Overview: Snowshoe Camping Clouds Rest Yosemite
My first ever snowshoe trip was to Dewey Point with one of my best friends from the Marine Corps. I was instantly hooked on Yosemite National Park in the winter because we felt like we had it all to ourselves! The following year we made an attempt at Clouds Rest from Yosemite Valley and never made it out of the Valley. We had to turn around because we were not fully prepared for the icy conditions on the hike out.
Since that failed attempt I have always had the clouds rest goal on my mind, and been planning a return trip. Last year I took my wife on her first ever snowshoe/snow camping trip, at Dewey Point. She loved it and this winter we decided to tackle Clouds rest together.
The general winter Route to Clouds Rest that we decided to take was from Yosemite Valley floor to little Yosemite Valley on day one. Day two would be Little Yosemite Valley to Clouds Rest and back. Day 3 would be from Little Yosemite Valley back down to Yosemite valley. On paper this is about 21 miles, but in reality it was a few miles more. We took a few short detours to check out Vernal and Nevada falls which I will talk about in more detail below. The mileage wasn't necessarily the tough part though. The tough part was we did over 7k feet in elevation gain total, a lot of which was on ice or deep snow.
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Clouds Rest Winter Snowshoeing Maps
The Caltopo map above can be downloaded and viewed here.
Arriving At Yosemite Valley and Obtaining Backcountry Permits
My wife and I decided to drive up to Yosemite and stay at the Yosemite Valley Lodge the night before. As we drove into the valley with nervous excitement and music playing in our jeep, the first song that played was "Landslide" by Fleetwood Mac... I am not really superstitious but the last thing you want to hear when driving into Yosemite Valley before a 3 day winter backpacking trek is a song called "Landslide".
So I quickly hit the skip button to go to the next song, and the next song that started playing was called "Avalanche" by James Arthur. My wife and I both nervously laughed off the Irony.
In the morning we woke up, ate breakfast and went to go pick up our permits at the Yosemite Valley Visitors center. When I attempted this trip a few years ago, you had to talk to a ranger in person to get permits in the Valley. Not sure if it was just COVID-19 precautions but they had self issue permits from the Valley this year.
There were still Rangers outside behind the visitors center answering questions, and I do recommend you make the time to at least swing by and talk to a Ranger before you head out on your trip. Rangers often have valuable trail intelligence that can be valuable. Trail intel can be very valuable especially in the winter when conditions can change very quickly.
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Parking is always interesting in Yosemite Valley so to make it easy we parked at the VIllage Store Parking lot circled in blue and walked over to the Visitors Center circled in orange. The self permit station was in front of the Visitors Center and the Rangers were behind it.
Day 1: Happy Isles Trailhead to Little Yosemite Valley
Day one is an important day on this trip because you need to get out of Yosemite Valley to have some sort of a successful trip. There is no place to pull over and camp on the way out, so you need to get out of the Valley, which is what my buddy and I failed to do a few years ago.
This year my wife and I were prepared, we not only had our snowshoes strapped to our packs but we each had crampons and Ice Axes as well. No matter how prepared you are, wintery conditions always have their say and you should be prepared to turn around and call it if you have to in order to stay safe. The second main challenge of the day is the elevation gain. We would be hiking up hill just about all day:
In a little over 5 miles we would climb 2,500 feet in elevation. Arriving the night before and staying in the Valley was a little helpful as well to help us acclimate to the elevation. We live in San Diego so we drove straight from sea level.
Arriving at the Yosemite Valley Trailhead Parking lot, it was a mix of dirt, mud, ice and snow. The only parking spots open were part slush part ice, which was no worries for my Jeep but we did have to be careful while putting our packs on in the parking lot.
Right out of the parking lot, I slipped on some black ice... luckily I didn't go down and managed to stay on my own two feet. Be careful, you don't want to get hurt in your first few steps on the trail!
The first part of the hike out of the parking lot is very chill. You leave the parking lot, turn left and walk along a paved road until you cross a bridge where you make a sharp right hand turn onto the John Muir Trail.
