The great thing about the Happy Isles Trailhead is that it is the jumping off point not just for day hikes, but for many multi-day trips into the backcountry from Yosemite Valley. Over ninety-five percent of Yosemite is designated as wilderness, meaning that there are few roads other than trails, and that one must hike to get to these pristine locations. If the Mist Trail is the most popular day hike from Happy Isles, the most popular long distance/multi-day hike is Half Dome. Half Dome is both a day hike and a popular overnight destination, with many people electing to climb into Little Yosemite Valley to spend the night before rising early to summit the next day.
If you're interested in hiking Half Dome, the first thing you should know is that you need a permit, whether it is for a day hike or an overnight hike. The second thing you should know is that there’s a better hike from Happy Isles that takes you to a higher mountain with less people, and that is the hike to Cloud’s Rest. Cloud’s Rest is the highest peak in the Tenaya Canyon region of the park at 9,930 feet, and has one of the best views in the park, along with Sentinel Dome, Mt. Hoffman, and Mt. Dana. From the summit, you have a sheer drop-off view of Tenaya Canyon beneath you, Half Dome (1,100 feet shorter, at 8,836 feet), and the high country of the park to the North, East, and South. If those credentials weren’t good enough, every time I’ve been at the top, I haven't seen anyone, and it’s a great place to camp and stargaze.
It’s also worth noting that if you don’t want to climb the nearly 6,000 vertical feet from Yosemite Valley to Cloud’s Rest, you can head toward the peak from a number of trails leaving the Tioga Pass Road. While I am used to doing this hike as a quick two-day backpack, I’m not going to rule out certain motivated individuals doing it in a day – after all, it is only twenty-two miles roundtrip, and I, along with many people have done that distance to summit Mt. Whitney in a day.
Directions: Head over to Happy Isles (Shuttle Stop #16). From there, follow the Mist Trail as detailed here to Vernal Falls, and then to Nevada Falls. Once you reach the top of Nevada Falls, you will be ready for your first break as you will have climbed 2,900 vertical feet from Yosemite Valley in three miles. I’d recommend that you take a minute, eat some high calorie food, enjoy the view, and wipe the sweat off your brow before heading onward, into Little Yosemite Valley.
Once your break is over, you will head Northeast into Little Yosemite Valley. This mile long section of the trail is a great spot to regain your pace, and catch your second wind of the day before you once again start heading uphill. You will be passing the Merced for most of this section, and this is important to note, because it is a great spot to refill your water bottles. From mid-summer to early winter, this may be the last best source of water for the next day for you, as there are no large bodies of water present on the trail after Little Yosemite Valley. Unless there is snow on the trail that you can melt; or you have confirmed that there is still seasonal runoff that you can filter, I would highly recommend you drink up and fill up all of your bottles before proceeding any further, otherwise you may be spending a very thirsty night on the mountain.
From Little Yosemite Valley, take the trail junction North towards Half Dome. From this point, you will be under constant tree coverage until you break treeline around nine thousand feet several miles up the trail. After you have gone 1.5 miles, there will be a turnoff for Cloud’s Rest and the Sunrise High Sierra Camp. Take the turnoff, and keep heading uphill as you pass a number of campsites that backpackers have made for treks into the High Country, and for overnight ascents of Half Dome.
If you are feeling tired after this first five miles, this is not a bad place to spend the night, should you have the time on your permit, and or the inclination to stop. After this half mile stretch, you will see another trail junction which will take you to the Sunrise High Sierra Camp, and destinations North. If that’s where you want to go, head that way, otherwise, stay on the trail you are on toward Cloud’s Rest. From this junction, is it five miles to the summit of Cloud’s Rest. I have backpacked over many mountain ranges, and I have to say that in my experience, the first three or so miles of the remaining five are one of the most mentally brutal stretches I have backpacked through. The trail is well, graded, marked, and really not overly steep.
But...every time I have headed through this section of trail, it feels like it takes forever. Offhand, I can think of several reasons for this – if you started in the valley the same day, at this point you are a probably a little tired from the elevation gain and distance. Second, while the scenery is beautiful, it is also your standard Sierra Nevada forest, with nothing extraordinary visible for a couple miles. So, if you are in this stretch of trail and it feels like it is taking forever, don’t worry – it probably is – or at least that’s how it feels. After you traverse this portion, however, you will be rewarded with an amazing view. As you approach the 9,000 foot mark, the trees will thin, leaving you on a series of switchbacks with views facing West interspersed by lone pines, and an increasingly small Half Dome. After these switchbacks, the trail straightens out, and levels out somewhat just above 9,000 feet.
Here, on the shoulder of the mountain, you’ll find a great spot to camp for the night. There are a number of freestanding glacial boulders, and you’ll find a number of spots that have been packed down on the loose granite shelf. This is where I usually stay, and where I stayed in 2009. I’d say the only better spot to sleep on this trip is the summit of Cloud’s Rest itself. If it’s summertime, be prepared for this area to be fairly popular among backpackers, meaning there might be 4-5 other people there; wintertime, you’ll be lucky if you see another person.
Depending on the time of day, and time of year, you may want to drop your bag and gear before heading for the summit, which is less than a half mile (.5) from this spot. If it’s late in the day, and you feel like taking it easy, you’ll be able to set up camp easily, and watch the sun set behind Half Dome, while watching Mt. Starr King and Mt. Clark to the South. If you decide to relax, the summit of Cloud’s Rest is a great place to watch the sunrise (as is the above mentioned campsite). It is worth noting that should you elect to sleep on the summit of Cloud’s Rest as I have done, it is an exposed granite area that is basically 10,000 feet that gets quite windy, and has a steep drop off on the Tenaya Canyon side. From the summit, there are great panoramic views of the park. Should you stay at the summit, or the high camp I mention, you’ll be treated to a great sunrise; and great stargazing. Once you’re done on the summit, and if you only have the two day permit I mentioned, you can either make camp for the night, or begin your trek back into the valley. Either way, I guarantee that you’ll have an excellent time summitting this peak, and a relaxing short backpack.