Monday, November 2, 2020

Clouds Rest

Clouds Rest rises over Yosemite Valley
13 miles round trip, 2800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

Clouds Rest is a massive mountain of granite rising to nearly 10000 feet in the heart of California's Yosemite National Park and provides the sweeping views that one would expect from a peak of its height at this location. A fairly lengthy day hike to this summit peaks with an airy walk along an open granite ridge that delivers a rare combination of Yosemite Valley views with far-reaching High Sierra views. Although a popular destination, Clouds Rest is still far less sought after than Half Dome and the hike to its summit is quieter than the trails in Yosemite Valley. That's a shame, as the views from Clouds Rest are arguably grander than those from its more famous neighbor. The trail to this summit is a bit long but the hike as a whole is not terribly difficult; the ridgewalk at the end may bother acrophobes but this ain't Angels Landing. If you're looking for a fairly challenging hike to the top of a well-known Yosemite landmark with some of the best views in the park, Clouds Rest is the hike for you.

I hiked Clouds Rest during an August visit to Yosemite National Park. The trailhead is near Tenaya Lake along Tioga Road; from Yosemite Valley, one can reach the trailhead by following CA Highway 140 west and then turning onto Big Oak Flat Road to head towards Highway 120. At the junction with Tioga Road at Crane Flat, turn right and follow Tioga Road 31 miles to the Sunrise Trailhead on the right (south) side of the road; this lot is small and usually fills up early each morning but there is plenty of parking along the road here as well.

I followed the boardwalk leaving the trailhead, which put me on the trail towards Sunrise Lakes and Clouds Rest. Signs along the trail indicate that this hike is perhaps as long as 15 miles round trip, but it is closer in distance to 13 miles. A number of trails branched off from the trail in its opening stretch, all of which I ignored until reaching Tenaya Creek about a sixth of a mile into the hike. The trail crosses Tenaya Creek, a crossing aided by a series of well-placed rocks for rockhopping. This crossing may be difficult earlier in the year when there is heavy snowmelt, but during my August visit there was no water in Tenaya Creek. After crossing the creekbed, I came to a trail junction: the left fork led along the eastern lakeshore of Tenaya Lake, while the right fork continued towards Sunrise Lakes and Clouds Rest. Before continuing to Clouds Rest, I turned left and took a 0.1 mile detour to the shoreline of Tenaya Lake. The trail led to a quiet beach where I enjoyed views of rounded Stately Pleasure Dome reflected in the lake's calm morning waters.

Tenaya Lake
Rejoining the trail to Clouds Rest, I followed the wide and flat trail through the forest as it paralleled the dry creekbed of Tenaya Creek. At the right time of year, this stretch of trail is probably quite scenic, with the creek flowing through green meadows, but the scene was a bit sad with the creekbed entirely dried out.

Dried creekbed of Tenaya Creek
The trail soon left the creek and passed through forest interspersed with areas of open granite. At three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead, a granite outcrop to the right of the trail provided my first view of my destination for the day: 9931-foot Clouds Rest.

Clouds Rest
Leaving the outcrop, the trail descended slightly into a forested basin. Over the next 0.7 miles, the trail crossed three streams (or in my case, three dry streambeds) while staying fairly flat; after the third stream crossing, the trail began one of the two main ascents of the hike. The trail started climbing up a ridge rising above Tenaya Canyon. The open granite interspersed with forest on this ridge was quite pretty and made the ascent a bit more bearable.

Granite ridge near Sunrise Lakes
The trail was very rocky here, seemingly intentionally. Early trailbuilding in the park seemed to promote the construction of stone staircases. While this may have made hiking easier at some point in the past, erosive forces of the past century have turned the trail into uneven jumbles of rock that can be unpleasant to hike on. As I pushed uphill along this ascent- which covered about 1000 feet of elevation gain in one mile- I found that I really didn't like hiking on this type of surface. Luckily, views of Mount Hoffman and Tuolumne Peak to the north had opened up, making the ascent more enjoyable.

Mount Hoffman and Tuolumne Peak
At the top of the climb, I came to the junction with the trail to Sunrise Lakes in a sadddle, 2.5 miles from the trailhead. The Sunrise Lakes option split off to the left so I took the right fork, which started descending down the other side of the saddle, dropping about 400 feet to a basin at the base of Sunrise Mountain. Here, the trail undulated through rolling terrain as it passed through areas of scree, meadows, and forest. While much of the vegetation in the park had turned yellow by August, I found the meadows and forest here still fairly green, which greatly increased my enjoyment of the hike.

