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Night Hike for a Clouds Rest Sunrise Above Half Dome

Living just a few hours from Yosemite national park, and the Sierras, I spend as much time as possible exploring.

Looking down on the Dome.

Looking down on the Dome.

Overview

Distance: 14 miles

Elevation Gain: 2,800 feet

Elevation: 9,931 feet

Time: 4–6 hours

Views from the Top: 10/10!

Clouds Rest, when hiked during the day, offers amazing panoramic views of Yosemite Valley. At night, it becomes a majestic perch to watch the sunrise 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.

Getting to Clouds Rest

The Clouds Rest trail is best accessed via the Sunrise Lakes trailhead. This campground and parking lot are 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 winter due to road conditions—so make sure to check that it's open!

Yosemite Sunrise

Yosemite Sunrise

Another beautiful sunrise photo.

Another beautiful sunrise photo.

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. 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.

When to Leave for Clouds Rest

If you live within a reasonable driving distance to Yosemite like I do you can drive up the night of your hike. 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 a.m. that day, I had no problem making the top by then and was actually pretty early. I got to the top just before 5 a.m.

Alternatively, you can stay the night at the Sunrise Lakes campground or any other campground in the area. Keep in mind that most of these sites require permits so be sure to research while you plan your trip. The parking lot at the trailhead is quite small. 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 three or so hours of Yosemite I would recommend driving up the night of your hike as I did. It's a quick trip and makes 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.

Mind Your Abilities!

When planning your own trip, make sure you're 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 Clouds Rest.

Spectacular view to the North.

Spectacular view to the North.

 The iconic Half Dome as seen from a different perspective: above.

The iconic Half Dome as seen from a different perspective: above.

What You'll Need

  • Headlamp: Because hiking while holding a flashlight is just a pain in the neck
  • Extra batteries: 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: Warm clothes for layering are 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.
This is the first metal trail sign you'll see.  Still the full 7 miles to go, better get started!

This is the first metal trail sign you'll see. Still the full 7 miles to go, better get started!

The Hike

The first stretch of the trail is about a mile and a half long leisurely walk along a well-established dirt trail. The trail weaves through dense forest and partly parallels a shallow brook. Be mindful to watch for trail signs—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 the 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 Clouds Rest.

4.7 miles to go, and much of the downhill is behind you.

4.7 miles to go, and much of the downhill is behind you.

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.

Chipmunk Flats Halfway Point: A Great Place to Swap Your Headlamp Batteries

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 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. If you do get disoriented, remember to 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 of yards to the right of the trail.

Tenaya Lake, seen from the top of Clouds Rest. Tenaya Lake is close to the start of the Clouds Rest Trail.

Tenaya Lake, seen from the top of Clouds Rest. Tenaya Lake is close to the start of the Clouds Rest 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 Clouds 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 rarer and rarer 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've hiked.

The final trail sign, directing you the last hundred yards to the summit.

The final trail sign, directing you the last hundred yards to the summit.

Clouds Rest 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 Clouds Rest widens out considerably, enough in fact that one can easily pitch a tent and camp at the top.

The thinnest part of the arête. Half Dome sits below you to the right.

The thinnest part of the arête. Half Dome sits below you to the right.

Clouds Rest Views

And now, the moment you've been waiting for. You've reached the top, now 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 a.m. 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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Robert Clarke from UK on September 03, 2016:

Wow this place looks incredible. Great photos! Really makes me want to hike this area. Cheers