Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Pohono Trail: Tunnel View to Dewey Point

El Capitan with Ribbon and Bridalveil Falls, viewed from Crocker Point
10 miles round trip, 3700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

The stunning view of the massive granite face of El Capitan from Dewey Point and the lovely views of Bridalveil and Ribbon Falls from Stanford and Crocker Points make this collection of three viewpoints an excellent hiking destination in California's Yosemite National Park. The three viewpoints see far fewer visitors than other trails in the Yosemite Valley area, even though the trail that visits them- the Pohono Trail- connects Glacier Point and Tunnel View, two of Yosemite's best known viewpoints. The hike to these three viewpoints from Tunnel View is a bit strenuous and tiring, but it's still one of the easier ways to reach a viewpoint of the valley from above in the spring and is a very enjoyable hike. However, this is a very destination-oriented hike and does not have too many rewarding views en route. Artist Point and Inspiration Point are often advertised as intermediate stops along this hike and destinations of their own but I do not recommend doing a dedicated hike to either, as the views are either quite similar to Tunnel View or have been obscured by trees over time. Commit to reaching at least Stanford Point or consider another hike in Yosemite Valley.

In summer, hikers can more easily access these viewpoints from Glacier Point Road: thus, I recommend this as a spring hike, when hikers can enjoy waterfalls at peak flow and Tunnel View provides the easiest (but still quite difficult) access. Early season hikers are likely to run into snow, so come prepared with hiking poles, boots, microspikes, and a map.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Yosemite National Park has used a permit quota system to restrict the number of visitors in the park during peak tourist season. Check before you go to see whether there are currently restrictions on visiting the park.

3700 feet of elevation gain is no walk in the park, but that's not the primary reason for this hike's strenuous rating. What made this hike particularly difficult was that there were upwards of a hundred downed trees on the trail during my visit. At such an early point in the season, it made sense that trail crews had not yet had a chance to clean up the area; but the extent of fallen trees was really quite shocking. This being one of my first springs in the Sierra, I wasn't entirely sure whether this was typical following a standard winter's storms or whether all of the fallen trees were related to a severe Mono Winds event in January of that year.

I hiked to Dewey Point during a mid-April visit to Yosemite. The trailhead is at Tunnel View, perhaps the one of the most photographed views on our planet. Coming from San Francisco after I left work on Friday, I approached the park on Highway 120 and entered through the Big Oak Flat entrance. I reached Yosemite Valley by taking Big Oak Flat Road down to the valley from Crane Flat; how you reach Yosemite Valley will largely depend on whether you're coming from the Bay, Fresno, or Merced. Once in Yosemite Valley, I took Southside Drive to its junction with Wawona Road. Here, I turned right onto Wawona Road, following it towards Fresno and Wawona. I followed Wawona Road uphill for two miles to Tunnel View. I parked in the lot on the south side of Wawona Road at Tunnel View as the trail starts on the south side of the road.

Tunnel View is always a bit of a zoo: hundreds of tourists are always standing at the stone-lined overlook platform, posing for selfies with this iconic view that encompasses many of Yosemite Valley's greatest features: El Capitan, Clouds Rest, Half Dome, Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall. Parking is usually full here and you'll sometimes have to wait for a spot, but tourists cycle in and out of this lot quickly so you shouldn't have to wait too long. On the day of my hike, there were already many carloads of visitors at just after 9 AM as well as a couple doing an engagement photo shoot.

Tunnel View
The Pohono Trail started from the southern lot at Tunnel View. The trail immediately began heading uphill on a rocky trail. Just fifty meters from the trailhead, the Pohono Trail made a very sharp switchback. Watch out for this switchback! Many hikers assume that the trail continues going straight here and end up off trail; my family experienced this when we tried to hike to Artist Point during a 2006 visit to Yosemite. 

Pohono is the native Ahwahneechee name for Bridalveil Fall, meaning "spirit of puffing wind," alluding to the breezes that often deflect the stream of that free-falling waterfall. The hike justifies its name, delivering many lovely views of Bridalveil Fall, especially later from Stanford and Crocker Points.

