A Hug From The Sky: Hiking Clouds Rest

Every time I’m in Yosemite, I can’t help but think about John Muir. His footprints are all over the wilderness that exists there.  Part of me feels really conflicted about this because even though he gets much of the credit for the conservation of that land, it couldn’t have come about without devastating consequences for the Native Americans who lived there first. Their lives were destroyed, their homes stolen from them, their way of life shattered.  I think as conscientious citizens and frequenters of public land, it’s up to us to keep their story alive and to remember their sacrifices as we tromp among mountains that were once home to vibrant tribes.

IMG_2472Our most recent trip took us to Tuolumne Meadows, nestled in the Sierras. The Native American meaning of Tuolumne is “people who dwell in stone houses.” Surrounded by mountains of granite with pine trees whose strong roots grip in every crack to keep them aloft, the season here is short and even in the summer, the smell of snow is on the air.  In late August, the temps hover at 70 during the day and dip into the low 30s at night.

IMG_2464Life up here is quieter, shielded from the touristy bustle of the valley. There is one camp store, a small post office, and the Tuolumne Meadows Grill, all combined into a building constructed of canvas and plywood, a temporary setup for the hiking season. The picnic tables out front boast a ragamuffin crew, backpackers taking a pit stop along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the John Muir Trail (JMT), scarfing down warm burgers and carb loaded fries before finishing with a big cup of soft serve ice cream. Ah, the simple pleasures of trail life!

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The campground sits behind the store and is quite large. There are communal fire rings where rangers give talks on a whole variety of subjects (we really enjoyed learning about bats!). Bathrooms range throughout, but bring headlamps because none of the facilities have electricity. I’ve never been in such a quiet campground and it was absolutely lovely. Folks stay up here to hike, which means they want to sleep at night. We cooked on a backpacking stove and a camp stove, and warmed up by the fire at night before scurrying into our sleeping bags to try and stay warm. On the night it dipped down to 29, I was wearing most of my clothes and ended up cinching every part of my body into my bag so my face wouldn’t freeze off.  There’s nothing like waking up on a frigid morning and sitting on an ice cold toilet seat!

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Our first hike of the trip was a 15 mile roundtrip trek to Clouds Rest. We started from the Tenaya Lake trailhead and had no problem finding a parking place early morning.  There are bear lockers available so that any scented items can be left outside the car. The trail descriptions mention a 1,000 foot elevation increase during the second mile and from there on it gets easier.  While this is partially true, the trail does continue to ascend over the remaining miles, including the climb to the actual peak. We stopped quite frequently along the way to let our lungs adjust to the elevation. Read that as, “we desperately sucked air every 14 steps because it was really hard to breathe up there!”

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IMG_2188There was a serene alpine pond that we passed where a chorus frog was prepping for the evening symphony.

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As you get higher, the views start to open up and you can actually see Clouds Rest through the trees. At that point all you can think, is that it still seems kind of high and you thought you were done will all this uphill stuff. But you gasp some more air and press on…

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Just before the final climb begins, there is a stunning overlook to the right of the trail. Views take the eye all the way back to Tenaya Lake, which brings the full impact of how far your feet can carry you in a few hours. The canyon yawned beneath us as we looked down at birds flying past. The Sierras seem fake, as though you can reach out a hand and merely crumple the backdrop. But this is no illusion. These mountains stretch for 250 miles towering to heights over 14,000 feet. Clouds rest sits at 9,931′.

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The upper trail description on Yosemite Hikes was quite amusing:

The top of Clouds Rest is a narrow ridge with a long, sheer dropoff on the north side (the side you can see from the Tioga Road). The dropoff to the south is less extreme, but it wouldn’t require special talent to wind up just as thoroughly and symmetrically dead by falling off that side. It’s best to visit Clouds Rest sober and during dry weather.

That said, the route over the ridge is more manageable and less dangerous than Half Dome’s cable route. If you’re slow and careful, you shouldn’t feel like you’re a freak gust of wind or a momentary lapse of concentration away from the bottom of Tenaya Canyon. And the very top of the peak opens up again to around fifty feet wide, which will feel like the Great Plains after the underpants-imperiling knife edge you’ve just crossed to get there.

Since we were sober and the weather was dry enough to parch a tortoise, we continued  to the peak, and what a stunning peak it is.

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It sounds silly to say I felt like I was on top of the world, but honestly, it’s hard not to feel that way when everything else is below you. There was a raven up there who would occasionally rest on a rock and then just walk off into thin air only to rise back up on a wind current. That bird must have a very refreshed soul.

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Many hikers were up there resting on the peak. Some were headed over to Half Dome, others were headed to the valley, and some had even walked all the way up from the valley. The guys who had walked up were from Europe and sat around munching dry ramen, so we decided they were on another level athletically and probably skipped all over the Alps for fun on rainy days.

What I never realized before is that you can continue down to Half Dome from this point. I always thought Clouds Rest was a peak that just ended, but it keeps going. Personally if I were ever going to hike Half Dome, I’d start from Tenaya Lake and go this way instead of climbing up from the Valley. Less people, better views, and less elevation gain that way. The hike would be longer, but what a way to approach Half Dome! Clouds Rest has a higher vantage point than Half Dome, so we could actually look over and see climbers on the cables through our binoculars.

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There is never enough time in places like this. How does one take in the vastness of a view? Is it possible for our brains to even comprehend what we are seeing? I could have stayed up there all day, taken a nap, soaked up the sunshine, had a chat with the raven…but we had a 7.5 mile downhill jaunt back to the car.

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As soon as we finished climbing off the ridge, we stepped off onto the trail and noticed a large bird on the right side. I got so excited! It was a grouse, a sooty grouse to be precise. And not only was she standing there in all her glory, owning that piece of real estate, but she had a baby the size of a little teenage chicken with her! I’ve always wanted to see a grouse and she did not disappoint. Her feathers were gorgeous with mottled browns and golds. At one point I knelt down to get a better (lousy) picture of her on my phone and the little one just walked right next to me. (Inward squeal!) There is nothing more beautiful than seeing these creatures utterly at home in their habitat. A reminder that we are the visitors passing through.

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While the hike down was not as hard as the climb up, our joints took an absolute beating. Even though it felt like we went uphill the whole way there, we definitely had plenty of uphill on the way “down.” The switchbacks felt longer and the farther we descended it seemed hard to believe that we’d actually climbed so high. Even though I was exhausted that night, I still think back on the trail as an exhilarating highlight I was able to check off my bucket list. I can’t possibly recommend it more, and hope I’m lucky enough to kiss the sky again someday on Clouds Rest…

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