Hiking in California – Tenaya Lake to Happy Isles

Yosemite National Park, CA
Age Range:  Pre-teens+ with hiking experience
Recommendations:  This hike connects the high country with Yosemite Valley so the weather can change pretty dramatically along the way.  Be prepared for just about anything!  If you plan to summit Half Dome, be sure to get the proper permits as described in my Half Dome review.

After nearly a year of being away from Yosemite National Park, I was seriously ready to get back to one of my favorite places on the planet. I had a couple of days on my own before meeting friends in the valley so I decided to hitch a ride to Tenaya Lake and enjoy a two-day shakedown walk on my own.  An added benefit would be the opportunity to visit Clouds Rest and Half Dome, two of my favorite places, along the way.

In an earlier post, I described the walk to Clouds Rest so I won’t go into detail here. It is a great walk in its own right and highly recommended if you only have time for a one day adventure. As suggested with the Clouds Rest day hike, be sure to get an early start so you can enjoy the view from the summit without worrying about thunderstorms. While it is tempting to hang out on the summit all day, there are still a good number of miles to cover on day one, and day two promises to be exciting and fairly strenuous.  Try to leave the summit by noon or so to allow plenty of time to enjoy the approach to Half Dome.

It doesn’t take long to realize that you will lose a good bit of the altitude you worked so hard to gain earlier pretty quickly. The trail descends steeply in places, but the ample switchbacks make it totally manageable. It is worth noting that there are some cool rock formations on the backside of Clouds Rest so take a little time to enjoy them. Most people only ever see the “front”. Before too long you are treated to some great views of Half Dome – tomorrow’s star attraction. There is not much route finding to be done on this walk so relax and enjoy the ride. Continue putting one foot in front of the other until you reach an obvious junction with the John Muir Trail. There are a few good campsites near Sunrise Creek so this is a great place to stop for the night. My guess is that these sites are probably on the Park Service hit list, so make sure they are still in play before you go. There really aren’t any other suitable sites between here and Half Dome, so resist the urge to go a little further.  Even though you are now very close to the heavily trafficked Half Dome Trail, only a small fraction of the hikers from the valley find their way to these campsites so it is pretty restful. Take advantage of it because the rest of the way to Half Dome and ultimately Happy Isles will be pretty crowded. One more thing, be sure to hang your food and practice bear-safe camping. Due to the proximity to busier parts of the park, the bears in this area can be pretty bold around humans.

Even though it is less than 3 miles to the summit of Half Dome, plan to get a very early start for a couple of reasons.  First, you definitely want to beat the crowds to the cables on Half Dome.  It’s no fun being stuck in a traffic jam behind someone who is scared out of their mind on the cables and it happens all the time. Second, the walk/climb to the summit offers total sensory overload so you will spend more time up there than you plan.  If you are into photography, good luck!  I described the walk up Half Dome in a previous post so I won’t repeat the details here. All I can say is that it is well worth the effort, the summit is much bigger than you think and the cables aren’t nearly as bad as they look!

Including the visits to Clouds Rest and Half Dome, this is a fairly strenuous two-day hike.  The total distance is around 21 miles one way. This may sound like an easy ramble for two days, however there is a good bit of elevation gain and loss so you earn every mile.  I don’t carry a GPS, but my very conservative estimate would put it in the 7,000 foot range.

Unfortunately, Yosemite gets more crowded every year and the Park Service is getting more oppressive in trying to manage it. Be sure to inquire well in advance for wilderness permits, including one to summit Half Dome (yes, a permit for a day hike – it’s sad). The days of picking a trail at random and seeing where it takes you are long gone here.  Visit http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm to get started.

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