Ever been at a social gathering and found yourself unable to stop staring at someone? A beautiful, or at least striking, presence? That is how I can be at Yosemite, in the captivating company of Half Dome.
Rising assertively over the valley by more than 4,700 feet, the gargantuan granite dome’s rounded top looks as though it were created by a massive melon scooper. However, something since has gone radically amiss. A slice of its northwest side is gone, leaving a relatively smooth and vertical wall that surely no human could climb (although the first one did in 1875).
It’s a pretty weird sight. Hard to look away from.
I first set eyes upon Half Dome in the early 1990s, and in the intervening years I have visited Yosemite a dozen times. Among my favorite moments have been those spent in quiet contemplation before Half Dome, including a special trip two weeks after my father died.
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Its striking beauty, overwhelming size and utter indifference to time and to the “ants” who scurry about on it provided a solace that I could receive nowhere else, at least nowhere so conveniently close to my home. (Yosemite Valley is about 160 miles from Sacramento.)
About those “ants,” which is what people on the big rock resemble from a distance: They can reach Half Dome via an 8.2-mile (one-way) trail that steeply ascends from the valley floor, passing Vernal and Nevada falls before heading around the back of Half Dome and then up the formation’s eastern, sloping side. The final 400 feet finds hikers pulling themselves up with the aid of steel cables. The trail can get crowded on a summer day, with as many as 1,000 people reaching the summit.
I have never been on Half Dome. Its trail’s elevation gain and popularity have dissuaded me. But I have seen it from many perspectives, and last month persuaded two friends to accompany me on three day-hikes that, together, yielded views of Half Dome from the east, west, south and north.
Those hikes – Clouds Rest, Panorama and North Dome – require enough exertion that my college buddies (Dave Williams of Rancho Palos Verdes and Dave D’Antonio of San Leandro) and I were pretty wiped out when the long weekend came to a close. By “college buddies,” you see, I mean college-era, not college-age. We are not as spry as we were when we were 18 years old and disco was queen.
Clouds Rest Trail
In order to squeeze those hikes into three days, we left Sacramento at 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday. First up was the Clouds Rest Trail, which starts near Tenaya Lake off Tioga Pass Road (Highway 120). With an elevation gain of 1,775 feet – starting as it does above 8,000 feet in the thin High Sierra air – the trail leads to a rocky mountaintop with 360-degree views that include Half Dome.
Rather than give you a blow-by-blow of the hike, which I am averse to re-experiencing, I’ll just say that it starts calmly, becomes excruciating for an hour-long upward stretch, eases off for a bit and then resumes sucking the air out of one’s lungs until, finally, the ascending ends. All told, the 14.5-mile round trip kicked my national park pass.
Once we caught our breath on the surprisingly crowded (how can so many people have this much energy?) summit, I noticed a young woman in a bright-red shirt who was clinging with hands, boots and a worried expression to an outcropping. Half Dome peeked out in the hazy distance behind her, to the west.
“I rock-climbed for the first time last week,” Irene Lee, a Carnegie Mellon University senior from Oregon, told me a few minutes later, when she was back on solid ground. “It got a little scary over there. It was scarier on the way down.”
My attention was further distracted when all of a sudden someone was incongruously yelling: “Ice cold beer! $20. Ice cold beer! Bidding starts at $20.”
Tim Schiller has an enthusiastically pursued appreciation of adult beverages, apparently. Why else would he schlep Bud Lights to a mountaintop?
Schiller, a Fresno resident who arranges Fresno State football road-game excursions, said Clouds Rest compares favorably to other Yosemite trails he has trod.
“(Best) day hike ... this is going to be right up there,” he said. “Other than the logistics of getting here – great.”
Then, though the fit and beer-guzzling Schiller might not have intended to rub it in, he rubbed it in: “Not hard.”
Vaché Geyoghlian of Fresno joined friend Schiller this day on the Clouds Rest Trail. He deemed it a “different way” to see Half Dome, an alternative to climbing the famous formation itself. “You see this amazing view all around you, and that really is what it’s all about.”
Heather San Julian, who completed the day’s trail-taking Fresno trio, said she is made aware on this hike “how much rock is out there. It really goes on forever.”
On Sunday, “the Daves” and I got up early, again, to catch the bus that takes tourists from Yosemite Lodge up to Glacier Point, a high spot that often is highly populated with people looking over at Half Dome and down at the valley. We rubbed shoulders with the masses for a few minutes before re-embracing quietude on the 8.5-mile-long, 3,200-foot-elevation-loss Panorama Trail.
