Tuesday, October 27, 2020


Fletcher Creek flows by the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp
18 miles round trip, 2200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

Vogelsang- a word that means "bird song" in German- is a name given to a peak, a pass, a lake, and a High Sierra camp in California's Yosemite National Park. It is an appropriately idyllic name for this High Sierra landscape of meadows, stream, and lakes tucked under gleaming granite peaks in the heart of the Sierra Nevada's Cathedral Range. This backcountry destination is usually visited by backpackers, as the approach hike is quite long, but I chose to hike here in a day to see the burbling streams at the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, the glistening waters of Vogelsang Lake, and the windswept granite peaks viewed from Vogelsang Pass. Day hikers can shorten this trip by turning around at the High Sierra Camp (15 miles round trip) or at Vogelsang Lake (16.5 miles round trip). While the Vogelsang area is quite pretty, there are other day hikes in the Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite National Park that have better reward to effort ratios than this hike, as an 18-mile day hike can be quite taxing. This is probably a great place to backpack to and is a reasonably satisfying day hike, but visitors to the park with limited time would be better off prioritizing hikes like Clouds Rest or Mount Dana.

I hiked to Vogelsang during an August visit to Yosemite National Park. The hike starts from the John Muir Trailhead near Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, on the eastern edge of the Tuolumne Meadows area along Tioga Road. From Yosemite Valley, one can reach the trailhead by following CA Highway 140 west and then turning onto Big Oak Flat Road to head towards Highway 120. At the junction with Tioga Road at Crane Flat, turn right and follow Tioga Road 40 miles, passing Tuolumne Meadows. As the road begins to climb uphill as it leaves the meadows, turn right onto the turnoff for Wilderness Permits and the John Muir/Pacific Crest Trails. This road passes a meadow and a ranger station before coming to the parking area for the Lyell Canyon/John Muir Trailhead on the left side of the road; park here.

From the parking lot, I crossed the road and followed a connector trail which a large sign indicated was headed for the John Muir Trail, with a list of destinations and their distances enumerated. This trail quickly brought me to a wider dirt path; I turned left on meeting the wider path and followed it east. This trail became less wide as it paralleled the Dana Fork Tuolumne River for the next fifth of a mile. The river flowed through a beautiful landscape of rock and forest, collecting in placid pools before dropping down small rock ledges. At 0.3 miles, I came to a trail junction; the left fork led towards Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, while the right fork crossed a bridge over the Dana Fork Tuolumne to connect with the John Muir Trail. I took the right fork, enjoying nice views of the river as I crossed the bridge. Immediately after crossing the bridge, I passed a junction with a trail on the left that led towards Gaylor Lakes. 

Dana Fork Tuolumne River
The trail passed through forest for a half mile after crossing the Dana Fork bridge. A small initial ascent was offset by a gentle descent that ended at Twin Bridges, two well-built footbridges spanning the Lyell Fork Tuolumne River. The Lyell Fork Tuolumne River was especially scenic here, its clear waters flowing through rocky channels between granite bowls and spilling over exposed granite surfaces. There were nice views upriver here across meadows to Mammoth Peak and Mount Gibbs. The meadows here are shrinking year by year as climate change makes the conditions here more favorable for tree growth: catch these views before they eventually become overgrown.

Lyell Fork Tuolumne River at Twin Bridges
Mammoth Peak rises above the Lyell Fork Tuolumne River
Just beyond Twin Bridges, the trail intersected with the John Muir Trail itself. To the right, the trail led towards Cathedral Lakes and Yosemite Valley; to the left, Vogelsang, Lyell Canyon, and eventually Mount Whitney. I took the left fork. The John Muir Trail undulated through forests and small meadows and over minor granite outcrops for the next 0.7 miles before arriving at the junction for Vogelsang, about 1.6 miles from the trailhead.

Turning right at the junction, I left the John Muir Trail and began the ascent along the trail to Vogelsang. This started a long, nearly 5 mile journey to Tuolumne Pass along Rafferty Creek. The initial half mile of this stretch involved a steeper ascent of about 400 feet, parts of which were along stone staircases that were characteristic of early trail-building efforts in the park.

Stone staircases along the Rafferty Creek Trail
The trail leveled out a half mile after leaving the John Muir Trail. The three miles that followed were the least interesting of the hike. The trail ascended gently through forest, gradually making its way uphill through the valley of Rafferty Creek towards Tuolumne Pass. The forest was not dense, so there were partial views along the way of Mount Dana and Mount Conness to the north and of the nearby granite ridges that formed the valley around Rafferty Creek. This trail is frequented by horses that carry supplies to the High Sierra camps and is frequently rocky or sandy, making it somewhat unpleasant to hike on for extended periods of time. Occasional views also popped out of the dark form of Parsons Peak ahead. In August, the meadows along the trail had all turned brown and Rafferty Creek had dried up completely; perhaps I would have enjoyed this stretch of trail more earlier in the season with more water and greenery. The trail crossed the creekbed of Rafferty Creek twice, although this was not particularly notable when the creek was dry.