The Pohono Trail continued climbing through steep, rocky switchbacks in brushy terrain with some forest cover after the initial tricky switchback. As the trail climbed higher, occasional views began to open up to the east of Yosemite Valley, views that were generally quite similar to those at Tunnel View, albeit with far less jostling with other tourists to take photos. El Capitan's massive granite face was especially impressive across the valley. At a a half mile from the trailhead, the Pohono Trail crossed the Old Wawona Road. Artist Point lay a half mile to the left down Old Wawona Point from here, but I skipped the extra mileage for my hike, as the view from Artist Point does not differ too much from what you can see at Tunnel View.

View near Artist Point
El Capitan
After crossing the Old Wawona Road, the Pohono Trail continued to ascend steadily, climbing another 500 feet in a half mile to reach Inspiration Point. At Inspiration Point, there was a wide, flat shelf on the mountainside, where in the past there must have been a viewpoint; today, the forest has entirely swallowed Inspiration Point and there are no Yosemite Valley views from here. Inspiration Point is a misnomer today; that it is still called such on park signage is surely misleading for at least some hikers who think they can find inspiring views here. The true views of this hike were still to come, another 1600 feet uphill from Inspiration Point.

Leaving Inspiration Point, the Pohono Trail entered the main, extended ascent of the hike. Over the next 1.8 miles, the trail climbed nearly 1600 feet; after a few initial switchbacks, the trail began heading southeast, following the sloping back of the mountain up towards the rim of Yosemite Valley. This stretch of trail was made harder at the time of my visit by the numerous downed trees, most of which I assumed had fell during an extreme wind event during the winter (it's hard for me to imagine that the National Park Service would continue to leave this popular trail so poorly maintained during peak tourist season, though). 

Snow began to appear on the trail as I approached Artists Creek, at 2.5 miles into the hike. In spring, the creek was flowing well, but crossing was still relatively easy. After crossing the creek, the trail became especially steep as it ascended through the forest to cross a high ridge above Old Inspiration Point. Topping out on the ridge at just under three miles, I caught the first glimpse of the views for which I had traveled here: through the trees, I could see Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Tenaya Canyon, and the Cathedral Range in the distance. 

Cathedral Range, Clouds Rest, and Half Dome from above Old Inspiration Point
The top of the ridge finally marked a break from the endless ascent up from the trailhead. Leaving the ridge, the trail descended gently through the snowy forest to Meadow Brook, where it crossed the stream in a small clearing at 3.3 miles into the hike. At the time of my hike, this was one of the most hazardous portions of the hike: the ground was entirely covered with snow and the creek was running beneath a snow bridge, making only a few appearances beneath collapsed portions of the snow. I gingerly crossed the snow bridge to reach the other side of the creek. If you come after the snowmelt, this crossing is likely to be easier, as long as the water is not too high.

The trail turned sharply to the left after crossing Meadow Brook and I enjoyed a brief stretch of flat hiking through the forest. Soon, the Pohono Trail began to descend, dropping about 100 feet as it approached the rim of Yosemite Valley and came to a junction with the spur trail to Stanford Point at 3.6 miles. I took the spur trail at the junction, descending steeply but briefly until the forest ended and I found myself gazing down into the airy chasm of Yosemite Valley. The trail ended at the rim, but I headed to the left along social paths until reaching the very edge of Stanford Point, where there spectacular views of both sides of the Valley below.

Many of Yosemite Valley's major rock features were visible from here. Most impressive was El Capitan, the 3000-foot tall granite face rising across the Valley from the south rim. Ribbon Fall plunged down the west shoulder of El Capitan- this seasonal waterfall, usually only visible during the early spring snowmelt, is the tallest single-drop waterfall on the continent, with a single plunge of over 1600 feet. Half Dome, North Dome, Clouds Rest, Sentinel Dome, and the Sentinel were visible further down the Valley, along with a view of the snowy Cathedral Range in the High Sierra. The Cathedral Rocks appeared to be almost directly below me from this angle, with graceful Bridalveil Fall leaping out of its hanging valley, suspending momentarily in the clear mountain air before floating down to join the Merced. To the west, I could see where the glacier-carved Yosemite Valley transitioned into the river-carved Merced gorge. Tunnel View, where I started my hike, was visible below, its parking lot now overrun with tour bus tourists at midday. In the distance, I could see the crashing waters of Cascade Creek, falling haphazardly down granite cliffs and past Big Oak Flat Road.

