Rafferty Pass (unofficial)

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Rafferty Pass (unofficial)

Post by wildhiker » Fri Sep 11, 2020 11:04 pm

TITLE: Unofficial Rafferty Pass


"Rafferty Pass" is my unofficial name for the pass directly north from Rafferty Peak, connecting the Nelson Lake drainage with Rafferty Creek in the Cathedral Range of the Yosemite Wilderness.

I just used this route this summer for the sixth time and decided I should write up a description for HST. This is such a nice easy route that I highly recommend it for experienced trail backpackers looking to try cross-country hiking.

According to Caltopo, from Nelson Lake to Tuolumne Pass on the route I will describe is about 3.5 miles with about 1100 feet elevation gain going west to east or about 650 feet elevation gain going east to west. Since I know the route so well, it takes me about 3.5 hours with backpack at my leisurely pace. Allow more time if it is new to you.


I rate the entire route class 1. You are always walking upright on dirt, meadow, forest floor, or granite slabs with no talus to cross. Slopes are primarily gentle, with only a few short steep stretches. You can always easily see where you are going.


Rafferty Pass is in the Yosemite National Park Wilderness at coordinates 37.8214 degrees north latitude and -119.3522 degrees west longitude.

ELEVATION: Approximately 10,500 feet.

USGS TOPO MAP (7.5'): Vogelsang Peak


The route-finding is a bit easier going west to east, and a wilderness permit to start on the Nelson Lake trail is generally easier to get than one starting on the Rafferty Creek trail, so I will describe the route primarily from west to east (with some notes on the opposite direction).

This route description starts at Nelson Lake. You can reach it by various cross-country routes from the south or west, but the easiest way to reach Nelson Lake is by a very good use trail coming from Elizabeth Lake. You might lose this trail occasionally going uphill from Elizabeth Lake and again in the final half-mile before Nelson Lake, but overall, it is easy to follow. I highly recommend camping at Nelson Lake, which has a reliably impressive sunset light show on the big cliff on the east side.

On the map below, the solid red line on the left is the use trail from Elizabeth Lake to Nelson Lake, the dotted red line in the center is this cross-country route, and the other dashed red lines are maintained trails from OpenStreetMap.
The valley upstream from Nelson Lake to Rafferty Pass has the classic "step and riser" topography of glaciated valleys. There are several relatively flat steps (two of which have lakes) separated by short steep sections. On the east side of Rafferty Pass, you are basically traversing a gentle to moderate slope, gradually losing elevation, all the way to Tuolumne Pass, where you intersect the Rafferty Creek trail and have easy access to the Vogelsang area.

Starting from Nelson Lake, head northeast to the head of the big meadow upstream from it. Since I always camp on the northwest end of the lake, I skirt the meadow along its western side, but you can also skirt on the eastern side. Stay out of the middle, which can be very marshy.
As the meadow pinches out at its north end, you will notice that Nelson Creek (unofficial name) is emerging from a rough and steep gorge. Avoid that gorge. Head up the lightly forested slope east of the creek to the top of a subsidiary ridge coming directly west down from Rafferty Peak. Footing is rock-studded dirt with some low to moderate angle granite slabs that you mostly traverse across (rather than climbing up). The slope steepens as you get close to the ridge top, but there are plenty of opportunities to zig and zag to make it easier. At the top, granite slabs make small cliffs up to 10 feet high, but you can easily find breaks to get through.
You can cross this subsidiary ridge in various locations, but I generally aim for the lower end on the left (west). At the top, you get your last view of Nelson Lake. On the other side of this ridge, you encounter one of those "flat" steps in the topography. Lower down, it is a flat meadow and forest valley along the creek. If you cross higher up, it is a slope of granite slabs.
Head toward and up along the creek and in a couple hundred yards you see the next "riser" in this valley: an open granite slope with cascades in the creek. Work your way up the granite slabs and rock-studded dirt to the top of the cascades; the easiest way stays close to the creek.
Now you are at the next "step": a flat valley with light forest, meadows, and lots of granite bedrock ending at Reymann Lake.
I find it easiest to cross the creek here to the north side. After getting past some initial downed trees, you have an easy short walk on rock-studded meadow and dirt with scattered trees to round Reymann Lake on its north side. By the way, Reymann Lake has very poor camping. All the flat areas seem to be either very wet meadow, studded with big rocks, or densely forested with saplings. Fill up your water bottle at Reymann Lake, as the next several miles can be dry.
The next "riser" is directly at the east end of Reymann Lake. The area close to the creek is choked with brush. Instead, I head up the forested slope starting from the northeast end of Reymann Lake. To ease the grade, I first go up a very shallow valley coming down from the northeast through bigger trees. Footing is rock-studded dirt, grass, and low shrubs like heather.
When the slope steepens and you can see granite outcrops ahead forming small cliff bands, head right (southeast) at the base of those cliff bands until you get almost to the creek. Here the cliffs break down allowing easy ascent on a broken rock and dirt slope along the stream. Stay about 50 to 100 feet from the stream out of the brush.
Now you are in a very small shallow valley - the last "step" of this drainage. Walk directly across it on granite slabs and rocky dirt and up the slope covered in whitebark pine forest. This slope is steep. I found a kind of grass and rock ramp along the eastern edge of this forest that took me most of the way up. Near the top, you have to look around for a break in small cliff bands.
The actual pass has stunted whitebark pines all along its western edge, but open granite slabs and broken rock on the eastern side, with a good view of Mount Dana, the entire Kuna Crest, and the peaks around Ireland Lake. Directly below you is a shallow valley with green meadowy areas and clumps of trees that drains down to Rafferty Creek. Your next landmark on the cross-country route is a shallow saddle on the northeast subsidiary ridge of Rafferty Peak on the other side of this shallow valley. This saddle has a few trees in it.
[Continued in next post...]
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Last edited by wildhiker on Thu Jan 14, 2021 11:41 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Rafferty Pass (unofficial)

