Upper Cathedral Lake to Cloud’s Rest to Half Dome Trail Junction
Despite our late night we wake up early for our last full day on the trail. We have a big day in store, but we find it difficult to leave this campsite without taking some time to truly savor the incredible beauty of where we are.
Today, we will follow the JMT for our first 4+ miles this morning but then pick up a trail at the Sunrise trail junction that will take us up over Clouds Rest before reconnecting with the JMT on the other end. The morning starts off nicely, and we enjoy more views of Cathedral Peak this time from meadows filled with lupine. Team Alabama passes us on top of Cathedral Pass. They plan on staying on the JMT today and then hiking to Clouds Rest from the other side tomorrow morning for sunrise. We might see them in camp tonight, but we are planning to camp a bit closer to Half Dome than they are.
Once we hit Sunrise trail junction we gain a lot of elevation as we make our way up to Sunrise Lakes. We are looking for a nice spot to chill out in the shade for lunch. The first lake looks a little marshy, and we can’t see the second one from the trail, so we take our chances on the third. Just like Goldilocks this third lake is “just right,” and we find a nice spot to filter water and eat on the far side of the lake. We take our boots off and stick our feet in the water, but it’s pretty warm and doesn’t provide the kind of numbing relief we are looking for.
Continuing on, a group of hikers we pass on the trail recommends we take an unmarked spur trail at the next junction to get a commanding view of the entire park. A ranger is there when we arrive, and he points out Clouds Rest to us. It looks a little intimidating from this vantage point, but we are committed now.
We return to the main trail and begin the long 4+ mile journey up to Clouds Rest. The approach isn’t too bad from this side. We follow the wide trail over switchbacks for most of the elevation gain before we pick up the ridge line which is wide and gentle at first. Just before it narrows and turns to rock ledges we take a long break. This is the day’s highlight, and we want to be there when the sunlight is a bit less intense. We rest for about an hour before the final climb.
Once we get going again, the dirt trail abruptly disappears, and we climb up the rock ledges to a narrow ridge or arête that gives us views off in all directions. It’s hazy this afternoon, and much of the valley is in silhouette, giving everything a Smoky/Blue Ridge Mountain effect. Even so, Half Dome is unmistakable, and it’s cool to be looking down at it from over 1000 feet above the iconic peak.
It’s 6:00 pm already, and the few other hikers who were at the top when we arrived have already started to descend, leaving us all alone. We are psyched to have Cloud’s Rest all to ourselves—a rare treat in this crowded park. We continue along the ridge to pick up the trail from the other side and begin the steep descent back to the JMT. Matt says we are going to lose 1700 feet in just over 2 miles, and we lose elevation rapidly at first where the trail is a set of rocky steps.
Eventually, this eases, and we follow long switchbacks back and forth as we contour our way down the mountainside, every inch of which is covered in manzanita bushes, a hearty plant that have seen again and again on the JMT. Down, down, down we go.
We have lost nearly 1500′, and it seems there is no end in sight when Matt realizes he has made a mistake in his math. We need to descend 2700′ (not 1700′) in elevation, so we still have 1200′ down to go. Aaarrrggghhh!! We try not to let the error get us down. This is our last night on the trail, and we want it to be good.
It’s after 8 by the time we finally reconnect with the JMT. We consult the map at the trail junction and both decide we want to push on half a mile further to be in a better position to climb Half Dome and make our exit tomorrow, but it looks like there is no water down the trail. We decide not to take that risk, and we head to the tiny creek and burn the rest of our daylight unpacking our hydration bladders, filtering water and repacking our bags—definitely not fun.
Once we are all topped up, we continue along the trail. We see Team Alabama’s camp, but the boys are already in their tents for the night resting up before their 2 am wake up call. We hope their sunrise is less hazy than our sunset.
By the time we reach the trail junction to Half Dome, it is nearly dark. We backtrack a bit and find an acceptable spot in the forest off the trail for the night where we can leave our tent out of sight while we climb to Half Dome in the morning. We finish the rest of our wine over dinner and detach our “brains” from the top of our backpacks to be able to carry a few essentials (water, camera, rain jacket, energy bars) with us up to Half Dome tomorrow.
It’s still quite warm out when we head to bed. This is the first night we have not needed our jackets on the trail. We wonder what that will mean for tomorrow. We are both super excited for our final day ahead, so sleep will likely be hard to come by tonight. Even so, we force ourselves to climb in our sleeping bags to get some rest.