Trip Overview: 2 day/2 night camping and hiking trip in Yosemite National Park. Two hikes totaling ~20 miles and +/- 4,000 feet with a starting elevation of 8,100 feet and a peak elevation of 9,900 feet. Highlights include expansive granite cliffs/domes/valleys, alpine lakes, and green meadows. We completed this trip at the end of July in 2015 (Friday night through Sunday afternoon).
Permits and reservations: No permits are required for hiking up to Clouds Rest or to the top of the Lembert Dome. As a result, these are great hike alternatives if you are unable to obtain permits to hike to the top of Half Dome. If you plan to backpack and camp in the wilderness area around Clouds Rest, an overnight permit is required though.
For camping, it is best to reserve sites well ahead of time as Yosemite is extremely popular. You can find information on reservations here. The date on which you can make a reservation depends on when your trip is, but you typically can reserve a site 4 months in advance. The campsites fill up extremely fast, so you will want to log in early on the day the reservation system opens up.
If you cannot get a reservation and still want to go to Yosemite, you can try to grab a spot at one of the first-come, first-served campgrounds. You can check the status of the campgrounds here. Generally these sites will all be filled up early on Friday, so you probably need to leave before Friday to grab a spot (though you could get lucky on a weekend).
Another option is to camp at one of the hike-in, backcountry sites. To camp here, you need a wilderness permit, which you can apply for up to 168 weeks in advance of your trip.
We wanted to camp at one of the hike-in sites at either Little Yosemite Valley, May Lake, or Porcupine Creek, so we submitted a request for a wilderness permit in February (for our planned trip in late July). Our group (12 people) ended up being too big and our permit request was promptly denied.
As a backup, we decided we would just camp at one of the drive-in reservable campgrounds. Early in the morning on March 15th (the earliest date to reserve sites for a trip in late July) we logged onto the campsite reservation website and tried to reserve campsites in Tuolumne Meadows. Sadly we were too slow and all the Tuolumne Meadow sites were filled up. Eventually, we ended up reserving campsites at the Crane Flat Campground. This campsite ended up being just fine. The only downside was it was a ~50 minute drive away from the trailhead for the Clouds Rest hike.
Day 0: On the first night, we drove up to Yosemite and checked into our sites at Crane Flat. The campsites were nice and each had picnic tables and fire rings. There were trees at the site, so we set up our hammock. And, there was plenty of room on each for multiple tents. Our campsite had a metal bear vault, but if you end up camping in the backcountry, you likely need a bear canister.
We made dinner, had a few drinks by our fire, and then got some rest so we could wake up early.
Day 1: 14.2 miles; +3,200 feet / -3,200 feet; Sunrise Lakes Trailhead to Clouds Rest and back.
On the first day, we hiked the popular trail up to Clouds Rest. This is a peak at ~9,930 feet elevation that provides great views of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley.
We woke up early in the morning so we could eat breakfast and get to the trailhead. We packed our day packs with snacks and lunch, filled up our camel backs, and then drove ~50 minutes to the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead next to Tenaya Lake. The parking lot at the trailhead was small, but we were able to grab parking spots (we arrived at about 9:00am). You can also park along the side of the road in many places if the lot is full.
We set off on the hike shortly after 9:00 am. The trail was well marked and easy to follow. Just follow any signs that direct you towards Clouds Rest. The beginning of the trail goes through the forest and is mostly covered. After an easy first 1.5 miles, the trail climbs ~1,000 feet in 1 mile. As the trail flattens out, there is a side trail that leads to the Sunrise Lakes. These lakes are a nice place to rinse off on the way back from Clouds Rest.
As you finally approach the peak of Clouds Rest, the trail follows a fairly narrow granite “cat walk” that leads to a wider area at the end of the trail. The views on either side the cat walk are great, but the views are best at the area at the end of the trail.
Once you get to the peak, the views of Half Dome and the surrounding valley are spectacular. With a pair of binoculars you can see the line of people climbing up to the top of Half Dome.
Along the way back from the Clouds Rest, we stopped the first of the Sunrise Lakes to check out the scenery and go for a quick swim. The first of the lakes was really pretty and the cold water was freshening after a long hike.
After swimming in the lakes for a bit, we started to hear thunder and decided to quickly hike the last 2.5 miles back to the car. We made it to the car before any rain fell and the storm ended up missing the Crane Flat campground entirely.
Day 2: 5.1 miles; +980 feet / -980 feet; Lembert Dome area
On the second day, we decided that we wanted to go see Tuolumne Meadows. We woke up, ate some breakfast, packed up our tent, and then drove ~1 hour to the Tuolumne Meadows area. The drive is quite nice and is very scenic. When we arrive in the meadow area, we struggled to find parking until we snagged a spot across the street from the Lembert Dome Picnic Area.
After parking and looking around, we realized there were people on top of the Lembert Dome and decided we wanted to hike up to the top of it. This ended up being a really neat hike. The dome is a giant granite slab that you can climb around on without the need for any ropes or equipment. At the top, you get great views of the Tuolumne Meadows area.
We started hiking from the Lembert Dome Picnic Area and took the Dog Lake Trail. At about the mile mark, you turn right and head toward the backside of the dome. After another ~0.5 miles, you turn right again and take the Lembert Dome Trail up to the top of the dome. When you reach the actual dome, there is not much of a trail, but you just hike/scramble along the dome until you reach the top (or until you do not feel comfortable going any further).
When we got off the dome and back to the junction at the end of the Lembert Dome Trail, we decided to take the trail towards the Tuolumne Lodge rather than back towards Dog Lake. This trail crosses Highway 120 and then goes through the Tuolumne Lodge area. Eventually we met up with the Pacific Crest Trail, which follows the Dana Fork. We went up to the edge of the Dana Fork and took some pictures and explored the area. Then, we continued on the trail until it led us back to our car.
After we got back to our car, we drove back down Highway 120. We decided to make one last stop at Tenaya Lake to rinse off and have our last beers before going home. The lake was beautiful and almost empty. We were super happy that we stopped.