Epic Yosemite Backpacking: Toulumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley via Cathedral Lakes, Clouds Rest and Half Dome

After my many trips to Yosemite National Park, the one thing that was left on the bucket list, so to speak, was to hike from the high country of Toulumne Meadows all the way down to Yosemite Valley. After looking at the many different routes, we settled on three alternatives that would hit a lot of “major” attractions along the way, including Half Dome and my beloved Cloud’s Rest. Here are those routes by the destination for each day:

  1. Cathedral Lakes –> Sunrise Lakes –> Clouds Rest –> Little Yosemite Valley –> Happy Isles
  2. May Lake –> Sunrise Lakes –> Clouds Rest –> Little Yosemite Valley –> Happy Isles
  3. Sunrise Lakes –> Clouds Rest –> Little Yosemite Valley –> Happy Isles

After faxing in my reservation request (if you’re not familiar with the permit requirements, visit here, we were lucky to get permits starting at May Lake, but without Half-Dome permits. This meant that if we wanted to summit Half-Dome, we’d still need to show up at the wilderness permit office a couple days before and try to get a first-come-first-serve permit. Because of this, and the fact that as time went by it became more obvious to me that Cathedral Lakes was really the best starting point, we decided to just go up 2 days before anyway and try to get a whole new permit starting from Cathedral Lakes with Half Dome permits.

After I read all the horror stories online about long lines for permits, I decided to play it extra safe, and showed up at 10:00pm the night before. Surprise, surprise, nobody was there; except for my friend meeting us there. We hung out and then accidentally dozed off in the car, awakening ever so often to check if anyone had gotten there. Eventually, we ended up getting in line around 3am when another person came and they slowly trickled in after that. The person who showed up at 3am was there for the Sunrise Lakes trail head, and technically he got in line before us, so that option would have been gone for us.

At 8:00am, there was some confusion and a mad dash inside the permit office. I wasn’t one of those who rushed, so I immediately thought I lost my spot and all was for naught. However, I remembered that same day permits are given out at 8:00am, and realized that is what the office had open for and I did not indeed blow it. At 11:00am, the time had finally come and we made our way inside the permits office and proudly requested a permit starting from Cathedral Lakes with a permit to climb Half-Dome included. Afterwards, we  drove into the traffic infused Yosemite Valley to leave one of the cars for the return. It was incredible to think that in just five days we’d be walking back to the car.

We set-up shop that night at the backpacker’s campground located within the Toulumne meadows campground and readied our packs for the next day. Thankfully, we had prepared all of our food ahead of time, so that saved us a bunch of time.

Day 1: Toulumne Meadows to Upper Cathedral Lakes

Taking off from the Cathedral Lakes trail head, we weighed in our packs: 58lbs for me, 42lbs for my girlfriend, and 48 lbs for my buddy Dan. Camera gear is not light (and neither is food). In any event, we packed the rest of our food in the bear lockers at the trail head and set off around 11:00am up the trail. Immediately, you start a slow and steady climb and I kept having flashbacks of our adventures up the path of switch backs better known as Upper Yosemite Falls trail. This wasn’t anywhere near as bad as that, but still, what happened to catching a break  because of the start at a higher elevation? Anyways, we made our way through the trees and dispersed meadows, stopping at a fresh spring and finally getting to Lower Cathedral Lake. It was a sight to see the green meadows and snow melt flowing through them. We were glad to grab a spot close to the lake to unload our packs. We ate our first meal consisting of salami, cheese and crackers, and then took a quick dip to cool off. Soon enough, it was time to head out,  so we threw our packs on and got back on the trail.

Making our way back out, we stopped and chatted with a guy who was doing the Pacific Crest Trail, feeling ashamed of our measly 6 mile hike. Upper Cathedral Lake was not too much further, and once there the lake was so beautiful we decided to snatch the closest spot we could get. After setting up camp, we hung out and scouted locations for possible sunset/sunrise hikes. After much debate, we set off to explore the northern boundaries of the lake. Dragging our tired legs around the lake, we scrambled up a short hill and the next thing you know, we were standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking Lower Cathedral Lake glistening in the late afternoon light. I quickly set-up a time lapse and after a short debate, we decided to bust an incredible mission back down and get our entire campsite packed up, hauled back up, and set-up before the sun set. After a spectacular sunset, I shot the night sky and finally called it quits around 2:00am for a quick nap before waking up for sunrise at 6:00am.