Yosemite Valley view from Stanford Point
Cascade Creek Falls, the Merced Gorge, and Tunnel View from Stanford Point
After enjoying the sweeping view from Stanford Point, I backtracked slightly uphill to rejoin the Pohono Trail, taking the trail east at the junction to continue towards Crocker and Stanford Points. The trail continued through snowy forest, crossing another stream at 3.9 miles. A steady ascent through forest past the stream crossing brought me to Crocker Point at 4.3 miles; I took a short spur left from the Pohono Trail here to reach the second of the trail's three big viewpoints.

Snowy forest between Stanford and Crocker Points
The airy view at Crocker Point was similar to that from Stanford Point, but this panorama incorporated a bit more of the snowy High Sierra, including Mount Hoffman. Crocker Point had lovely views of Bridalveil Fall and Ribbon Fall. The viewpoint was airy and vertigo-inducing, with a direct, 3000-foot drop down sheer granite cliffs from Crocker Point to the Valley Floor. 

Crocker Point view
Ribbon Fall from Crocker Point
Both Stanford and Crocker Points are named for wealthy industrialists (robber barons, by some interpretations) who played integral roles in California's economic development by investing in the earliest transcontinental railroads. Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker had small fortunes associated from running businesses in Gold Rush California before their investments in the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads made them some of the richest men in California. Stanford later founded a namesake university in Palo Alto. Dewey Point- the hike's final destination- was named instead after Admiral of the Navy George Dewey, who became the highest ranking officer in United States Naval history after winning the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War. All three men were prominent participants and champions of late nineteenth century European American ideas of Manifest Destiny and imperialism; their complicated legacies contributed to creating the world that we know today, but were at least partially responsible for the displacement and genocide of California Native Americans, rampant natural resource exploitation in the West, and US colonial rule in the Philippines, among other things.

Leaving Crocker Point, the Pohono Trail followed the rim of the valley south and then east on a steady ascent. Slightly further up on the rim, there were magnificent views back to the great prow of Crocker Point, where vertical cliffs culminated at a lofty point on the rim above the incomparable valley.

Looking back on Crocker Point
The trail drew back from the rim as it ascended through the forest, climbing gently until it leveled out at 4.8 miles. After crossing a tree-strewn, snow-covered, forested flat area just south of the rim of the valley, the Pohono Trail descended slightly to reach Dewey Point, a thin peninsula of land extending into the airy open of the Valley, at 5 miles. Dewey Point- being the highest of the hike's three viewpoints- had the widest and most spectacular views. Large portions of Yosemite's High Sierra were visible from here, including the Cathedral Range, the high peaks around Mounts Lyell and Maclure, and the Clark Range. Many prominent features of the south rim of the valley were visible, including the Sentinel, Sentinel Dome, and Taft Point. El Capitan's massive sheet of granite was very impressive from here, dominating the view across the valley. While the pointed spires of the Cathedral Rocks were visible, Bridalveil Fall had fallen out of sight here, blocked by other granite features of the Valley's high walls. North Dome, Mount Watkins, Clouds Rest, and Half Dome, all uniquely-shaped granite domes, rose at the east end of the Valley. Looking back to the west, my view of the Merced River Gorge encompassed Tunnel View, where I had started the hike that morning and where tour buses were discharging loads of tourists to compete for selfies with El Capitan.

High Sierra and Sentinel Dome
Yosemite Valley from Dewey Point
Ribbon Fall, El Capitain, and Mount Hoffman from Dewey Point
Clark Range from Dewey Point
Merced Gorge and Tunnel View from Dewey Point
While you'll see half the people in the park at Tunnel View, the hike up to Dewey Point is actually pretty quiet. Most hikers drop off in the opening mile of the trail between Tunnel View and Inspiration Point and while there were still a handful of hikers that I saw up by Stanford, Crocker, and Dewey Points, I largely had these viewpoints to myself. Dewey Point is a bit busier that the two other viewpoints, as it also sees visitors coming by a shorter hike from either Badger Pass in winter or the Glacier Point Road in summer. However, even then, I would expect these viewpoints on the Pohono Trail to offer a quieter alternative for experiencing Yosemite Valley than sitting in traffic behind a parade of RVs near Yosemite Village.

There are certainly more spectacular hikes in Yosemite National Park, whether in the Valley or the High Sierra, but the hike of Dewey Point from Tunnel View is still highly rewarding and worthwhile, especially early in the season when it is one of the few high viewpoints accessible from the Valley by day hike. 

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