If you want to experience similarly incredible views of Yosemite Valley and the surrounding Sierra Nevada as you would from the top of Half Dome, but don’t want to vye for super-competitive permits, hiking Clouds Rest is a perfect choice.
This classic Yosemite hike will take you through a beautiful forest, past gorgeous mountain views and up a rocky spine that provides just enough exposure to get your heart pounding without it feeling too scary. At the summit, you’ll get a unique perspective on iconic Half Dome and even be able to spot climbers ascending the cables with a good eye or a pair of binoculars.
At 14.5-miles roundtrip, the hike to Clouds Rest is an extremely long day hike that should only be attempted by experienced and fast hikers on good weather days. It’s better suited for an overnight backpacking trip so that you can take your time and catch incredible sunset and sunrise views. You’ll gain approximately 2,300 feet in elevation as you climb to one of Yosemite’s most stunning summits.
There are no designated campsites at Clouds Rest, so if you’re backpacking, you should choose a site that looks like it has been used before, making sure to camp at least 100 feet from any water. Camping isn’t allowed on Clouds Rest itself and camping opportunities are pretty much non-existent within half a mile of the summit. Choose a site before you start climbing up the narrow ridge and drop your pack to go experience the views before heading back to set up camp. Bear canisters are required.
This hike is only accessible when Tioga Road is open, usually June through early November. Overnight parking at trailheads along the road closes on Oct. 15, so backpacking is not an option after that.
How Hard is the Clouds Rest Hike?
If you choose to do Clouds Rest as a day hike, most visitors will find it very strenuous. At 14.5-miles round-trip, the trail is very long and has some very steep climbs. The trail is rocky and uneven and much of the hike is shade-less and on bare rock making it quite warm on a hot summer day. At the summit, you’ll be at almost 10,000 feet above sea level, which can make the hike feel much harder for those who aren’t used to high altitude.
As an overnight backpacking trip, Clouds Rest is more moderate. While the elevation gain and altitude will still be challenging, especially carrying a loaded pack, it’s more manageable when you split the trip into two days.
Day hiking, or backpacking Clouds Rest, is not a suitable hike for beginners or young children.
How Long Does it Take to Hike Clouds Rest?
The amount of time it will take to hike to Clouds Rest depends on the abilities of your group. Fast hikers who have experience with high altitude may be able to day hike the trail in as little as six hours. Slower groups might find themselves spending upwards of 10 hours on the trail.
It’s a good idea regardless of your hiking speed or whether you’re planning to day hike or backpack, to get to the trailhead early in the day. This trail is popular and parking often fills up. There are also many shade-less areas on this hike so starting early will give you cooler temperatures and help you avoid frequent afternoon thunderstorms in the summer months. Always check the weather before starting your hike and even if the forecast is clear, if you see darkening skies or thunderheads starting to build, head back to the parking lot immediately as much of the Clouds Rest hike is exposed and you’ll be at risk of being struck by lightning during a storm.
Do You Need a Permit to Hike Clouds Rest?
Unlike Half Dome, day hikers do not need a permit to hike the trail to Clouds Rest.
However, if you’re planning an overnight trip, all backpackers must have a wilderness permit to camp anywhere within the park. There is a quota of 15 people per day to backpack from Sunrise Lakes Trailhead. Nine of those permits are reservable online starting 24 weeks in advance of your desired trip dates on recreation.gov and six of the permits become available two weeks in advance. Apply for your permits early as this is a popular destination.
In 2022, Yosemite National Park will require a reservation to drive into the park May 20 – Sept. 30 between the hours of 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you have a wilderness permit, you do not need an additional reservation, but day hikers will need to plan ahead and get one.
How Do I Get to Clouds Rest from Yosemite Valley?
The Clouds Rest trail leaves from the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead off Tioga Pass Road, just west of Tenaya Lake.
The drive from Yosemite Valley will take approximately 1.5 hours, so if you’re camping or staying in the valley, be sure to allot yourself plenty of time to get to the trailhead.
From the west side of the valley, take Big Oak Flat Road to Tioga Pass Road. Turn right and continue for just under 31 miles until you reach the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead on your right.
Within the first half mile of the trail from the parking lot, you’ll pass several junctions. Be sure to head right at every junction to follow the Clouds Rest Trail. The trail begins in a coniferous forest and crosses Tenaya Creek, staying at a relatively mild incline for the first 1.5-miles. Then, you’ll begin the most strenuous climb of the hike. There are several trail junctions you’ll pass along the way. Keep following the signs for Clouds Rest.
When you hit the ridge, follow it left. If you’re backpacking, know that this is roughly the last spot you’ll be able to pitch camp. Hug the left side of the ridge as you follow it to the summit, as the drop off on the right side is more extreme. The trail can be hard to spot along the rocks, so keep a close eye out for it, along with cairns. The summit is wide and flat, and there’s plenty of room up there to take photos and eat a snack.
What Should I Pack to Hike Clouds Rest?
Whether you’re day hiking or backpacking to Clouds Rest, you’re going to be on the trail for a long time. It’s important to pack smartly and make sure you have everything you need to have a safe and comfortable hike.
For a day hike, plan to bring at least three liters of water per person. If you have a water filter, there are water sources along the trail before you get to the ridge. Staying properly hydrated will help keep you from experiencing both heat and altitude sickness. Electrolyte packets that you can add to water, like Liquid IV, can also be helpful to keep you well-hydrated. Bring more food than you think you’ll need for this hike, as you may be on the trail longer than expected. Snacks with a good mix of protein, fat and carbs are essential to keep you fueled. Think snacks like granola or protein bars, string cheese, beef jerky and trail mix.
Regardless of the weather forecast, pack layers that you can put on if it’s windy on the summit or if you get unexpectedly stuck on the trail after dark. A warm hat, a light pair of gloves and both an insulating and wind layer will ensure you’re prepared for any conditions.
The steep and rocky hike can be tough on the knees. A pair of trekking poles can help you transfer some of the impact off your joints and will help you keep your balance on narrow or windy sections of the hike.
Lastly, on a long day hike like this, it’s always a good idea to be prepared for the unexpected. A headlamp will take up very little room in your pack, but if you take longer than you think you will on the trail, you’ll be thankful for it when darkness descends. A first aid kit is also a great idea.
Not sure what to pack for an overnight backpacking adventure to Clouds Rest? Check out Backpacker’s checklist at www.backpacker.com/gear/the-ultimate-backpacking-checklist/.