YOSEMITE — Visiting Yosemite Valley in the summer is often as pleasant as getting stuck in a traffic jam in Los Angeles.
It seems as if all 4 million annual visitors decided to arrive at the same time. The optimum time to visit Yosemite is at the cusp of spring when the crowds are at a trickle and the waterfalls are roaring like a thousand stampeding horses. Late fall and winter are right up there too in terms of pristine beauty and solitude even near the valley floor.
But living within two hours of what is one of the world’s top tourist destinations means visitors dropping by in the height of spring or summer want to see what all of the fuss is about. While you may avoid Yosemite Valley like the plague this time of year, unless you love communing with nature elbow to elbow with half the free world, it doesn’t mean you should avoid Yosemite.
This is the best time to enjoy the high country that is easily accessible for day hikes along Tioga Road (Highway 120) between Crane Flat and Tioga Pass at 9,943 feet. You can either go up and back from the Northern San Joaquin Valley in the same day or try your luck at getting a campsite in the high country. You can move from trailhead to trailhead along Tioga Road using the free shuttle bus service.
There are literally hundreds of day hike options, including relatively level ones such as a trek along Yosemite Creek to the edge of Yosemite Falls with a commanding view of the valley.
But if you’re looking for the ultimate hike that will give you a sense of the sweeping grandeur of Yosemite and John Muir’s beloved Range of Light then the 14.5-mile round trip to Cloud’s Rest is worth the effort.
Cloud’s Rest offers arguably the most stunning 360-degree panoramic view of Yosemite. It beats Half Dome for several reasons. Although both are roughly the same height, Cloud’s Rest reaches 9,925 feet; it is positioned just a little bit higher for more sweeping views, it doesn’t require a permit, you don’t need to hoist yourself up gripping cables while traversing slick granite, it doesn’t feel like a Death March as getting to the base of Half Dome can, and it doesn’t have the crowded ambiance of Black Friday at Wal-Mart.
It should be noted before you consider Cloud’s Rest that there is an unnervingly narrow edge over part of the last 1,000 feet to reach the view. Some say it narrows to four feet, others no smaller than 10 feet. At any rate, there are plenty of big, loose boulders that require deliberate, careful steps to cross. One thing that isn’t debatable — there is a 5,000-foot drop on one side and more than 2,000 feet on the other. It isn’t straight down as if you do go over the edge you’d bounce off the granite on the way down. It goes without saying that for peace of mind hiking poles are a must.
Yes, it is dangerous. That said, there is only one known fatality in recent times and that was back in 2009. Compared to Half Dome that seems to have at least one fatality a year, it is downright safe. It is also not as strenuous as the Half Dome hike.
The trailhead at Sunrise Lakes is at 8,150 feet. You will need mosquito repellent as the first half mile crosses streams and passes small lakes.
The toughest part of the hike is about 1.5 miles into it where a series of switchbacks rapidly pile up 1,000 of the 1,775 net feet of elevation gain that you’ll accumulate over the course of the hike.
The journey to Cloud’s Rest has its share of impressive sights. There are numerous wildflowers, a lake or two, meadows, and jaw-dropping views.
The trail has several forks. All you have to do is stay to the right (basically straight). There is one confusing fork that doesn’t have Cloud’s Rest punched out on any of the metal trail signs, although someone has thoughtfully scratched “Cloud’s Rest” on the metal.
The six- to eight-hour round-trip to the top is worth it.
It includes an absolutely stunning view of Yosemite Valley, a unique look at Half Dome and the ability to see just about every major point of interest in Yosemite that you know of and many others you’ve never seen before.
And perhaps the best part is you can take in almost the entire Yosemite Valley without seeing a car or a horde of people.
— By DENNIS WYATT
209 staff reporter