Raisin Lake in the Yosemite wilderness
Hiking & Backpacking, Outdoor Adventures

Epic Yosemite: Backpacking to Raisin Lake

I fell off the face of the earth recently. Disconnected. In the mountains. Traipsing across the magnificent granite domes of Yosemite with a backpack that weighed in around 45 pounds, but gradually dropped to 35 pounds as my bear can emptied over a week of dehydrated meals, salumi, cheese, oats, nuts, chocolate, and dozens of Spam musubi (my go-to backpacking snack).

It was a journey that pushed me to my max, both in duration and distance hiked, and amount of weight on my back. It was also a journey that changed my life. I can’t pinpoint what exactly changed, but when you’re pushed beyond what you think you can do, something inside you is different. The world is suddenly different.

Our route was Sunrise Lakes to Cloud’s Rest to Little Yosemite Valley to Half Dome to Happy Isles — a total distance of 27 miles with 15,315 feet of elevation change from Yosemite High Country to Yosemite Valley. (Check out my custom map for a description of our route!) But before we embarked on that epic, we spent two nights at Raisin Lake to acclimatize and just enjoy some downtime before being on a constant move for the next week.

Epic Yosemite trail map

On Google Maps, Raisin Lake doesn’t even have a name. It merely shows as a tiny speck of blue east of the May Lake High Sierra Camp. It’s just a mile beyond May Lake and free of the crowds that camp there, enticed by the shorter hike and commanding views.

We started on the May Lake trail and followed it for about a mile until veering off-trail to the east. For the next two miles, we scrambled through the woods and across the granite under an impending thunderstorm.

Cross-country hike from trailhead to Raisin Lake

Cross-country hike from trailhead to Raisin Lake

Granite bleacher

When we climbed over the last ridge, we were greeted with a postcard lake that seemed surprisingly remote, despite being only three miles from the last point of civilization.

In comparison to the much larger May Lake, Raisin Lake is small and intimate. It felt like our own private swimming pool, out there in the wilderness surrounded by granite domes with pockets of wildflowers blooming. It was windless and warm, with a perfect glass over the lake in spite of the sky starting to sprinkle on us.

Raisin Lake

Raisin Lake

Raisin Lake

Pink wildflowers at Raisin Lake

Pink wildflowers

By the time we set up our tents, there was a steady drizzle and we wondered if that night’s dinner was toast. (Not toast in the literal sense, but we did need to get a fire going for our Korean barbecue! Rule number one of any backcountry outing: Make the first night’s meal memorable.)

I waited out the drizzle in my tent, napping until Will woke me up for sunset. The storm clouds made for some spectacular color in the sky — a natural ombré from purple to pink as the sun sank behind the mountains.

Sunset at Raisin Lake

Sunset at Raisin Lake

Dusk at Raisin Lake

By the time the sky darkened, it also cleared up and we got our grill on… kalbi, rice, red cabbage kimchi and radish pod pickles (yes, we actually brought them backpacking with us!), and spicy cucumbers, all wrapped up in seaweed. (And for the next week, we kept thinking about this dinner and how we couldn’t wait to have it again at home… ahhh food, the great motivator.)

Getting our fire on

Moonrise over Raisin Lake

We had our best night of sleep ever, and not just because of our feast. Right as we put out the last coals and slipped into our sleeping bags, the clouds moved back in. Falling asleep to the pitter-patter of raindrops on the tent is bliss.

We had a very full day the next day… full of eating, napping, swimming, reading, napping again, and talking life… gazing out over the lake and up at Mount Hoffmann, the geographic center of Yosemite. It was a pretty perfect afternoon at a pretty perfect campsite, or as my friend Clinton liked to call it, righteous.

Waking up at Raisin Lake

Our campsite at Raisin Lake

Backcountry laundry

Perfect afternoon at Raisin Lake

Perfect afternoon at Raisin Lake

Taking a dip in Raisin Lake

Swimming in Raisin Lake

Swimming in Raisin Lake

Taking a dip in Raisin Lake

Relaxing at Raisin Lake

The sun moved in and out of the clouds all day, and we played it like a game. As soon as we saw a window of opportunity where it’d be blazing hot for at least a few minutes, we’d jump into the lake on our Thermarest pads and paddle around with the sun on our backs. Did you know those things float?! It was a revelation!

