Jagged granite peaks. Direct views of Half Dome. Serene wilderness. Offering all of this, plus more, the North Dome trail can be considered one of the best-hidden gems in Yosemite, especially if you’re looking for a beginner-friendly backpacking trail.
While most visitors crowd around the Yosemite Valley, only a few people venture out on Tioga Road to explore the back end of Yosemite where the North Dome trail is located.
This means incredible nature, very few people, and easy to get backpacking permits.
Only 10 miles in length, round trip, North Dome Trail can be done as a day hike, or as a quick overnight backcountry trip.
If you’re thinking about hiking or backpacking the North Dome trail, here is our guide covering everything you need to know:
- Quick Trail Facts
- Trail Description
- Wilderness Permits
- Where To Park
- What To Bring
- Water Sources
- When To Go
- Photography Tips
Quick Trail Facts
Before we dive into details, here is a quick overview of the North Dome trail in Yosemite:
- Trail Name: Porcupine Creek to Indian Rock to North Dome
- Length: 10.5 miles
- Trail Difficulty: Moderate
- Starting Point: Porcupine Creek Trailhead
- Starting Elevation: 8100 feet
- Destination Point: North Dome
- Destination Elevation: 7500 feet
- Where To Camp: Right before North Dome (wilderness permit is required to camp in Yosemite’s backcountry)
Porcupine Creek to North Dome trail is a relatively easy, straight forward hiking trail, but there are a couple stops and turns that I want to note if you plan to hike it.
The most popular stops along this trail are:
- Indian Arch
- Indian Rock
- North Dome
North Dome trail starts at the Porcupine Creek trailhead and heads directly into a forest along a wide path. Shortly after, it turns into a narrow dirt trail that is sometimes difficult to spot, especially when hiking across bare granite rocks.
We used a combination of AllTrails and Maps.Me hiking apps to keep track of the North Dome trail. Surprisingly, we even had reception along this trail once we hiked out of the forest and neared North Dome’s destination.
This trail is unique from most hiking trails because it starts at a higher elevation and climbs down.
There are some hills along this trail so you’ll be going up and down (but mostly down) until you reach North Dome.
North Dome trail is around 10.5 miles in length including several side detours to Indian Arch and Indian Rock. If you want to shorten the trail, you can skip these sights and head directly to North Dome.
Map of North Dome Trail:
If you have the extra time (and energy), I highly recommend stopping by Indian Arch. You will see a detour sign for Indian Arch about 2.8 miles into the trail.
The detour to Indian Arch is only 0.3 miles long, but it is very steep so take your time. The best view of the Indian Arch is located behind it so make sure to hike and explore around it.
From Indian Arch, you can keep going along the trail to Indian Rock, however, this section is not as impressive. We ended up losing the route and scrambling around giant boulders with our heavy backpacks on. But once we made it to the top of Indian Rock, it was a great place to take a lunch break and enjoy panoramic views of Yosemite.
After a quick break, we ventured back to the main North Dome trail and continued along the route. It’s another 1.6 miles from the Indian Arch turnoff point until you reach North Dome but you start seeing stunning views of Yosemite Valley well before it.
As we hiked closer, the views just kept getting better and better.
From the North Dome trail, you will see direct views of Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and Yosemite Valley.
About a mile from the North Dome destination, the forest line will clear and you will need to hike across giant granite slabs. There will be steep 8000 feet drop-offs all around you but there is plenty of flat space for hikers to stay safe.
The last mile goes steeply down towards the end of the trail. Some parts even have metal rods placed into the rock to assist hikers as you scramble down on bare granite rocks.
Once we made it down this steep surface, we reached a beautiful forest where we set up our camp. We were happy to leave our heavy backpacks at the campsite as we went on to explore this area.
From our campsite, we walked over to the end of the trail that sits at the edge of North Dome. All the hard work had finally paid off and we were surrounded by jaw-dropping views of Yosemite National Park all around us.
We’ve hiked and backpacked multiple trails in Yosemite and this hike, by far, offers some of the best views around. If you plan to day hike Porcupine Creek to North Dome trail, 10 miles is a long way to go, but it’s well worth the effort.
After enjoying the views we ventured back to our campsite to settle in and make dinner. Without a doubt, we scored one of the best campsites in this area with a direct view of Half Dome right in front of us.
The next morning we ate a quick breakfast and started heading back out before it got too hot. On the first day, we were mostly climbing downhill to North Dome so on our second day we were facing a steep climb back up. The first mile was the hardest but at least we got that out of the way right off the bat.
