Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Taft Point and Sentinel Dome

Half Dome and Clouds Rest
5.2 miles loop, 1100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

The loop hike visiting the airy cliffs of Taft Point and the sweeping High Sierra panoramas of Sentinel Dome may well be the best easier day hike in California’s Yosemite National Park. The hike visits two extremely popular viewpoints that are accessed from the Glacier Point Road on standalone hikes but then connects the two vista points with a less-traveled stretch along the Pohono Trail, where there are fewer hikers to compete for the many still-incredible viewpoints. As with all hikes in Yosemite, get to the trailhead early to avoid the daytime crush of tourist crowds. Check before visiting to see if reservations are required for entering Yosemite during your planned visit; this hike will not be accessible in 2022 during a season-long closure of Glacier Point Road.

The cliffs at Taft Point and Roosevelt Point along this hike are extremely dangerous places. Every year, a handful of Yosemite’s visitors fall to their deaths from the park’s many cliffs. Taft Point has an especially deadly history, as the ease of access and general lack of railings of the viewpoint is a setup for tragedy for the many tourists who see Yosemite as a natural Disneyland rather than as a landscape imbued with equal amounts of beauty and danger.

I hiked Taft Point and Sentinel Dome on a sunny November day with impossibly clear skies. Leaving Yosemite Village, I headed westbound on Northside Drive for 6 miles, turning left at the fork indicating Highway 41. At the next junction with Southside Drive about a mile later, I turned right onto Wawona Road (Highway 41) and followed this road out of the valley. Nine miles up windy Wawona Road, I came to a junction with the Glacier Point Road, where I turned left and followed the road for 14 miles to the parking lot on the left side of the road for Sentinel Dome/Taft Point. Parking here is somewhat limited and is likely to be filled by mid-morning during the summer and on weekends; Glacier Point Road is only open late spring through fall, typically around May to November each year but dependent on snow conditions.

From the trailhead, I followed the rock-demarcated path briefly downhill to a split between the Taft Point and Sentinel Dome Trails, which forked to the left and right, respectively. Hiking the loop in either direction is likely rewarding, but both times that I’ve been here I’ve chose to hike it clockwise, hitting up Taft Point first. This consigns the primary uphill climb of the hike to the middle stretch of the trail rather than saving it for the end; additionally, the lighting at Taft Point is often better earlier in the day, while Sentinel Dome views may be better after the Sun is a bit higher in the sky. Thus, I took the left fork towards Taft Point to start my hike that day. When I started hiking at 7:20 AM, there were already other hikers on the trail, but I still managed to spot a coyote wandering through the sparse forest here.

The Taft Point Trail traveled through a scattered forest as it gently descended to the west. At a half mile, I came to a junction with the Pohono Trail: the right fork (which I would later take) led towards Glacier Point and Sentinel Dome, while the left fork continued east towards Taft Point (and eventually Tunnel View). The trail continued its gentle descent on a mostly dirt tread for another two-fifths of a mile until the forest terminated and the terrain became much steeper at 0.9 miles from the trailhead.

The final 0.2 miles to Taft Point involved a rocky descent across an open slope with dramatic vertical drop-offs a little distance to the right of the trail. Here, I came to the Fissures, a set of deep, parallel gashes in the cliffs here. From the cliffs at the Fissures, I could see ahead to the soaring cliffs of Taft Point, which rose above where I stood and culminated in a rocky prow where a small railing provided hikers some minimal protection from the vertigo-inducing depths below.

The Fissures
Here, the Pohono Trail headed to the left and continued towards Dewey Point; the path to Taft Point was unmarked but obvious so I followed it through a final uphill stretch to reach the small, enclosed viewpoint with its big views of Yosemite Valley. What a thrilling view! El Capitan’s chiseled Nose stood out from its surrounding wall of smooth granite across the Valley. Below me, there was just air- over 3000 feet of it, a sheer and terrifying drop to the floor of Yosemite Valley which at that early morning hour was a shadowed abyss inhabited by the wind alone. The Three Brothers towered to the right of El Capitan, culminating in pointy Eagle Peak, another astounding viewpoint to which I had hiked the day before. To the east, Upper Yosemite Falls leaped off the north rim, its waters wafting ethereally down a 1400 foot vertical drop until they dissolved into mist. Mount Hoffman, sporting the first snows of the season, rose in the distant High Sierra, its newly-melted waters feeding the spectacle of Yosemite Falls below.