Parsons Peak rising over the trail near Rafferty Creek
At five miles from the trailhead, the trail finally began to emerge from the forest as it arrived at a long meadow filling the top of the valley near Tuolumne Pass. The next mile and a half to Tuolumne Pass was along the meadow, which delivered pretty views to the north of Mount Dana, Gaylor Peak, and False White Mountain. 

Tioga Pass peaks from the meadows below Tuolumne Pass
As I ascended further, the core peaks of the Vogelsang area emerged in front of the trail: the dark rock of Parsons Peak and the granite of Fletcher and Vogelsang Peaks. This stretch of the hike was fairly enjoyable as the trail continued to ascend gently until it arrived at Tuolumne Pass at 10000 feet, about 6.5 miles from and 1300 feet above the trailhead. A pond filled a basin near the pass, which had nice views both north and south. Tuolumne Pass is quite flat; you might not even realize that you arrived if it weren't for a trail junction here. The right fork led down to Boothe Lake; I took the left fork, which continued towards the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp.

Fletcher and Vogelsang Peaks above the meadows near Tuolumne Pass
Leaving Tuolumne Pass, the trail stayed level as it contoured along slopes above Boothe Lake, which I glimpsed below in the forest. Impressive views of nearby granite peaks and faraway Mount Conness kept this stretch of trail interesting.

Granite landscape above Tuolumne Pass
Continuing onwards, a short uphill brought me to a meadow at the base of Fletcher Peak. At the far end of the meadow, I arrived at the cabins of the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, 7.3 miles from the trailhead. There are five backcountry High Sierra Camps in Yosemite National Park- Vogelsang, Sunrise, May Lake, Glen Aulin, and Merced Lake- which can be combined with the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge to form a six-day loop hike through the high country of the park. Extremely popular, these High Sierra Camps provide lodging in canvas tents and meals, allowing hikers to experience the magnificent Yosemite backcountry in relative luxury and comfort and without having to carry the heavy loads of a typical backpacking trip. Predictably, the camps are extremely popular and are difficult to book. During my visit, the canvas tents had not been set up for the year- all of the camps were closed for the season due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Vogelsang High Sierra Camp at the foot of Fletcher Peak
The camp area itself is not much of a destination in and of itself, but hikers who want a shorter hike can enjoy the nearby scenery at two spots. At the trail junction right in front of the camp, the left fork leads towards Fletcher and Evelyn Lakes while the right fork leads to Emeric and Merced Lakes; the trail straight ahead continues towards Vogelsang Lake. While hikers to Vogelsang Lake and Pass may choose to skip this detour, hikers ending their journey at Vogelsang High Sierra Camp should make the 0.1 mile detour to see Fletcher Lake.

I took the left fork for a brief visit to Fletcher Lake. The trail cut through a meadow; after three minutes, I spotted Fletcher Lake off to the right. A social path led to the lakeshore, where I admired Fletcher Peak towering directly over the lake and Vogelsang Peak's unique profile rising to the south.

Vogelsang Peak rises over Fletcher Lake
Returning to the junction in front of the High Sierra Camp, this time I took the fork towards Vogelsang Pass. The trail passed by the camp and came to Fletcher Creek flowing through a meadow at the base of Vogelsang Peak, a very idyllic mountain scene that was perhaps the most beautiful spot on the hike. If you hike only out to the High Sierra Camp, make sure to come this far- Fletcher Creek is only a hundred meters past the camp- because this spot is what makes the long slog to get here worth it. I sat by the banks of Fletcher Creek (still flowing when almost all other creeks in the park were dry!) and enjoyed seeing its waters plunge into a calm pool in the meadows, its burbles complementing the songs of the birds in the trees in this alpine dream. Vogelsang Peak's glowing granite form rose above it all.

Vogelsang Peak above Fletcher Creek
After enjoying the pretty scenery by Fletcher Creek, I rockhopped across the creek and followed the trail uphill through progressively rockier terrain towards Vogelsang Lake. The trail stayed out in the open, providing nice views back to the north of Mount Conness. To the southwest, I spotted Emeric Lake nestled in a granite basin. As I continued to climb towards Vogelsang Lake, I noticed some oddly familiar granite forms emerging behind Emeric Lake. I quickly realized that I was looking at the backsides of Clouds Rest and Half Dome, with Sentinel Dome just a bit farther in the distance.

Half Dome and Clouds Rest rise above Emeric Lake
About 0.6 miles from the High Sierra Camp, I arrived at Vogelsang Lake, a sparkling alpine lake surrounded by green meadows and shining granite peaks. The trail crossed the outlet and then followed the west shore of the lake briefly, delivering beautiful views.

Vogelsang Lake
The trail then left the lakeshore, beginning a fairly gradual ascent to cover the final 300 feet of elevation gain to Vogelsang Pass. The final mile of the hike to the pass climbed up wide granite benches on the west side of the lake. There were a couple more glimpses of Mount Conness here- the last views of Conness before the return journey- and constant beautiful views over the lake itself, which was dotted with a number of granite islands. 

