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.

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