Taft Point and El Capitan
As thrilling as the main, fenced-off viewpoint was, there was an even better view on the cliff to the left (west). Making my way over to this less-crowded outcrop, I was rewarded with a bonus view of the Cathedral Rocks rising across from El Capitan, the tallest spires catching slivers of nearly solstice light that slipped over the shadow of the south rim. Beyond, the Sierra foothills died out into the fog-bound Central Valley, and beyond even that I was astounded to see the rolling mountains of the Coast Range. Here, the view of Yosemite Falls improved as well: not only were the Upper Falls visible, but now the entire drop of that waterfall, including the Middle Cascade and the Lower Falls, could be seen, a limnological epic spanning 2400 feet in elevation. The granite pyramid of Mount Conness, a prominent but faraway peak on the Sierra Crest, could be seen above the Valley here, too.

Yosemite Falls and Mount Hoffman
Yosemite Falls from Taft Point
The views at Taft Point were lovely, but even at 8 AM there was a steady stream of visitors beginning to arrive at this vista point. To escape the building crowds, I headed back uphill along the Pohono Trail towards the trailhead until coming to that earlier trail junction a half mile from Taft Point at 1.7 miles into the hike; here, I turned left to take the Pohono Trail towards Sentinel Dome. This stretch of the Pohono Trail was initially nondescript as it traveled through the forest, providing peek-a-boo views of Sentinel Dome’s rounded, weathered granite top, a preview of the hike’s next destination.

Sentinel Dome
The trail descended over the next mile past the Taft Point junction; initially confined to the woods, the trail eventually made it to the rim of Yosemite Valley, where some views began to open up. One mile past the junction and 2.7 miles into the hike, the trail reached its lowest elevation point as it crossed Sentinel Creek. Immediately after crossing the creek, the trail split at an unsigned junction. While the main Pohono Trail- a wider, maintained path- headed to the right, a smaller but still obviously oft-used path split off to the left here, leading out to Roosevelt Point, another stomach-churning viewpoint over Yosemite Valley where the highlight was a view westwards, where El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks guarded the entrance to the Valley.

Cathedral Rocks and El Capitan from Roosevelt Point
Unlike at Taft Point, there are no railings at Roosevelt Point; there is nothing but your common sense and fear separating the edge of the cliff and the abyss below. Yet I could not resist peering over these cliffs, as Sentinel Creek embarked on its cascading journey to the Valley below: this is a rare spot to view Sentinel Falls. I was able to look at the falls for no more than a few seconds, though, as a sense of vertigo set in almost immediately as I peered down into the rocky chasm. Also unlike Taft Point, there were no crowds at Roosevelt Point: while I’m sure that being there at 9 AM on a Sunday morning in November helped, at the end of the day this spot sees far fewer crowds than the more popular destinations at either end of the hike.

Sentinel Falls below Roosevelt Point
Roosevelt Point is named for none other than the nation’s twenty-sixth president, a great champion of the national park idea in the United States. During a western presidential tour in 1903, Teddy Roosevelt joined John Muir for a few days of backcountry camping in Yosemite and journeyed up to Glacier Point. The magnificent scenery and wildness that Roosevelt experienced on this trip supercharged his enthusiasm for conservation and helped set in motion the most consequential land preservation presidency of American history.

It’s possible to turn around from Roosevelt Point and return to the main Pohono Trail, but I recommend instead following the well-established path that continues leading along the rim for a half mile past Roosevelt Point. I encountered quite a bit of deadfall here and had to climb around or over many fallen trees, as this stretch of the trail may not be maintained. However, there were many lovely views to keep my attention: the trail passed above the Sentinel and had open areas where I could see Mount Hoffman, Mount Conness, and North Dome. Yosemite Falls was perhaps the highlight of this stretch of the hike: here, I was directly across the valley from the falls and I found myself staring for minutes at a time at the slow motion of its plunging waters.

Yosemite Falls
A steep uphill push brought this side path back to the main Pohono Trail, which had stayed in the forest in the interim. Just past the point where the paths reunited, at 3.2 miles into hike, the Pohono Trail passed by a granite outcrop that gave a great view of Yosemite Falls; those hikers that stuck to the main trail can still enjoy great falls views here. Past this viewpoint, the trail began a steady uphill climb with switchbacks on the lower slopes of Sentinel Dome. This uphill soon flattened out as the trail contoured around the north side of the dome.

