This is the closest Yosemite High Sierra Camp to any road. You start already at 8,700 feet which results in a gentle elevation gain to the camp. The close location to the road makes this hike very doable for almost anyone. Although the hike is very short, the sub Alpine location gives it a much more remote feeling. The vista of the gigantic Mount Hoffmann at the very foot of the glistening May Lake and the close by panoramic view of Tenaya Canyon with Half Dome makes this camp a feast for the eyes. Because of this, it is said that May Lake is one of the most spectacular lakes in Yosemite. The camp is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Except for a few permanent structures, all the guest cabins, bathhouse tent and dinner tent are completely disassembled before the winter snows. The camp is resupplied with food and other materials entirely by mule train. There is no electricity or cell service. Reservations are obtained by a once per year lottery system.
The camp is obviously named after the lake by which it sits but it was Charles Hoffmann, a cartographer for the California Geological Survey who had the honor of naming the massive peak next to it and choose to name the lake after his wife, Lucy Mayotta (“May”) Browne. In 1938, the camp’s site was selected by Donald and Mary Tresidder who where the original owners of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company. It replaced the old Tenaya Lake H.S. as they wanted a more equally spaced High Sierra Camp between Glenn Aulin and Sunrise.
Parked at an elevation of 9,270 feet, the camp hides among a grove of Hemlock trees. Granite boulders are intertwined among the cabins which are neatly arranged side by side, facing the beautiful May Lake. The imposing Mount Hoffmann dominates the skyline and rises to 10,850 feet, directly across the lake. The camps’ location is spaced almost equally between Glenn Aulin High Sierra Camp and Sunrise High Sierra Camp. Both of which are approximately 8 miles from May Lake. This high elevation camp is a comfortable 1.5 hike from the Tuolumne Meadows Road and the trail gains little elevation making it ideal for a quick entry.
The camp consists of 7 canvas sided tent cabins where you will be assigned sleeping quarters dormitory style. Meaning, you will sleep in the same cabin as other hikers. Each tent holds 4 to 6 campers and the the maximum camps’ capacity is 36 guests. Bring your ear plugs for noisy/snoring sleep-mates. Layered clothing options are recommended.
The cabins have a steel pole frames and are constructed on concrete platforms 12′ x 14.’ Each has one windows made of insect-proof screen and covered with a retractable canvas flap. Each has a wood screened door and a narrow verticle storage shelf. Beds have squeaky steel frames and are older style cot mattresses which are all singles. No “glamping” style thick, plush mattresses here. You are required to bring your own sheets or sleeping shell. However, blankets and pillows are provided. Despite this, campers are generally comfortable and thankful just to have a spot at a Yosemite High Sierra Camp.
Nights can be very cold but a wood stove is provided in each tent with fuel to burn. If the heater is fired all night, some complain of coughing the next day. Better to use it in the early morning when it is coldest anyway. The cabins’ arrangement are unique to other camps because instead of circling the campfire ring as a social focus, the cabin line the lake to take in the view and face the mighty Mount Hoffmann. Steel bear proof boxes are located near each cabin and you are required to store food and toiletries that smell at all times.
The horse corral is a fact of life at every Yosemite High Sierra Camp to bring in guests on saddle ride trips and the weekly resupply of food and materials. Some of the corrals are dusty and close by but this corral is approximately 300 feet south of the camp. The fences, shed and hitching posts are newer additions to the camp but the corral itself remain in its’ original location since 1938.
FOOD AND DRINK
The 26 foot long stone cookhouse was constructed in 1938 whose walls are thick granites blocks. Meals are provided in a large 38 foot long by 16 foot wide canvas sided diner tent. The tent is oriented paralell to May Lake and the windows look out to the lake to maximize the view. Food is served family style and although plentiful and well made, it is cooked by a seasonal worker, not a gourmet trained chef. Fresh salads and homemade deserts are served. The presentation and menus can be very basic. Most find the meals taste better than they really are as a hard days hike gives hikers a good appetite.
Breakfast is the traditionally hot cooked affair and lunch sandwhiches are available for purchase. Fresh food and all supplies are stocked via mule train. Alcohol is not sold but you are allowed to bring your own it.
