An easy backcountry destination with stunning alpine lakes and meadows lies just off Tioga Road in northern Yosemite National Park. Sunrise Lakes is a beautiful 5-mile (each way) out-and-back hike or backpacking adventure with dozens of options to extend the trip for multiple days by exploring Cathedral Lake, Merced Lake, Vogelsang, or hiking down into the valley.
The trail is a popular one, so be prepared to see lots of fellow hikers at least up to the first of the three lakes. Park in the lot at the southwest corner of Tenaya Lake and hike in past the bear boxes and toilets. The path begins as a mellow stroll through the woods, but it quickly hits a large set of steep switchbacks after the first mile, climbing 1,000 feet over uneven granite stairs. As you climb, sweeping vistas of the Yosemite High Country come into view.
Roughly 2.1 miles into the hike, the trail splits for Clouds Rest, which would be an excellent side-hike if you’re looking to pack in a full day of hiking before reaching camp at one of the lakes. Clouds Rest is famously one of the best views of Yosemite’s Valley. After the trail splits, it climbs along a gently graded slope through Sunrise Lakes. The second lake is a tiny bit off trail, but the first and third lakes have many campsite options a short walk from the main trail, making them easy to use for a water source, lunch break, or overnight spot. Each of the lakes is heavily wooded, so feel free to bring a hammock and lounge while reading your favorite book! If you love wildflowers, check out this trail in the mid- to late-summer. They pop up around the plentiful streams that feed the lakes from the surrounding mountains.
If you want to hike all the way to the Sunrise High Sierra Camp to watch the incredible early morning views as the sun warms the sky above a massive, picturesque meadow, continue another mile past the third lake. The trail will descend about 450 feet, and you’ll know you’ve arrived when you spot the wooden building housing the vault toilets off to your left. There are at least a dozen campsites scattered around this area, and most have a small, rock fire ring. The best sites are up on the granite slabs with a view of the massive meadow and the trail’s intersection with the John Muir Trail. A small stream bubbles through the camp, allowing for easy water access.
In 2017, record snow pack caused the park service to not open the High Sierra Camp, but on more normal years, there are also cabins available that visitors can rent with food available. It’s possible to hike from camp to camp across Yosemite with minimal gear if you’re lucky enough to win the lottery for these highly prized reservations.
As the name might suggest, sunrises are epic at this spot and well worth getting up early for. Drag your camera and your sleeping bag out onto the rocks and cuddle with a friend as you watch our friendliest star turn the night sky into a rainbow sorbet. From Sunrise High Sierra Camp you can easily connect to other trails in the high country or turn around and head back the way you came if you only wanted a quick overnight.