Post by wildhiker » Fri Sep 11, 2020 11:14 pm

[Continued from previous post...]

This Rafferty Peak northeast ridge saddle is at almost the exact same elevation as Rafferty Pass, but you will encounter a lot of rough rock and talus if you try to contour over to it. Instead, notice that the shallow valley below you has little meadows and treed areas that make for easy walking, with no talus. You only need to descend (and regain) about 100 feet of elevation. You can find a descent path from Rafferty Pass that is more dirt than rock to get to the first meadow and then easily pass from one to the next, finally climbing a gentle slope with granite slabs to the aforementioned saddle. The whole route is quite visible. There is also a small tarn a short ways further down this valley with possible campsites.
Just south of this Rafferty Peak northeast ridge saddle, you have a stunning view of the Sierra crest in the Tioga Pass area, the entire Kuna Crest, Evelyn Lake and Amelia Earhart Peak above it, the big meadowy valley of Rafferty Creek, and Fletcher and Vogelsang peaks.
Just a little further along, you can see Tuolumne Pass below Fletcher Peak - that is your objective.
Head south from the Rafferty Peak northeast ridge saddle, first losing some elevation to go below steep granite slabs coming off a small bare granite "hill" on the northeast ridge from Rafferty Peak. That little hill is the landmark if you do this route in the reverse direction - you have to pass below it.
Once past the steep slabs, you now head nearly directly south traversing a gentler slope walking on rock-studded dirt and gentle slabs in a sparse forest. You are heading not directly to Tuolumne Pass, but to a saddle slightly higher than Tuolumne Pass about 1/2 mile north of it. A low peak at 10,320 feet separates this first saddle from Tuolumne Pass. You don't want to lose much elevation until you can clearly see your path to this saddle north of Tuolumne Pass. Footing along the way is almost entirely rock-studded dirt or grass, with some low-angle granite slabs. At any convenient point, you can also head directly down slope through the forest to the Rafferty Creek trail in the meadows if you are headed out.
When you reach the saddle north of Tuolumne Pass, you will find an unmapped deep narrow tarn that is a good water source all summer long, with lots of flat ground around it where you can camp, with filtered views of the peaks. If you are heading east to west, from this tarn, head diagonally up the slope to the north to gain about 100 feet elevation before starting your traverse across the slopes of Rafferty Peak.
Your final traverse is southeast from this saddle to Tuolumne Pass itself. You will lose a couple hundred feet elevation overall here. You will find that there are numerous rock rimmed ravines running down slope that you have to cross by finding spots where the rock sides have broken down, so your route will not be very straight! You can also head directly down any of those ravines to hit the Rafferty Creek trail lower down below Tuolumne Pass if you prefer. Alternatively, from the saddle north of Tuolumne Pass, you can also head southwest down an open valley to get to Boothe Lake.
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Re: Rafferty Pass (unofficial)

Post by bobby49 » Sat Sep 12, 2020 4:51 pm

Good photos. If you are headed from Elizabeth Lake to Reymann Lake, another way is to get up to the Cathedral Range ridgeline like you were going to Nelson Lake first, and then cut off along the ridgeline and drop down on Reymann Lake. The terrain is not that simple, but it is shorter than going up the Rafferty Creek Trail and over Rafferty Pass to get to Reymann.

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Re: Rafferty Pass (unofficial)

Post by Harlen » Mon Sep 14, 2020 6:35 pm

Hey Phil, what a complete and detailed BC Pass description. I'm going to think of it as "Wildhiker's Pass." I may use this on one of my winter trips out from the TM Ski Hut. Thanks! Ian.

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Re: Rafferty Pass (unofficial)

Post by Lumbergh21 » Tue Jan 12, 2021 3:43 pm

Very detailed description. I'm going to look at how this might be incorporated into a loop I have marginally planned for Yosemite some time in the future. Thanks!

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