Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Eagle Peak (Yosemite)

Clouds Rest, Half Dome, and the High Sierra from Eagle Peak
12 miles round trip, 4200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required (reservations may be needed)

Eagle Peak is the highest point on the north rim of California’s famed Yosemite Valley, so naturally it delivers one of the best views of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra; the panorama from its summit was acclaimed as one of the park’s most comprehensive by no less a nature luminary than John Muir, who probably knew a thing or two about Yosemite. Reaching Eagle Peak requires a rocky and strenuous hike up the Yosemite Falls Trail followed by nearly three more miles of hiking in the forest, but dedicated hikers will find that the remarkable summit views are well worth the challenges en route. While the Yosemite Falls Trail is an extremely popular and crowded hike and you’re likely to run into hundreds of hikers on the ascent to the north rim, the trail through the forest on the north rim to Eagle Peak is very quiet, with this destination seeing perhaps just 5% of the traffic that flows to the top of Yosemite Falls. This hike can be combined with the hike to Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Point by extremely ambitious day hikers for an ultimate north rim day hike.

I hiked to Eagle Peak on a clear and lovely November day. This hike is most enjoyable during periods of heavy flow in Yosemite Falls, when the long ascent up the Yosemite Falls Trail rewards you with a humbling experience hiking alongside the thundering mist of North America’s tallest falls. Typically, this means late spring and early summer months- the falls are less impressive by July in most years and a trickle by the start of fall- but the arrival of a pair of early season rain and snow storms in California during the weeks before my hike had restored this seasonal waterfall’s more seasonably impressive flow rate.

The hike to Eagle Peak starts at the Yosemite Falls Trailhead, which is right next to Camp 4 and just a stone’s throw from Yosemite Lodge. A new Yosemite Falls Day Use parking area has been built on the south side of Northside Drive, right across the road from Camp 4, and you’ll want to park here if there’s room (if not, you may have to circle as far as the large parking lot by Yosemite Village).

The first 3.2 miles of the hike followed the Yosemite Falls Trail from Camp 4 up to the north rim of Yosemite Valley- this stretch is covered in more detail in my post on the Upper Yosemite Falls hike. To briefly summarize, the trail ascends via numerous rocky switchbacks up a steep, forested slope from the valley floor, climbing 1000 feet in a mile to Columbia Rock, where there is a lovely view of Half Dome and North Dome. 

Half Dome and North Dome from Columbia Rock
Past Columbia Rock, the trail undulates for a bit, climbing and dropping small increments. An unmarked spur trail to the right here led briefly downhill to a secluded and thrilling clifftop viewpoint where I could simultaneously see Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls along with the Middle Cascade- collectively, this three-tiered waterfall drops 2400 feet and makes up the tallest waterfall on the continent. 

Middle Cascade and Lower Yosemite Falls
Shortly afterwards, the main trail rounded a corner for some big views of towering Upper Yosemite Falls- which, at over 1400 feet tall, is the longest single drop of Yosemite Falls. After a flat stretch that brought me to the base of the upper falls, the Yosemite Falls Trail began a long climb with very rocky switchbacks again, this time ascending 1500 feet in 1.5 miles. There were nice views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, the Sentinel, and the Clark Range before the trail entered a gully between two towering rock walls for the final ascent to the rim.

Upper Yosemite Falls and Half Dome
Half Dome from the ascent up the Yosemite Falls Trail
Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and the Clark Range
The extended climb from the Valley floor finally began leveling out a bit around 3 miles from the trailhead, as the Yosemite Falls Trail arrived at the north rim of the Valley and landscape began to flatten out a bit. At 3.2 miles, I came to a junction with the trail that ran along Yosemite’s north rim: the right fork here carried the majority of the continuous stream of hikers towards the top of Upper Yosemite Falls, while the left fork continued towards Eagle Peak, El Capitan, and other less-visited north rim destinations. I took the left fork, which continued ascending fairly steeply for another quarter mile through forest until the terrain finally relented and leveled out for a stretch. This trail was so much quieter than the Yosemite Falls Trail I had followed up to the rim: while I easily saw 300+ hikers on the Yosemite Falls Trail that day, I saw less than 15 other hikers after leaving the junction.

After a half mile of hiking through the forest from the Yosemite Falls Trail junction, I came to another junction: here, the trail heading straight led north to Tioga Road, while the north rim trail towards Eagle Peak and El Capitan headed to the left. I took the left fork: this trail followed a tumbling creek during a brief but steep stretch of uphill before flattening out. The level trail then traveled through the forest for a long and peaceful stretch, passing to the left of a low granite ridge and to the right of a small meadow. About 1.7 miles past the previous junction (and 5.4 miles into the hike), the trail began to climb steadily again. At 5.6 miles from the trailhead, I arrived at another trail junction: while the main north rim trail continued to the right here towards El Capitan, the Eagle Peak spur broke off to the left.

I headed to the left on the Eagle Peak spur trail. The trail climbed steeply through for the forest for a stretch until breaking out onto brushy slopes surrounding the granite ridge leading up to Eagle Peak. Here, the views that this hike promised finally opened up: as the trail followed the left (east) side of the ridge, sweeping panoramas of Half Dome and High Sierra were unfurled. I followed the now-faint trail as it danced along either side of the rocky ridge until finally ending at the base of the summit block; a brief and easy rock scramble brought me to the peak of this highest point along Yosemite’s North Rim.

The view from the summit is truly astounding and is more impressive than other North Rim viewpoints in that one can see so much of the High Sierra. While North Dome and Yosemite Point offer glimpses of the Sierra crest, only Eagle Peak is high enough to deliver views straight back to the Cathedral Range, Mount Lyell, and the entirety of the Clark Range. Mount Conness rose in the distance, while Mount Hoffman rose above the forests to the north closer by. The great granite expanses of Half Dome and Clouds Rest dominated the view down the valley- this was also a good place to observe North Dome, Royal Arches, and the Washington Column. The top of both Yosemite Falls and Nevada Falls were visible, although this was not a particularly impressive viewpoint for viewing either waterfall.

Yosemite Valley from Eagle Peak
Clark Range, Mount Starr King, Liberty Cap, Nevada Falls, and Glacier Point
Sentinel Dome rose across the Valley, supported by the mighty buttresses of Glacier Point and the Sentinel. I could see most major south rim viewpoints from here: Glacier Point, Taft Point, Dewey Point, and Crocker Point. The long rocky ridge of Middle Brother was visible below, a reminder that Eagle Peak is most recognizable from the Valley as the highest point in the Three Brothers formation. El Capitan was somewhat visible to the west, although it didn’t look particularly impressive from this perspective.

Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, and the Sentinel rise over Yosemite Valley
When I arrived just after noon on an October Saturday, I had the summit to myself for a bit; a handful of other hikers arrived after I did but there were never more than four groups at the summit at a time that day. The Yosemite Falls Trail was very busy- I had constant company both going up and coming down- but I was able to hike the trail to Eagle Peak in solitude and only had a few companions at the summit.

This is a tough hike that is ultimately unsuitably strenuous for most visitors to Yosemite. However, fit hikers looking to escape the crowds of the Valley while still enjoying Yosemite’s awesome walls and waterfalls may find this to be one of the most rewarding of the many hikes in John Muir’s Incomparable Valley.

No comments:

Post a Comment