One of the more historic and unknown mountains in Yosemite is Clouds Rest. The mountain’s current name comes from Lafayette H. Bunnell, who was the doctor of the Mariposa Battalion which explored Yosemite Valley and Yosemite in the nineteenth century before it became a National Park. Bunnell (whose name now graces the Bunnell Cascade along the Merced River in Little Yosemite Valley) named the mountain such because when he viewed it after a snowstorm, the clouds appeared to “rest” upon the mountain. At 9,930 feet of elevation, and with a distinctive knife-like arete ridge, Clouds Rest can be viewed easily from Yosemite Valley and various other peaks in the park, particularly as it towers above nearby Tenaya Canyon.
Yet, for most of the twentieth century, Clouds Rest has not been one of the popular summits of the park, as it has been overshadowed by its nearby neighbors, Half Dome and El Capitan. In my personal opinion, this is a shame, as in my opinion, the views from the summit of Clouds Rest are some of the finest in the park, along with Mount Hoffmann and various other spots. Like Half Dome, however, Clouds Rest is a strenuous climb, with two main routes. The first, from Yosemite Valley is a grueling twenty-one mile roundtrip climb with almost six thousand feet of elevation gain that is better suited for a multi-day backpack. The second and “easier” route is from the Tioga Pass Road (Highway 120) which ascends and descends through the mid-section of Yosemite. While the latter route has less distance, it is a seasonal route in that the road is closed during the winter, and is something that is still a strenuous challenge for hikers and climbers in the summer months.
Directions: From the Tioga entrance station on the Eastern side of Yosemite, the parking area for the hike is sixteen miles to the west, just past the western edge of Lake Tenaya. From Crane Flat, the eastern border of the Tioga Pass Road, the parking area is thirty-one miles to the east. The parking area is also the jumping off point for the trail to Sunrise High Sierra Camp, and is marked on both sides of the road as such. During the busy months of the summer, it is highly likely that the small lot will be full of cars for day-use hikers and backpackers, but visitors will likely be able find nearby parking along the road. The parking area also has a pit toilet and bear lockers for visitors needing to store food.
From the parking area, the trail heads out along a wooden boardwalk before encountering its first obstacle in short order (~.10 mile), the Tioga Lake Drainage. Depending on the winter that the Sierras experienced, this crossing can be anywhere from an inch deep to knee deep. Even at times when the crossing is high, however, the water is generally not fast moving and can be easily crossed. From this point, the trail curves to the west alongside the drainage through forests. Again, depending on the season, there may be some smaller crossings that hikers need to traverse during this mostly flat first mile.
At the one mile mark, the trail begins to ascend uphill through a series of straight leg burning stairs and steep curving switchbacks. During the early summer months, this section will likely have snowmelt running over the hard established trail. Generally, while certain other locations - Washington State, and the Alps, for example have a reputation for extreme vertical gain on their trails, the high country of Yosemite - which this is part of - also has a number of spots with bruising gain, and this section is one of the most complained about and feared stretches for knowledgeable day-hikers and backpackers alike. The payoff during and after this 1.5 mile section is fantastic views, and a saddle with the trail junction to the aforementioned Sunrise High Sierra camp.
From the junction, the trail to the peak drops some two hundred feet immediately, which is somewhat of a disappointment after the effort required to gain those feet on the opposite side. Again, there is a balance and payoff with this descent - a relatively flat stretch of distance through meadows, forest, and a seasonal pond. Once past the pond, the trail again begins to ascend somewhat gradually to a second trail junction, which splits off traffic to Yosemite Valley and other destinations. Despite there being a junction, the route to the summit is quite clear and well signed. From this point, the remainder of the hike is above 9,000 feet, and the trees become sparse before eventually disappearing.
Right at treeline, the eastern flank of the arete exposes itself, along with the first of many panoramic views of the eastern section of the park, including Mount Hoffmann, and the southern section of the park, including Mount Starr King. The final stretch of the climb is along this exposed eastern flank of the arete, over eroded granite blocks. As one climbs, one walks alongside the ridge of Tenaya Canyon, which descends some 4,500 feet to the floor of Yosemite Valley. While the first section of this traverse is not a big deal, the last section involves a walk along the edge of the arete - meaning that there are drop-offs on both the North and South sides of the ridge. While it is not a true “knife-edge” traverse in that there is approximately ten feet of width on the edge (plenty of room), this section both appears daunting and is daunting to hikers or climbers with a fear of heights and or falls. Having said that, it is something that can be - and is crossed by many people yearly.
The final payoff over this exposed stretch is the summit, which has fantastic views of Half Dome to the west, Yosemite Valley, and the entire park stretching out in every direction. Depending on the time of year, and day, visitors may find the summit empty, except for marmots, or with fellow climbers from both the western and eastern routes. Having said that, the volume of climbers is always less than those on he companion and smaller peak below, Half Dome. Once one is done enjoying the view, the return for most is back the way one came to the Sunrise parking area.
A word on distance. This route has a variety of distances online, and this post is no different. While well signed, the approved and signed National Park distance is 7.5 miles summit to parking area, which means the roundtrip distance is fifteen miles. Having said that, when I climbed the peak with California Through My Lens, he tracked the route and found that is was 12.6 miles roundtrip. While I’m not sure what the discrepancy is, as we did stay on the trail the whole time, one should mentally prepare themselves for a hike with over 1700 feet of elevation gain and over twelve miles of distance.
Tips. One doesn’t need a pop quiz to know that this is one of my favorite spots in the park, irrespective of which way one hikes to the summit. But, it is a difficult hike and at certain times, climb, and one that interested parties should have proper water and supplies for in order that they can enjoy the views and solitude properly.