Overall I would say that this was one of my favorite backpacking and hiking trips that we’ve done in California. The views are just incredible and the route isn’t too long or overly difficult, especially if you break it down into a two-day backpacking trip.
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If you’re planning to day-hike Porcupine Creek Trail to North Dome, you don’t need a wilderness permit. But if you plan to spend the night camping anywhere along the North Dome trail, you will need to reserve an overnight Yosemite backpacking permit before your trip.
The wilderness permit process this year (2020) is a bit different from previous years. In the past, we would show up at the Yosemite Wilderness Center in the morning and see what walk-in permits are available for the day but this year due to Coronavirus all backcountry permits have to be reserved online. This just means that you’ll have to plan ahead of time a little bit more than before.
Here is the process to reserve a Yosemite Wilderness Permit online:
Step 1. Check For Available Dates
Before you reserve your Yosemite Wilderness Permit, you will need to see what dates are available for the route that you plan to backpack. You can check available dates on the Yosemite page here.
- For the region select “Tioga Road“.
- For entry trailhead select “Porcupine Creek”.
- Then select “Hide Fully Booked Dates”.
This will show all the available dates to backpack the Porcupine Creek to the North Dome trail. You may notice that the dates cut off in mid-October. After October Tioga Road becomes inaccessible until May or June.
Step 2. Submit A Yosemite Wilderness Permit Request Form
If there are spots available, the next step is to submit a request for a backpacking permit.
You can access the Yosemite Wilderness Permit Request Form here.
To begin the reservation process, you will need to know:
- Hike Start Date: whichever day you choose from the available dates
- Trailhead Region: Tioga Road
- Trailhead Entry: Porcupine Creek
- Hike End Date: The date you want to come back out
- Exit Trailhead: Porcupine Creek
- Number In Party: depends on how many spots are available and how many people you want to bring
- 1st Night’s Camp Location: North Dome
- Trip Leader Contact Information: your contact email and phone
You must fill out the permit request form perfectly because once you submit it, you can’t make changes to your itinerary. It can take a few days for the permit request to get approved so make sure not to put it off until the last minute.
Step 3. Submit Payment
Once your permit reservation has been approved, you will receive an email with payment instructions.
We paid $15 for the North Dome permit online and then we received an email with the payment receipt. Note that this is still not the official permit and there are a couple more steps you will need to take.
Step 4. Attend A Zoom Call With A Wilderness Ranger
Before your trip, you will receive an email with instructions on how to join an hour-long group zoom call with a Wilderness Ranger. This is a new step that was implemented starting in 2020 to ensure all backpackers are prepared for their trip and know what to expect.
The ranger will go over some general guidelines and “leave no trace” practices on how to be a more responsible hiker and backpacker. These zoom calls take place twice a day and YOU HAVE TO DO IT but don’t put it off until the last minute. You have to complete the zoom call no later than 3 days before your trip to receive your official permit in time.
At the end of the zoom call, you will receive a code. You will need to enter the given code in a form online along with your permit ID number and other info. Then you will receive the official wilderness permit in an email – Woohoo!
Step 5. Print Your Permit And Parking Pass
Phew! You’re almost done! The last step is to print your wilderness permit and your parking pass.
You will need to carry your wilderness permit with you on your backpacking trip AT ALL TIMES! If you’re caught in Yosemite backcountry camping without a permit, you will get a hefty fine. Just having it on your phone or in your car is not enough.
You will need to show your wilderness permit and your photo ID at the entrance to get into Yosemite National Park.
It costs $35 for a Yosemite entrance pass that you can pay for at the gate. Make sure to print your parking pass and to leave it on your dashboard along with the entrance pass when you head out into the trail.
I know this sounds like a lot of information, but if you plan ahead of time and give yourself plenty of time to prepare, it won’t feel too overwhelming. Just make sure to read all of your emails and guidelines so you don’t accidentally skip a step!
If you’re planning to backpack the North Dome trail, there are some incredible backcountry campsites along this route.
The best campsites are located towards the end of the trail, just before you reach North Dome. There are multiple established campsites in a forest around North Dome where you can set up your tent for the night.
When picking a camping site, make sure to set up your tent in a flat spot away from the trail and any water sources. DO NOT create a new site by disturbing growing vegetation or meadows.
For being a short backpacking trip, you get rewarded with some of the best camping spots overlooking Half Dome and Yosemite National Park right out of your tent. I can’t imagine a better place to fall asleep than at one of the most beautiful locations in the world.