Vogelsang Lake from Vogelsang Pass
Finally- after a long and tiring journey from Tuolumne Meadows- I arrived at Vogelsang Pass. This pass was a little better defined than the flat Tuolumne Pass earlier, although here, too, the saddle was wide enough to hold a small pond. Mount Florence was visible out the other side of the pass. While it might have been tempting to turn around here, I knew that the best views of the hike were just ahead, so I pushed on for just a bit more.

Mount Florence rises across from Vogelsang Pass
As the trail left the other side of Vogelsang Pass, I found nice views of the Clark Range to the south. A few snowpatches still adorned the northern aspects of the peaks of this range, which included Mount Clark, Gray Peak, Red Peak, and Triple Divide Peak. 

The Clark Range from Vogelsang Pass
I hiked forward just a bit more to a point where the trail made a broad turn to the east. All of a sudden, a sweeping view of the tallest peaks of the Cathedral Range came into view. Barren alpine peaks, many still exhibiting intact moraines that hinted at the region's recent glacial past, filled the eastern skyline. Most dominant of these peaks was Mount Maclure, the lesser sidekick to Mount Lyell, the park's high peak, which was out of view from here. Gallison Lake filled a grassy alpine basin to the east while Bernice Lake was nestled in a rockier basin beneath Mount Florence. The streams draining these lakes flowed through forests and meadows in the valley below, eventually feeding the Merced River.

Gallison and Bernice Lakes below the highest peaks of the Cathedral Range
The mountain views here were very enjoyable; I sat on an exfoliating layer of granite nearby and ate my lunch while admiring these mountains. Vogelsang Pass is the highest point along the High Sierra Camp loop; my intention in doing this hike initially was to enjoy the best of that loop in a day hike. After soaking in the views for a while, I retraced my steps to the trailhead. The return down Rafferty Creek was long and became quite tedious.

In a normal year, this part of the park, though a bit remote, would see plenty of hikers journeying through the High Sierra camps. I'm sure that the timing of my visit- during a period of limited visitor entrance due to Covid-19 restrictions on Yosemite National Park- made my hike much more quiet than it usually would be. I didn't run into too many hikers along this trail and saw especially few people after leaving the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp for Vogelsang Pass. There were few day hikers in the Vogelsang area- almost everyone else had backpacked out.

This was a scenic hike, but it was also a very long hike that was a bit of a slog at times, especially during a three-mile stretch of trail along Rafferty Creek that was dusty and rocky and not particularly pretty. The destinations at the end of the hike- Fletcher Lake, the spot along Fletcher Creek at the High Sierra Camp, Vogelsang Lake, and Vogelsang Pass- were all beautiful, but there are many other hikes in the park that deliver alpine lakes or views from high peaks with less of an investment of time and effort. It's worth hiking out here, but most visitors should check out other nearby hikes like Cathedral Lakes, Gaylor Lakes, Clouds Rest, and Mount Dana instead for classic High Sierra scenery without having to go through a day hike of this length.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Mount Dana

Mount Lyell rising above the High Sierra
6 miles round trip, 3150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

The second highest peak in California's Yosemite National Park delivers unparalleled views of the High Sierra and the deserts of the Great Basin. This is a hike with extraordinary views but it is also a demanding one, tackling this summit near Tioga Pass with incredibly steep grades and stretches of trail that may require rock scrambling. The reward is a panorama of Mono Lake and Tuolumne Meadows, the Great Basin Desert and the High Sierra. Views are excellent throughout the steep and challenging ascent; although a daunting peak, Mount Dana is also a rare chance to reach such a lofty viewpoint from an easily accessible high elevation pass. Serious hikers will find this to be one of the best hikes in what is perhaps America's most famous national park.

As this hike visits the second highest point in Yosemite National Park, it can be challenging for visitors coming from lower elevations. The trailhead is already at nearly 10000 feet and the summit of Mount Dana is at a lofty 13061 feet: be sure to watch for signs of altitude sickness and descend to lower elevations if you feel headache or nausea. Additionally, check the weather before coming: this hike is entirely through open, exposed alpine terrain and is extremely dangerous during thunderstorms. The extent of the exposure and the challenging terrain makes it nearly impossible to beat a quick retreat in case of a storm, so do not stay on the mountain's upper slopes if a storm even seems to threaten. The trail itself is a brutally steep ascent, with only one brief respite a little over halfway through the climb.

I hiked Mount Dana during an August visit to Yosemite National Park. The trailhead is at Tioga Pass, on the eastern boundary of Yosemite National Park; from Yosemite Valley, one can reach the trailhead by following CA Highway 140 west and then turning onto Big Oak Flat Road to head towards Highway 120. At the junction with Tioga Road at Crane Flat, turn right and follow Tioga Road 48 miles to a parking lot on the left side of the road just before the entrance station at Tioga Pass. Park here, cross the road at the entrance station and find an unmarked path leading off from the "Authorized Vehicles Only" parking area on the east side of the entrance station: this marks the start of the hike to Mount Dana.

