When it comes to classic Yosemite peaks, Half Dome gets all the attention. All the maps and trail guides talk about Half Dome. Every person who finds out you’re in Yosemite has to ask, “Have you done Half Dome?”
But what they should really be asking is, “Have you done Cloud’s Rest?”
This rocky ridge, though taller than Half Dome at 9,931 feet, sits in the shadow of its more famous cousin. But for those in the know, this is the place with the best views in the whole park — better than Half Dome, and far less crowded on the trail and at the top.
If you didn’t win the lottery for the Half Dome cables (and even if you did), put this at the top of your Yosemite list. You can summit Cloud’s Rest on a day hike but it’s most spectacular as an overnighter, which we did after backpacking in from Sunrise Lakes.
Despite an elevation change of 2,700 feet, the biggest challenge on the hike was the extra weight in water we had to carry. With no water source near the summit of Cloud’s Rest, we needed to bring enough water for our hike in, that evening’s dinner, the next morning’s breakfast, and the next afternoon’s hike out.
From Sunrise Lakes, we retraced our steps back to the trail junction with all the signs. It was only four miles to Cloud’s Rest from here, but would feel like the longest four miles of my life.
The Forsyth Trail descended sharply for the first half mile, winding down a granite staircase through stands of wildflowers. It flattened out for the next two miles, passing through a beautiful wooded valley.
We stopped at a little lake on the trail to fill up every bottle and bladder we brought with us; 164 ounces later, I was pretty sure I’d tip over if a leaf had so much as fallen on me.
Our climb began shortly after. The trail started opening up to views of Yosemite Valley, and we had our first peeks at Cloud’s Rest as well as a whole skyline of domes.
The last mile zigzagged up Cloud’s Rest and offered expansive views over the valley. If I squinted, I could see the little blue dot that was Tenaya Lake, the start of our hike way, way out there. It’s mind-boggling to picture myself as an even tinier dot traversing those ridges just a few days ago.
Just before the final scramble to the summit, we reached the infamous Cloud’s Rest Foot Trail. A narrow ridge no more than 20 feet wide (with the smallest section about 10 feet wide), the summit looked like a stack of building blocks. It was a relatively safe hike out, but you definitely didn’t want to trip on anything as both sides were fully exposed.
I walked along the entire length of the arête to the very tip-top of Cloud’s Rest at 9,931 feet. The views were imposing and humbling. I almost had whiplash just taking it all in. This way… no, that way… no, over there… oh look, over there!
I don’t know another place in the park where you could get an unobstructed 360° view from the farthest reaches of the high country to the well populated valley floor. All around us were peaks, peaks and more peaks, one after another, layered like a opulent painting.
This is what makes Cloud’s Rest so special — no other dome stands between you and your view, and you really feel like you’re in the center of Yosemite. I could even see Cathedral Peak in the distance, the site of my very first backpacking trip in 2008.
To the west stood Half Dome and though a thousand feet shorter, was no less impressive. The Grand Dame of Yosemite domes was a striking feature of the valley. We could even make out a faint streak of white where the cable path was installed.
We sat on the ridge, munching on jerky and chocolate and laughing at all the people in line to climb the cables on Half Dome. They looked like little ants marching up and down the face.
With the sun waning on the horizon, we started debating where to set up camp. Should we hike down a bit and pitch our tents on a lower ridge? Should we hike all the way down and camp in the woods below Cloud’s Rest? Our main concern was wind; but with the air being so still and warm, we decided to set up camp right on the spine, on a 20-foot span of granite standing thousands of feet above the valley floor.
There was no “better” view at camp, as each of our tents had a primo view of the Yosemite peaks. We anchored to every possible boulder, block, chockstone, and chickenhead — guylines going everywhere. Walking just a few feet in any direction from our tent brought us right to the edge of the spine, so something as simple as, say, going to the restroom at night was not something we wanted to do while still half-asleep.
Hands down, Cloud’s Rest is and was the most epic campsite I have ever, ever experienced. I think this was the point in our trip where all of us felt like our lives had changed in some way.
Watching the sunset to a soundtrack of Ben Gibbard on my iPod speaker, I was tearing up thinking about how exquisite that place, and especially that moment, was. When it comes down to it, being able to be present is such a great gift in life.
At night, we had our own private planetarium. I could lie down on the rock, look up at the sky, and have a 360° IMAX viewing of the Milky Way sprayed across the screen. I actually had trouble finding my favorite constellations because there were so many other stars visible!
When my friend finally went to bed, his tent glowed like Venus against a backdrop of orange lights from the city far off in the distance… Fresno, perhaps?
After taking in a glorious sunset the night before, we woke up to a beautiful, quiet sunrise. The first rays of light spilled over the top of Half Dome while we were brewing coffee. Only one other hiker had managed to make it up to Cloud’s Rest for sunrise and he stayed for less than an hour, so we had the whole ridge to ourselves that morning, watching the park change colors over the course of several hours.
When we finally packed up around noon, still no one had made it to the top. We took the Cloud’s Rest Trail heading down and west from the summit. Now if I were to do Cloud’s Rest again, I definitely would not take this trail to the top… You’d have to be quite hardy to go up it from Little Yosemite Valley, which we were hiking down to. (Not that going downhill is any easier than going uphill.)
And to cap off our Cloud’s Rest experience, we saw this sweet thing while descending to our next destination.