Tip: If you need somewhere to stay the night before your backpacking trip, Yosemite Village has a designated area for backpackers next to the Upper Pines Campground.
It costs $6 per person to stay at the Backpacker’s Campground and you can pay this fee in cash upon arrival. You don’t need a special reservation to stay there – your backpacking permit allows you to say at this campground one night before your trip and one night after your trip.
Where To Park
To hike the North Dome trail, you will need to park at the Porcupine Creek Trailhead. There is a designated parking lot off Tioga Road where hikers and overnight backpackers can leave their cars. This parking lot is paved and even has a pit toilet, trashcans, and bear lockers right by the trailhead entrance.
If you plan to leave your car at this trailhead overnight, make sure to leave your parking pass and entrance pass visible in your windshield. Before you head out on the trail make sure to remove any food or scented items from your car and place them in the bear lockers.
What To Bring
We hiked the North Dome trail in late August and the weather just perfect during our trip- not too hot and not too cold. If you’re wondering what essentials you should bring, here is the packing list for our North Dome backpacking trip.
Our favorite ultralight tent for backpacking trips like this is the MSR Carbon Reflex 2.
We have written a detailed post on why it’s one of the best tents for backpacking but essentially it’s extremely easy to set up, it is surprisingly roomy inside, and it is the lightest tent that we’ve ever used.
The MSR Carbon Reflex 2 weighs just under 2 pounds so it’s the tent we use every time we’re going on a backpacking trip when shedding any weight possible will help make the hike faster and more enjoyable. This is essential for any hike that has a large elevation gain and any extra weight we carry really gets our legs burning.
I’m not a very good sleeper when it comes to camping and backpacking trips, but one thing that has recently made a huge difference for me is using a blow-up sleeping pad with a pillow for extra cushion. Before, we used roll-up sleeping pads that took up a lot of room and didn’t make it that much more comfortable. After switching to a blow-up sleeping pad I am now getting a lot better sleep when camping on hard surfaces.
North Dome is located at 8000 feet in elevation so it can get chilly up in the mountains, depending on when you plan to hike this trail. For sleeping bags, I love the Co-Op Magma 15 from REI. It keeps me warm during our backpacking trips, it compresses super small, it’s easy to pack up, and doesn’t weight too much. Overall, it’s a pretty versatile sleeping bag so you can use it in all types of conditions from beach camping to high mountain hikes – perfect for California!
For backcountry trips, I have a 65 L pack that is a great heavy-duty beginner/intermediate pack. It is made of durable materials and has plenty of space to pack everything for a 2-3 day backpacking trip including a bear canister and cold-weather clothing (if needed).
But my pack is on the heavier side to accommodate for the extra room and a sturdier frame to distribute the weight better. If you’re looking for something a bit lighter I suggest going with an ultralight backpack like the REI Flash 55 Pack that is highly customizable and weighs only 2 lbs.
My husband has the men’s Flash 55 Pack version and he absolutely loves it!
On a long hiking or backpacking trip having a good pair of hiking boots is essential. There is nothing worse than a pair of boots that are too small, rub your feet or cause blisters. I highly recommend getting a pair of over-the-ankle boots like these Vasque ones.
On this trail, there will be sections that go over granite rocks, steep hills, and giant boulders. Over-the-ankle boots prevent your ankles from rolling and potentially getting injured when your feet become tired.
Cooking Set Up
If you plan to camp at North Dome overnight, you will need a small camping stove with a burner to make your dinner and breakfast.
We use this type of camping stove on our backpacking trips. It works pretty great and we use it to make quick meals like rice with beans, oatmeal, and coffee in just a few minutes. Note that you’ll need to buy the gas canister separately but you can get that at most outdoor stores.
Recently, I also started dehydrating backpacking snacks. My favorite snacks to dehydrate are fruit, especially bananas, kiwis, and apples. It’s the perfect little snack on the trail and adds a bit more flavor to our breakfast oatmeal.
Read Next: How To Dehydrate Fruit The Easy Way
To backpack in Yosemite, you will need to buy or rent a bear canister. We usually go on multiple backpacking trips a year so we finally dished out the money to purchase the BearVault BV500 canister this year.
If you’re new to backpacking, you can also rent a bear canister from Yosemite Wilderness Center for $5 per week (plus a deposit). But do note that the Wilderness Center hours in Yosemite are limited right now from 9 am to 1 pm. If you want to start your backpacking trip early in the morning, you will need to rent it the day before or purchase one.