The John Muir Trail starting in the Valley and heading up to Clark's Point is mostly paved and smooth. The views are fantastic but the trail your feet are walking on doesn't start to get interesting until you make it past the Vernal Fall Footbridge.
When we turned onto the John Muir Trail it was covered in snow and ice.
This snow and ice quickly disappeared and most of this first part was clean pavement. Despite being clean smooth pavement it is still a lot of work. There are no switchbacks here and it's just a steady good incline up to the Vernal Falls Footbridge.
We didn't start hiking until around maybe 10am. At this time of morning on this trail there were a handful of day hikers hoping to hike up and catch some views of Vernal Falls. It wasn't too crowded, since it was winter in Yosemite but there was a steady flow of day hikers who were all very encouraging as they watched us move up the mountain.
As the asphalt pavement ends you find yourself with the first beautiful views of Vernal Falls in the distance from the Vernal Falls Footbridge. This is a great spot to catch your breath and enjoy the views!
As a backpacker there is something exciting when your feet first hit the dirt signaling the start of an epic adventure. The beginning of this hike feels a bit odd starting out on asphalt for so long. It's still beautiful the entire route on the pavement but I didn't get that pure excitement grin across my face until my boots hit the dirt after the Vernal Falls Footbridge.
As you round your first turn on the dirt you will see the Mist Trail which is closed every winter. It gets very icy and there is falling ice which is why the Mist Trail is closed. Do not ignore the signs and stay on the John Muir Trail as you head up. When I attempted this route a few years ago a lady died after ignoring the signs and heading up the mist trail. As the trail turns to dirt, there begins to be more patches of snow and ice as we headed up as well.
As we continued moving up, my previous trip was at the forefront of my mind. We were getting close to where I had to turn around on my first attempt of this route, and I really did not want to have to turn around again. I saw some day hikers who were coming down and inquired if they made it to Clark Point. They guy shook his head and said, "No it was too icey".
This made me a little nervous, but the day hikers didn't look like they had crampons or microspikes on them which was the mistake I made on my first attempt.
Eventually we got to the ice. It was at the exact same spot it was last time on this route. It was like dejavu, everything looked the same. There were a lot of day hikers here all disappointed that they had to turn around. The other half of the day hikers had microspikes and were putting them on and continuing. There were a couple of individuals who were slowly attempting to go forward without any sort of spikes... this was just dumb.
We sat down, took off our packs and started to strap our crampons for the challenging ice ahead as we moved up towards Clark Point.
The mixture of hard packed slick snow and ice on steep sections of switchbacks is challenging. The crampons magically made me feel like spider man as we took each deliberate step forward. As we slowly wound our way up the switchbacks we stopped a few times and waited for other groups of day hikers ahead of us. Their groups had a mix of microspikes and one or two users who had just slick shoes or boots on. I wanted to give them space just in case they slipped, I didn't want them sliding into me or my wife taking us out as well. Eventually the switchbacks ended and we rounded the bend and made it to Clark Point!
I was ecstatic! First mission accomplished, made it past where I got turned around last time and made it to Clark Point. Based on the map work I did in preparation for this trip, I felt like we had high chances from here to easily make it to LIttle Yosemite Valley, so we would at least get an overnight trip in even if we didn't make it up Clouds Rest. Things were looking good!
Reaching Clark Point was a high point (no pun intended). At this point we had been hiking uphill all day and it was finally time for a little break to hike down towards the Merced River. At this point day hikers became even more sparse and we almost had the trail all to ourselves. Hiking down towards the Merced River was awesome, the views with Nevada Falls in the background the entire way down was majestic.
On this trail there was a lot of really cool thick clear ice. At one point we were able to see water running under the thick ice and it was mesmerizing.
Before you get all the way down to the Silver Apron Footbridge that crosses the Merced River, there is a small section of the Mist Trail that is open during the winter that you can take to check out Vernal Falls. At this point we veered off our main course and took this side adventure for the Vernal Falls overlook.
