Back on July 1 a wilderness patrol ranger in Yosemite National Park came across three groups of hikers, seven people total, “completely lost while facing darkness” in the Sunrise Pass area south of Tenaya Lake, off Tioga Road in Yosemite.
The ranger reported all three groups lost their way trying to get to Clouds Rest and back, due to snow covering some parts of the trail.
I saw this information posted on social media, on a National Park Service blog, and picked up by some local news agencies. When a friend suggested we do Clouds Rest on Saturday last weekend I agreed right away. Clouds Rest may have the best 360-degree views in Yosemite, and it sounded like a backcountry trail situation worth updating.
Having already been to Clouds Rest twice in the past three years via the same trail that starts at the west end of Tenaya Lake, I knew we would want to make an early, alpine start. The walk is billed as 13 to 15 miles round trip, depending on which trail descriptions and trail signs you believe.
We intended to depart Sonora at 4 a.m. but one of us was late so we left at 4:30 a.m. We got parked at the Sunrise Trailhead and started walking by 6:30 a.m.
First wet crossing
Before 7 a.m. we came to our first wet crossing, where Tenaya Creek flows wide and 2 feet to 3 feet deep across part of the trail that is paved with raised stepping stones. In this case the stepping stones were a couple feet underwater.
As usual this spring and summer, I go out into the Central Sierra seeking high waters, snowmelt-swollen streams and creeks and waterfalls, and opportunities to get soaked head to toe.
So I wear the same socks and shoes all day. I make sure they fit well dry and they fit well wet. I do not take them off except to dump rocks and other debris that get in. I find this far more time-efficient than removing or changing footwear to cross creeks and streams.
It’s also safer to have sturdy footwear on when trying to cross quick-moving waters. You may not be able to see where you’re placing your feet and there can be sharp, slippery edges down there under water.
Each person has their preference on how to deal with water crossings and wet feet. My approach is simple: it’s wet out so I go prepared to keep my feet wet all day. I’m fortunate my feet don’t blister. But I always carry basic first aid gear in case they do.
We each had pocket-size topographic maps copied from the USGS Tenaya Lake quadrangle, in case we needed them for pathfinding.
Snow on the trail
I anticipated snow on the trail would be a problem on the first major set of switchbacks. They lead up to a trail junction with options to head toward Sunrise High Sierra Camp.
That junction is about 2.5 miles from where we started. I figured if we were patient we would be able to follow the trail to that point. Staying on trail should not be an issue the rest of the way.
That was pretty much the case. It was a week since the seven hikers got lost and found by the wilderness patrol ranger in that same general area. A lot more snow had melted, so a lot more trail was exposed to where you could see it. The melting snow created a lot of water on the switchbacks, with streams running down the cobblestone steps in places.
Plenty of snowbanks and snow bridges remained, hiding the trail in places and presenting challenges for the less than sure-footed. We tried to stay off the thin-looking snow bridges. One heavy step through a melting snowbridge can mean a sprained ankle, lower leg fracture or worse.
I was wearing trail running shoes. My friends wore lightweight hiking boots with ankle support. None of us carried trekking poles, but anyone concerned about balance, being on snow on steep inclines, and slogging through wet stream crossings can justify taking a pair of poles for this walk.
At one point we lost the trail for 15 minutes, but landmarks and our topo maps showed we were just below the saddle where the trail junction would be. We carried on uphill, staying off the snow where it was possible, and came to the trail junction moments later. It was 8:45 a.m.
Worth the walk
There was still plenty work to do and many more hours on the trail. We came across other sections of trail where snowbanks and wet crossings slowed us down. But the hardest pathfinding was behind us and we made decent time to reach the final approach to Clouds Rest by noon.
Here the trail rises to climb the narrow, exfoliating spine of a glacier-carved formation that towers above Half Dome and the rest of Tenaya Canyon. First-timers may find themselves concerned about the height, 9,926 feet above sea level, and their unroped exposure to steep drops on both sides of the summit ridge. Plenty of people will also be exhilarated and that’s how we found scores of others over the course of two hours we remained on top.
From the top of Clouds Rest it’s easy to spot Half Dome to the southwest and below, its summit at 8,839 feet elevation. Alongside Half Dome lies the deep, granite cleft of Tenaya Canyon, featuring Basket Dome and North Dome. Further southwest are the stone walls and green floor of Yosemite Valley.
The east side of Clouds Rest is where the September 2014 Meadow Fire blew up, prompting helicopter evacuations of hikers off Half Dome. It eventually burned more than 4,900 acres and much of that is still plain to see. The first time I walked up Clouds Rest was at night in October 2014, to see hot spots glowing red and orange in the smoldering burn scar below, followed by sunrise.
To the north, the way we came last Saturday, we could see Tenaya Lake, Tenaya Peak, Polly Dome and numerous other horns, ridges and summits that surround Tuolumne Meadows.
We were walking back down off Clouds Rest by 2 p.m. We retraced our steps carefully whenever we came to snow and wet crossings. We still lost the trail momentarily in places. But we’d left ourselves hours and hours of precious daylight. We never felt anxious, let alone lost.
We made it back to the final, long wet crossing at Tenaya Creek by 6:15 p.m. and we were swimming in Tenaya Lake by 6:30 p.m. We were back in Sonora by 9:30 p.m. Altogether we spent more than 16 hours on the road and in the wilderness and we were tuckered. The soreness has lingered but once again it was worth the effort. And we know we don’t have to do that one again for at least a little while.
Reporter’s note: Before I began working for newspapers in the early 1990s, I spent seven years with VisionQuest and Outward Bound as a paid, certified wilderness instructor and emergency medical technician accountable for groups of felony offender teens, court-ordered children and adult Cuban refugees. I am in my mid-50s, and anyone who walks OK on their own can keep up with me anywhere.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.