Every year, Yosemite is visited by as many as 4 million people from around the world. Out of that 4 million, however, only about 1 percent enter the 700,000-acre wilderness that makes up 94 percent of the park’s land area. Crisscrossed by more than 800 miles of trails, this wilderness area can provide a great deal of solitude – sometimes less than a mile away from the crowds.
My dad and I recently returned from our annual backpacking trip. During our first 2 1⁄2 days in Yosemite’s backcountry, we only saw two other people. Throughout the following 24 hours, we encountered only four additional groups before exiting the wilderness on a popular trail where we met 30 additional people – not exactly anything close to a crowd by Yosemite standards.
The area we explored is what I call the Chilnualna loop. This trail either follows or parallels Chilnualna Creek for a large part of its mileage and links several lakes that either drain into the creek or are near it. This loop is linked to the Chilnualna Falls trailhead in Wawona and several trailheads along Glacier Point Road.
We started our walk at
the McGurk Meadow trailhead on Glacier Point Road, using a little-known trail through Peregoy, Westfall and Empire Meadows to pick up the loop. We made the loop, then exited the wilderness via the Chilnualna Falls trail down to Wawona, where we had parked a second car before starting the hike.
If you plan the same trip, I would recommend starting and ending the trip at the McGurk Meadow trailhead. With an elevation of 7,050 feet, it makes the trip less strenuous than starting at 4,200 feet in Wawona. Although Chilnualna Falls is one of the best lesser-known waterfalls in the park, you can easily enjoy it on a strenuous day hike and avoid the difficulty of having cars at both ends of the trail.
The Chilnualna loop includes several beautiful subalpine lakes: the four Chilnualna lakes, plus Buena Vista, Royal Arch, Johnson, Crescent and Grouse Lakes. Two of the Chilnualna lakes are located alongside the trail. They are shallow but pretty. A half mile cross-country detour to the third lake – deeper than the two that are adjacent to the trail – is worth the extra effort.
We didn’t have a chance to check out the fourth, which requires a longer detour. At 9,077 feet, Buena Vista Lake is deeper, larger and set against the dramatic, steep granite face of Buena Vista Peak. Royal Arch Lake, at 8,685 feet, is set against a background of exfoliated granite that has broken away in layers to form a giant, multilayered arch.
On the southern side of the loop, deeply blue Johnson Lake can be glimpsed from the trail but requires a short cross-country walk for a better view.
Crescent Lake is in the later stages of becoming a meadow. As it has gradually filled with sediment, the surrounding meadow has grown and the lake has become shallow and swampy. Nevertheless, it is still pretty. Small Grouse Lake is hidden in trees and hard to spot from the trail.
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The most direct access to the loop starts at the McGurk Meadow trailhead – a distance of about 7 1⁄2 miles. The less direct route we took added about 3 miles. The loop itself is about 17 miles. All in all, we walked about 37 miles, but the loop can be shortened to 32 by taking the more direct trail.
The highest elevation on the loop is about 9,200 feet, where the trail climbs the Buena Vista Crest before descending to Royal Arch Lake. In this dry year, water sources are limited between the lakes, especially in the section of trail between Bridalveil Campground and Chilnualna lakes.
The landscape varies from meadows and forest at the lower elevations to bare granite ridges near the higher lakes and some grand vistas across the peaks, domes and valleys of Central Yosemite.
Despite the dry year and distant smoke from wildfires, this was an unforgettable trip. As with all wilderness trips, the value and meaning comes from more than just the beautiful landscape – it includes the people, the experiences and the conversations that are a part of the journey.
The Chilnualna loop is a great place to share with friends and family. It’s also a great place to find solitude on the western side of Yosemite, which is closer to our home than many of the trails that start near Tuolumne Meadows.
Wilderness permits are required for all overnight trips in the Yosemite wilderness. For more information, go to www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/ wildpermits.htm or call (209) 372-0740.
For an easy day hike in the same area, the short trail to McGurk Meadow – 1.5 miles round trip – starts at the McGurk Meadow trailhead across the road from the starting point for the Chilnualna loop. With minimal elevation gain and loss, the trail leads through forest past the decaying ruins of a pioneer cabin to a large and beautiful meadow.
For a longer hike, you can continue to the grand views of Yosemite Valley from Dewey Point – a total of 8 miles round trip. In Wawona, the strenuous 8.5-mile round-trip hike to the top of Chilnualna Falls is a great early summer trip. At this point in our dry year, there is only a trickle of water flowing over the top.