(Almost) California’s First Long Trail
The Tahoe-Yosemite Trail (hereafter, “TYT”) is California’s first long trail. Or it would have been, had it ever been officially completed.
Long before the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) absorbed / replaced much of the TYT, the 180-mile route connected several national forest wilderness areas and parks stretching from Meeks Bay in Lake Tahoe to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite. Note: The PCT includes a section confusingly called the “Tahoe to Yosemite Trail” (TTY?)
More of a route than a trail even in its heyday, the TYT passed through country more rugged than its PCT counterparts and was more varied in elevation and land features than the famous John Muir Trail (JMT) which it also (barely) predated. (The JMT was first discussed in 1892, officially began in 1915, and was completed in 1938.)
What existed/exists of the trail today was the result of a joint effort of the California Forest Service, the National Park Service, and two hikers: authors Thomas Winnet and Don Denison who literally wrote the book on the TYT. Winnet was the founder of Wilderness Press – a popular backcountry publishing company that continues to this day. His early book, The Tahoe-Yosemite Trail, is often credited with establishing the TYT.
Tahoe-Yosemite Trail History
Winnet said in his 1979 revision of “The Tahoe-Yosemite Trail” that, “The history of the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail will probably never be told.” He did provide details from his own research though, and I have collected copies of the documents he cites in the book. In summary:
It seems that the Forest Service first conceived the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail as early as 1914, but documentation is sparse:
- The first mention seems to be in the January 1917 Sierra Club Bulletin saying that, “The Tahoe-Yosemite Trail … is proposed to afford an easy and attractive route from the Lake Tahoe region to the boundary of Yosemite National Park, … which when done will connect the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail with the John Muir Trail.” It indicated that by 1916 the trail was completed up Meeks Creek past the Talent Lakes to Velma Lakes and nearly completed from Susie Lake to Desolation Valley.
- The January 1918 Sierra Club Bulletin noted that during the 1917 field season the Forest Service completed the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail from Upper Echo Lake to the lower end of Echo Lake.
- The 1919 Sierra Club Bulletin stated that the completion of the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail had been postponed because the U.S. was involved in World War I.
In 1926 Catherine Montgomery made the first known proposal for a trail connecting California, Oregon and Washington. In the early 1930’s, Clinton C. Clarke began to promote what he called the “Pacific Crest Trailway” – a hiking route from Canada to Mexico. In 1932 Clarke proposed the trail to the Forest Service, and in 1939 the Pacific Crest Trail appeared in federal maps for the first time. Work on the PCT was soon halted, however, due to World War II.
Clarke published a book titled The Pacific Crest Trailway in 1945 wherein he divided the route into seven sections – one of which was roughly the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail (it parted ways between Carson Pass and Kennedy Meadow). Similarly, a federal publication, Trails for America (1966), says the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail is one of seven sections of the Pacific Crest Trail but Forest Service maps show that from Carson Pass to Grace Meadow in Yosemite (half of the entire TYT) the two routes are separate.
Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s the PCT continued to emerge, eventually covering approximately 60 miles of the TYT and 160 miles of the JMT. In 1968 it was designated as a National Scenic Trail.
After some years spent in research and verification with various authorities on the matter of the TYT, hikers and authors Thomas Winnet and Don Denison published The Tahoe-Yosemite Trail in 1970. This book is often credited with unofficially creating the TYT.
Officially, however, the TYT never existed. Although work began it was halted and never quite resumed with the dedication required for completion. The popularity of the PCT and long trails like the John Muir Trail effectively removed the perceived need for the TYT, although much of what the route offered was lost on the PCT.
Winnet’s 1979 revision of The Tahoe-Yosemite Trail acknowledged that the TYT still did not officially exist. Indeed, at that time there were only two official signs indicating the TYT! He says that the signs appear to have been placed between 1917 and 1967, but no one is certain. (Note that in Abram’s video of his 2018 hike of the TYT, he saw a new wooden post marking the trail!)
Winnet expressed hopes that his book would further interest in the TYT and motivate its completion – but alas, it was not to be.
Wennet’s 1979 revision marked the last time the book was published. However, the TYT lived on through the 80’s, 90’s, and even into the 21st Century in various maps and guidebooks such as The Tahoe Sierra (2001), Hiking the Sierra Nevada (2002), and – most notably – Wilderness Press’s own Sierra North (2008). (The TYT was not actually featured in Sierra North’s 1967 first edition, and I am unsure when it began to be.) Sadly, the trail’s presence in print did not seem to survive into the 2020’s.