This unmarked and largely unmaintained path started out by crossing the flat saddle of Tioga Pass, cutting through a mix of forest and meadows, with partial views of Mammoth Peak and the Kuna Crest. The trail passed by two small ponds in the broad and flat area of Tioga Pass; Tioga Peak rose above the pond to the north, while a steep cliff on the western slopes of Mount Dana rose straight ahead.

Tioga Pass pond
After passing the two ponds, the trail began a short initial ascent out of the low point of Tioga Pass, climbing through small meadows ringed by trees and dotted with boulders and wildflowers. After a short stretch of ascent, the trail leveled out as it approached the base of the cliffs and talus slopes of Mount Dana and began heading to the southeast as it contoured along the lower slopes of the mountain.

Meadows at Tioga Pass
After a brief interlude with a gentler grade, the trail made a sharp left turn, ascending steeply into a cavity behind the large cliff defining Dana's western flank. The trail was quite rocky as it made its way rapidly uphill through meadows of late-blooming lupine. Views of Dana Meadows below quickly opened up, with sweeping views of Mammoth Peak and the Kuna Crest rising nearby and the peaks of the Cathedral Range farther in the distance. Gaylor Peak rose on the other side of Tioga Pass.

Kuna Crest and Cathedral Range rising over Tioga Pass
The ascent was very steep. I passed the treeline; soon afterwards, the meadows thinned out and the landscape became dominated by rock. The trail became progressively rockier and progressively steeper, soon turning slightly to the right as it climbed out of what had been a more vegetated chute into barren slopes of broken metamorphic rock. The high slopes above looked far away and the thin air literally took my breath away. I saw high ridges to both my left and right during the ascent; the ridge of the left is the top of the cliff that I saw from the trailhead and is much lower than the level of the midway plateau that I was aiming for, while the ridge to the right- which looked higher- was actually that plateau.

After substantial exertion, I arrived at a plateau just over halfway through the ascent. Marked by a massive cairn, the trail leveled out here for a stretch as it crossed a broad, grassy bench on the high slopes of Mount Dana. Mount Dana's true summit now rose ahead, a massive pyramid of metamorphic rock that was still 1400 feet above where I stood.

Mount Dana's summit from the plateau
With this brief break from climbing came expansive new views. Mammoth Peak and the Kuna Crest were again visible to the south, but now they were joined by the glacier-coated dark rock spires of Mounts Maclure, Lyell, and Rodgers. 

Mount Lyell rises from behind the Kuna Crest
The next 0.3 miles ascended at a more moderate grade, making for pleasant hiking as I crossed this alpine tundra landscape with remarkable views. Wildflowers were still blooming here, but plants that had adapted to this harsh environment grew smaller and stayed close to the ground to avoid the high winds that buffet the mountain's upper slopes. I found pockets of blooming lupine and stonecrop and I also saw marmots, the hardy alpine groundhogs that manage to survive in this seemingly barren alpine landscape.

Alpine lupine
Marmot amidst scree
Arriving at the base of the massive summit pyramid, the trail began to ascend again. The grade was steep but initially manageable, but became progressively more brutal as I went along. Here, the mountain had devolved into a massive scree pile, a tower built of luggage-sized boulders. The trail became more faint and difficult to follow, although massive cairns helped keep me on track. The grade here became extremely steep: the angle of the slope approached 35 degrees and the trail simply ploughed straight up the mountain, no holds barred. Footing was frequently unstable and at many points it was necessary to use my hands as I scrambled up this most difficult stretch of Mount Dana.

Final ascent up scree
The intense climb began to level out a little as I finally approached the summit. Looking back, an extraordinary view was unfolding to the north: the grey granite of Mount Conness contrasted with the nearby dark metamorphic rock around Lundy Canyon. 

View of Saddlebag Lake, Mount Conness, and Lundy Canyon from final ascent
After about two and a half hours of strenuous ascent, I arrived at the summit of Mount Dana, the second highest point of Yosemite National Park. The summit area was not particularly large but this was not an issue as I had the top to myself. The views were stupendous.

Directly below my feet to the east was the gaping maw of Glacier Canyon. As the name suggests, this chasm is a cirque carved out by the Dana Glacier. The Dana Glacier was still identifiably a glacier when European Americans first began exploring this area in the late 19th century but has retreated significantly since then and is now just a permanent snowfield. Dana Lake fills the deep canyon below; neither the glacier nor the lake were visible without going to the very edge of the mountain's sheer east face, which I was uninterested in doing.

Beyond Glacier Canyon were the broad slopes of the Dana Plateau, which drop off at the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada. The shimmering waters of Mono Lake lay beyond, its figure 8 form dotted with the islands Paoha and Negit. To the south of Mono Lake were the Mono Craters and beyond that were the White Mountains, which crested at White Mountain Peak, the third-tallest mountain in California and the highest peak within the Great Basin. Beyond the White Mountains were range after range of mountains- the Basin and Range of Nevada. The White Mountains bounded one side of Owens Valley, which from here appeared just as a dusty depression- on the other side of the valley rose the mighty eastern front of the Sierra Nevada. This vantage point- more than any other I've been to- allowed me to appreciate the fault block geology of the Sierra Nevada, its eastern edge defined by stunning topographical relief while its western edge sloped gently, the high peaks of Dana, Gibbs, and Lyell diminishing to Cathedral Peak and Mount Hoffman, then to Clouds Rest, and then to the faraway foothills.

