Night Hike for a Cloud's Rest Sunrise Above Half Dome
Distance: 13 Miles
Elevation Gain: 2800 Feet
Elevation: 9,931 Feet
Time: 4-6 Hours
Views from the Top: SPECTACULAR
Cloud's Rest, hiked during the day, offers amazing panorama views of Yosemite valley. At night, it becomes a majestic perch to watch the sun rise over the Eastern border of the valley. The relatively easy hike means that, with a just start just after midnight, the summit is easily reached by sunrise.
The Clouds Rest trail is best accessed via the Sunrise Lakes trailhead. This campground and parking lot is located on Tioga Pass Road 31 miles from where the road junctions with Highway 120. Please note that Tioga Pass Road is closed down in the winters due to road conditions so make sure to check that it is open! For detailed driving instructions, click below.
Timing is Everything
Since the goal of this hike is not just to reach the top but to reach the top just before the sun rises, it is important to plan your trip carefully. Reach the top too late and you miss the beautiful sunrise, but if you're much too early the summit is very exposed and can be quite chilly. The 13 mile hike takes most people somewhere between 5 and 6 hours, however, if you're a more experienced or faster hiker it is easily done in less than that. Of course, it is better to get to the top earlier rather than later. Also, keep in mind that the sunrise time varies throughout the season.
If you live within a reasonable driving distance to Yosemite like I do you can drive up the night of your hike, or you can stay the night at the Sunrise Lakes campground or any other campground within the area. Keep in mind that most of these sites require permits so be sure to research this as you plan your trip. The parking lot at the trailhead is quite small meaning that if you arrive during the day you will most likely have to park a little ways away on the road, where there is plenty of space. If you drive up there the same night, though, there should be parking available right next to the trail. If you're within 3 or so hours of Yosemite I would recommend driving up the night of your hike like I did to make it a quick trip and to make parking easier. However, camping there would mean you could sneak a nap in until you need to start hiking just past midnight. Either way could make for a great hike, depending on personal preference.
I live about two and a half hours from Yosemite so I left my house at around 10:30 P.M. and got to the trail just after 1:00 A.M. With the sun coming up at 5:44 that day, I had no problem making the top by then and was actually pretty early, getting to the top just before five. When planning your own trip, make sure to be honest with yourself about your hiking and fitness abilities. Again, it's much better to be earlier than later, especially if this will be your first time hiking Cloud's Rest.
What to Bring
Because hiking while holding a flashlight is just a pain in the neck
If you're hiking with a group, I would recommend all changing batteries at the same time about halfway to the top to avoid delays as everyone's batteries run out at different points. If you hike it solo like me, just change them when you need to.
Warm clothes are obviously essential as you'll be hiking in the middle of the night. While at times during the hike I stripped down to just a t-shirt, once you reach the top you're exposed to the wind and it gets quite cold until the sun comes out in full force. I would strongly advise several layers with a windbreaker, a hat, gloves, and long pants.
The first stretch of the trail is about a mile and a half long leisurely walk along a well established dirt trail that weaves through dense forest and partly parallels a shallow brook. Be mindful to watch for trail signs as at two places other trails join the one you're on and, especially at night, it would be possible to take the wrong trail. Use common sense and, when you get to place where the trail seems to absorb or join with another trail, take a quick look around with your headlamp and check for a sign showing the way to Cloud's Rest.
After the fairly flat initial mile or so, you'll reach the bottom of a long, steep set of switchbacks. This section makes up a large part of the elevation gain with the climb being around 1,000 vertical feet. Some spots along this stretch offer beautiful views of the canyon below while other parts are completely shielded by trees or rock. At the top of the switchbacks is a large open area with several trails meeting up. This is a common spot to stop and enjoy lunch or a snack for hikers during the day and because of this is inhabited by a population of very cute and fearless chipmunks that supplement their diets by begging for food from hikers and cleaning up any food left behind. At night though,they're asleep. Don't worry, though, you'll be able to see them on your return trip. This is a great spot to stop and change batteries to your headlamps as a group because it is somewhere around the halfway point. When you leave, be sure to take the right trail, once again checking the trail sign that is in the middle of the clearing.
After the clearing at the top of the switchbacks, the trail heads back down into another densely forested valley and continues with fairly minimum elevation gain. In July, when I went, the snow melt was almost complete so the forest tinkled with the sound of running water. A word of advice that I wish I'd had: pack bug spray. Hiding behind the beauty of all the water and lush green of the valley is swarms of mosquitoes that attack during the warmth of the hike back. Additionally, at several spots, the trail is less pronounced and old creek beds and animal trails can can look very similar. At one spot in particular several streams intersect and I lost the trail for around 10 minutes as I had to backtrack and search for the path. Remember to just remain calm and systematically search for where an established trail resumes. Near the end of the trail through the valley, a beautiful small alpine lake can be seen just a couple yards to the right of the trail.
Shortly after this, the climb begins again. The trail opens up, trees become more scarce, and, were there enough light, this would be your first view of Clouds Rest, as well as views of a panorama of smaller peaks and rock formations. The trail then bears slightly to the right and the climb up Cloud's Rest itself begins in earnest. Here, the established trail slowly wanes and gives way to some granite steps and paths across the rock itself, although the path is always clear and losing your way is nothing to worry about. Trees become more and more rare as they are replaced by granite and high altitude shrubs.
The last few hundred yards of the trail are about as exhilarating as any trail I have yet to have the pleasure of hiking. Cloud's Rest's is referred to as an arête, which is a thin rock formation in which both sides have been sheered off by moving glaciers. The path to the very top resembles a fin of rock with dizzying drops to the valley floor on either side. The right side especially is sheer, vertical rock and at times the top is no wider than 10 or 15 feet across. If heights make you nervous, this might be a challenge for you but take heart in the fact that the summit of Cloud's Rest widens out considerably, enough in fact that one can easily pitch a tent and camp at the top.
And now, the moment you've been waiting for. You've reached the top, not enjoy it. If you've beaten the sun to the top, throw on all your layers and find a spot somewhat sheltered from the wind to wait for the sun to rise. Once the time comes for sunrise, sit back and enjoy the show. On July 8th, the date of my hike, the sun was scheduled to rise at 5:44. In my case at least, the very first rays came out around this time but it took considerably longer for the sun to emerge in full glory.