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June 20, 2012

Yosemite: Clouds Rest Hike Report

“I want to take you higher …
BOOM laka-laka-laka BOOM laka-laka-laka.”
-      Sly and the Family Stone, “I Want to Take You Higher” (video after post)

Unlike our last trip to Yosemite, the hike my son and I took last weekend wasn’t about anything particularly symbolic or epic.  Instead, the whole point this time around was simply to go higher – and perhaps to mimic the Family Stone and have a little bit of fun in the process.

The idea was hatched shortly after starting our descent from Half Dome last year, when I pointed out Clouds Rest on the nearby horizon and told my son that it is usually recognized as the highest point in Yosemite Valley.*   It was an intriguing enough notion – there’s someplace higher than Half Dome? – that hiking to Clouds Rest shot to the top of his list for our next Yosemite adventure.

(*This distinction is sometimes debated, on the argument that Clouds Rest isn’t really part of the Valley, but more properly belongs to the High Sierra region to the north.   You can access it from both sides, but the northern route we took is the shortest and most common access point.  Either way, at 9930’, it’s definitely taller than the more iconic Half Dome by more than 1000 feet.)

So the objective for the day was simple: this year, I wanted to take my son higher – and with that, we’ll get to the report. 

(As usual, click any photo to enlarge.)

In terms of pure elevation, our hike brought us higher than Half Dome almost from the very beginning.  Our starting point was on the shore of Tenaya Lake at 8,150 feet – and since it was just barely daybreak, it seemed fitting that the trailhead was called Sunrise.

Before you set foot on the main trail, you cross an outlet stream from the lake.  Depending on the time of year and the amount of snowfall the previous winter, this can sometimes be a thigh-deep crossing; thanks to a light snow year, we didn’t have any problem keeping our feet dry.

Once you’re on the official trail, it’s just over 7 miles to the summit, making the entire hike a nearly 15-mile day.  At first the distance comes easy …

… because the trail is generally flat and rolling for the first mile and a half or so …

… before you start slowly gaining altitude on some early switchbacks.

The elevation gain is hard to appreciate at first, until you get brief glimpses of neighboring summits such as this one of Tuolumne Peak in the distance.

Before long, however, the climbing is a serious kick in the teeth; over the next mile, a series of super-technical switchbacks lift you more than 1000 vertical feet; in both directions, this is definitely the most challenging part of the hike.

After the switchbacks, the trail levels off at a crossroads at nearly 9100’.  From here, you have the option of turning towards an area called Sunrise Lakes …  

… or giving some of your elevation back to follow the trail downward on the path to Clouds Rest.

After descending for about a half-mile, the trail levels off and meanders through a pleasant High Sierra valley, complete with a tranquil little mountain pond …

… but soon enough, the trail turns upward again for the last 2-mile stretch to the summit.

The interesting thing about hiking to Clouds Rest is that for the vast majority of your time on the trail, you can’t really see your destination.  Even when you finally glimpse it, it’s little more than a sliver rising above the tree line.

On the other hand, the views of nearby peaks get better and better, such as this one of Mount Clark to the south.

Continuing upward, the trees get a bit thinner …

… and the views get a bit more amazing.  If you look closely, our starting point of Tenaya Lake is a blue dot at right-center in the photo above.

 A few hundred feet below the summit, there’s one last level stretch to catch your breath a bit …

… before venturing up the final foot path to the top of Clouds Rest.  The final ridge is one of those mind over matter things; it’s roughly as wide as a single-lane road, which would normally be plenty of space to maneuver …

… if it weren’t for the fact that the ridge is completely exposed on both sides, as this view from the top illustrates.

In other words, if you have issues with heights, this might not be the place for you.  My son wasn’t quite as skittish on this climb as he was on the Half Dome cables, but on more than a few occasions he dropped into a crab walk for the reassurance of two more points of contact on the rock.

Clouds Rest has something of a false summit – and after cresting the first one, a very familiar sight emerges.  Or as my son discovered, Hey – that’s Half Dome down there!  Notice that he wasn’t excited enough to completely let go of the rock, however.

At that point, it’s just a short scramble to the true summit of Clouds Rest, where even more spectacular sights awaited us.

