Unicorn Peak is an impressive granite formation located due east from its more famous neighbor, Cathedral Peak, across the Bud Creek Drainage. By its easiest route it is class 4, and one of the easier peaks comprising the Cathedral Range Traverse (which includes Cathedral Peak, Eichorn Pinnacle, Echo Peaks, Echo Ridge, Matthes Crest, and Cockscomb). It appears as a single spire (and the source of it's name) only when viewed from the north in the vicinity of Tuolumne Meadows and SR120. From other views it can be seen that it is really a thin ridge, comprising three summits. The north summit is the highpoint.
The easiest route is the class 4 approach from the south along the ridge between the middle and north summits. Where stopped by a seven-foot block, the class 4 route goes down and around to the left (only about 4 feet down). There is much exposure here, but great holds for a hand traverse (this is the only class 4 section on the route). The block itself can be surmounted directly without any exposure, but is more difficult (~5.7). There are class 5 routes that can be found on the east, north and west sides of the peak, all of which are one or two pitches in length. The east side has the shortest and easiest class 5 routes. From this side it is about 6mi RT from Tuolumne Meadows with 2,300ft of elevation gain.
The easiest approach is via the Elizabeth Lake Trail in Tuolumne Meadows. From either the east or west, take Highway 120 into Yosemite NP and drive to Tuolumne Meadows. The Elizabeth LakeTrailhead is located on the east end of the meadow, behind the Tuolumne Campground. For a dayhike, you can park in the Tuolumne Store parking lot and hike south through the campground. The JMT runs parallel to SR120 behind the campground, and the trailhead starts at the junction with the JMT. Check a map so you know whether to turn left or right on the JMT to find the junction. If you walk due south from the store, the TH junction should be to your left.
Hike south on the Elizabeth Lake Trail for 2.5mi until you reach the lake. Unicorn Peak is now obvious to the west of the lake. Follow a use trail on the north shore of the lake to a swampy (in early season) meadow on the NW side. Head northwest to climb onto a broad ridge that leads west towards the summit.
To approach from the west, start at the Cathedral Lakes TH on the west end of Tuolumne Meadows with ample parking available along the roadside. Follow the trail towards Catheral Lakes for 1/2 mile before turning left on a good use trail that follows up the Budd Creek drainage (this is the widely used approach for Cathedral Peak). Unicorn Peak is the first peak that comes into view to the southeast. Leave the use trail where the creek forks and follow the left (east) branch up towards the west side of Unicorn Peak.
Permits are not required for day hikes, but Wilderness permits are required for overnight visits. These can be obtained from any ranger station in the park. The nearest location is the permit building just east of the Tuolmne Meadows campground. It is just off the road that leads to the Tuolumne Lodge, on the right hand side.
Because of the camping restrictions around Bud and Elizabeth Lakes, it is almost always climbed as a day hike.
When To Climb
Climbing is generally done May-Oct. Before and after this time Highway 120 is closed. There can be much snow on the ground in May and June, so check ahead and plan accordingly if you intend to climb at this time. Late in October the highway is often open but closed to overnight parking - dayhikes to Unicorn can still be done easily. Even in early season when there is much snow on the ground, Unicorn can be approached on snowshoes without too much difficulty via either Unicorn Creek (easier) or Bud Creek.
Camping is not allowed in the Budd Creek or Unicorn Creek drainages on either side of Unicorn Peak. You can camp in any of the canyons south of Cockscomb, but you may not find water later in the season until you reach Echo or Matthes Lakes. Bears prowl these areas, so guard your food carefully. The closest camping is at the Tuolumne Meadows campground, though reservations are recommended due to its huge popularity - and enjoy the crowds!
"The peak was named by the Whitney Survey in 1863. 'A very prominent peak, with a peculiar horn-shaped outline, was called "Unicorn Peak."' (Whitney, Geology, 427.) But then Whitney added an apologetic footnote for the romantic/mythical name. 'Names are frequently given to prominent objects, by parties like ours, for convenience; as where peaks are used for topographical stations. If not named, they would have to be numbered, which would be both awkward and inconvenient.'
The creek was named on the first Mt. Lyell 30' map, 1901."
- Peter Browning, Place Names of the Sierra Nevada