Clouds Rest Winter

This is the third a series of posts on winter adventure in Yosemite. The first post was about Mount Watkins and the second about Glacier Point and Sentinel Dome. I have been to Clouds Rest in all seasons except winter and took the opportunity this past March to visit the mountain in genuine winter conditions thanks to the record setting snowpack. It’s a much more arduous snowshoe climb with everything covered in many feet of snow, but the views of the snowcapped high country are well worth the effort. In the summer the shortest route is a relatively easy <7 miles each way from the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead at Tenaya Lake with less than 2,000 ft of elevation gain. However, I’ve always preferred visiting Clouds Rest before or after the Tioga Pass road closes since it significantly reduces the amount of visitors and solitude can be found on the summit to enjoy the magnificent 360 degree panorama. However, this means that the peak must be ascended from Yosemite Valley with substantially more mileage and elevation gain. Depending on whether the winter closure of the Mist Trail is in effect, the total mileage each way from Happy Isles is between 9.5 to 10.5 miles with 6,000 ft+ of elevation gain. However, climbing Clouds Rest from the Valley seems like the proper route in my opinion with passage by the iconic Vernal and Nevada Falls along with close views of Half Dome and Liberty Cap from below.

A snowshoe trip up Clouds Rest is a much more challenging endeavor since it’s likely nobody has been up there and trailblazing in deep snow is not easy (the snow was still largely unconsolidated on my trip). The last human tracks ended at the Sunrise Creek Junction but I was able to stay on the buried trail corridor as it passed through pine and fir forest. While the beauty of snowshoeing is you can basically go anywhere in the forest floating on top of buried brush and downed logs, staying on the trail corridor eliminated unnecessary weaving around dense clumps of firs. At the steep slope below the Clouds Rest pinnacles the trail begins a series of well-graded switchbacks, but with these switchbacks completely buried the only feasible option is to just head straight up. It becomes quite steep on this climb of several hundred vertical feet. Aim for the forested bench to the east (right) of the pinnacles and do not follow where the trail ascends which is to the left side of the slope and then does a long traverse back to the right. Traversing steep slopes is not fun in snowshoes and better to aim directly for the forested bench on the right. Once that bench is reached the incline decreases and it’s a pleasant walk through the pines to the final step up to the summit. Here, instead of following the vicinity of where the trail would be below the ridge I climbed up to the SW ridge crest and enjoyed some awesome views looking into Tenaya Canyon on the final approach to the summit block.

Complete Albums:

The summit is essentially a large granite fin that is oriented SW to NE with a couple hundred feet drop on the east side and a few thousand feet drop on the west side into Tenaya Canyon. A fall on either side would not be pleasant, though I have to think falling to the east is the better option. The final climb from the south includes a steep section with some exposure to the cliffs falling into Tenaya Canyon. After the snow melts, the trail provides ample safety, but when snow covered, this pitch gives pause and may require an ice axe and/or crampons depending on conditions. Fortunately, the summit itself is broad enough to relax and enjoy the stunning 360 degree view which takes in most of Yosemite National Park including Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, North Dome, Mount Hoffman, Sawtooth Ridge, Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne area domes, the Cathedral Range (including the highest point in the park, Mount Lyell), and the Clark Range including Mount Hoffman. It’s a spectacular vista and even more impressive when it’s all snow covered. The northeast end of the the summit fin narrows into a knife edge. When the knobby granite is exposed this an easy hop and skip but when snow and ice covered it becomes a tricky knife edge requiring ice axe and crampons. All things considered, the south route up the summit block is the better choice in the winter since it does not require dealing with the considerable exposure found on the knife edge north of the summit.