Mono Lake from Dana's summit
White Mountains, Mount Gibbs, Owens Valley, and the southern High Sierra
The view of the Sierra Nevada encompassed all of the park's mighty peaks. Gibbs was nextdoor and just a little lower than Dana. The Kuna Crest lay across the valley, its granite peaks towering over numerous lakes- among which were Helen, Spillway, and Kuna Lakes. Behind the Kuna Crest rose the very tallest peak in the park, Mount Lyell, which was draped with regal glaciers and flanked on either side by the impressive peaks of Rodgers and Maclure. The top of Banner Peak and Mount Ritter's summit fins poked out behind Kuna Peak and Koip Peak. Farther to the southwest were the peaks of the remote Clark Range: Red Peak, Gray Peak, and Mount Clark. The Cathedral Range continued stretching north: Unicorn Peak and Cathedral Peak rose above Tuolumne Meadows. Lembert Dome was on this side of the meadow, with Dog Lake to the north of it, and Mount Hoffman and Tuolumne Peak rose behind the meadow. Clouds Rest poked its head out as well, although the other Yosemite Valley features were not visible. The Tuolumne River disappeared into the jumble of domes that makes up the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne; to the north were impressive granite peaks like Conness, Matterhorn, and Excelsior. The Central Valley was smoggy, but above the haze I made out the faint outline of the Coast Ranges in the distance- a rarity as smog usually swallows the view in that direction.

Mount Lyell, the Ritter Range, Cathedral Range, and Clark Range
Cathedral Peak and Mount Hoffman rise above Tuolumne Meadows
Having started the hike at 7:30 AM on a Friday, I had the summit entirely to myself for over an hour after I arrived. I saw only six other hikers on Mount Dana that day, and only three of them were on the upper slopes of the mountain- in any case, you're likely to have this summit to yourself on a weekday. If you are in appropriate physical condition to tackle this challenging hike, you'll find some of Yosemite's most breathtaking views at the summit of Mount Dana. If your idea of hiking in Yosemite is chasing after Half Dome permits or packing onto other crowded trails in the Valley, consider hiking Mount Dana to find the wild majesty that made John Muir fall in love with this Range of Light in the first place.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

North Dome

Mighty Half Dome rising across Tenaya Canyon
9 miles round trip, 2000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

The open granite summit of North Dome provides a front row view of massive Half Dome, the most iconic rock in California's Yosemite National Park. This hike reaches the top of one of the major granite domes rising above Yosemite Valley but with far less effort, far smaller crowds, and far less red tape than the highly sought-after hike up Half Dome itself. The views from North Dome are stunning, encompassing a close-up of Half Dome's vertical cliffs and excellent views over much of the rest of Yosemite Valley. This hike traverses rolling terrain to reach North Dome but saves the primary ascent for the return, so be sure to save energy and water for the hike back. This hike also visits the a rare natural arch in Yosemite National Park, perched along the granite ridge of Indian Rock; that side trip can be skipped to shorten the hike by a half mile.

I hiked North Dome during an August visit to Yosemite National Park. Although North Dome overlooks Yosemite Valley, the trailhead is along Tioga Road, over an hours drive from Yosemite Valley. From Yosemite Valley, one can reach the trailhead by following CA Highway 140 west and then turning onto Big Oak Flat Road to head towards Highway 120. At the junction with Tioga Road at Crane Flat, turn right and follow Tioga Road 25 miles to the Porcupine Creek Trailhead, which is on the right (south) side of the road.

From the parking lot, a trail departs from next to the bathroom and quickly descends to join up with an decommissioned paved road. This road once led down to a campground but today serves as the beginning of the North Dome hike. The road descended gradually through the forest, dropping about 300 feet in 0.7 miles. The paved road ended and the trail entered the Yosemite Wilderness just before reaching Porcupine Creek. The trail crossed Porcupine Creek, which was nearly dry at the time of my visit during a particularly dry summer.

After crossing Porcupine Creek, the trail was fairly level over the next mile as it cut through the forest, passing another (dry) creek crossing before coming to two consecutive trail junctions, 1.7 miles from the trailhead. The first trail junction was with the Snow Creek Trail, which branched off to the left and descended into Yosemite Valley; I stayed straight here and arrived at the second junction just a hundred feet later, where a trail headed to the top of Yosemite Falls (with later access to Yosemite Valley, as well) branched off to the right. Here, I took the left fork to continue towards North Dome.

The trail initially stayed relatively flat, passing a spur path on the right that led to a viewpoint of the forested terrain north of Yosemite Valley as well as partial views of the Sentinel and Cathedral Rocks. There were some stretches of ascent as the trail continued south along the slopes of Indian Rock. The trail eventually started a slightly more vigorous ascent and then came to a saddle on Indian Rock a mile past the previous trail junction. Here, the spur trail up to the natural arch on Indian Rock split off to the left. I took this spur now, knowing that I'd probably be tired on the way back from North Dome.