In what might be considered a decisive blow to the TYT, Wilderness Press – Thomas Winnet’s own company that published the original Tahoe-Yosemite Trail book – declined to include the TYT in its 10th edition of Sierra North (2021). Somewhere between the popular guidebook’s 9th edition published in 2008 and its 10th edition in 2021, the TYT apparently lost its waning support.
In a personal correspondence with a Wilderness Press representative, I was told that, “According to the author [Elizabeth Wenk or Mike White] and other sources, the TYT is no longer maintained and isn’t considered an official trail, so we removed it from the 10th edition of Sierra North.”
If the publisher that almost single-handedly created the TYT no longer considers it worth mentioning, it seems the TYT might be really and truly dead. However, paper books are themselves somewhat antiquated expressions of backcountry guides. Although the internet has precious few resources dedicated to the TYT, there are a few to be found. Often confused by search engines with the “Tahoe-to-Yosemite Trail” segment of the PCT, the actual TYT is not completely without representation online. Besides mentions in a few web pages, blogs, and video channels (see ONLINE RESOURCES below), there also exist detailed GPS mapping layers.
The TYT is dead, long live the TYT!
My Interest in the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail
My dad was one of the original old-school backpackers. I have clear memories of his giant orange external frame backpack and vintage bota bag hanging on the wall of our garage when I was growing up. As I started getting more serious about my outdoor exploration as an adult, Dad gave me several books and maps he had collected from his day. This collection included his map of Desolation Wilderness (the first section of the TYT) and two editions (1st and 3rd) of Winnet’s “The Tahoe-Yosemite Trail.”
I asked him about these and he explained that he had hiked this route twice during his time as a regular backpacker. (He used to laugh about how vague some of the book’s descriptions were – “Look for the big log next to the fence and cut across the field there…”). At the time I assumed the trail still existed and figured maybe I’d check it out someday when I had more time (i.e., not soon with a full time job, wife and four kids!).
I did crack the books open (literally!) occasionally though, and eventually came to realize two things: first, the trail was now more of a route between currently established trails and, second, I had hiked some of them already! During the resurgence of my interest in the outdoors, I had hiked part of the TYT near Kennedy Meadows as well as a sizeable chunk of it in Desolation Wilderness (the area where the TYT began). That led to my doing a “vintage hiking trip” from Tuolumne Meadows (where the TYT ends) up to into Cold Canyon along the PCT. I also eventually (and accidentally) ran into the TYT on a short day hike near Lake Alpine.
While I was enjoying these occasional glimpses of the TYT, I found myself more and more wanting to hike the whole thing. When my dad died of cancer on this day (October 29) in 2021, completing the TYT became more of a passion. I wasn’t sure, however – given my life situation and the condition of the route – that it would be a good idea to even try it.
About this time I started hiking with a buddy from church – and discovered that he, too, knew of the TYT and wanted to hike it. After several discussions we decided to at least attempt to plan it out and then decide if it would be reasonable or even possible for us to accomplish. We gathered all our maps, books, and online information, and plotted the course. The route was then broken into sections that we thought could be done within reasonable time limits.
Unfortunately life, work, and illness caught up to us and we had to scrap our plans for the rest of 2022. That’s when another hiking buddy from church, suggested that we hike “part of the PCT/TRT (Tahoe Rim trail) near Lake Tahoe.” I looked at the route he was interested in and wouldn’t you know it? It was exactly the first section of the TYT!
After checking in with our friend about our plans, we decided to hike the first section of the mythical Tahoe-Yosemite Trail from October 17th to the 20th, 2022. The trip was successful and we barely beat the snow to the area. The articles and videos from these trips will be posted as they become ready.
TO BE CONTINUED!
- Unfortunately, the most informative website I have found is so difficult to navigate that it can drive even the most determined researcher to despair. Visit, then, with caution: TahoeToWhitney.com and/or its corresponding YouTube channel: Tahoetowhitney
- Tahoe Yosemite Trail (TYT)’S 2010 Other Trails Journal : Part of Trail Journals’ Backpacking and Hiking Journals
- Backpacking The Tahoe-Yosemite Trail
- Tahoe-Yosemite Trail | CM Maps Routes Manager | Trust The Trail Podcast Hiking Club
- Tahoe Yosemite Trail
- Tahoe–Yosemite Trail – Wikipedia
- Sherpa Guides | California | Sierra Nevada | Long Trails | Tahoe-Yosemite Trail
- Tahoe-Yosemite Trail
- Abram’s Trip – YouTube
- Which Trails Were Combined to Form the Pacific Crest Trail? | USA Today