When my first alarm rang, the sky didn’t look too promising so I tried to convince myself it wasn’t worth it. However, when the second alarm rung and I peaked outside, I could tell something was brewing. I quickly threw on my puff, gathered my gear, and slept walked my way up the cliff side until I had a clear view of Cathedral Peak. From here, I watched the sky over Cathedral Peak open up and a cauldron of fire bubbled over. As soon as sunrise was done, I slithered back into my sleeping bag for all of another 30 minutes before waking up to a delicious oatmeal and freeze dried fruit breakfast. Soon after, we would pack up camp and hit the trail  for the push all the way to Sunrise Lakes; this route would take us through some amazing new areas of Yosemite, where I found myself standing under mountains I had once only seen from a distance.

Day 2: Upper Cathedral Lakes to Sunrise Lakes

Day 2 of our trek would take us deeper into the back country of Yosemite, into places I had yet to explore. Needless to say, I was extremely stoked, particularly because of the many alpine meadows we would be passing through. After packing up camp and taking a quick dip in Upper Cathedral Lake, we continued on the trail that would take us on a steady climb up through the thinning forest. Soon enough, we came to the first set of meadows and it was an amazing sight with the surrounding jagged granite peaks. While on this part of the trail, we met a lot of people who were doing either the Pacific Crest Trail or the John Muir Trail, a lot of whom were on the trail doing a side day hike from Toulumne Meadows down to Yosemite Valley. It was crazy to think they were going that far all in one day – it made me really wonder if it was worth it, as traveling such a long distance in such a fast time would deny you the ability to truly enjoy what was around you.

After a stop for lunch we continued the steady climb up to another set of alpine meadows until we finally reached the infamous High Sierra Camp, a tent village tucked away in the corner of an alpine meadow. If you’re lucky enough to get reservations, there are cots and tent cabins available, as well as meals and “nice” restrooms. There were restrooms available for backpackers, so we took advantage, filled up our water supply and strapped on our packs for the final push on this never ending journey to Middle Sunrise Lake. It was a relentless climb uphill once we got back on the trail, which I could not believe was happening. By this point, I was ready to go for a swim, not hike another 2.5 miles. Along the way, we ran into an elderly female couple who kindly gave us a piece of ginger that put a little pep in our step. Finally, just when we thought we could not go any further, we started a steady descent down into the lakes and caught our first glimpse of Upper Sunrise Lake. We were so tired we contemplated just parking it up here, and it was indeed tempting, but the mosquitoes let us know we should probably keep moving on. About 30 minutes later we arrived to the Middle Sunrise Lake, and at first I was a little let down as the actual lake was much smaller than Upper Sunrise Lake, but we found a nice spot not too far from shore, yet only a scrambles away from a view of Tenaya Canyon, and it was awesome. There was absolutely nobody else at the lake, except for a volunteer ranger who came by and checked our permits, which made it all the better.

After a quick rinse in the river, we took a scramble up the cliff right behind our campsite and watched the sun set over Half Dome while perched high above Tenaya Canyon looking back into Yosemite Valley. It was definitely a first for me, and the colors above the valley were so distinct from what was going on behind us in the High Sierra that I scrambled all over trying to get in as many different shots as possible. Once the sun went down, we headed back to camp, ate dinner and said hi to the deer that decided to stop by and visit. All in all, an awesome day through some pristine backcountry of Yosemite, capped off with a lake all to ourselves.

