Yosemite’s camps can offer great late-summer getaways
An almost last-minute whim led a friend and me to try for reservations at one of the Yosemite High Sierra Camps the week before they close for the season Sunday.
We were successful – in fact there were spaces at the three camps still open: Glen Aulen, May and Sunrise. Two others, Vogelsang and Merced, had closed the weekend before. We chose to reserve two midweek nights at Sunrise, the plan being to hike about 15 miles to Cloud’s Rest and back on the second day.
After a two-hour drive to Lee Vining, Calif., from South Lake Tahoe, we made the ascent to Tuolumne Meadows and drove another eight miles to the Tenaya Lake/Sunset trail head. The first mile and a half of the trail is a relatively modest stroll through a forest of mostly lodgepole pines, but then things get serious. The trail ascends a steep, rocky slope for another mile and we were very happy to reach the top of the ridge. Straight ahead in another four and a half miles is Cloud’s Rest, but we turned left on the trail to Sunrise lakes.
There are three Sunrise lakes: Lower, middle and upper. The trail descends to Lower Sunrise Lake where people were swimming off the rocks that line the shore and several inviting lakeside camp sites were occupied. We climbed gradually to Middle Sunrise Lake, which is off the main trail and a bit more secluded. Next came a steeper climb to Upper Sunrise, which looked pretty muddy on the trail side, but sandy on the far bank where we saw large green tarps housing members of the California Conservation Corps, who were doing trail work in the vicinity.
The trail then goes up and over a ridge to Sunrise High Sierra Camp, about four and a half miles from the Tenaya trail head.
We had opted go whole hog on this trip, tent cabin with blankets and wood stove, breakfast and dinner included. As always in the mountains, we carried clothing for all weather, lunch for two days, water and water filter and sleeping bags just in case – not a full-size pack, but still about 23 pounds of gear. Sunrise camp is at 9,400 feet and we were feeling the altitude when we arrived. Due to the lack of snowpack and summer rain, the camp didn’t have enough water for showers, but there was warm water, solar-heated in large black plastic pillows, for washing up. Bottled drinking water was provided.
Dinner was a four-course surprise: soup, salad, crumbed halibut with broccoli, cauliflower, roasted potatoes and camp-baked bread with cake for dessert. Hot beverages, including cocoa, tea and coffee, were on offer as well. Many of our fellow campers had started their trek at Glen Aulen, then hiked to May Lake and on to Sunrise, a great three-night trip. Because it was late in the season, no ranger was on hand for an after-dinner campfire program, but one of the camp staffers played his repertoire of two songs for a singalong. “Margaritaville” and “16 Tons,” if you must know.
We watched the Alpenglow on the mountains to the west of Long Meadow after dinner and then the stars came out. We don’t get to see the Milky Way at Lake Tahoe except when there’s a power outage due to light pollution from the casinos, but it’s still up there.
Sunrise Camp was built in the 1960s with half the funds coming from Mary Curry Tresidder, who had been camping there with her husband since the late 1930s. We could understand why she was so fond of the spot, a lovely meadow surrounded by rocky monoliths. The park’s guardians have been working hard to restore this meadow, which had been trampled by too many feet over the years, and it is recovering well.
After breakfast (hot cereal, fresh fruit, a giant omelet, bacon and pancakes), we staggered off up the trail we’d come in on and, at the junction, went left toward Cloud’s Rest. The trail descends for a half mile to a wooded area and a small lake where you can filter water if necessary. Then it begins a gradual climb up to Cloud’s Rest at 9,800 feet. There’s a rocky ridge to negotiate at the top, which we reached in about two hours, and then the most glorious 360-degree view you can imagine – granite domes and slabs wherever you look.
The most dramatic view is of Half Dome below to the northwest. We wished for the binoculars I’d forgotten to pack to see if anyone was climbing the chains. We could also see Tenaya Lake far below to the northeast along with Matterhorn Peak and the Sawtooth Range.
We planned to take an alternate route back to Sunrise camp, taking a connector trail to the John Muir Trail. But we had foolishly forgotten to put a map in our day packs and the connector trail, supposedly 2.5 miles long kept descending and seemed longer than advertised, so we were happy to come upon a group of backpackers who assured us that the Muir junction was only 200 feet ahead. It was, but we had descended at least 1,500 feet, and guess what we had to do to get back to camp?
The trail was pretty easy for the first three miles with views toward the Merced River and its granite slabs shining in the sunlight. Then we ascended a steep, rocky, never-ending ridge to 9,600 feet with a quick descent back to Long Meadow and our camp. We would have liked a shower that night, but were happy enough just for warm water to wash in. The weather had turned and it was cold after dinner (soup, salad, pork cutlets with green beans, mushrooms and sweet potatoes, and cookies) so we were justified in bringing our sleeping bags.
We hiked out on the Cathedral Lake trail the next day, about eight miles. The trail first goes over a ridge, then through a long meadow to the lovely Cathedral lakes and needle-sharp Cathedral Peak. We met several backpackers on the way to the lakes for the weekend and were happy we had chosen midweek for our trip. A final three-mile downhill took us to Tioga Road, where we caught the park’s shuttle back to our car at Tenaya Lake.
We hiked about 30 miles, got plenty dusty, ate good food, saw great scenery and highly recommend this circuit for a great late summer getaway.