For most people who live on 209, perhaps the world’s largest and most stunning mountain hikes are within two and a half hours away.
There are over 100 legal hiking trails covering over 1,000 miles across Yosemite National Park’s 1,190 square miles.
Many of them are accessible from Yosemite Valley or along Tioga Road. And you don’t have to carry three days’ worth of food, water and camping gear on your back. A good portion of the hikes vary from easy 2 hour hikes to more strenuous 12 hour undertakings.
A day trip from the 209 region makes for a very viable hike.
And if you opt for the $80 annual national park pass instead of the $35 one-week pass, you’ll get to see a lot of Yosemite without breaking the bank.
The only problem with Yosemite National Park is that half the world’s people want to visit it every year.
Yosemite Valley can feel like getting in touch with nature on the highways of Los Angeles or strolling down Market Street in San Francisco on a midday.
However, the highlands along Tioga Pass Road (National Park Service-managed Highway 120 section) are much less congested. Crowds are significantly smaller. Along Tioga Road and at Tuolumne Meadows, it turns golden early and he from late August onwards.
Day trips along Tioga Road offer literally dozens of hiking trails, but six stand out.
*CLOUDS REST: The rest of the world meanders through Half Dome like ants. It offers stunning views of Yosemite Valley and the highlands, as well as Half Dome 1,100 feet below to the south.
It also lacks the horribly lethal drop-off that Half Dome has, except for the final 300 yards. That final 300 yards has dropoffs of thousands of feet on each side, and at its longest he has to scramble down a narrow spine of 4,500 feet. That said, resorting to slow, partial crawls will keep anyone nervous on their way to the summit back.
Reaching 9,931 feet high, the 4,500-foot-tall expansive face of Clouds Rest is the largest granite face in the park.
The 14-mile, strenuous round-trip hike begins near Lake Tenaya and follows a short stretch of Sunrise Lakes. Two drawbacks can occur early in the journey. One is that you need to make some streams where the water can flow above your ankles.
*LOWER CATHEDRAL LAKE: This moderate 7.8-mile half-day hike begins 1.5 miles west of Tioga Pass Road from Tuolumne Meadows campground. Arguably one of the most popular high-altitude lakes, an early morning hike is a must if you want to minimize encounters with other people. Along the way, enjoy spectacular views, including Cathedral Peak. At 9,300 feet, the pristine lake is relatively shallow. Four-quarters of a mile from the exit, follow the rim of Tenaya Canyon for spectacular views of relatively unobtrusive lakes and peaks.
*POLLY DOME LAKE: An accessible lake that is not visited by very many people and is a fairly easy day hike of 6.2 miles (6.2 miles) round trip. It’s great for beginners as it’s almost impossible to get lost as the trail progresses. The reward is a rather large lake surrounded by a glacier-carved landscape. The trailhead is across from the picnic area on Tioga Pass Road, halfway down Tenaya Lake.
*El Capitan: You don’t have to climb 3,000 feet of vertical granite walls to enjoy the views from the top of El Capitan. There is a 15.4-mile round-trip day hike that begins at the trailhead at Tamarack Flat Campground and is accessed by road on Tioga Road, 3/4 mile from the Crane Flat turnoff. This is a strenuous hike with one major climb of approximately 2,000 feet. The views from El Capitan are worth seeing.
*TUOLUMNE MEADOWS LOOP: An easy 5.2-mile round trip hike that takes in all that the Tuolumne Meadows area has to offer. The trailhead is just west of Lambert Dome on Tioga Pass Road.
*MT. Dana: Yosemite’s second highest mountain at 13,061 feet is Mount Dana. Although 61 feet lower than Mount Lyell, it requires no climbing skills to conquer and is a much shorter trek to reach. The 5.8-mile strenuous half-day hike begins just west of the park’s eastern entrance on Hwy 120. It includes impressive views of the Dana Plateau and Mono Basin with sheer drop-offs. The summit of Mount Dana offers sweeping views of the Sierra’s backbone, including Yosemite’s largest glacier.
Do trail research first. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t hike without preparation. All but the Tuolumne Meadows hike is best done in hiking boots.
Equally important is understanding where you are going.
When it comes to books, there are a lot of them out there. The best for my money is Yosemite National Park: A Natural History Guide to Yosemite and Its Trails by Jeffrey Schaffer, published by Wilderness Press. Not only does it include nearly all of the groomed trails in the park that Schaffer and his assistants have personally hiked, but it comes with an up-to-date map that’s pretty handy.
Hiking descriptions are general in nature, but always include trailheads and key elements, as well as highlights of what to see.
I use this book as a base for my hiking plans and look up details on the internet. Summit Post is one of the better sources if you happen to want to hike. I typically pull and compare a half-dozen or so internet posts from various sites about a particular hike to create a general overview of what to look for on the hike to carry, such as trail junctions.
Schaffer’s books capture your imagination. This is how I got to know his two favorite Yosemite hikes, Clouds He Trek to the Edge of Rest and El Capitan. Clouds Rest — my favorite hike north of Mt. Whitney in “Awe” — has almost no appetizing YouTube presence.
The book’s descriptions lead me to YouTube, where I found three videos showing dangerous falls on either side of the infamous 300-foot-long spine. Once I saw it, I wanted to go. Well worth the effort.
For more information, please visit www.nps.gov/yose/.