Day 3: Sunrise Lakes to Cloud’s Rest

This had been a day long in the making, something I had been looking forward to ever since my first trip to Yosemite, where I stood at Glacier Point and stared at this mountain peak in the distance behind Half-Dome that I’d later learn was named Cloud’s Rest. Fun fact: Cloud’s Rest is actually taller than Half Dome, coming in at 9,931 feet as compared to Half-Dome at 8,839 feet. After barely sleeping the prior couple nights, we definitely “slept-in” today, waking up at 7:00am – yes, I admittedly blew it as I slept through sunrise, something I later regretted. When we did finally wake up, I shot some lingering fog on the lake before eating my fair share of oatmeal and breakfast bars to power me through the next leg of our journey, knowing we’d have to haul enough water uphill for a night’s stay the final 2 miles of the trek.

After a leisurely mourning, we finally hit the trail around 10am. With 8 miles to trek, we knew we had plenty of time to spare (in hindsight we had more than we realized). The trail back out to the junction was relatively smooth sailing, reuniting us with fellow hikers who braved the night with us to get walk-up permits as well as the rest of the day hikers. From here, the scenery changed into a much more dense forest, with us weaving our way in and out on a relatively flat trail for the most part and smaller lakes periodically appearing. We decided beforehand to camp stay on Cloud’s Rest; the only problem there is that there’s no water at the top, or anywhere close for that matter. The closest water source appeared to be almost 2 miles from the summit, meaning we’d have to fill up all of the empty bags we’d brought and haul them all the way up. Unfortunately, it wasn’t too clear where the last water source was before Cloud’s Rest and we missed it. Along the way, there are abundant water sources, but they become fewer and far in between the closer you get to the last junction 1.5 miles before the summit. Sensing we had maybe gone to far, we stopped and asked some hikers heading the other direction if there were any water sources further up the trail – sadly, there was not, and we had to ditch our packs and hike back almost half a mile to the last water source we past. 30 minutes and 6 liters per person later (my back still hurts as my pack must have weighed over 60lbs by this point), we were back on the trail and shortly thereafter came upon the final trail head, letting us know we were only 1.5 miles of uphill torture away from standing atop Cloud’s Rest.

Slow and steady wins the race they say, and slow and steady did we go. The dirt trail gradually climbs through the thinning forest, increasing in steepness along the way.  Eventually, the trail turned into boulders, and we were a half mile scramble away from the summit of Cloud’s Rest. Our heavy packs were definitely taking it’s toll by now, so we inched our way up the remaining portion eager to throw these packs down and take in the 360 degree views that awaited us. Once atop, it really was remarkable – you could see for miles in every direction, even all the way out to the city of Fresno in the distance. We got to Cloud’s Rest around 2:30pm, and after eating lunch, we must have laid down and soaked it all in for a couple hours. Once the crowd started to die down, we scoped out the area to see what we could do about our sleeping situation, quickly realizing that there were far less areas available to sleep than I envisioned. After settling on the lesser of the sketchy alternatives, we set-up the tent, using all of the extra para cord I brought to tie it down to just about everything in sight.

With an hour to go before sunset, we started dinner and I eagerly began examining the area to determine how to best shoot sunset. With everything set-up we got ready to enjoy the show, but really, we had no idea what was in store for us (in a good way). In the distance over the High Sierra and Toulumne Meadows, the clouds were rolling in and the colors starting to come. Back towards the valley was a cloudless sky, with the colors becoming more dense as the sun grew closer and closer to the horizon. The wildest thing about watching sunset from atop Cloud’s Rest was the feeling that thousands of eyes were upon you. In the distance you could see the flash bulbs going off at Glacier Point, and below your own feet you could see the Alpen Glow that you’d normally see from afar closing in on our feet. The clouds in the distance intensified, and the sky was just exploding in color in difference directions with clouds hugging to the peaks in the distance, one of which reminded me of the famed Matterhorn. Everything was setting up for the perfect night of shooting, that was until clouds started unexpectedly roll in right after dinner – all of a sudden my hopes for shooting the milky way were dashed. Flooded by clouds, I crawled into my sleeping bag defeated, set an alarm for 11:00pm, and took a quick nap. Once I got back up, the clouds were still lingering, so I shot for about an hour with no real luck before calling it. Truly defeated, I put away my gear, climbed back into the sleeping bag, and set my alarm for 5:00am, expecting a stellar sunrise and boy, was it ever.

