Yosemite Valley has become a zoo.
It is actually more pleasant this time of year to get stuck in traffic going over the Altamont Pass than it is trying to navigate through the valley floor. Traffic at times will sit for 10 minutes without moving near Curry Village. And when it comes to pedestrian traffic certain areas are more crowded than Union Square in San Francisco.
That is especially true in July and August when each month averages 600,000 or so visitors. June and September come in at the next worst at 500,000 plus followed by May and October at around 350,000. Those six months draw 75 percent of the nearly 4.2 million annual visitors.
It makes it a challenge to introduce people to the beauty of Yosemite without them getting turned off due to the crowds. The park is 1,189 square miles and the crowds are primarily in the valley. But let’s face it — the valley is the drawing card for most people.
And quite frankly, when I take people to Yosmeite for the first time my goal is to get them to fall in love with the place, especially if they are from the Northern San Joaquin Valley region. It’s borderline crazy to keep running across large numbers of people who have lived in the area most of their lives and have never ventured 2.5 hours east by car to savor what travelers from across the world and the United States put high atop their “must visit” list when they visit California.
Personally, I avoid the valley unless it is early spring and even then it is to hit trails hiking out of it. My favorite areas are along Tioga Road (Highway 120), hikes starting from along Glacier Point roads, Tuolumne Meadows, and the high country along the park’s eastern edge.
And while some of the hikes I do are moderate — there are a few ones rated easy that are short with relatively minimum climbing I haven’t done — most of the ones I have are rated strenuous or borderline strenuous. They all are impressive but it doesn’t give you the “holy cow” feeling you get when you take in glacier carved Yosemite Valley for the first time.
This has all been a build up to answer a question I get every once in a while from someone from Manteca: “We’re finally going to see Yosemite this summer or fall for a day. Do you have any recommendations?”
Yes. You must see the valley but you need to stay out of the valley on your first trip unless you have a serious handicap or are recovering from a heart attack. Nothing will sour you on driving 2.5 hours quicker than rubbing shoulders with 600,000 other people or being stuck in the worst traffic in the 209 and that includes the eastbound Highway 120 Bypass during the daily fender benders.
My advice? Hike North Dome.
The reason is simple. By Yosemite standards the first four miles of the 8.8 mile hike is uneventful. (That said everyone I’ve ever taken are impressed out of the gate given it was their first foray into Yosemite.) It’s the destination and the last half mile leading up to it that is spectacular by any measure. It is why virtually everyone who hikes it — including myself — who’ve also hoofed it up to places like Upper Yosemite Falls, Cathedral Lakes, El Capitan, Mt. Hoffman, or Mt. Dana will linger atop North Dome the longest. The views are that incredible.
At 7,546 feet you are 3,500 plus feet straight up from Yosemite Valley. You have unparalleled views of Clouds Rest (9,925 feet), Half Dome (8,842 feet), Glacier Point (7,200 feet) Tenaya Canyon, and El Capitan’s Morning Wall. You can also see Nevada Falls, Vernal Falls, a large swath of the high country, Little Yosemite Valley and a number of granite prominences guarding the valley’s South Rim. There is no argument among hardcore Yosemite enthusiasts that the most spell binding view of Half Dome is the close-up one you have from atop North Dome.
There’s also a short detour (0.6 miles) on the way to or from North Dome to a 15-foot high natural granite arch dubbed Indian Arch Rock.
Last weekend I made my fourth trek to North Dome in three years. The first trip was for myself. The last three were to get others to fall in love with the beauty of Yosemite on their first trip. So far I’m 3 for 3.
Now for the real question: How hard is the North Dome hike? I’ve had people describe me as an aggressive day hiker because I like to push it with as much distance and elevation gain if I can. This isn’t a walk in the park for me — I do pick up my breathing in spots. That said I consider it a fairly easy hike but then again I either jog or do some type of aerobic exercise every day.
The people I’ve taken with me have been from mildly out of shape to being in decent shape from physical labor but not really tuned into hiking. It didn’t kill them.
The same is for others I’ve quizzed that have tackled the hike from couples with young kids, to those that you’d classify as a bit more overweight than they should be and even couples much older than me — I’m 60 — who walk primarily for exercise.
Yosemite Park rangers rate it medium-high giving it a rating of 6 on a scale of 10 for hikes that are on the more than 800 miles of established trails within the park. Their rating is based on “a longish hike at a higher elevation” that most are not used to as well as a few hills to conquer on the way there. There’s no dangerous spots per se unless count wandering to close too the edge of North Dome’s sheer 3,500-foot drop offs. The trail is well marked but you need to keep your eye out for cairns — stacks or lines of rocks placed by other hikers — to guide you across several granite shelves to keep on trail.
It will take most people between 4 to 6 hours of actually hiking time to do the round-trip from Tioga Road.
The trailhead is at 8,100 feet while North Dome is at 7,540 feet. Parking is at Porcupine Creek about 25.5 miles after you leave Crane Flat. Don’t confuse it with Porcupine Flat that is a mile west
There are pit toilets and food lockers at the trailhead.
You need to bring adequate water and snacks. While hiking boots are optimum the trail can be done in typical athletic shoes.
You will definitely need sun tan lotion if you linger too long at the top. It can also get a tad windy on North Dome. It is also a great place to bring a pair of binoculars.
There is a $30 entrance (it drops down to $25 from November to March). It is good for seven days.
It is a 2.5 hour drove from Highway 120 in Manteca to reach the North Dome trailhead.