The immense northwest face of Clouds Rest is at an angle that is plenty steep but still enables snow and ice to accumulate throughout winter. On a heavy snow year such as this, several feet of snow and ice accumulate setting the stage for an awesome phenomenon in late winter and spring. When the sun angle increases and temps warm, the snow and ice calves off the granite apron and tumbles down to Tenaya Canyon with amazing speed over wet, slick granite. While I was on top of Clouds Rest I witnessed several amazing calving episodes with thunderous sounds and staggering amounts of snow and ice shooting down into Tenaya Canyon. There were chunks the size of buses sliding down the granite and launched over cliffs like torpedoes. The power of nature is on full display when this calving occurs!     The winter closure of the Mist Trail seems to dissuade many visitors and in both the morning and afternoon I had Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls to myself. In addition, over all these years of doing the John Muir Trail and Mist Trail I had never bothered to do the Clark Point cutoff trail. With the winter closures, this stretch of trail becomes required and it far exceeded expectations. The upper portion includes amazing views of Nevada Falls with Liberty Cap, Mount Broderick and Half Dome. The lower part includes a dramatic birds-eye vista of Vernal Falls that is arguably more impressive than that seen from the Mist Trail. I also found the cutoff trail to be a little icy in the morning, which means that the shaded Mist Trail was probably much more icy. The take away is that the winter route is plenty beautiful and it’s not worth disobeying closures that put yourself and others in harms way. As of this writing, the Mist Trail is open so expect it to be open in Spring. 

Glacier Point & Sentinel Dome Winter

This is the second in a series of three winter routes in Yosemite National Park (for the first, see Mount Watkins Winter). Glacier Point is one of the great viewpoints in Yosemite and it’s even better in winter for a couple reasons. First (and foremost), peace and solitude can be found. There’s no tourist buses and no tourists. If you’re doing Glacier Point in a day, the folks who spend the night at the hut are on their way back or yet to arrive so there’s a good chance you have the vista all to yourself. Second, a snow-capped Half Dome and surrounding high country seems to add another layer the dramatic vista. It’s been since 2013 since I was at Glacier Point in the winter. That time it was a cross country ski and very cold after a big storm cycle so the winter wonderland was in full effect. Unfortunately the spigot largely turned off the second half of that winter as the multi-year drought commenced.  This year the snows are back and California experienced a real winter so it was time to revisit Glacier Point. This time I would bring my snowshoes instead of skiing. It turns out the Glacier Point Road is groomed to the point that snowshoes are usually not necessary in the morning. However, I would make a side trip to Sentinel Dome and for that snowshoes are definitely required as the snow was deep and unconsolidated. Whether it’s worth carrying snowshoes for the short side trip Sentinel Dome is up for debate. If I bring snowshoes again I will likely add on another viewpoint like Taft Point to make better use of the gear. Otherwise, an out-and-back to Glacier Point is largely doable as a run on the hard packed groomed surface with possibly some slip on traction device on the shoes and possibly some hiking instead of running in the afternoon if the snow becomes soft. Compared to the very cold weather four years ago this time it was comparatively balmy so there was no snow on the vegetation but several more feet of snow at Glacier Point and the high country reflecting the big snow pack this year, especially at 7,000 feet and above.

From Badger Pass to Glacier Point is a straightforward 11 mile each way or 22 miles round trip. As would be expected, the road is graded very well with relatively gradual ascents and descents. There’s a short climb at the beginning before a couple miles of gradual descent to Bridalveil Creek. This descent is not noticeable on the way out but more noticeable on the way back when it’s uphill. There’s a rolling section around Bridalveil Creek before a consistent (but gradual) climb begins after the turnoff to Horizon Ridge at mile 4.5. This climb continues for around 3 miles. There’s some more rolling on the ridge before the road begins it’s descent to Glaicer Point at around mile 9. Washburn Point is reached just after mile 10 and Glacier Point at mile 11. If Glacier Point is the destination, I’d definitely plan on reaching it since there aren’t many views along the way – the reward is at the turnaround point. The Clark Range view is at mile 6.25 but it pales in comparison to the views at Washburn Point and Glacier Point. The road largely spends it time traversing through a montane forest, which is very beautiful after a fresh snow but does not offer many views. The destination at Glacier Point is easily the highlight and it’s worth every bit of the effort.

For Sentinel Dome snowshoes are almost always required in the winter. It’s under a mile roundtrip from the road to the dome and back. Sentinel Dome offers a spectacular 360 degree view and a higher perspective on Half Dome across the Valley. I personally think the view from Glacier Point is more dramatic to Half Dome but Sentinel Dome is definitely worth the side trip if you’ve brought snowshoes and includes a wider vista taking in the Clark Range and El Capitan. If I bring snowshoes next time I will also include a visit to Taft Point, but it looks like this point is rarely visited so deep snow and potentially slow going with trail breaking seems like it would be encountered. Overall, the vast majority of visitors go to Dewey Point which is only 4 miles from Badger Pass (8 miles round trip). Dewey is a fantastic vista, particularly for El Capitan, but for Tenaya Canyon and Half Dome Glacier Point takes the win.

