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.

No comments:

Post a Comment