DAY HIKING OPTIONS
The most popular hike by far is to “peak bag” Mount Hoffmann which rises dramatically from the opposite shore of May Lake. You don’t have to be a rock climber or even go all the way to the summit for great views. This difficult but rewarding hike is 1.5 miles long and gains 1,500 feet before reaching the summit. This steep and strenuous trail is mostly above timber line and exposed to the sun. So go prepared and bring a hat. The easy to find trails starts at the backpackers campsite directly next to the High Sierra Camp. Long gentle switchbacks are not hard to follow. But higher up, the trail to the summit is loosely marked with cairns, also called ducks. These small rocks stacked on top of each other are made by hikers, not the park service. They may gave been left by hikers who know the way but sometimes they are not the best way to go.
The higher you go the more spectacular the views of the surrounding Sierra become. Not to mention the beautiful but ever shrinking May Lake. Eventually the trail becomes pulverized granite called scree, which is slippery to walk on. As you arrive halfway up, Half Dome and Clouds Rest begin to appear. Once you reach the main saddle, the view become even more spectacular. This spot alone is worth the hike.
For the most adventurist, the final summit is 200 higher and requires the use of both hands and feet to scramble up the final boulders to the top. Then, the 360-degree panorama of the High Sierra opens before you. The vast number of amazing mountain peaks are too numerous to list here. This 10,850 summit is said to be John Muirs’ favorite vista.
The views of Half Dome are especially interesting due to the odd side angle and also the fact that you are looking down upon the summit. North Dome partially hides the view but not by much. Mount Hoffmann is situated directly in the center of Yosemite National Park. No wonder the Park Service placed their radio communication repeater antenna on top.
Another popular hike is the steep but short hike to the ridge line directly behind the camp. There are spectacular views of Tenaya Canyon, Half Dome all the way to Tenaya Lake.
SHOWERS AND TOILETS
Showers originate from two large steel water tanks and accompanying solar panels which where newly constructed in 1990. The entire pump facility is uphill and out of view. The actual shower tent is a large 8′ X 20′ steel framed canvas structure on a concrete platform. Native granite rocks line the foundation and helps blend it into the surroundings. Metal corrugated panels divide half of the tent into Mens and Women’s areas. Each area has two stalls and two sinks. Water use is not timed nor are you required to continuously push a button for water flow like other camps.
This is one of the few locations to have a real, flush toilet. The comfort station is a permanent building built in 1965 and is an add-on to the tent bath house. The roof is topped with split logs and its foundation is concrete. The building has four stalls and each has a separate door but there are no sinks. The showers and toilets at May Lake are more developed than other High Sierra Camps due its closer location to the road and the ease of entry.
ENTERTAINMENT AND TRADITIONS
Every evening guests gather at the steep ridgeline directly behind the camp to watch the Aplineglow on the many mountain peaks. If you are up early, this is also an excellent location to watch the sunrise. From 1872 until 1968, the Firefall could be seen from here as well. Long since ended, the Firefall was created by slowly dropping hot embers from the overhang at Glacier Point and is still remembered by many and its easy to imagine how amazing it must of been from this location.
Evening always finds the campfire ring in use whose location dates back to 1955. It sits between the meal tent and May Lake itself. Cut stumps for sitting as well as plastic folding chairs surround the ring. From the campfire ring itself, the evening views of May Lake and the impressive Mount Hoffmann is stunning.
BOOKING YOUR STAY
For those who are “Clamping”, you most likely are interesting in coming in from the road and not doing the entire loop system. So when they ask you to choose between waking in or a saddle ride, don’t be surprised. In either case, you most make reservations well in advance. The saddle option means riding a mule and donning a protection helmet. Riding the High Sierra Loop can be uncomfortable for many due to discomfort to the legs and buttocks. If you have ever been “saddle sore” than you know how uncomfortable this can be. This is definitely a cast of “pick your poison” when deciding if you want to walk long distances versus riding a mule for long distances. It is a very individual choice.
Reservations are made through a yearly lottery and fills fast. However, some campers have good luck with last minute cancellations, if you have that type of flexible schedule. See our Reservations page for more information and helpful hints.
From the May Lake trailhead on Tioga Road near Tuolumne Meadows, you will find the rather easy 1.2 mile trail to May Lake. Traveling through forests of Incense cedar, Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, you will occasionally hike on bare granite and sometimes up rock stairs built by the trail crew. The trail itself gains elevation gently but continuously, saving the final switchbacks for the very end. You will have climbed only 500 feet in elevation before arriving at camp. This is the shortest trail to any Yosemite High Sierra Camp.