The orange highlighted trail above is the side adventure to the Vernal Falls overlook. As you approach the overlook there is a massive granite slab. We took our packs off and held onto the nice railing they installed as we walked towards the ledge and enjoyed the wonderful views.
After enjoying the views we decided to take a nice snack break. We hadn't taken many long breaks during the entire climb up to this point so it was nice to lounge on the rocks and relax a little before our next climb up to Little Yosemite Valley.
After our short recovery it was marching back to where we left our main trail, and we continued a little bit further down until we hit the Silver Apron Footbridge. This was a pretty intense bridge. The Merced river here squeezes between a narrow section of rock and the water was absolutely gushing! Also, not sure why you would try to cross through the river and not over the bridge here...but there is a warning sign saying you have to use the bridge to cross.
After crossing the Merced River it was time to climb again. Our legs appreciated the short downhill and the quick rest we had at the falls, but it was time to continue up again.
Yosemite is such a unique place. Each time you see something amazingly beautiful, and you think it can't get much better... but then it does. As we hiked through the forest we got closer and closer to Nevada Falls. At first we could just hear it roaring through the forest. As we got closer, it got louder and louder and we started to get glimpses through the trees. The anticipation was building until Nevada Falls was suddenly right right next to us!
The next section after the Nevada Falls close encounter, gets narrow with lots of quick switchbacks as you continue up towards little Yosemite Valley. This would also be the last big elevation change for the day before it begins to flattens out. Through the icy sections there would be medium sized gaps of no ice. Since the terrain switched between icy and not icy we had to constantly take our crampons on and off. At this point we were tired and got a bit lazy and would try to move up without the Crampons... I would recommend taking the time to put them back on to be safe. It's not safe to be halfway on a steep icy part trying to put your crampons on. We eventually found a safe spot to put them on... On the way back on the last day we made sure to have the crampons on the entire time through this section.
After this steep section it started to slowly level out as we passed a nice looking composting toilet. Right at the composting toilet there is an intersection, and this is where we decided to take our second detour off the main course to check out the top of Nevada Falls.
The orange highlighted trail above is the detour we took off the main trail to go check out Nevada Falls. Once again this short little detour brought us to some classic epic Yosemite views!
At this point the sun was getting pretty low so we did not hang out as long as we did at Vernal Falls. We took some quick pictures and then turned around and went back to the main trail. This was the final short stretch before we got to Little Yosemite Valley and could set up camp for the night!
At this point there was pretty much good snowpack everywhere. The trail was level and easy going along a calm section of the Merced River. We started out not in snowshoes and were hoping we didn't have to stop again, but Rachel took one good post hole and we put the snowshoes on until we made it to camp.
The first thing we saw as we got to LIttle Yosemite Valley Campground was their pit toilets. I brought wag bags for this trip, but the toilets here were open which was a nice ementity to have while camping in the cold snow!
We ended up arriving before dark which was nice. We still had to dig a bit into the snow for some wind protection, set up our tent, melt snow and boil water to rehydrate and then make dinner. The hiking for the day may have been over but there was still a bit of work to do before we get to rest our heads under the warm sleeping bags for the night. Our temporary home in Little Yosemite Valley for the next two nights was perfect with an epic view of Half Dome as well!
ℹ️ Pro Tip: Use Liquid Fuel When Winter Camping
When camping I tend to use a Jet Boil (Amazon Affiliate) most of the time. When winter camping gas stoves are not the best option. At cold temperatures gas will condense back into a liquid and then your Jet Boil type stove will not work unless you can warm the gas canister back up.
For this trip we used an MSR XGK Stove (Amazon Affiliate) which uses liquid fuel. Another popular option by MSR is the Whisper Lite (Amazon Affiliate) as well.
Day 2: Little Yosemite Valley to Clouds Rest
We didn't freeze to death the first night, so that was a fantastic first night in the backcountry. We both had our own foam sleeping pad, and then an inflatable two person Klymit sleeping pad on top of those. As for sleeping bags, we had two camping quilts rated to 30 degrees farenheit that we stacked on top of each other. The first quilt was an Enlightened Equipment Accomplice two person down quilt. The second quilt was a synthetic quilt that I made a week or two before. My thinking was if I had a synthetic quilt on top it could act as a bit of a moisture barrier for any condensation that dripped down from the tent and would keep the down from getting wet.
