If you’re looking for arguably the best view of the valley, hiking Clouds Rest in Yosemite will certainly fit the bill. Though I’ve been lucky to visit Yosemite several times, our most recent trip in October was the first time I’d really sought out hikes outside of the famous (and crowded) valley. While the valley certainly has its share of showstoppers – I’m excited to start exploring more of the park, starting with the 14.5 mile Clouds Rest hike.
Overview: Hiking Clouds Rest via Tenaya Lake
Start & End: Sunrise Lakes Trailhead OR Tenaya Lake Parking Lot, off of Tioga Rd (Hwy 120). The trailhead is about an hour and twenty minutes from the valley – but the hike is worth the drive!
Distance: 14.5 miles
Time: ~8 hours (4 hours to, 3 hours 45 min from), with a 30 minute lunch break on Clouds Rest
Notes: The hike is strenuous not because of the 15 mile length or the elevation gain (about 1800 feet) – but because you’re tackling both of those while starting at an elevation of 8000 ft. While I don’t normally love switchbacks, I found myself struggling much more than usual on the ones on this trail.
What to Pack
Hiking Clouds Rest took us around a total of 8 hours. We would consider ourselves moderately active, working out about 2 – 4 times a week via cardio-based classes. However, no number of spin classes would ever fully prepare me for Clouds Rest, given the base elevation. Thus, we packed accordingly, knowing that it’d be a full-day hike:
- REI Flash 22 Pack
- Canon T1 DSLR Camera (latest version here) w/ Sigma 18-250mm lens
- Selfie stick (no shame)
- 2 Liters of Water in a 1L Nalgene bottle and 1L Platypus soft bottle
- MSR Trailshot Micro Water Filter
- Lunch – something hearty! I ended up bringing leftovers from my Chipotle burrito bowl
- Plenty of snacks – 2 Epic bars, stroopwafel cookies, banana, trail mix
- Nuun electrolyte tablets – I mixed 1 tablet into my Nalgene water
- My emergency kit in a ziploc bag
- Mini Mophie phone charger + cord – I’ve gone through several phone chargers, and my mini Mophie still reigns as the fastest charger
What to Wear
We visited mid-October and were lucky with moderate temps ranging 30s at night to 60s during the day. The skies were sunny and beautiful – which translated to strong rays up at higher elevations. I forgot to reapply sunscreen on the hike and ended up with a nice sunglasses-shaped sun burn on my face 🙂
- Athleta Short-Sleeve Shirt (similar here)
- Athleta Revelation Tights (similar here)
- Smartwool MTS Mid 250 Long-Sleeve Crew
- Patagonia Nano Air Jacket
- The North Face Venture II Jacket (reviewed here)
- Smartwool Hiking Socks
- La Sportiva Bushido Trail Running Shoes
- Nike Dri-fit baseball cap
Where to Begin
You can start the trail from two spots: the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead or the Tenaya Lake Parking lot. These are fairly close to each other on Tioga Road (Hwy 120). If you’re starting out early (highly recommend starting your hike before 9am), you should be able to find parking in the actual lots. Otherwise, plenty of people (like us) parked on the shoulder of the road, where safe.
There is a pit toilet at the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead, which is nice if you’ve just finished the long-ish hour+ drive from the valley. Additionally, there are several bear lockers – if you have anything scented in your car (food, drinks, hand lotion, hand sanitizer… ANYTHING), be sure to place it in the locker. The last thing you want to come back to after a long day hike is finding your car pried open by a curious, hungry bear.
The first part of the trail canted towards Tenaya Lake. We came across a stream crossing at the start of the hike – in the summer, this will be more of a river fording, and during late fall, it’ll be rock hopping like below:
We decided to take a short detour to the left to see Tenaya Lake to admire its alpine lake grandeur with Polly Dome towering in the back. This was also the perfect chance to filter some water from the lake as we had stupidly forgotten to refill one of our bottles at our campsite. Luckily, I had brought my MSR Trailshot Micro Water Filter with us, which saved the day.
After this peaceful detour, we continued onwards – this helpful sign informed us that we were still 7.1 miles away from our destination ಥ‿ಥ
The first mile and a half consisted of a leisurely hike through the woods… followed by a series of rocky switchbacks ascending almost 1,000 feet in just one mile. This is when I really started to feel the elevation – five steps felt like 500. The urge to retreat back to sunny Tenaya Lake was strong – but we powered on.
You can’t really tell from the photo above, but I was dying by the time we reached the crest.
Over the Crest
Once the grueling switchbacks were done, the trail hit another fork, where campers head left to continue to Sunrise Lakes and the High Sierra Camps beyond them. We continued straight ahead to a descent – which meant that we’d have another ascent on our hands on the way back. The next few miles consisted of meandering through woods and walking past streams and ponds.
As we climbed higher and higher, the end was in sight – I could see people hopping across the spine of Clouds Rest to the summit. The last 100 yards or so consists of walking across a stone walkway with 4000 ft drops on either side. This wasn’t so much physically tiring as mentally exhausting. As long as there isn’t a freak gust of wind or tornado (0% chance) or earthquake (… God forbid), most folks should be fine.
How the spine foot trail looks from the summit – you can even see Tenaya Lake in the background. Luckily, this anxiety-inducing view is from the summit – so you can blissfully be unaware while climbing up.
Clouds Rest Summit
After tip toeing and rock hopping across the spine, the summit opened up into a wide area with plenty of seating and lounging options. We arrived here late around 3pm, and there were still plenty of folks soaking up the views and the sun. Though the valley was smoky due to controlled fires in the park, the views were still incredible. Looking down on Half Dome, we could see tiny specks of people still climbing up the side, despite the stakes being removed for the season.
After eating lunch and resting for half an hour, we began making our way down. We knew we’d likely get stuck hiking in the darkness, but wanted to minimize that time as much as possible.
Heading back took almost just as long – the ascent back to the crest was equally grueling and descending the rocky switchbacks required some extra attention. This wasn’t necessarily bad, however – we had some amazing sunset views of the surrounding peaks and forests.
Thankfully we were prepared with headlamps – we walked the last mile or so back in the dark. Ultimately, we were pushing it with the late start at 11am, but it was 100% worth it to push on and get those summit views! Would love to go back sometime with an earlier start so we could spend more time at the summit and at Tenaya Lake. Or perhaps get a permit and cowboy camp at the top 🙂