mile, the trail switchbacks through a stand of trees, and the hiker is left with stunning views of the lake, which is always a deep blue color. At this point, depending on how you are feeling, you can either sit back and enjoy the views around the lake, or continue on to summit Mount Hoffmann. From the edge of the lake, the trail heads directly along the West side, before ascending up the slopes of Mount Hoffmann for another mile and three quarters (1.75 miles). While the first section of the climb from the lake is well marked, the mid-section of the climb does require some scrambling over large granite boulders. The payoff for the scrambling is stunning, as one finds themselves on top of the mountain, with amazing three hundred and sixty degree views of the park, and the surrounding terrain, including May Lake below. Once you are done enjoying the view, you will want to descend the way you came, for a six mile roundtrip hike, or, if you stay at the lake, a 2.5 mile roundtrip hike. In my opinion, this is one of the best hikes in the park, even if you stay at the lake and one of the best views in the park if you climb the mountain. It is a hike and climb that generally provides solitude, so whether you hike this route in a day, or in two, be sure to enjoy it as John Muir did.

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