Full albums:

Watkins Winter

In my opinion Mount Watkins has one of the best views in the Yosemite Valley region. Unlike some of the more famous vistas which have a road or a designated trail leading to them (and associated crowds), Mount Watkins has neither and this largely explains its relative obscurity both in summer and especially in winter. I won’t deny, the solitude one can experience from this majestic perch is part of the allure for me. What’s certain is from the end of the Watkins Ridge one receives the best view of the massive granite apron that constitutes the northwest face of Clouds Rest. The vista also includes an excellent vantage of Half Dome as it towers above Yosemite Valley. The stunning panorama encompasses a good chunk of the National Park including Mount Starr King, the Clark Range, North Dome, Basket Dome, Mount Conness, Mount Hoffman and Glacier Point.  In the summer it’s merely a 4 mile jaunt down from the Tioga Pass Highway to the edge of Watkins Ridge (where the best views are located) but in the winter it’s a more arduous trek up from Yosemite Valley via the switchbacks of the Snow Creek Trail and then off-trail from the vicinity of the Snow Creek Cabin up to the Watkins summit and down the ridge. However, the extra effort to reach Mount Watkins in the winter is richly rewarded with an experience is enhanced by snowy winter conditions.

The Snow Creek Trail is south facing and the lower part typically melts out a few days after snowfall (at least to the point snowshoes are not required; though some snow and ice may remain). After a fairly level trek to Mirror Lake and about a mile beyond, the trail gets to business with a long series of rocky switchbacks. Fortunately, views open up pretty quick and they only improve as one ascends. The most spectacular feature during this ascent is Half Dome, directly across the canyon, but in my opinion, the view across Tenaya Canyon to the Quarter Domes is equally impressive. Unless a heavy low elevation snowfall just occurred, snowshoes are typically only required near the top of the Snow Creek climb at ~6,500 ft where the gradient begins to flatten. The trail follows close to picturesque Snow Creek for a short distance before crossing the creek using a bridge. After the crossing the trail resumes a gradual climb through the forest up to a meadow area. Trees are marked with blazes to guide the direction if you happen to be breaking trail. The stretch from the Snow Creek crossing to the cabin passes through a forest that turns into a winter wonderland with an excellent mixture of large and small trees along with a diverse variety of pines and firs. The Snow Creek Cabin is just off the trail on the opposite side of a meadow. Topo maps have the cabin marked relatively close to its actual location and there are plenty of posts on the internet providing GPX tracks and specific directions. The cabin used to be somewhat of a secret as it’s open to the public for overnight stays during the winter, but word has gotten out and the internet is not helping. Staying at the cabin in the winter used to be unrestricted but unfortunately, too much demand has caused the park service to get out their free-flowing ream of red tape to implement yet another quota. Now one must either pick up a permit the afternoon before the trip (and arrange for accommodation or camping int he Valley) or the morning of the trip when the visitor center opens with no guarantees any spots are remaining. Neither option is convenient and makes heading up there for a day trip much more appealing. It turns out climbing up the steep Snow Creek trail to the Snow Creek Cabin and beyond to Mount Watkins is much more pleasant without overnight gear anyway. Perhaps if one wanted to continue beyond for a winter ascent of Mount Hoffman or Tuolumne Meadows I would consider a night at the cabin.     

Complete Photo Albums:

Although off trail, reaching Mount Watkins is fairly straightforward from the cabin. From the Snow Creek Cabin head southeast through open forest and then make a short but steep climb directly to the high point of Mount Watkins at 8,500 ft. The summit area is quite broad and therefore the high point does not have the best view. Instead, I highly recommend continuing down southwest from the summit around a half mile along the gently-sloping granite ridge studded with occasional pines. Eventually at around 8,200 ft the ridge becomes narrower and steeper and at this point the superior views are realized as one can gaze down into the depths of Tenaya Canyon all the way up the granite face to the summit of Clouds Rest. The sweeping panorama takes in everything from Mount Conness to the Yosemite Valley floor. The ridge is quite exposed to the elements and the stunted pines and junipers growing here are particularly picturesque making for some great photography subjects to pair with the magnificent view. 

Half Dome’s Diving Board

Two spots are referred to as the Diving Board on Half Dome. The most commonly visited, but unofficial diving board is located near the summit on a small overhanging lip above the precipitous northwest face. This feature has also been named “The Visor” and is the preferred name to differentiate with the official Diving Board (as labelled on the USGS topographic maps) located just west of Half Dome and directly below the northwest face. Discussion of the Diving Board hereinafter refers to the official Diving Board. The Diving Board is the location of one of Ansel Adams’ most famous photos, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, taken in 1927. Ansel was mesmerized by this location and described it as a “wondrous place… a great shelf of granite, slightly overhanging, and nearly 4000 feet above its base…the most exciting subject awaiting me.”  87 years later the Diving Board is just as captivating with the perspective of Half Dome from the Diving Board simply spectacular. The northwest face rises a sheer 2,000 feet and takes on the appearance of a colossal skyscraper. Most of the day the face is in the shade but in the afternoon it is slowly “revealed” from left to right as the sun progresses toward the western horizon. Ansel Adams captured this transition beautifully in his photo, remarking that he saw “the majesty of the sculptural shape of the Dome in the solemn effect of half sunlight and half shadow.” Ultimately, the entire face is illuminated by the afternoon sunlight and the evening progression brings an array of colors from grayish white in the late afternoon to yellow in the evening to orange at sunset and finally reddish at alpenglow.

The Diving Board is not far from the hustle and bustle of Yosemite Valley, but no trail reaches the point and any route requires some navigation and route finding skills. The most common and easiest route utilizes a use path that starts above Vernal Falls that travels behind Liberty Cap and Mount Broderick to Lost Lake. The use path continues past Lost Lake to a small saddle between Mount Broderick and Half Dome and then descends on the other side of the saddle before beginning a climb up steep slopes to the Diving Board. The more scenic and aesthetic route, known as “The Ledges” takes a different use path uphill from the Broderick-Half Dome Saddle to a series of well-placed ledges that cut across a granite slope. The Ledges route is the rock climbers’ approach to the popular Snake Dike route and other rock climbs in the vicinity. With close attention to cairns marking the path of least resistance, most brush can be avoided on this approach route. When the route reaches the ever-steepening cliffs of Half Dome’s southwest face, the ledges cut across the granite to climbers left. The various ledges are separated by short sections of class 3 climbing and a couple friction moves on the granite. From the ledges there are excellent views of Little Yosemite Valley, Cascade Cliffs, Bunnell Point, Mount Starr King and Mount Clark. Beyond the ledges, the approach switchbacks up to the start of the Snake Dike route. For the Diving Board, leave the approach route before it reaches the base of Half Dome and traverse right across lightly bushy terrain to a forested area in a small bowl. From the forest, travel up steep gravel slopes for the final couple hundred feet of vertical to the Diving Board.

The view from the Diving Board is remarkable. Aside from Half Dome’s massive northwest face front and center, North Dome, Basket Dome and Mount Watkins are prominent across Tenaya Canyon. Most of the major features of Yosemite Valley are visible including Glacier Point, the Royal Arches, Washington Column, Yosemite Falls, Eagle Peak and El Capitan. The view immediately below from the overhanging rock is vertigo-inducing with nearly 3,000 feet of air to the floor of Yosemite Valley. On this day, the black oaks and maple trees in the Valley were in full fall color adding further intrigue to the view at the bottom of the precipitous drop. An alternative approach route to Lost Lake is the small gully between Liberty Cap and Mount Broderick. This narrow corridor is situated between too massive, sculpted granite features and is worth the extra time and effort versus the easy usetrail above Vernal Falls. The route to this corridor between Liberty Cap and Mount Broderick begins at the point where the Mist Trail touches the granite of Liberty Cap. The use path traverses alongside the base of of Liberty Cap before dropping into the gully. Once in the gully it’s fairly obvious to head up the narrow corridor passing by some pine and fir trees along the way and a hanging valley with a meadow. The final portion enters a forest of fir and aspen before joining up with the primary use path to Lost Lake. The first dozen or so photos below are from this alternative route through the Broderick-Liberty Gap corridor and the remainder are from the Ledges Route and the Diving Board in general chronological order as the sunlight exposed the northwest face of Half Dome and the subsequent evening light progression. The Diving Board is certainly a spot I will return to experience in different season with varying light angles and clouds. I also hope to visit the spot when it is snow covered.     

Clouds Rest & Yosemite’s Complete South Rim

While I know that Yosemite Valley is beautiful any time of the year, I had not experienced the Valley in the fall and I was eager to see some new trails (for me) on the south rim. A Saturday in early November was a great opportunity with the trails on the rim remaining largely snow-free. I designed a 38+ mile tour of the south rim of Yosemite Valley from Clouds Rest to Wawona Tunnel starting with the classic ascent up the Mist Trail from Happy Isles. The aesthetic point-to-point included a number of famous vistas: Clouds Rest, Panorama Point, Panorama Point Overlook, Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, Taft Point, Dewey Point, Crocker Point, Stanford Point, Inspiration Point and Artist Point. It was amazing to see the changing appearance of Half Dome and El Capitan, the most prominent features in the Valley,  as I made my way west along the South Rim. The biggest climb (6,000+ ft) is right at the beginning from the Valley to the summit of Clouds Rest, but the 2,500 ft of climbing from Illilouette Creek to Sentinel Dome is not easy either. All told, there is probably over 12,000 ft of climbing on the route. Beyond Sentinel Dome, the final 12 miles is largely downhill save for some moderate ascent to Dewey Point after crossing Bridalveil Creek. For a high resolution 360 degree annotated panorama from the summit of Clouds Rest, click on the image below or here. 

We encountered a surprising amount of snow in the shaded forest between Taft Point and Dewey Point, but overall the trails were in good condition. Panorama Point (not to be confused with Panorama Point Overlook) is a short-off trail hike along a ridgeline with nice 360 degree views. The highest point is at the end of the ridge. Panorama Point Overlook is just off the trail about 700 vertical feet below Panorama Point. A use path leaves the main trail at a switchback above Illilouette canyon, but there is no sign. It looks as if Panorama Point Overlook was once a bona fide vista, but the guardrail has since been removed (or fell off the cliff?) and it’s now one of the hidden gems of the Valley. Being late in the season, it was generally dry and the restroom facilities and water fountain at Glacier Point were closed. This means that if you are going out for a long run you must plan ahead for water locations. In fact, after Illilouette Creek, there is only one suitable water source on the route at Bridalveil Creek. Beyond Sentinel Dome, the focal point of the view is the immense granite wall of El Capitan. Taft Point is a tremendous viewpoint with some nice exposure for photogenic photography.  Continuing along the rim, we enjoyed magnificent evening light as we passed Dewey Point, Crocker Point and Stanford Point.  It took awhile to find the unobstructed view, but sunset at Inspiration Point was nice and post-sunset glow at Artist Point wrapped up a great day on the Yosemite trails.    

Mount Florence

Mount Florence is one of the most prominent peaks in the Yosemite high country visible from many spots along Yosemite Valley’s rim. The peak has a sweeping 360 degree panorama of virtually the entire park. While there are several routes to climb Mount Florence, the easiest and quickest route utilizes the Rafferty Creek Trail and Lewis Creek Trail via Tuolumne Pass and Vogelsang Pass. After ascending Vogelsang Pass, one descends around 1,000 feet along the Lewis Creek Trail before setting off cross country to beautiful Lk 10,541 (around 10.5 miles from Tuolumne Meadows). The cross country travel to Lk 10,541 is fairly straightforward with some boulders and slabs. Lk 10,541 is at the foot of Mount Florence with a stellar view up a remote valley to Mount Simmons, Mount Florence and other rugged unnamed points along the ridge. Beyond Lk 10,541 is a short steep section of talus up to the ridge crest at 11,000 feet. From the ridge, it’s a straightforward class 2 scramble up another 1,600 feet to Mount Florence’s summit – a great workout.

One of my favorite photos of the day was a 360 degree annotated view from the summit of Mount Florence.

I enjoyed the summit for well over a half hour, enjoying the views, which include the heart of the “roof” of Yosemite at Mount Lyell and Maclure and the entire Cathedral Range. Mount Florence also provides a clear vantage of the Merced River Valley to Half Dome, Clouds Rest and points along Yosemite Valley’s rim. After the summit rest, I retraced my steps back to Tuolumne Meadows. Instead of an out-and-back, one may descend Florence’s south ridge and traverse cross-country up and over the ridge to Lewis Creek Basin and then the pass near Parsons Peak to Ireland Lake. This scenic route would form an aesthetic loop, but includes a substantial amount of tedious off-trail travel. Since I had a very long day planned for the following day, I decided to leave this loop for next time. Even with climbing Mount Florence as an out-and-back, the route comes in at nearly 14 miles each way (28 miles total) with over 7,000 feet of elevation gain. Below are some photos from Florence’s summit, Lk 10,541 and Vogelsang Pass. Strava route here.

Tenaya Rim Loop

The “Tenaya Rim Loop” is an outstanding and aesthetic 45+ mile circumnavigation of Tenaya Canyon along its south and north rims passing through most of the highlights of Yosemite Valley including Clouds Rest, Panorama Point, Glacier Point, Yosemite Falls, Yosemite Point and North Dome. Total elevation gain for the route as presented is 14,500 feet. It was amazing to see Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon from all directions as the day progressed.  Side excursions for next time include Sentinel Dome and Mount Watkins to make it a round 50 miles. I chose my starting point (Tenaya Lake) and direction to optimize light for photography. An option to shorten the loop is to skip Glacier Point and instead head down into Yosemite Valley via the Mist Trail.  However, by cutting out Glacier Point you lose an immensely scenic stretch with unique views of Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon that are not achieved at other points of the route.  Overall, this is an awesome loop that hits most of the highlights of Yosemite Valley that I will surely do again.  Strava route here.

The route started with a frigid thigh-deep crossing of Tenaya Creek. The legs did not get a chance to warm up before climbing snowy switchbacks up to the junction with the Sunrise Trail. Beyond this point the trail was wet in spots with some more snow patches, but I soon found myself on the final summit ridge up Clouds Rest enjoying the spectacular views from the summit. Heading down from Clouds Rest to the Nevada Falls bridge is mostly downhill and fairly fast. Beyond the Nevada Falls bridge is one of my favorite views in Yosemite including Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, Mount Broderick and Half Dome all in the same frame. Panorama Trail featured more views into Yosemite Valley and Illilouette Falls is spectacular. Panorama Point is particularly impressive perched on top of a precipitous cliff. This point is not marked on the trail and is a short distance off-trail via a use path. The final climb up to Glacier Point is one of the most beautiful stretches of trail in the park with awesome views of Nevada and Vernal Falls and Little Yosemite Valley. After seeing hardly any other visitors the entire morning, the stream of hikers increased as I approached Glacier Point. The Point itself contained the expected bus loads of tourists, but the view is incredible despite the crowds.

I had never done the Four Mile Trail before and it was a beautiful descent into the Valley with excellent views of Sentinel Rock, El Capitan, and Cathedral Rocks. The Four Mile Trail is an example of a trail that was once paved by the park service, presumably in an era long ago when it was determined that paving was beneficial. Big parts of the pavement have since eroded away leaving uneven chunks on the trail – proof that paving should have never happened.  Finally at the bottom of the Valley, I crossed the Swinging Bridge and envied the rafters on the Merced River. It was getting hot and I made sure to rehydrate at Camp Four before beginning the ascent up Yosemite Falls. Fortunately, the Yosemite Falls trail enjoys considerable shade in the afternoon hours and the climb was not that bad. I made my way up to Yosemite Point and enjoyed a snack enjoying another awesome vista of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley. Next up was North Dome with it’s unrivaled view of Half Dome’s North Face and close looks into Tenaya Canyon. The route into and out of Snow Creek is not as interesting, but still pleasant montane forest. On a saddle near Mount Watkins I enjoyed more views of Tenaya Canyon, Pywiack Cascade, the immense granite massif of Clouds Rest. The final view of the route is at Olmstead Point, where I was greeted with evening light on Half Dome and Clouds Rest.

And finally, a fun comparison of the winter and summer view from Glacier Point: