My visits to the Yosemite high country and drives to East Side trailheads during the last twenty years have often been punctuated by stops at Olmstead Point. The first several years, I invariably spotted a cloud resting on a high point along a fantastic granite ridge. This amazing relationship between water vapor and rock became an iconic symbol of the great national park to me, alongside the awesome waterfalls, Half Dome and El Capitan.
I had never previously aspired to climb Clouds Rest, except briefly during my hikes to the top of neighboring Half Dome. Before I climbed the Sierra 14ers, I didn't have time for such peanuts. But this time I wanted to day-hike something not very strenuous in the Yosemite high country that I hadn't yet done. There were several choices. I selected Clouds Rest after discovering that it's on the SPS list of Sierra Peaks.
I started at noon, beginning on the trail to Sunset Lakes (an early morning start is preferable, to avoid the common summer thunderstorms). It was well built and is well maintained, with the trail-equivalents of cobblestone paths and marble stairways. The steepest part of the climb was the last half mile leading to the top of the ridge, 2 1/2 miles from the trailhead. The only snow I encountered was a small patch in this section. I was still 4 1/2 miles from the peak. South of me was another rise of granite that looked like Clouds Rest, but the peak was actually west and not visible at that point. Two hours later, after an easy pleasant stroll through beautiful forest and meadow, the peak came into view. I marched up dusty trail onto a shoulder that reminded me of a similar feature on the way to Half Dome. The last hundred feet of elevation is a modest lump of exfoliating granite. I walked on top of it over a short knife edge, which allowed me to see to the bottom of Tenaya Canyon and Yosemite and Little Yosemite Valleys. I searched for a register but only found a couple of Geologic Survey markers.
I was comfortable, without the fear of exposure experienced on Half Dome, yet I felt suspended in the sky between two great granite gorges. Even though the major falls cannot be seen, the overall view is superior to that from the top of Half Dome. I enjoyed some of my personal best sightings of Matterhorn, Conness, Unicorn, Cathedral and especially Clark. In fact, the view might be the best I've ever had in the Sierra other than those from the Palisades, the Whitney Region and the Ritter Range, which were attained only with much more exertion. The reward-to-effort-ratio is unexceeded and I understand why some SPS list finshers save Clouds Rest for last.
When I finished looking all around, I lay down and fixed my gaze toward Mt. Lyell. At first, Mts. Ritter and Banner were both shaded by clouds. Suddenly the sunshine transformed Ritter, while Banner remained dark. My reverie of the Range of Light was shattered by the arrival of Manzanita, a man who recounted his ongoing journey from the Mexican border on the PCT. He also turned me onto one of his hiking secrets, Superfeet, a brand of insoles which I plan to try. He passed me his spy glass so I could spot the last hikers to descend the cables on Half Dome that evening. Manzanita was less familiar with the names of the neighboring peaks, so I pointed out several of the most prominent and bragged that I had climbed most of them. A Japanese couple were the last folks to arrive. Exhausted, they set camp on the summit.
My marvelous hour-long rest came to an end too quickly. I reluctantly bid farewell to the couple and Manzanita and began the long, walk back to the car which was uneventful except when I frightened a deer. It was late enough in the day for me to enjoy the alpenglow on the faux Clouds Rest. The sun set as I descended the final switchbacks, but the waxing half-moon provided enough light. The radio in my car announced that sovereignty had just been transferred to the new Iraqi government, minutes after I had finished the hike.