Lake Vernon is a scenic and popular lower-elevation lake north of Yosemite National Park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley. Backpackers can reach this large lake from the Beehive Meadows trailhead at O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetch Reservoir. Vernon Lake is a stop on the Hetch Hetchy–Vernon Lake loop that returns to the reservoir through Tiltill Valley (29.8 miles roundtrip) but is also an interesting stand-alone destination and starting point for on- and off-trail access to the northwestern portion of Yosemite National Park.
The journey to Lake Vernon via Beehive Meadows is 11.5 miles. An early start will put backpackers at the lake in a single day, but the trip can be split over two days as well. Backpackers reach Beehive Meadows just over halfway through the hike at the 7.2-mile mark.
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir lies at 3,900 feet of elevation, and Lake Vernon lies at around 6,600 feet. The elevation gain on this hike occurs primarily at the start of the trail. After 1 mile of even travel over O’Shaughnessy Dam, through a tunnel and along the reservoir, backpackers begin a climb of nearly 2 miles of steep switchbacks along an old road. Although the travel is strenuous, the views of the reservoir and surrounding cliffs and glimpses into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River reward hikers’ efforts fully.
Elevation gain becomes comparatively moderate after the trail junction to Miguel Meadows, where hikers leave the road and begin hiking on forested trail. Elevation continues until Beehive Meadows (6,500 feet in elevation), but the hiking is less strenuous compared to that of the switchbacks.
Views east and south toward the reservoir continue for a while after the trail junction but soon slip out of view as the trail moves into forest. Small forest meadows and open areas recovering from fire provide scenic travel throughout this section of the hike. Covered with ferns, many of these recovering areas are especially beautiful during spring and early summer months and frequented by butterflies, quail, hummingbirds and other wildlife.
The trail is easy to follow, and backpackers will reach a trail junction for Laurel Lake near Beehive Meadows. Laurel Lake lies on trail just 1.1 miles west of Beehive Meadows, and backpackers may choose to take this short side trip and bivy at the lake if they’re splitting the hike to Vernon Lake over several days.
Beehive Meadows is a collection of damp, open meadows fed by vernal streams. Wildflowers can be profuse in the meadows during wildflower season and attract a wide variety of insects that seek both nectar and water in this lush, low-elevation meadow. After the meadows, elevation is alternately gained and lost over the remainder of the trail to Vernon Lake. The trail stays forested until the vicinity of the lake, where hikers begin to traverse granite and head downhill toward the lake.
Backpackers approach the lake from the west, and the trail splits near the drainage. The north fork of the trail leads toward a ranger station, and the south fork leads to a footbridge over the drainage. The large area around the lake is dotted with smaller water bodies, forested areas and open granite spaces, offering a day or more of exploration for backpackers interested in spending time in the area off trail.
Falls Creek feeds Vernon Lake from the northeast via a steep cascade through a granite chasm. Backpackers will be able to hear the falls almost from the trail on still, windless nights when water is flowing fast with snowmelt. Branigan Lake also drains into the Vernon Lake basin via a long, steep cascade to the northeast. Off-trail travelers may find these cascades to be pleasant destinations for dayhikes during layover days at Vernon Lake.
Hazards: The trail at Vernon Lake is not maintained past the ranger station on the north. Mosquitoes can be intense in this area at certain times of the year, so backpackers should be equipped with headnets and mosquito repellants of their choice. Creek crossings around Vernon Lake, even at the footbridge, can be treacherous when the drainages into and out of the lake are running high. Backpackers in this area during spring or when creeks are full should be especially cautious.
Wilderness permits are required for overnight stays in the backcountry. Vernon Lake is a popular destination, but fewer park visitors begin trips at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, so although reserving a permit in advance guarantees your spot at the trailhead, Fresno backpackers are likely to be able to acquire permits on a first-come, first-served basis at the Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station.
Wilderness permit holders are allowed to spend one day before and one day after their wilderness trips at backpackers’ campgrounds in Yosemite. Hetch Hetchy has a backpackers’ camp, simplifying trip planning for Fresno backpackers, who live conveniently close to the national park. Dispersed camping in the backcountry on this trail is permitted approximately 1 mile after the Miguel Meadows trail junction.
Dam permit: Backpackers will need to acquire a dam permit for overnight parking at O’Shaughnessy Dam. The permit is free and is issued at the Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station on the Hetch Hetchy Road.
Road closures: The Hetch Hetchy Road has seasonal hours (subject to change) year round that correspond roughly to daylight hours. The entrance station is closed when the road is closed. Backpackers cannot access Hetch Hetchy trailheads when Hetch Hetchy Road is closed, so plan accordingly:
7 am to 8 pm (April 1 to April 30)
7 am to 9 pm (May 1 to Labor Day)
8 am to 7 pm (Day after Labor Day to October 31)
8 am to 5 pm (November 1 to March 31)
Water is available at the trailhead. Backpackers can also fill up their reservoirs at a stream that crosses the trail just after the tunnel at the dam. Several seasonal creeks may cross the trail at points on the switchbacks. The presence of these water sources is unreliable, however. Backpackers should begin the hike up the switchbacks with adequate water to reach the top.
Creeks flow across the trail more reliably soon after the Miguel Meadows junction. These water sources vary in strength but some should persist throughout the summer and into fall. The trail skirts a sizable pond approximately 4 miles from the trailhead, and reliable seeps as well as a spring may be available throughout the summer at Beehive Meadows. On-trail water sources become scarce after the meadows until Vernon Lake.
Temperatures are more moderate at Vernon Lake because of its comparatively low elevation. Nights can still be chilly and backpackers should not underestimate the potential drop in temperature, even at lower elevation. Bring clothing and equipment to cope with weather changes as well, which can happen quickly in the Sierra regardless of the forecast. Even summer trips in the Sierra can be accompanied by rain, sleet and hail.
Fires are permitted at Vernon Lake.
Bivy sites are plentiful on both the north and south shores of Vernon Lake. Additional sites are available past the lake to the northeast and northwest.
Leave No Trace principles are critical at Vernon Lake because of its popularity. Make low-impact campfires if you build them, pack out all toilet paper and trash, camp on durable surfaces at least 100 feet from water, and use a bear canister to store food, trash and toiletries. Bears are active at Vernon Lake as well as at Laurel Lake.
From Fresno, take Highway 41 north to Yosemite National Park. Follow signs in Yosemite Valley to Highway 120/Tioga Road. At Crane Flat, continue in a northwesterly direction on Big Oak Flat Road, exiting the north entrance station (Big Oak Flat) to the park. Make the next right onto Evergreen Road, which becomes Hetchy Hetchy Road. This road will take you back into Yosemite National Park through the Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station and then to the dam, backpackers’ camp and trailhead parking.
Yosemite National Park map
Yosemite wilderness permit information
Leave No Trace in Yosemite
Yosemite trailheads map (PDF)
Despite challenging elevation gain early in the trip, the Beehive Meadows Trail to Vernon Lake is a rewarding hike to a scenic and interesting destination. Reachable in one day but also pleasant when split over two days, the hike to Vernon Lake provides a variety of options for fit backpackers.
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