Updated: Oct 17
Much like Mt. Tallac and Maggie's Peaks, for a number of years, we've wanted to do this popular hike to Cloud's Rest in Yosemite. In fact, we thought 2019 was going to be the year, as we'd actually planned on doing this hike with friends, but then a scheduling conflict arose and we had to back out. (They went ahead and did the hike without us and we've been a little envious ever since. 😉)
A couple of notable details about planning for this hike, that also consequently kept it at bay for us for the past few years: 1) it is in Yosemite National Park (an incredibly renowned and highly-regarded national park that we only recently ventured into for the first time), which means navigating a very busy national park that recently began the advance reservation requirement to even gain access to it and 2) the route we've had our eye on is a challenging, 12-mile hike with roughly 3,000 feet of elevation gain.
Needless to say, 2022 was the new year to tackle this hike, and we waited until the fall season to give it a go. The disadvantages of hiking this in the fall is that the temperatures are colder, and we'd be short on daylight and most likely starting the hike in the dark (or ending in the dark if we don't get an early enough start). The advantages of waiting until fall is that the park stops requiring advance reservations after September 30, and Yosemite, as well as the trail, will likely be less busy than attempting it during the peak season.
We decided the best course of action was to drive down to Lee Vining the day before the hike, stay overnight, and get up really early the following morning to hit the trailhead before dawn (and before the crowds show up). Instead of grabbing a hotel room, however, we towed our little travel trailer behind us and hooked up at Mono Vista RV Park. It would be the final camping trip before winterizing "Cecilia" (the name we gave our camper).
Early Friday afternoon, we hit the road. On the way down the familiar Hwy 395, we made a couple of roadside stops to capture the brilliant fall colors illuminating the aspen stands along Virginia Creek, approaching Conway Summit. The Sierra doesn't get a lot of fall color compared to where we grew up in the Midwest with its plethora of deciduous trees, but the light was hitting the yellowy oranges something fierce this time of day.
About 2.5 hours on the road and we'd arrived in Lee Vining to check in and get the camper leveled out and hooked up.
And by this time, I was ravenous, so we stopped for a quick, really late lunch, having the best gas station food you'll ever eat.
When we returned to the campsite, I set my alarm for 4 a.m. and tried my best to fall asleep. Naturally, I woke up prematurely at 3 a.m. and didn't fall back to sleep until 3:45, so that extra 15 minutes was probably a mistake, because when that alarm chimed, I was feeling pretty groggy. But, I was also excited about getting going on this hike, so I rolled out of bed and started getting ready, making sure to wear and pack some layers, and then made us some oatmeal for breakfast before we headed out. Our hiking packs were already set up and waiting for us in the Land Cruiser, all we had to do was fill the bladders with water when we arrived at the trailhead.
It was a little before 6 a.m. when we passed through the Yosemite gate. Yes, it was pitch-black out.
Continuing on to the trailhead parking lot for Sunrise Lakes near Tenaya Lake, we easily found a parking spot at 6 a.m., though there were several vehicles in the parking lot already – and surprisingly, a tent someone pitched on the asphalt in one of the designated parking spaces. Anything goes, I guess.
It was dark. We could still see the stars. And it was 30º (F). Once again, I was glad I brought layers and my choppers (leather mittens). We filled our water bladders and affixed our headlamps to our heads and started walking over to where we thought the trail began.
At the very beginning, this trail sign shows 7.4 miles to Cloud's Rest, which would make this hike just shy of 15 miles roundtrip. Um. That's a lot longer than a 12-mile hike, which is what we were anticipating based on our research. So, this might get interesting.
It was a really good thing we had both headlamps and hiking poles with us. Navigating rocky terrain in the daylight is challenging enough, but your eyes can really play tricks on you in the dark, even with the light of a headlamp to guide you.
The first mile of this hike went really fast – partially because it was relatively flat compared to the rest of the trail – and before we knew it, day was breaking and we no longer needed our headlamps.
But around that same time, the first section of climbing was upon us.
For about 45 minutes, we climbed non-stop rocky terrain for nearly 900 vertical feet. When we arrived at a little "plateau" at the top of this stretch, we saw a few other hikers stopping to rest at this trail intersection, but we decided to keep moving. The following stretch was descending, anyway.
In fact, we descended right down to a small unnamed reflection pond and into a forested area with frozen-hard ground complete with frost along the edges.
The next leg of the route was noticeably colder, like the cool evening air just hung there. But the sun does what it does and got perpetually higher in the sky and began warming the air. Sweating on the steep climbs also helped.
After descending and flattening out slightly, we started the final climb, which is around 1,000 vertical feet until you reach the top. The very last section of this part of the trail is the rockiest and the steepest grade. When we got to the "top" of this section, I saw the next sign.
I looked back at my husband and asked, "Do we keep going?"
The answer is yes, and this is easily the most exciting part of the trail, and probably of most every hike I've ever been on. So, up we went.