The climb up to the natural arch is short but steep. The trail climbed about 200 feet in a quarter of a mile as it followed the ridge directly up. The natural arch soon came into view: a thin span of granite rose above a small opening at the top of a large rock outcrop along the ridge.

Natural arch at Indian Rock
Looking off to the east, the first good views of the hike also opened up as I hiked up to the arch. The massive northwest face of Half Dome came into view, with the granite cone of Mount Starr King rising behind it and the multicolored peaks of the Clark Range further in the distance.

Half Dome and Clark Range views from Indian Rock
The trail ascended along the east side of the outcrop holding the arch and then circled around it from the north. A short rock scramble brought me to the opening of the arch itself. The granite span was quite thin and looked precarious: it seemed as though the underlying rock beneath the arch had collapsed in one go at some point and this particular exfoliated granite layer simply hadn't collapsed yet. There were nice views of Half Dome and parts of Yosemite Valley from this perch on Indian Rock.

The natural arch at Indian Rock
Returning to the main trail to North Dome after my half-mile round trip detour, I continued heading south. The trail descended a bit and soon started following the spine of a granite dome; internally, I wondered "Is this North Dome?" The answer was no. Before yielding much in terms of views, cairns and guiding rocks directed me off of the dome and down into the forest on the left. The trail ran parallel of the granite ridge above but stayed in the forest for a while before rejoining the ridge on another open stretch of granite. Interally, I wondered "Is this North Dome?" but again the answer was no.

As the trail rejoined the granite ridge, impressive views opened up to the east. Half Dome's mighty northwest face appeared even more imposing as I approached it and Clouds Rest's expansive granite slopes were now visible as well. Basket Dome was just below this ridge to the east, while North Dome itself was finally visible ahead to the south. Mount Clark rose in the distance, along with High Sierra peaks near the headwaters of the Merced River.

Clouds Rest and Half Dome on the approach to North Dome
For a brief stretch, the trail followed the spine of the granite ridge, with wide, airy views. Then, a guiding line of rocks redirected me downhill to the left side of the ridge again; this time, I arrived at a junction with the trail to North Dome, a mile past the junction with Indian Rock and 3.7 miles from the trailhead. The main trail here continued towards Yosemite Falls, while a sign indicated that the North Dome Trail branched off to the left.

The North Dome Trail descended down the east side of the granite ridge. North Dome itself was visible ahead to the south from here, with Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, and the Sentinel rising across the valley.

North Dome
The trail down this granite ridge was very rocky and at one point required a little bit of scrambling: one sharp switchback required a 6-foot descent down a steeply angled (>30 degree) granite slope, with two iron bolts holding a granite step halfway down the drop. Descending (and later ascending) this stretch is probably the most challenging move of the hike; most hikers should be fine, but just be prepared that stretches of the hike here are a little less than straightforward.

Tricky stretch along the descent to North Dome
The trail then descended another narrow, rocky switchback to reach the forest below. Continuing the descent through the forest, I finally arrived at the northern base of North Dome itself. The final stretch of hike was a gentle ascent along the spine of North Dome to its broad granite summit, which overlooked Yosemite Valley.

Trail to North Dome
Ending the hike here, four and a quarter miles from the trailhead, I reveled in the astonishing views of the valley. The most compelling part of the view was the vertical Northwest Face of Half Dome, which rose directly across the valley from where I stood. Vertical lines streaked the multi-colored granite cliff face, which towered 5000 feet over the valley below. No other viewpoint in the park provides as excellent a perspective for studying this massive cliff, a sheer 2000-foot stretch of granite. It is one of the classic challenges in rock climbing, one that would surely have topped the lists of extraordinary rock faces in the park and the world were the 3000-foot face of El Capitan not just a few miles away. Although Half Dome appears like a rounded dome shorn in half, it is not in fact half a dome: in fact, the northwest face was likely quite steep even before Ice Age glaciation eroded it into the vertical wall that it is today.

Half Dome
To the west, the rest of Yosemite Valley was spread out at my feet. At the far end of the valley rose the Cathedral Rocks. While the majestic face of El Capitan was not visible, I could spot the top of the Nose on that great rock from this angle. More prominent was the sharp spire of the Sentinel, which rose above Sentinel Meadow below. Above the Sentinel rose the rounded top of Sentinel Dome, which also rose above the towering cliff face of Glacier Point. Eagle Peak and Yosemite Point were also visible along the north rim, although neither looked particularly impressive from this angle. Seeing the great rock walls, spires, and domes of Yosemite never ceases to amaze me: it is the grand cathedral that inspired the writings of John Muir, the paintings of Albert Bierstadt, and the photography of Ansel Adams.