Forest and meadows below Sunrise Mountain
A boulder field along the trail here provided nice views of nearby Sunrise Mountain rising above the basin. Sunrise Mountain was a fin of granite, much like Clouds Rest: the two mountains seemed to share many common features.

Sunrise Mountain
About a mile after leaving the Sunrise Lakes junction, the trail passed a pretty pond on the west side of the trail. The pond was lined with trees and with pretty meadows dotted with blooming magenta paintbrush.

Pond on Sunrise Mountain
Magenta Paintbrush
Past the pond, the trail stayed fairly level for 0.4 miles to a creek crossing. After crossing the creek, the trail began a steady ascent through forest, which thinned out to majestic pines as I reached a trail junction 4.5 miles from the trailhead. The left fork led down to the John Muir Trail and Yosemite Valley, while the right fork continued ascending towards Clouds Rest.

This extended ascent- which really started at the creek- continued to the summit of Clouds Rest. Like the ascent earlier in the hike, it covers about 1000 feet of elevation gain, although its much more enjoyable than the previous climb as its spread out over 2 miles, the trail tread is much nicer, and the views are far better. The trail climbed steeply coming out of the previous junction to reach the ridgeline of Clouds Rest, featuring some nice views of Mount Starr King, the Clark Range, and the backside of Clouds Rest along the way.

Clouds Rest
Once on the ridge, the trail flattened out for a couple hundred meters, traveling through a sparse forest of stately pines. Arriving at the base of Clouds Rest's summit fin, I began the final ascent, climbing steeply uphill along the ridge until the forest faded out and the ridge became exposed granite.

Ridgeline of Clouds Rest
I followed the trail onto the exposed granite, finally reaching the expansive views that the hike had promised. Granite dome after granite dome rose to the north, rising above Tenaya Lake and culminating in the jagged ridges and vertical walls of the Sierra Crest. Below me to the northwest was the gaping chasm of Tenaya Canyon, over a mile deep.

The last stretch of trail followed the open granite ridge of Clouds Rest to the summit. There is a little bit of exposure here, but the ridge is always reasonably wide. It's easily walkable although some hikers may feel a bit more secure scrambling. This ridge walk has been described as a "knife edge" in some hike reviews; I think that's a bit of a stretch. I felt safe throughout this entire part of the ascent; acrophobes may have a bit of trouble but as long as you watch your step and don't do anything crazy this isn't particularly hazardous. If you've attempted Angels Landing in Zion or Katahdin's Knife Edge this particular stretch will seem like a breeze.

Tenaya Lake and Mount Conness from the ridge of Clouds Rest
And just like that, I found myself at the very top of Clouds Rest, with a view of more or less all of Yosemite National Park. Tenaya Canyon lay directly below me, with the broad granite wall of Mount Watkins directly across the canyon. Mount Hoffman and Mount Tuolumne rose over the nearby high country.

Tenaya Canyon
Tenaya Canyon emptied out into Yosemite Valley. Many of the major valley features- Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, North Dome, Sentinel Dome, and Half Dome- were visible from Clouds Rest. The view of Half Dome was particularly remarkable: here was a view of the backside of that iconic granite dome. This view in profile hid the dramatic northwest face but helped show that the southeast face is nearly as steep! Looking closely at the northeast aspect of Half Dome, we spotted the cables that Half Dome hikers use to reach the summit.

Half Dome, Sentinel Dome, and North Dome rise over Yosemite Valley
I turned around for a view that was just as, if not more impressive: the great peaks of the High Sierra laid out on the horizon. Below to the east, the Merced River flowed through a granite canyon, pausing at Merced Lake along its descent. To the southeast was the Clark Range: sharp Mount Clark was accompanied by the descriptively named Gray and Red Peaks. Mount Lyell- the park's highest peak- was joined by Mount Maclure, Mount Florence, Electra Peak, and Foerster Peak above the Merced watershed. Further north, Mounts Dana and Gibbs rose behind Cathedral Peak, Unicorn Peak, and the other sharp granite spires of the Cathedral Range. Mount Conness and Matterhorn Peak marked the skyline to the north.

Mount Lyell and the Clark Range rise over the Merced River drainage
Cathedral Range and Mount Dana
The view was extraordinary, encompassing both of the beloved regions of the park. There were quite a few other hikers sharing the view with me, although the spaciousness of the summit prevented it from feeling crowded. This is an understandably popular hike. However, despite being well-loved, this trail is still less crowded than those in Yosemite Valley- and for hikers who want to avoid the red tape, the cables, or the crowds of Half Dome, this is a good alternate hike. Even if you aren't considering Half Dome, this is an enjoyable hike to a grand viewpoint and a chance to summit one of Yosemite's iconic features.

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