Day 4: Cloud’s Rest to Little Yosemite Valley

Sunrise atop Cloud’s Rest; the thought itself sounds majestic enough. Even before the alarm rang I was already awake, eager to see what the sky would look like once I pulled the tent door open. With all the clouds that rolled in the night before it could have gone either way, so when I took my first peak out and saw clear skies over the valley and clouds for days over the High Sierras, I had no idea what was about to go down. I got out and was shocked to find about 6-7 other people on top, one of whom was wearing a bunny outfit. Sunrise was a mixed bag of apples, the light ever changing with the clouds continuously on the move; after the sun rose, the clouds really picked up and it became apparent why it got the name Cloud’s Rest.

After breakfast, we took some more pictures and soaked in the views before breaking down and packing up for the long day ahead. I had read horror stories about how steep the trail was back down into the valley from here on out, so I was somewhat curious as to how it would be. At first, it started off steep but became a more gradual decent after the first mile or so. There were some mosquitoes along the way, but not as bad as the Sunrise Lake area. We winded our way down and back into the trees, making our way to Half-Dome. At the junction to go up sub-dome, they checked our permits and we left our packs behind before making the final push up to Half-Dome. Hiking without a pack made me feel as if I was flying up the hill. The hike up to Half-Dome is relatively simple, when you reach the base of the sub-dome, the remaining portion becomes a combination of steep granite steps and some scrambling until you reach the base of Half-Dome where the cables begin. We got to the base around 5:00pm, waited for the crowd to finish their descent on the cables, threw on our gloves and got prepared for the climb up. Going up wasn’t all that bad, although there are definitely spots that have become slippery after years of use; the hardest part was having to go around people, as I preferred not to stop while others  were taking breaks on the cables. Once at the top, we took some shots out on the famed diving board (and located the time capsule stored right below it within the little cave) and enjoyed the views; while still spectacular, the view from Cloud’s Rest did make Half Dome seem less spectacular than it really was.

We started to make our way down around 6:00pm, and at first I tried to go forward but it quickly became apparent that going backwards was much easier. Once back down we made our way to the trail head, retrieved our packs and got back on the trail for the final mile to Little Yosemite Village. Right as the sun was setting, we finally reached the campground after some slight confusion and were happy to find very nice pit toilets. For those who are wondering, Little Yosemite Village is a backpacker’s campground that is free as long as you have a permit that takes you past it; many people stay there while either doing the John Muir Trail or for getting an early start up Half-Dome before the crowds arrive from the valley. We ate dinner, relaxed and called it a night. The next day our trip would be coming to an end, as we make our way back into Yosemite Valley.

Day 5: Little Yosemite Valley to Yosemite Valley

The day had finally come for our journey to come to an end. The last portion of our trek was going to take us back down a portion of the John Muir Trail past Nevada Falls – from there you could either continue down the John Muir Trail or take the Mist Trail for a view of Vernal Falls. We opted for the shorter, but yet more scenic Mist Trail for a chance to have lunch by the top of Vernal Falls. Either way, we had done both of those trails as day hikes, so we weren’t truly worried about missing anything.

Once we left camp, we still had the trail pretty much to ourselves. We made our way downhill along the flowing Merced River until we reached Nevada Falls, where we were reunited with the summer crowds that pack Yosemite. It was funny to be here not as part of a day hike, but as one of the few people coming off the trial from a week long backpacking trip. With a sense of renewed energy and confidence, we made our way down the rest of the trail, stopping at the top of Vernal Falls for lunch before finally making our way all the way down to the Happy Isles trailhead. Once back at the trailhead, we breathed a sigh of relief and made our final push to the car that was parked about half a mile away. First real stop was the grocery store located in the valley, where we celebrated with ice cream, chicken wings and a cold beer, all well deserved after 5 days in the Yosemite backcountry.

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