Solo backpacking in Yosemite: A first-timer’s experience

TLDR: If you’re considering a solo backpacking trip: you should do it!


I grew up hearing stories of my audacious Dad solo-trekking through Yosemite as a twenty-something. Having an itch to be a more bold twenty-something, I decided I would follow in my father’s footsteps and embark on a solo-backpacking trip to the famed El Capitan in Yosemite Valley.

1. Educate Yourself

The first move I made is to understand what essential gear and skills I would need to make sure I came back to San Francisco unscathed. To do this, I turned to my trusty friend REI ,who provide a comprehensive set of posts on backpacking for beginners.

One evening after work I waltzed into the San Francisco REI and approached a store employee at random — it so happened I found an ex-park ranger who served time in Yosemite. This led to a rich and educational hour which I came out of with a list of essential gear, an ideal trail for a first timer and most importantly, the confidence that I could do this and have an amazing time.

Since Yosemite is such a popular backpacking destination, the park limits the number of people that can enter a given trailhead each day. It may be annoying to have your ideal starting trailhead booked up, but this process ensures that everyone gets the remote backcountry experience they’re after. The process for reserving a backpacking permit is fairly straightforward. This page has all the information you will need.

2. Practice, Practice, Practice

I know it may sound kind of stupid, but going through a dry run of all the backpacking procedures at home I found confidence boosting.

  • Set up your tent at home
  • Practice using your water filtration system of choice
  • Experiment with different methods of packing your backpack

3. Final Gear Check

Before hopping in the car and making the journey to your trail, lay out all of your gear and supplies to make sure you have everything you need to be safe and have a good time.

Getting There

I took off on Friday evening after work and headed for the North Pines backpackers campground.

I arrived to the campground around midnight. There are a few parking spots in the back of the North Pines campground that backpackers can use to unload their cars (the backpackers campground is a 5 minute walk from Upper Pines campground.) After unloading you have to park in the Half Dome Village parking lot (a 15 minute walk from the backpackers campground.) There tends to be a lot of noise as campers are setting up/tearing down their sites at all hours of the night. I wouldn’t count on a quality nights sleep here, especially on a Friday.

Morning after view of the North Pines Backpackers Campground

After picking up my backpacking permit from the Yosemite Valley Wilderness Center (Opens daily at 8AM), I was finally ready to start my trek.

The Trail

I stepped off at the Old Big Oak Flat Road trailhead, and strolled through a pleasant and relatively flat 4 miles until I reached the Cascade Creek crossing for a nice GORP break.

From here, the fun begins. The next 3 miles gain about 2000 feet of elevation after which things level out and you begin a nice stroll through Ribbon Meadow. The meadow provides a serene backdrop for the last 2 miles of the 9 mile journey to Ribbon Creek.

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Getting tired of climbing…

Setting Up Camp

A group of hikers I passed told me about the best spots to set up camp near El Capitan. Following their advice I decided to post up near Ribbon Creek for easy access to water. I recommend hiking about 5 minutes past the Ribbon Creek crossing before setting up camp. The mosquitoes may not endorse this decision, but your skin will thank you later! There are a number of pre-existing camp sites on either side of the trail. I headed uphill and found a nice granite slab to set up camp. Later in the evening I found a few spots downhill from the trail (closer to ribbon creek).

A flat granite slab is the perfect place to set up camp

After setting up camp, I hiked the additional mile out to the summit of El Capitan for some incredible views.

After dinner I headed to Ribbon Creek and found myself wandering downstream. The farther I went, the farther I wanted to go. Little did I realize Ribbon Creek drops off into Ribbon Falls — an awe-inspiring and welcome surprise. I highly recommend this detour.

My campsite had a fire ring already set up and a healthy supple of kindling, so I took advantage and indulged in a fire as the sun set and the moon began to dominate the landscape.

The next morning, I enjoyed a sunrise breakfast of hot oatmeal and coffee by Ribbon Creek and packed up to begin a reluctant journey back to civilization. After almost ten miles of descent in the hot hot sun, I was stoked to be back at my car.

Evidence of a good night out in the woods
  1. If you’re on the fence about a solo backpacking trip I urge you to go for it. I was nervous about being out on my own, but the confidence I gained from my research and preparation pushed me through my apprehension. If anything, I hope that this post is evidence that with the right planning, anyone can take on a solo-adventure.
  2. A night out on your own is a soul-cleansing experience. Although I came back to San Francisco dirty and scratched up, I felt refreshed. The time alone coupled with inspiring scenery is a recipe for healthy self-reflection. For me, this trip helped me develop some strategies to manage anxieties that have been pestering me for the past few months.
  3. Make preparations to enjoy yourself. My ultimate goal was to have a good time out there. I did some small things that I think really helped with that. I brought a comfortable camping chair, cooked up a delicious dinner (chili mac n’ cheese), and made sure I had my favorite treat of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup for the end of the day (hey, it’s the small things in life!) Think about what’s going to make you happy at the end of a long day and bring it along! As long as it’s not too heavy…

— Update: 12-03-2023 — found an additional article Is it Safe To Hike Alone In Yosemite? from the website for the keyword solo hiking yosemite.

Solo hiking yosemite

Yosemite National Park is a massive national park with many beautiful trails, stunning waterfalls, raging rivers, and diverse wildlife. However, within this beautiful landscape lies challenging trails with extreme exposure, towering waterfalls, rivers that rise with the seasons, and dangerous wild animals. With all of that, is it safe to hike by yourself in Yosemite?