Swimming in Raisin Lake

Floating in Raisin Lake

Floating in Raisin Lake

Floating in Raisin Lake

For being a High Sierra lake, Raisin was surprisingly warm. I’d never been able to swim in such a lake for more than a minute before my toes went numb, but its diminutive size meant it heated up quickly and held its warmth well. So righteous.

The next morning, we packed up and headed out, taking the trail that wound around May Lake.

Raisin Lake

Raisin Lake

Hiking out of Raisin Lake

Last look at Raisin Lake

Hiking on the May Lake trail

Hiking on the May Lake trail

May Lake

May Lake

Hiking around May Lake

We passed the High Sierra Camp, which looked like a little slice of heaven, and met a camp ranger who offered us a can of pale lager to fuel us for the rest of our hike. Rule number two of any backcountry outing: Never turn down free beer, especially good free beer in a can. (Even if it was 10 in the morning…)

Free beer from the High Sierra Camp

Since we had stashed the majority of our food in a bear box at the trailhead, bringing only the food we needed for two days, our packs were relatively light. Aside from our last day in the backcountry, that would be the lightest our packs would feel all week!

… But not for long, as we loaded up the rest of our food in the parking lot and set out for Tenaya Lake — the real start of our journey.

Packing up the rest of our food for the week

Trail map: Click here
Segment log: 6 miles with 615 feet elevation change
Next segment: Tenaya Lake to Sunrise Lakes

Read the full “Epic Yosemite” series:

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  • JettHall

    Hi, thanks for your post. We will be spending a night at Raisin Lake during our 4 night hike this June. I have the same question as Travis. I think what he meant is, did you need TWO separate wilderness permits since you returned to the May Lake Trailhead and then started again at the Sunrise Trailhead at Tenaya Lake? We are planning to start at the Sunrise Lake Trailhead and do a 2 day loop up by May and Raisin Lake, then we head back to the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead again (get more food from the Bear Can) and then continue on to Clouds Rest and Half Dome. Curious if we technically need two wilderness permits since we “exit” the wilderness when we return to Tioga Road. Thanks again!

    • You should call the Yosemite backcountry office with these questions.

  • Travis

    quick question, did you get a wilderness pass for both Tenaya lake and the lake may trailheads? Thanks

    • You need wilderness permits for all overnight backpacks originating in Yosemite (their site lists all the trailheads with available entry dates).

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  • Kyle Menig

    Looks amazing. Quick question about your Spam musubi…did you pre-make and bring or did you make as you go? I’m thinking of making it a staple for my next backpacking trip and would love your thoughts.

    • I pre-make and wrap in plastic. One can of Spam makes eight musubis.

  • Pingback: Epic Yosemite: The Start at Tenaya Lake | Garden Betty()

  • Sarah

    This is so amazing! My friend and I were just planning on a backcountry hiking adventure, but plans fell through. Oh well, next time.

    P.s. I loooove kalbi. Can’t believe you went all out! Awesome.

    • If you don’t have a lot of time to plan, Raisin Lake is a great choice because it’s such a short hike in but still feels very remote.

      And kalbi is a staple on almost every camping trip we do. 🙂 It’s ridiculously easy to make and so satisfying, even if we don’t have all the other sides to go with it.

      • Sarah

        Thanks for the suggestion! We (couple broke students) just couldn’t afford the trip. My mom always made kalbi for our camping trips, but never thought of bringing it on a backpacking expedition!

        Perhaps just a day hike will satisfy for now…

  • freedomlover363

    Awesome photos!

  • Holly

    Looks like you had the whole lake to yourself. Amazing!

    • Yes, it was such a score considering the lake was only 3 miles from the trailhead!

  • shana

    so cool!

  • wow, i’d like to hike with your group someday – gorgeous and good food!!

    • Haha, we take our food very seriously when camping. 😉 And when we’re car camping and can actually set up a real kitchen… it goes off!

  • I think you guys would like thru-hiking. And food is most definitely a great motivator! 🙂 great photos

    • Thank you! One week in the wilderness is my longest hike so far, and I’m not sure I could’ve survived any longer LOL… we’ll see!

  • Beverly Miller

    This sounds so heavenly!!

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