The most compelling one, of course, is looking down into the entire Yosemite Valley, with its massive granite icons appearing as if in miniature from our lofty vantage point.

However, the views were almost equally impressive in all directions, such as this one to the south …

… or this one to the east …

… or this one to the north, where it seemed like an ideal spot to have a little bit of fun.  Boom laka-laka-laka.

The two of us spent about 45 minutes alone on top of the rock, snacking on trail mix (and feeding some local fauna) and wondering if there was anyplace else with a view as awesome as this one.  Between the two of us, we couldn’t come up with many possibilities.  Even though they’re not especially instructional, these are usually my favorite kinds of conversations with my son.

However, we still had half of our hiking to go, and the day was getting warm, so we took in one last glance of the iconic mountain behind us …

… and made our way back down the narrow ridge in front of us.  To this point, we hadn’t seen a single soul on the trail – but after we descended from the summit, we finally started encountering hikers coming up behind us.

And then a funny thing happened – or as I told my son, Hey, I know this girl! 

It was Catra, a sweet-as-pie and tough-as-nails (and honestly, a pretty easy to spot) ultrarunner who was getting in some last minute preparation for Western States this weekend.  Seriously.   She was making great time, but paused for long enough to take a picture before powering her way to the top.

Meanwhile, my son and I made our way back down the hill, plodding through steep switchbacks, sweltering heat, and the increasing leg soreness of a long day, until finally …

… we returned to our starting point at Tenaya Lake.  Speaking of which: can you think of anything more inviting at the end of a long, hot day on the trail than plunging into a beautiful alpine lake?

Me neither.  One thing about these mountain bathtubs, though: the faucet’s always stuck on cold. 

After a few minutes of rinsing, all that was left to do was dry off on a nearby rock before climbing into the car to head home.  A few miles down the road, we found a cool spot to pull over and see exactly where we had been …

… and to appreciate just how high we had gone.  Perhaps the most telling thing I can say about Yosemite is that every time my son and I come here, I wonder if our experience will be as impressive or rewarding as the time before – and every single time, Yosemite delivers.

Sly and the Family Stone, “I Want to Take You Higher” (click to play):

*See other photo tours under tab at top of page.

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John White 6/21/12, 8:24 AM  

Great trip report, gorgeous photos, and I'm stunned at how little snow is up there! You've set a fire in me to get hiking this summer! Nicely done; also, now I'm going to wonder if every super-fit hiker is really an ultrarunner in disguise ;-)

Did you or your son suffer any altitude problems? I'm extraordinarily susceptible to altitude sickness, so it might take some acclimatization for me.

wirehairedrunner 6/21/12, 8:34 AM  

Nice trip report and photos. What a great thing to do with your son. I do believe that Jill Homer was also hiking Clouds Rest that same week--probably day after you.

Donald 6/21/12, 5:19 PM  

@John White: No major elevation problems other than feeling more short of breath than usual on minor inclines.

Scott 6/22/12, 6:24 AM  

As usual awesome post. The beautiful day plus the fact your son was with you made for some great times and memories. I see you were wearing your VFFs. Were they the all leather ones or the Treks?

Thanks for your posts.

Donald 6/22/12, 7:30 AM  

@Scott. Thanks. They're the Trek LS.

Andy 6/22/12, 10:39 AM  

Nice post.

Lucky boy, that son of a Donald!

Peace and Love,


Expat(ish) 6/22/12, 2:59 PM  

Very cool trip - I'm sending my son that link.

This Monday I walked/jogged (emphasis on walk) the Bright Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon from top to bottom and back up. It was amazing and my family, having seen my pictures, now wants to go.


Gretchen 6/26/12, 10:17 PM  

Three things:

1) You were in Yosemite?? I've been more out of the loop than I thought. Too bad I missed you - I was there all last week (on that very trail at one point).

2) I adore Cloud's Rest. Your trail was my first experience there as well, but I'd still recommend the one-way run from Happy Isles to Tenaya as my preferred route.

3) You should expect a separate email from me containing a scathing lecture about why it's important not to feed the wildlife. I'm not kidding about this, kid. I'm totally disappointed in you.

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