It is safe to hike in Yosemite alone if you research your hiking trail, check the weather beforehand, bring a layering system to help you adapt with changing elements, carry enough water and food, and know what to do if you encounter bears, cougars, or other wild animals.

The alluring beauty of Yosemite attracts millions of visitors per year, but with that many visitors the odds of lost hikers, accidents on the trail, and unlucky encounters with wild animals are high. There are many things you can watch out for and things you can do to prepare to help you hike alone in Yosemite with less worry and be able to enjoy your hike.

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Things to Watch Out For

Solo hiking yosemite

To make it safer to hike in Yosemite alone, there are a few key things you should be aware of and watch out for during your hikes. I have been to Yosemite a handful of times and each time I go there the experience is different whether it be from the changing weather, an unexpected encounter with wildlife, or surprising difficulty of a trail.


The first thing to watch out for in Yosemite is the wildlife. Yosemite is home to black bears, deer, big horn sheep, foxes, and more. The encounters with these animals are incredibly rare, but something to keep in mind as you plan your trip.


The next thing to be mindful of in Yosemite is the weather. Yosemite is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range which has massive elevation changes on trails. The high elevation and mountainous terrain can create quickly changing weather. You can start the day hiking in the heat of the sun only to be completely rained on in a few hours.

Trail Difficulty

As you are looking into the details of your adventures, there are two things you should consider. The first thing to consider when picking trails is the distance and the next thing to look at is the elevation change. Some trails can be short, but have a large elevation change. The elevation change combined with the heat from the sun can make for some difficult hiking.


Once you have the bigger picture on the trails you want to hike, the next thing to look into is the changing terrain. There are some trails that require crossing rivers, bridges, or going alongside massive waterfalls. All of these things present their own unique challenges and danger. Some trails also have extreme exposure as you make your watch up switchbacks to reach your destination. Looking at trail reports and trail descriptions will help you figure out any tricky terrain to watch out for.

Can you hike in Yosemite without Reservation?Since Yosemite is one of the most beautiful national parks in the world, it attracts millions of visitors per year. With such a large number of people interested in visiting, the National Park Service has implemented a entrance reservation system via during busy season. If you do not have computer access than you can attempt to make a reservation by calling 877-444-6777.

You cannot hike in Yosemite without reservation between May 20 to September 30th. You will need to book a reservation for an entrance permit in order to enter the park and hike. Seventy percent of all reservations for those dates become available in March. Each person can make a single reservation for a three-day period.

The exception to the entrance reservation is if you are able to get a wilderness permit for backpacking or obtain Half Dome permits. You are still required to pay the car entrance fee of $35.

Can I hike Half Dome Alone?

Solo hiking yosemite

One of the most iconic features of Yosemite is Half Dome. This makes Half Dome one of the most desirable and popular trails to hike in the park. Half Dome is one of the toughest hikes in the park at over 16 miles total round trip and takes hikers over 4,800 feet in elevation gain.

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You can hike Half Dome alone as long as you get the required Half Dome permits. The end of the Half Dome hike boasts the infamous cables. The cables help hikers scale a 45-degree slope. You can get a harness to strap yourself into the cables to make yourself much safer during the ascent and descent.

How You Can Get Permits to Hike Half Dome Alone

You need to obtain Half Dome permits to day hike the trail. Permits are required seven days per week when the cables are up. The cables are typically up the weekend before Memorial Day in May to the second Monday in October. The National Park Service only allows 225 day hikers and 75 backpackers to use the cables each day.

You can obtain a permit by entering the lottery on The lottery opens up in March and typically fill up quickly. If you are looking to backpack you can obtain a wilderness permit that includes Half Dome. The wilderness permits are typically less competitive than the day hiking permits.

The results of the Half Dome lottery are announced in the middle of April and are sent via email. In addition to the preseason lottery there also exists daily lottery which is to distribute extra spots and canceled permits.

Is it safe to camp alone in Yosemite?

Solo hiking yosemite

Despite the many obstacles and variety of wildlife you can encounter during your visit to Yosemite, it is safe to camp alone in Yosemite. The campsites are well established and many have bear lockers to help with food storage. If you are camping at a site with no bear lockers then bear cannisters are required.

When camping you want to make sure you collect all trash, items with scent, and food items and place them in bear lockers or bear cannisters. There are many curious squirrels, bears, and deer that will not hesitate to chew through your pack or tent to find food.

Our Favorite Bear Cannister:

Campsite Reservations

Reservations for Yosemite campsites fill up quickly. Reservations are required for all campgrounds and there are no first-come, first-served campgrounds.

To reserve a campground, head to The reservations are available one month at a time and up to five months earlier on the 15th day of each month at 7 in the morning pacific time. For the busy months between May through September almost all campsites are booked immediately.

Your best bet to get a campsite reservation is to check five months before you plan to visit and try to book on the 15th day. While there are some cancellations, you would have to check every single morning in hopes of an opening. I have had some luck with cancellations, however I had to check consistently for two weeks straight.

Final Thoughts

The beauty and allure of Yosemite is worth visiting alone. Despite many challenges and obstacles you will face visiting by yourself, you will see the most stunning sights and have a fantastic outdoor experience. Yosemite National Park is one of my favorite outdoor spaces in the world.

If you research your trails, layer up, carry extra water and food, and know what to do during wildlife encounters then you can confidently and safely hike Yosemite alone.

More Helpful Resources

  • What airport do you fly into for Yosemite National Park?
  • Are there bears in Yosemite? What to Do If You See Them
  • What to bring to Yosemite in Summer


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About the Author: Tung Chi