This "foot trail," as the sign reads, is a "choose your own adventure" perpetual slab of granite with sheer drop-offs on both sides and no railings or cables, so you'd better be sure of your footing, and it's probably best not to look down. None of the photos fully capture the magnitude of this section of the trail.
Here are the first glimpses of the famous Half Dome off to the right. And for some perspective, at the very top of the granite ridge in front me, "Cloud's Rest," where it meets the blue sky, the other (very tiny) hikers who reached the top can be seen. In fact, we learned that those hikers had actually tent camped on the top of Cloud's Rest the previous night. (We're not sure this is allowed, but secondarily, I can't imagine sleeping on a fully-exposed slab of granite in 20- or 30-degree weather. Yes, they make sleeping pads, but still.)
Looking off to the right side of the ridge that leads down into the canyon and Yosemite Valley.
Looking off to the left of the granite ridge. In the background on the right-hand side of this image, smoke hovering from what we believe is the lightning-caused Red Fire can be seen.
Once we finally reached the top of Cloud's Rest, the 360-degree views were utterly amazing. Again, no photo or video can truly capture the magnitude that surrounded us up there. It was so incredible, it's as if your eyes didn't even know where to look or what to focus on.
I honestly didn't know what to do first: peel off sweaty layers, walk around and take photos, or have snacks. After my major, regrettable blunder on the longest hike of our season a couple of weeks ago, I sort of went overboard on this hike – I packed a smorgasbord of snacks: trail mix, beef jerky, apple slices, peanut butter pretzel bites, and protein bars. So, I guess I did a little of all 3.
At the top, I also checked my fitness tracker to confirm the distance hiked from the trailhead. 6.46 miles. Not 7.4 miles. So, this would end up being just under 13 miles roundtrip. That's slightly less intimidating than the nearly 15 miles the initial trail sign indicated.
So, I walked around some more and took a bunch of photos.
Half Dome and Yosemite Valley.
This canyon, Yosemite Valley, was intense from up here.
After we summited and the overnighters had begun their descent, a few other hikers joined us at the top. We took each other's photos in this amazing setting and engaged in casual chit-chat. One young man, solo hiker, was wearing a Red Wing Shoes hat, so my husband approached him and said that he grew up 20 minutes from Red Wing, MN. Another solo hiker, probably 65 years old, warned us that the trailhead parking lot and surrounding area would be like Disneyland when we returned. (He was right.)
I probably could have spent hours at the top. But at some point, we have to start the less fun descent. And I was also looking forward to having a real lunch. So, we gathered up our gear, strapped up, and headed down.
The blue lake tucked away near the center of this photo is Tenaya Lake, our end destination. It's where we more or less started our hike to Cloud's Rest.
My husband is leading the way, progressing back down the granite ridge. It was about this time where I heard a loud clap of thunder in the distance, off to our right. I snapped my head that direction, scanning the horizon, wondering where thunder could possibly be coming from with clear blue skies and not a cloud in sight. Just then, my husband turned around and announced with an air of incredulity, "That was a rockslide."
From the trail, here's a view of Cloud's Rest on the right.
Some fall colors along the trail. We also loved the textured layers of the peak in the background.
Down, down, down. A lot of rocks, a lot of steps. In my opinion, the hike down was harder and more exhausting than the hike up.
So few hikers were on the trail on our ascent – and we all seemed to arrive at the summit within minutes of each other – and by contrast, on our descent, we saw dozens upon dozens of hikers, some in groups of 4, 5, 6 people, all headed up to Cloud's Rest, all of varying ages and varying levels of preparedness and abilities. Many hikers asked, as they saw us coming down, if we'd already been all the way up to Cloud's Rest. We affirmed, and then they'd ask us what time we'd started. And we'd tell them: "6 a.m."
The last few miles of the descent started to feel very long to both of us and we were both ready to wrap this one up. About a mile or so from the end, a hiking couple was just starting out. They saw us approaching and the guy enthusiastically asks us, "Well, how far did you make it? Where did you go? What time did you start?"
"Cloud's Rest. 6 a.m.," was my robotic response.
He replies, "You two look dejected."
I chuckled and said we were just worn out from the rocky descent and were ready to be done, but I assured him the views at Cloud's Rest were unbelievable. Because this entire section we'd hiked in the dark, we didn't really have a frame of reference for how close we were getting to the end of the trail. Several times, I said out loud, "I don't remember this part." It's funny how that works. Things look so different between night and day.
We returned to the parking lot and the Disneyland likeness was pretty accurate. It was great to have arrived so early in the morning and to have gotten a head-start on the hike, beating the crowds. Now, it was off to Lee Vining to find a much-earned lunch!
Hiking to Cloud's Rest was beyond amazing. I'm so glad we were able to fit it in this fall and that we had perfect weather for it.
Both of us were pretty worn out upon returning to the campsite, following lunch. So, we relaxed outside until it was time for dinner. We did not shy away from going to bed early, either, after waking up at 4 a.m. and completing a 13-mile hike. However, about an hour in, the town of Lee Vining had a power outage for the next 5 hours. Dang. We can't seem to escape those!