If you have time for just one day hike at Yosemite, I recommend Panorama. In addition to its wondrous starting point at Glacier Point, its meandering path unspools a steady stream of varied and striking views of Half Dome, starting from the west and working its way to the south. Meanwhile, you pass through a manzanita forest, which for me is wonderful because I love that rusty-branched and bright-green-leafed bush.
Furthermore, at the lightly populated Illilouette Fall and the bustling Nevada Fall, hikers who have packed swimsuits can cool off in cold mountain water. And yes, there is water and the falls are tumbling even during the late summer of this depressingly long drought.
On the Panorama Trail’s descent-interrupting 800-foot uphill stretch, North Carolinians Dustin Long and Melissa Addington passed us. It was impressive. Rather than having joined us seated (and lightly napping, truth be told) on the bus, they had walked up to Glacier Point, via the Four Mile Trail.
“It’s something you need to do before you die,” Long said, cutting right to the chase. “I’ve never seen mountains like this in my life.”
North Dome Trail
On the third morning, we again dragged our moaning muscles out of bed and returned to the Tioga Pass Road, this time to the Porcupine Creek pullover lot and the North Dome trailhead. The path proceeds non-threateningly through the forest for an hour or so, and the going doesn’t get strenuous (some steep ups, steeper downs) until hikers reach the dome stretch – North in the foreground, Half lurking imposingly behind.
Although Panorama arguably is the national park’s must-take trail, North Dome is my favorite. I have taken this 8.8-mile (round trip) path five times in the past eight years, never tiring of its intimate access to Half Dome, which faces North Dome imposingly from across the valley. No one standing on the northern slab of granite, gawking at the more famous slab of granite, takes the view for granted.
On the slightly downward south slope of North Dome (be reassured that its tilt toward the valley is not dangerous), married couple Monica Lanctot and Adam Graham of San Diego shared their impressions of the hike.
“We read about it and (were told) it was moderate,” Lanctot said. “I would say the first half is easy. The second half is difficult. But the reward here is totally worth it.”
Graham, who said he has hiked up Half Dome a couple of times, was impressed by how much he could see on the North Dome Trail. “I’d heard that there were no better views of the valley than here, and that’s the case.”
Indeed, we could see cars creeping along thousands of feet below, amid the valley’s green meadows.
I asked Lanctot to compare North Dome with her experiences on the Clouds Rest and Panorama trails.
“It’s not nearly as well-traveled, so it’s a much more pleasant hike in terms of the amount of people,” she said. “This definitely has the best views of Half Dome. … The Panorama hike is probably the easiest one.”
The Daves and I concurred.
As we made our way off North Dome, I took a moment to look once again at Half Dome. I wondered how soon I would see it again, from whatever direction or altitude. On that happy day, my soul will rejoice – and yes, I will stare.
Clouds Rest Trail, from Tenaya Lake to Clouds Rest, is an out-and-back hike that encompasses 14.5 miles total with a 1,775-foot elevation gain. The only practical way to access the trailhead at the west end of the lake, 31 miles east of Crane Flat, is to drive there via Tioga Pass Road and look for a spot to park on the shoulder. A moderately paced hike, with enough time on Clouds Rest to soak in the 360-degree views, takes about 10 hours.
Panaroma Trail, between Glacier Point and Yosemite Valley, is 8.5 miles one-way with a 3,200-foot change in elevation. Many hikers take the tour bus from Yosemite Lodge and find the trailhead across from the Glacier Point store. Through Nov. 8, bus departures ($25 one way; www.yosemitepark.com/glacier-point-tour) are at 8:30 a.m., 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. A moderately paced hike takes about five hours.
North Dome Trail, from Highway 120 (Tioga Pass Road) to the top of the granite dome, is an out-and-back hike that encompasses 8.8 miles total. The only practical way to access the trailhead at Porcupine Creek, 26.5 miles east of Crane Flat, is to drive there and hope for a propitious parking spot in the small roadside lot. A moderately paced hike, with an hour spent on the dome, takes about six hours.
Note: Due to snow accumulations, Tioga Pass Road is closed for half the year, typically from mid-November to mid-May. For the latest information, check the California Department of Transportation’s website, www.dot.ca.gov