At 3.7 miles, the Pohono Trail intersected with the Sentinel Dome Trail; the Pohono Trail continued downhill to the left, while the Sentinel Dome Trail headed uphill to the right. I took the Sentinel Dome Trail, which pushed aggressively uphill, gaining a ridge and passing a small pod of communications equipment. As the trail ascended along the ridge, some partial views of Half Dome and the High Sierra appeared, peek-a-boo promises of the more amazing views to come. The trail made a few unmarked intersections with road traces, which I ignored; I followed the broad path up the ridge, making a beeline for the summit.

Four miles into the hike, I came to two successive junctions with trails that led towards the trailhead parking lot. In both cases, I ignored these trails and continued up the ridge towards Sentinel Dome. After the second junction, the trail broke out of the forest onto Sentinel Dome’s open granite. Here, the trail faded and I made my way up the smooth slabs of rock until I reached the 8127-foot high summit. There were 10 or so groups of hikers on the summit when I arrived- not overwhelmingly crowded, but certainly not quiet. The broad top of the dome ensured there was enough room for everyone to spread out.

Approaching the summit of Sentinel Dome
Sentinel Dome’s rounded summit delivers a 360-degree view of Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada. The view to the east is similar in many aspects to the view from Glacier Point, although an additional thousand feet of elevation allows views deeper into the High Sierra. On the other hand, as Sentinel Dome is set away from the rim of the valley, there are no airy drops below this viewpoint, so it lacks the adrenaline that one gets from standing atop Taft Point or Glacier Point.

The view from Sentinel Dome up Tenaya Canyon is classic: North and Basket Domes, Mount Watkins, Clouds Rest, and Half Dome bound Tenaya Canyon on its sides, with Mount Hoffman, Mount Conness, and the Cathedral Range rising in the distance behind it. To the right of Half Dome rose the southern reaches of the Cathedral Range rising to Mount Lyell, the highest peak in the park. Mount Ritter and Banner Peak- two of the Sierra’s most beautiful peaks- are technically also visible here, although they barely peek over the ridges around Mount Lyell. Large expanses of granite lined the side of the Merced River’s canyon, with the river itself bursting into view as it shot down Nevada Falls next to the aptly named Liberty Cap, a granite dome that truly has a resemblance to a Phrygian cap. Mount Starr King- a granite peak that is somehow simultaneously rounded and sharp- rose further to the south, standing in front of the high, snowy peaks of the Clark Range. The lower granite ridges in the vicinity of Ostrander Lake rose directly to the south. To the north, I could see both the lower and upper drops of Yosemite Falls, while Cathedral Rocks and El Capitan stood as guardians of the western end of the Valley. A plaque embedded in the rock at the summit pointed out most of these mountains surrounding us.

Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Mount Watkins, and the High Sierra
Mount Lyell and High Sierra Peaks above the Merced River watershed and Nevada Falls
Mount Starr King and the Clark Range
I was lucky to have an extremely clear day: looking west beyond the foothills and the foggy Central Valley, I could see much of the Diablo Range near the Bay Area! Particularly recognizable were the double peaks of Mount Diablo itself, the high summit of Mount Hamilton, and the lonely but prominent form of Pacheco Peak rising above Pacheco Pass near Gilroy. What a rare sight! John Muir traveled through Pacheco Pass on his first trip from San Francisco to Yosemite Valley; it was incredible to see so many of the places that were meaningful to Muir in a single view.

After soaking in these wonderful views, I descended the dome along the route that I took up; when I met the first trail heading back to the parking lot, I turned right and followed this trace of a paved road back towards the trailhead, now just a mile away. After following this former road for a short stretch through forest, I arrived at a junction with a single-track trail that continued towards the trailhead; this time, I followed the single-track trail, which descended across an open granite slope before reentering the forest. A few more periodic descents through forest punctuated by areas of open granite brought me back to the trailhead. I had a few final partial views of El Capitan through the trees on this stretch as well as a couple more vantage points of Sentinel Dome.

Sentinel Dome
The scenery on this hike is extraordinary. The relative easiness of this hike means that this is one of the few spots where casual and novice hikers can gaze out on such vast panoramas without a strenuous exertion. The popularity that comes with that may be off-putting to some, but I would still recommend this hike to all Yosemite visitors- just be sure to come early to snag a parking spot.

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