Get this view of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley from Clouds Rest. Photo by Grant Ordelheide
21 miles / Best Backpacking in the System
No other park can quite match the granite domes, ground-shaking waterfalls, and massive sequoia groves for sheer scenic power. And no other stretch of trail better captures it all than these miles from Tuolumne Meadows, over a classic summit, and past a pair of cascades.
The highlights start rolling after the first 3.5 miles on the John Muir Trail, when you reach Upper and Lower Cathedral Lakes in an alpine bowl under 10,940-foot Cathedral Peak. Rejoin the JMT (via a short spur) and turn south toward Cathedral Pass to Sunrise High Sierra Camp. Turn north on the Sunrise Trail to Sunrise Lakes, a clutch of tarns with white granite “beaches,” then hit a trail junction and go south on the Clouds Rest Trail.
The trail drops through a small, forested canyon; look for sheltered campsites about 13 miles in. Once past the narrow, rocky ridge, you’ll be standing on a 9,926-foot summit, looking down on Half Dome—plus Tenaya Canyon, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and the Clark Range. You may not technically be on top of the world, but you’ll feel like it.
Descend Clouds Rest’s southern side to rejoin the JMT. Take it to Little Yosemite Valley, where hordes of Half Dome hopefuls gather for a shot at peak views similar to the ones you just earned (join them if your backcountry permit allows it). You’ll have company on the Mist Trail as you descend beside 594-foot Nevada Fall and 317-foot Vernal Fall to Happy Isles, but you won’t blame anyone for wanting a look at some of America’s finest miles.
Trailhead 37.873323, -119.382854
Total hike 24 miles
Camping In designated zones; request permits 24 weeks ahead ($5 + $5/person) or try for a walk-in permit (good luck).
ShuttleDNC hikers’ shuttle (June-Sept.; $14.50 one-way).