The weather during our Yosemite backpacking trip in August was warm the entire time. Your packing list might change depending on the season, but here are a few things that I recommend to bring clothing-wise:
- Shorts. It was really warm during our hike so I highly recommend wearing shorts during the day.
- Leggins or sweats. It cooled down towards the evening so I changed into a pair of leggings for sleeping at night.
- Long sleeve shirt. I always pack a long sleeve top or a jacket for the evening just in case.
- Hiking socks. You’ll want to wear a good pair of hiking socks that won’t rub blisters on your feet and won’t make your feet sweat. I personally like the Darn Tough merino wool socks.
- Hat & sunglasses to cover up from the sun during the day.
- Sections of the North Dome trail are hot and exposed to sun offering little to no shade so a strong sunscreen is a must.
- Wipes to clean off dust and dirt at the end of the day but don’t worry – hot showers are available in Yosemite Valley at the end of the hike.
- Backpacking shovel to go to the bathroom in the wilderness.
- To-go toilet paper. Note that all toilet paper in Yosemite wilderness needs to be packed and carried out – do not burry it.
- Travel toothbrush & toothpaste set.
- Headlamp for when it gets dark.
- Battery charger. To keep your phone charged.
- First aid kit for emergencies & blisters.
- Advil in case you start feeling pain from the hike.
- Small trash bag to carry out any trash.
One of the most important factors to note about the North Dome hike is that there are no water sources along the trail – at least not in late summer when we hiked it. There were a couple of dry streams that we crossed at the beginning of the trail, but they had no water in them.
If you’re planning to hike or backpack the North Dome trail, be prepared to bring plenty of water. We brought 2-3 bottles per person and even that wasn’t enough for our overnight backpacking trip since most of our food was dehydrated and required a lot of water.
By the morning we were running very low on drinking water and we had to ration what was leftover. We were very thirsty the whole way back, especially around midday when the sun was beaming right down on us.
When To Go
To get to the North Dome trailhead you will need to drive on Tioga Road, but this road is only accessible during warmer summer months. Tioga Road is closed from fall to spring (October/November to May/June) so the North Dome trail becomes inaccessible.
The best time to hike and backpack the North Dome trail is during summer months when the weather is nice and warm. We backpacked Porcupine Creek to North Dome trail in late August and the weather was just perfect.
The evening of our backpacking trip was so warm that we didn’t need to put on the outer layer of our tent or wear a sweater at night – a rare occurrence for us in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
A backpacking trip to Yosemite is one of the cheapest ways to visit this National Park but there are still certain costs associated with a backpacking trip:
- Entrance Pass. The current fee to enter Yosemite National Park is $35 per car.
- Backpacking Permit. Our backpacking permit cost us $15 to camp in Yosemite wilderness for one night.
- Backpackers Campground. If you plan to stay at the Backpackers Campground in Yosemite Valley the night before or after your trip, it costs $6 per person to camp there.
- Food. We usually spend around $50-$100 on backpacking food, water, and other supplies for our trips. If you forget something, there is a market in Yosemite Valley that sells backpacking items like dry meals, water, snacks, etc.
- Bear Canister. If you don’t own a bear canister, you can rent one from Yosemite’s Wilderness Center for $5 per week (plus deposit).
If you love landscape photography, during the North Dome hiking trip you’ll be in for a treat. While the trail starts off a bit slow, within a couple of hours you’ll be greeted by jaw-dropping views of Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and Yosemite Valley.
Similar to the Eagle Peak Trail, I have found the best photography lighting on this side of the Valley to take place in the afternoon.
For photography, you’ll capture the best color and contrast at North Dome from mid-day to sunset.
Tip: Your camera’s battery life might be affected by the altitude. During our backpacking trip, I used all 6 of my camera’s batteries because they were depleting much faster than usual. If you plan to bring your camera, I recommend packing a portable charger to charge your camera.
If you are interested in how I capture amazing photos on my trips, here is the camera gear that I use to create my photos:
- Main camera: Sony a7II Camera With 28-70 mm Standard Lens
- Polarizer Filter for the standard lens (helps eliminate reflection and enhance color especially on super bright days): Amazon Basics 55 mm
- Wide Lens (great for nature shots): Sony 16-35 mm F4
- Polarizer Filter for the wide lens: Amazon Basics 72 mm
- Small Tripod (to stabilize photos and eliminate blur): JOBY Gorrilapod
- Memory Cards: SanDisk 32 GB
- Batteries: Sony Camera Charger Set
- Camera Bag: Lowepro weather-resistant bag
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