The plan for day 2 was to leave camp setup and travel light with just our backpacks, ice axes, snowshoes, crampons, warming layers, food and water. Anything we didn't need for the day we kept at camp or in our bear canisters a safe distance away from camp. Despite the lighter load on our backs we had a challenging day of 10+ miles and just about 4k feet in elevation gain.
Since it was going to be a long day we wanted to make sure we were fueled up and ready to go, and decided to make a hot breakfast. In hindsight we probably should have woken up a little bit earlier. One thing to keep in mind when winter camping is if you plan on melting snow for water, melting snow takes a lot of time...
One thing to point out, is that I did forget to bring one water bottle into the tent with us and under the sleeping quilts. It was under the rainfly but not in the tent and it was frozen solid. It did end up melting by the end of the day while we hiked, which was good because I drank a good 3 liters of water throughout the day and needed it. I also left my Hyperlite Mountain Gear Backpack outside the tent as well and had a beautiful frosting on it in the morning.
After our bellies were full of energy for the day ahead it was back on the trail. The tree line in the direction we were heading didn't look too snowy so we decided to start hiking just in our boots with no snowshoes on. There snow was mostly hard enough in the morning where it was not too much of a problem with postholing.
The first part of this hike was a straight shot up through the forest. Under the canopy of the trees we were not being treated with any epic views as we trudge forward. The first section of trail led us up to a fork which broke off towards Half Dome. We stayed right at the fork and headed towards Clouds Rest Trail, our main objective for the trip!
As the John Muir Trail began to head directly east at this point we were out of the forest and began having some great views out behind us. These were the winter views that I came to Yosemite to see.
Through the forest the trail was fairly well defined. There was enough foot traffic where if we lost the trail we could easily pick it up. It seemed like a lot of day hikers were heading up towards Half Dome. After the Half Dome intersection the foot prints and snowshoe prints in the snow seemed to lighten up. I guess less people are interested in checking out Clouds Rest during the winter.
After about half a mile hiking directly East, the Clouds Rest Trail forks off the John Muir Trail and we were finally hiking up Clouds Rest after two days of hiking! Despite being on Clouds Rest Trail, the Clouds Rest peak seemed to be hidden most of the hike and we couldn't get a view of it until the very end. Most of the hike up, we enjoyed amazing views of Half Dome.
The initial part of the Clouds Rest Trail generally flows directly North with no switchbacking. With no switchbacks here, it's just a steady elevation gain straight up. At this point we were slowing down just a little bit as we began to approach the switchbacks going up the main section of Clouds Rest. At this point we had been climbing for two days, and we were approaching 8k in elevation with almost another 2k feet ahead of us in climbing. It wasn't too late yet, but I was beginning to keep a closer eye on time as we began the switchbacks.
Planning this trip, the switchbacks up Clouds Rest were one of the sections I was a little nervous about. I knew there was some sort of snow or ice on it, because I looked at the weekly satellite imagery on Caltopo but there was no way to tell its true consistency. Luckily the snow and ice here really wasn't bad at all and we didn't even put crampons on as we hiked up these switchbacks. As we hiked up the switchbacks my nerves settled in and this section of trail became one of my favorites of the entire trip.
As we got to the top of the switchbacks we were essentially eye level with Half dome and it was awesome!
We were now getting close to the final push to the summit of Clouds Rest. As we got higher and higher we got slower and slower. On one of our breaks we made the decision to keep pushing forward towards the summit, knowing that we would be making it back to camp in the dark with our headlamps on. My goal at this point was to make it back down the Clouds Rest switchbacks before we needed to light up our headlamps.
Just after crossing 9k feet in elevation the trail turned North. At this point I was really starting to feel tired and not sure how much further I could go up. I took out my second trekking pole which seemed to help keep me moving forward. I was beginning to take quick breaks more often as well to catch my breath.