Yosemite Valley: the Sentinel, Cathedral Rocks, and El Capitan
Turning my attention back to the northeast, I looked up the length of Tenaya Canyon, one of the two main tributary canyons to Yosemite Valley. The lower cliffs of Half Dome connected to the granite expanse of Clouds Rest, with Basket Dome and Mount Watkins forming the other side of this wild granite gorge. While the Clark Range had largely disappeared behind Half Dome itself, I could see through the saddle between Half Dome and Clouds Rest to the distant granite peaks of the High Sierra.

Basket Dome, Mount Watkins, and Clouds Rest rise over Tenaya Canyon
After enjoying the views in the late afternoon, I made my way back to the trailhead, covering most of the uphill on this hike along my way back.

I saw a good number of other hikers on this trail, although there are still far fewer visitors here than you would find on any day hike starting from Yosemite Valley itself. North Dome delivered the most impressive view of Half Dome that I've seen after many visits to Yosemite Valley and was generally an excellent and enjoyable hike. It's not necessarily outstanding from the other hikes to viewpoints above the valley if you're visiting Yosemite and have limited time, but if you love Yosemite then you should certainly see the incomparable valley from this lofty viewpoint.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Gaylor Lakes

Gaylor Lakes and the High Sierra
4 miles round trip, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

The relatively easy hike to the alpine setting of Gaylor Lakes is an overlooked gem in California's Yosemite National Parks and a relaxing and enjoyable way to visit some of the park's most spectacular High Sierra scenery with no crowds and just a mild workout. In two miles, this alpine trail visits two beautiful lakes set beneath grey granite and red metamorphic rock peaks, wandering through meadows with views of the Cathedral Range and Dana Meadows. Most visitors to the park ignore the hike to Gaylor Lakes; even those that venture out on Tioga Road often stick by the better-known destinations around Tuolumne Meadows and Tenaya Lake. Don't make the mistake they do and you'll discover a breathtaking scenery on a short trail that epitomizes the allure of the High Sierra.

While this hike is probably the easiest way to see the lakes and meadows characteristic of the High Sierra in Yosemite National Park, it is still quite steep in parts (hence the moderate difficulty rating) and can be challenging for visitors coming from lower elevations as the trailhead is already at nearly 10000 feet. Be sure to watch for signs of altitude sickness and descend to lower elevations if you feel headache or nausea. Additionally, check the weather before coming: with the exception of the early ascent through the forest, this hike is largely through open, exposed alpine terrain, making it quite dangerous in a thunderstorm.

I hiked Gaylor Lakes with Anna during an August visit to Yosemite National Park. The trailhead is at Tioga Pass, on the eastern boundary of Yosemite National Park; from Yosemite Valley, one can reach the trailhead by following CA Highway 140 west and then turning onto Big Oak Flat Road to head towards Highway 120. At the junction with Tioga Road at Crane Flat, turn right and follow Tioga Road 48 miles to a parking lot on the left side of the road just before the entrance station at Tioga Pass. The parking lot is small, but there were still parking spots left on a summer weekend afternoon: this spot is far less popular than the more crowded trails of Yosemite Valley or even Tuolumne Meadows.

From the trailhead, we took the single-track trail heading into the forest to the west. The ascent started immediately, the trail tackling the hill directly with a moderately steep grade. The forest was fairly thin, with small trees and frequent small clearings dotted with wildflowers and providing peeks of Mount Dana, the massive reddish-brown pyramid of metamorphic rock across Tioga Pass.

Meadows and Mount Dana on the Gaylor Lakes Trail
After 0.3 miles, the trail steepened as it entered a larger meadow that provided the hike's first views of Mount Dana, Mount Gibbs, and the Kuna Crest rising above Dana Meadows. As the trail ascended steeply through the meadow, it veered off to the right (north) to begin the most difficult part of the hike. 

Meadows and views of Mount Gibbs along the Gaylor Lakes Trail
As the trail reentered the forest, it cut a series of short and fairly steep switchbacks in rocky terrain and quickly ascended 200 feet, sometimes using granite stairs. Soon, the trail emerged into the alpine tundra, coming out into a landscape of barren rock and grasses. Here, the trail leveled out a bit as it completed a 600-foot ascent in the first 0.6 miles to reach a saddle. Wide views opened up here: the ponds and meadows of Tioga Pass were spread out below us and the high summits of Mount Dana and Mount Gibbs towered across the pass. This was a particularly nice spot for me to appreciate the route up Mount Dana, which I had just hiked the day before. Mammoth Peak and the Kuna Crest provided a granite counterpoint to the south while to the north Tioga Peak joined in with the incongruous brown-red metamorphic rock that is characteristic of this part of the otherwise granite-dominated Sierra Nevada. While hiking across the saddle, we also experienced this granite-metamorphic rock transition beneath our feet as we hiked onto the red metamorphic rock; Gaylor Peak, to our north, was composed of this red rock while the ridge to our south was still grey granite.

