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Plenty of fun for ‘peak freaks’ within 3 hours
Dana main.jpg

I admit I’m a peak freak.

If there is a peak above 3,000 feet that I can do within a 3 hour or so drive from Manteca I’m on it.

And by hiking I mean walkable with maybe some rock scrambling and on a rare occasion an excursion that includes a very small stretch that slightly pushes the limit towards needing rock climbing skills.

I have two “go to” peaks that I’ve now tackled five times each in the past seven years — Sonora Peak and Mt. Dana. Both are within the 209. Both have easy to reach trailheads right off a state highway. Both have clear trails. Both offer commanding views. Both are right around three hours from Manteca. And both are do-able for most people.

I revisited Mt. Dana earlier this month. At 13,045 feet it’s the second highest peak in Yosemite National Park topped only by Mt. Lyell some 66 feet higher.

It is also the easiest peak over 13,000 feet to access in California.

From Manteca all you have to do is get on Yosemite Avenue/Highway 120 and head east on 120 until you reach the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park at Tioga Pass. Keep in mind there is a $35 entrance fee to the national park that’s good for seven days. You can also get a 12-month Yosemite pass for $70 or an annual national park pass for $80 if you plan on being a frequent visitor.

The 4.8-mile round trip trail starts on the south side of the road at 9,624 feet. It goes through meadows and forests populated with small lakes (about half have dried up as the end of summer draws near). After a series of switchbacks some 1.5 miles and 1,500 feet into the hike you come across a relatively flat stretch before hitting what appears to be nothing but rocks to cover the remaining 1,000 or so feet.

There are various ways to reach the top but the easiest is a clearly worn path that makes is way through the rocks with the help of occasional cairns or piled of rocks placed by other hikers to help serve as guideposts to help others stay on the route.

The views on the way up are impressive. The panorama at the top is stunning. To the east and 5,500 feet below is Mono Lake. From there a turn to the south takes in the Long Valley Caldera — one of the largest calderas on earth that were created with the eruption of super volcanoes — and Glass Mountain covered with its black volcanic glass-like rock, there are endless other peaks such at Mt. Gibbs, and Cathedral Peak in Yosemite, and as you complete the loop turn you can make out Highway 120. And in each direction you look there is mountainous vastness whether it is the Great Basin to the east or the imposing Sierra — John Muir’s beloved Range of Light — in all other directions.

Each time I spend a half hour at the summit soaking in the view that defines inspiring. The last trip included a nice 15-minute nap snuggled among rugged rock as I drifted off gazing at Mother Nature’s 760,000 year-old creation that’s  one of the oldest lakes in a North America — Mono Lake.

Mt. Dana is a moderately hiked trail. On Sunday I made it a point to find out a little about some of the people I encountered. They ranged from a single mom and her 9 year-old daughter to hikers in their late 70s and early 80s. Experience wise there were two high school seniors in their first peak hike to seasoned rock climbers in their 30s and 40s who were using their jaunt up Mt. Dana to fill in a gap between technical mountain climbs they were doing over the course of a week. There was even a woman from Vermont who couldn’t believe how lucky Californians were to have 13,045-foot high Mt. Dana in their backyard as she lived in a state where the tallest peak reached 4,395 feet.

If it is your first mountain peak hike, you should have no problem attacking it especially if you make frequent stops that also serve as a perfect excuse to take photos. There is always the danger of slipping if you are not careful but a fall per se as in over a drop-off isn’t going to happen unless you get to the top and are completely irresponsible.

While I like the view from Mt. Dana a bit better I prefer Sonora Peak when it comes to the drive to get there. That’s because after Highway 108 splits off from Highway 120 just past the turnoff for Lake Tulloch, traffic becomes much more tolerable. That is especially true after east of Sonora and in your way to Sonora Pass at 9,624 feet.

The same is true for the crowds. The most people I’ve ever encountered on the 6.6 mile round trip hike from the St. Mary’s Pass Trailhead just over a quarter mile from the west side of Sonora Pass  was 12. One time there was no one else but myself.

As a result the summit can often be your own private domain allows you to get lost in your thoughts as you contemplate God’s creation. I also like the hike because it takes you across the highest snowfield (when there is snow obviously) as well as the farthest point east on the Stanislaus River watershed that provides the water that irrigates Manteca almond orchards, vineyards, and pumpkin fields, flows through Manteca water faucets, and sustains life as the river meanders past Ripon to join up with the San Joaquin River.

With Sonora Peak at 11,459 peak the 2,000 foot elevation gain is 1,000 or so feet less than Mt. Dana and occurs over 3.3 miles instead of 2.4 miles making it less strenuous as well.

It is still a workout. That said it is the only peak hike I find myself pushing for a personal best time. That sounds counter to why I hike — because it is — but for some bizarre reason I decided after the first hike on Sonora Peak to use it as my measuring stick as I grow older. (OK, so when I hit my head ever so slightly a few years back in a short fall in a remote Death Valley canyon it failed to knock any sense into me.)

The nice thing about both hikes is you can tackle them at different times of the year and they never look the same.

This isn’t exactly the most lush time to hike either mountain but the views are still beyond what you can see sticking with more mundane hikes. Besides weather wise and in terms of trail conditions September is probably the best time for a novice to attack either peak. The weather isn’t as hot, the chances of mild-afternoon thunderstorms drops off drastically, mosquitoes at the lower elevations of the hikes are history, and the trails are virtually dry eliminating many footing concerns when rocks are slick or snow is melting.

The best part you can leave Manteca at 6:30 a.m., be hiking at 9:30 a.m., and do your grocery shopping at the Spreckels Avenue Food-4-Less by 7:30 p.m.

The lady from Vermont is right. We are lucky to have what we have in our backyard here in the 209. 

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email