We were slowly approaching the next big decision point on this hike up Clouds Rest. Right before the summit at about 9,400 feet in elevation the trail splits again. If you take a left at the fork it's a little shorter in distance to the top but you take a couple of switchbacks. If you stay right at the fork it's a little longer distance wise but could be a little less steep as you move up. I say “it could be” because I didn't run the numbers to compare these to small sections of trail beforehand. In hindsight if I knew I would be as exhausted as I was at this intersection it may have been comforting to know for sure.
There was no "trail" at this part, it was fully buried in snow. We didn't have any footsteps we could follow that we could see at this point. Each step forward seemed to take an enormous amount of energy, my legs were feeling like lead weights as I tried to force them up Clouds Rest.
After breaking snow for over an hour I was beat at this point. I could see the summit of Clouds Rest to my left and we had under half a mile left. I looked back at my wife and said I was done. Rachel wasn't ready to turn back so close, and volunteered to take the leed and start breaking snow up the last quarter mile.
Despite her taking the lead I still wasn't sure how much further I could go. After a few steps forward with her breaking snow, I had a second wind in my lungs and was feeling a bit better and could continue trudging upwards.
As we approached the back of the Clouds Rest Ridgeline crossing a sketchy section of over 35 degree incline, the snow seemed stable enough to cross. Realistically I am no avalanche expert, far from it actually. I have studied textbooks but I don't have a lot of practical experience. We didn't want to hang out in this area too long...
We pushed forward finally making it to the Clouds Rest Ridgeline and could finally see to the other side looking out across a pristine winter wonderland! We ended up stopping here for a quick break and took in the views. It was at this point about 100 meters from the tippy top of Clouds Rest. As we looked up at the last 100 meters, it looked thin and slick on either side of the route up. Not knowing the stability of the snow and with the last 100 meters having a 40-50 degree slope on either side of it, we decided to play it safe. Someone with more experience may look at it and tell us after the fact that we would have been fine, but we were not those experts and decided to call it.
With the sun starting to get low, it was finally time to turn around. I can't express how happy my legs were to finally be going down hill. Before I could be really comfortable, we had to cross the 35 degree incline section again. The only comfort I had while crossing this section was that since I was facing down hill, I was presented with epic landscapes that briefly took my mind off the steepness.
Earlier in the day we decided we were both fine with hiking back in the dark and that would definitely be the case for us as we continued back following our footsteps down Clouds Rest. As our pace picked up as we moved down, the lighting became stunning. The switchback section presented me with some of my favorite views on the way up but on the way down with the sun setting it was just perfect. Watching the sun get lower and lower with Half Dome as the main subject was stunning.
We didn't use crampons coming up these switchbacks earlier in the day but, on the way down we kept them on. We were moving fast with our legs feeling fresh excited to get to our warm tent for some hot food. Also with the sun setting the crampons were nice extra traction as things began to freeze over again as the temperatures began to quickly drop.
There was no moon tonight, so our headlamps were our only source of light. Luckily with all the snow, the light reflected well and as Rachel led the first part through the dark forest I kept my headlamp off just to save battery. We had a long dark hike, and I didnt want to risk both headlamps dying at the same time. We had no issue hiking back to camp in the dark. If you are not used to navigating at night I would not recommend hiking at night especially in the snow where navigation can be much more difficult.
When we got back to camp we were exhausted after such a challenging day. Unfortunately, just like the previous night we couldn't go straight to bed and get warm. We drank pretty much all our water and it was time to melt snow and refill all our supplies for the hike back to civilization in the morning. Since I had a lot of time to kill while melting snow, I decided to shoot a little night photography of the stars over Half Dome.
Day 3: Little Yosemite Valley to the Ahwahnee Hotel
The final day on the trail was uneventful for the most part. We had another warm night in our tent and woke up ready to hike back to Yosemite Valley for a warm hotel room, plenty of food, and some beer.
After breaking down the tent , and packing all our gear, we waved goodbye to Half Dome towering over Little Yosemite Valley and headed back down to the valley.