Mount Dana and Mount Gibbs rise above Tioga Pass
On the other side of the saddle, we had our first views of the windswept alpine landscape of the Gaylor Lakes Basin. Middle Gaylor Lake filled the basin at the foot of the ridge we were descending, while False White Mountain's granite cliffs rose behind the lake to the north. The trail dropped steeply down to the lakeshore, descending 200 feet in a fifth of a mile. At the lake, unmarked trails branched to the south (left) and north (right) along the lakeshore. We followed the trail to the right, which took us along the north shore of Middle Gaylor Lake.

The lake was set amidst a rocky, almost barren alpine landscape. Grasses and flowers lining the lakeshore and scattered pines provided some color; otherwise, looking out into the lake, we saw just granite, sky, clouds, and their clear reflections. The distant peaks of the Cathedral Range just barely rose above the surface of this lake, which- at nearly 10,400 feet above sea level- is nearly as high in elevation as the summits of Cathedral Peak and Mount Hoffman, which we spotted in the distance.

Cathedral Range and Mount Hoffman rising above Middle Gaylor Lake
Middle Gaylor Lake
We had beautiful views every step of the way along the north shore of Middle Gaylor Lake until we reached the inlet, a mile from the trailhead. The creek that drains Upper Gaylor Lake and feeds Middle Gaylor Lake had dried up at this point in the season during this dry summer, so we were able to easily cross the inlet. Here, the trail turned north, following the creek gradually uphill through alpine meadows towards Upper Gaylor Lake.

Cathedral Range over Middle Gaylor Lake
The next half mile was one of the most enjoyable and scenic parts of the hike, as we ascended along this dry creek through the meadows. Although the creek had dried, some final alpine wildflowers were still blooming, with many pockets of purple gentian lighting up the meadows near the streambed. Although we saw few other visitors on the trail, whistling marmots kept us company.

Gentian in the meadows
Marmot in the meadows
Looking back, the views from the trail became increasingly more beautiful. The boulder-strewn meadows of the Gaylor Lake Basin served as the foreground to a growing panorama of Sierra peaks: Cathedral Peak, Unicorn Peak, and Mount Hoffman were joined by Fletcher and Vogelsang Peaks and the darker rock of Parsons and Simmons Peak. The granite summit of Mammoth Peak also rose above the ridgeline of nearby Gaylor Peak.

Middle Gaylor Lake
As we walked through the meadows, our hike was briefly interrupted by a spell of rain and thunder. The weather forecast had been less than perfect that day, but we had hoped to squeeze in the hike in late day after inclement weather had seemingly dissipated after an earlier thunderstorm. But in the early evening hours, a second thunderstorm rolled in, delivering 20 minutes of rain, hail, and a few peals of faraway thunder as we took a brief break under an umbrella. 

As the weather let up and the sun returned, we arrived at Upper Gaylor Lake, 1.5 miles from the trailhead. The lake was set in a desolate alpine basin at the foot of Gaylor Peak. The trail- fading out more and more as we went along- followed the western shore of the lake, crossing a few short sections of talus with some less even footing. On the north side of the lake, the trail appeared to head uphill on the left side of the inlet and then fade into the bushes: instead, look to cross the inlet just above the lakeshore and then pick up a trail leading uphill along the right (east) side of the inlet stream. There was still a little bit of water flowing here during our mid-August visit.

Upper Gaylor Lake
The final stretch of the hike ascended 200 feet over 0.3 miles from the lakeshore to reach the ruins of the High Sierra Mine. As I ascended, the best views of the hike unfolded behind me. Finally, arriving at the mine, I saw a magnificent panorama unfurled to the south: Gaylor Peak rising over Upper and Middle Gaylor Lakes with the granite peaks of the Kuna Crest in the distance and the glacier-covered slopes of Mount Maclure rising beyond that. The Cathedral Range stretched along the horizon to the west. Mount Dana rose to the east, its rounded visage from westerly views now giving way to its sharp profile when viewed from the north. 

The High Sierra Mine (or Great Sierra Mine) is an abandoned mining site at the end of the hike. The trail first comes to an old miner's cabin before continuing farther to a few more structures associated with the mine, at which point the trail dies out. This was the site of the Sheepherder Lode, a vein of silver that attracted a mining company in the late 19th century to build a town above Upper Gaylor Lake and drive mining shafts into the mountain here. The promise of silver never panned out and most traces of a town once built at 10,800 feet are now gone.

Gaylor Lakes and the High Sierra Mine
Mount Dana
After enjoying the views here, we returned to the trailhead, reveling in the beautiful high country that we reached so easily on this short and relatively uncrowded hike. As we climbed over the saddle between Middle Gaylor Lake and Tioga Pass at sunset, we saw spectacular alpenglow painting the high slopes of Mount Dana and Mount Gibbs. After completing our hike, we descended to Lee Vining and dined at Whoa Nellie Deli at the Mobil gas station- an eastern Sierra favorite of mine for 14 years now.

Sunset on Mounts Dana and Gibbs
The High Sierra is known for its spectacular alpine scenery, but its also known for being relatively difficult to access. This hike delivers all the goods of a High Sierra lake basin but with minimal effort from an easily accessible trailhead- and best of all, we only had to share these beautiful views with a handful of other hikers. I highly recommend this hike.