Yosemite National Park, located in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, offers miles of trails for horseback riding, serene meadows, mountains towering to 14,000 feet above sea level, deep canyons, and free-flowing, pristine rivers.
Essentially, you can ride your horse on most of the 800 miles of trails in the park, unless they’re closed due to hazardous conditions. Yosemite maintains four campgrounds for campers with private stock.
The crown of the Sierras, a vast plain of meadows surrounded by lofty peaks, is Tuolumne Meadows, as a horse-friendly park within Yosemite’s boundaries. Here are two great rides from the stock camp at Tuolumne.
The Tuolumne River Trail. Take the horse access trail, and turn left (east) to the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River Trail. The trail up the Lyell Fork is the John Muir Trail; this section coincides with the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.
This is an easy first ride. Starting at an 8,600-foot elevation, there’s very little elevation gain for the first eight miles. If you access this trail from the Dog Lake parking lot, there are three bridges to cross in the first couple of miles. After the third bridge crossing, don’t turn left and follow the river, as we did; instead, go straight.
Note: If you ride from the horse camp, you’ll avoid these bridges. Watch for a sign indicating Tuolumne Lodge.
After the bridges, the gentle, flat trail generally follows the course of the Lyell Fork as it passes through wide Lyell Canyon. The river features pools, gravel bars, and cascades.
Upper Cathedral Lake. Our next ride took us to Cathedral Lake and Cathedral Peak. It’s a 5.2-mile ride from the campground to Upper Cathedral Lake, with an elevation gain of 1,000 feet.
We rode out of camp on the same trail as before, but this time turned west, riding about 1.5 miles on a fairly level trail above the campground until it intersected with the Cathedral Lake trail.
Most of the 1,000-foot elevation gain occurs in the next couple of miles after this intersection. A fair amount of this trail portion has rock stair steps.
Finally, we could see Cathedral Peak, 10,823 feet above sea level. From this angle, the peak appears to be a perfect point. At the lake, the same peak looks like an inverted horseshoe.
Shortly thereafter, we came to a point where the trail splits to upper and lower Cathedral Lakes. We selected Upper Cathedral Lake. What a picturesque spot! A virtual fairyland! Scattered around the lake are peninsulas, small inlets, and tiny islands.
You can access four other trails from the horse camp or by trailering to other parking locations in Tuolumne Meadows: Elizabeth Lake, Glen Aulin, Dog Lake, and Young Lakes.
Pre-Trip Prep Tips
- Gather information. Click here for general Yosemite National Park information. Click here for a topographic map, Yosemite National Park and Vicinity (Wilderness Press).
- Make advance reservations. Reserve your spot at the horse camp well in advance through the National Park Reservation Service: (800) 436-PARK . Each site at Tuolumne can accommodate six people and six horses.
- Acclimate your horse. Reserve enough days at the camp to acclimate your horse to the elevation.
- Bring your own feed. Bring horse feed; grazing at the stock campground is prohibited. Weed-free hay is encouraged, but not required.
To go to Yosemite Park's website, click here.
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada.