Clouds Rest has been on my radar since the first time I’d been to Yosemite. Its airy summit ridge, its enormous northwest face, its centrality within the park, and its views of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley make it a must for any Yosemite adventurer. Its ease of access, though, has always put me off. Clouds Rest gets a lot of visitors, and because of that, it’s taken years for me to make the trek.
A light snow covered most of the hills and much of the desert floor around us. The White Mountains reflected clear in the waters of Mono Lake. It took us most of a day to drive down to here from the bay area, but in a setting as serene as the High Sierra in winter, who would rush?
We woke up late, thinking that Dunderberg Peak would be a quick morning hike. Not much higher than 12,000 feet, we figured it’d be a short scramble to the top and that we would get back in time to lounge around camp for a few hours before dinner. As is typical, though, this hike turned into a bear of a day.
I’ve spent years exploring the Sierra, but I’d never hiked to Glen Aulin. George and Steve, on the other hand, have been coming out there for thirty years straight. A place must have a special draw to bring seasoned veterans out every year for that long. I had to see this for myself. After sleeping off the Tahoe Relay, we drove down the 395 from Tahoe, stopping in Walker for some of their famous barbecue. Thunderheads loomed over the Sierra, and we knew we’d be facing some rain.
There was enough snow between Vogelsang High Sierra Camp and the pass that I kept my ice axe handy for most of the day. Vogelsang Lake was still frozen over, strange since it’s only a few hundred feet higher than the thawed out Fletcher Lake. I skirted the West side of the lake and began climbing toward Vogelsang Pass. Right before the pass I turned into a small creek drainage on the East Face of Vogelsang Peak. The snow here steepens as it climbs onto the East Ridge of the peak. I French-stepped to the top of the snow slope, then took off my crampons as I climbed onto the dry ridge.
I must have been desperate for some final human contact when I picked up a hitch-hiker at the Crane Flat gas station. He was a retired professor of economics from Bristol, England, out on a tour of the Western United States. We drove up the Tioga Road into the parking lot a half-mile past the Tuolumne Meadows wilderness center. The professor left north toward Lembert Dome, and I left south along the John Muir Trail toward Rafferty Creek. The river was flowing high, the crowds were still at home, and I was alone in the wilderness.
The Merced River flows from canyon to canyon from its headwaters in Yosemite National Park. The upper canyons are lonely places in April, with most people believing the area to be too snowed over for efficient travel. We woke up, though, on dry granite, to the sound of the Bunnell Cascades at the opening of Lost Valley.
The Merced River flows 145 miles from its headwaters in the Clark Range down into the Central Valley. Even though we would only see about fifteen miles of its course, we would see the wildest, most pristine parts. Here, it flows into the sub-alpine Merced Lake before cascading through the granite canyons of the Echo, Lost, and Little Yosemite Valleys. From there it drops down Nevada and Vernal Falls, past Happy Isles and into Yosemite Valley proper. This most dramatic section of the river is the part we visited.
Sometimes you’ve got to spend months planning an attack on a peak. Sometimes it takes researching trip reports, studying maps, and scouting out routes before you’ll feel confident enough to climb a peak. Sometimes you’ve got to wait days for the right weather and avalanche conditions before it’s safe to summit. Sometimes, though, you climb a peak on a whim.
The Upper Yosemite Falls trail is the quintessential Yosemite trail. It’s got steep gradients, big waterfalls, cliff overlooks, and views of the high country. It’s also one of the most crowded trails in the park, but if you get up early enough in the Winter or Spring, you can usually get some alone time near the top. Early morning is also the best way to avoid an overbearing sun on the last few switchbacks.