Discover Highway 120
NORTH DOME HIKE
About 85 miles east of Sonora off Highway 120 there’s a trail in Yosemite National Park that leads four and a half miles downhill to North Dome, offering unobstructed views of the gaping granite jaws of Tenaya Canyon.
Up canyon to the east, the sloping, exfoliating flanks of Clouds Rest rise 5,000 vertical feet above Tenay Creek. Directly across the canyon to the southeast stands the streaked face of Half Dome, more than 4,700 feet above Mirror Lake hidden below.
Recently, I drove up there to the Porcupine Creek trailhead to try the walk to North Dome. I’d done it several times before, starting before sunrise.
It rarely disappoints because it offers unique perspectives on Half Dome, the kind of views you cannot get from Glacier Point, Mirror Lake or anywhere else for that matter, and how Tenaya Canyon connects with Yosemite Valley.
It looked like a clear, cloudless day as I drove out Jacksonville Road, up Old Priest Grade and through Groveland but I still wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of visibility. Just a few days before it was clear and breezy at Tenaya Lake and Olmsted Point, with banks of wildfire smoke perched above Clouds Rest and Half Dome by late afternoon.
STILL AND QUIET
This time I hoped a late start would offer different lighting, with afternoon sunlight striking the face of Half Dome rather than backlighting it. At the very least I knew I’d get some exercise.
I parked at Porcupine Creek and started down the trail at 2 p. m. Online guides say the trailhead is about 8,100 feet above sea level and the summit of North Dome is 7,540 feet, so you lose more than 500 feet elevation on the walk down.
I made it to the top of North Dome by 4 p. m. and figured I had a least an hour to hang out, eat and enjoy the views. There was
a very light breeze. Smoke from fires was visible to the south in the Illilouette Fall drainage and to the west in Yosemite Valley. The air was clear in Tenaya Canyon and on North Dome.
It was still and quiet, so much so I could hear the croaks from a few shinyblack ravens perched in far away trees. A small hawk cruised silently above, gliding on a gentle updraft as it passed over my left shoulder.
Directly across from me I could tell afternoon shadows were moving west across the face of
Half Dome, so more of its features were coming into clear view as sunlight continued moving lower on the west horizon.
TEARS OF TIS- SA- ACK
On previous walks to this vista I’d focused on black streaks of color on the face of Half Dome. Geologists say Half Dome is 87 million years old. Before European whites arrived in Yosemite, the Ahwahneechee people told a story about where those streaks on Half Dome originated.
According to Katherine Ames Taylor in a 1926 book titled “Lights and Shadows of Yosemite,” the story says that long ago, before the Great Spirit peopled Ahwahnee, an Indian woman named Tis- sa- ack and her husband Nangas left the plains of the Merced Valley to cross the high mountains before them.
Exhausted from days of climbing and laden with burdens, they reached Ahwahnee at last, parched and thirsty. It had been days since they had tasted water, and they stumbled toward Ah- wei- ya, or Mirror Lake, to refresh themselves.
Tis- sa- ack got there first, set her basket on the ground, and drank so deeply from the lake there was no water left for her husband. In great anger he turned on his wife and began to beat her. Tis- saack ran and he pursued, striking her as he ran. She turned back on her husband and threw her burden basket at him.
At that point the Great Spirit, angered by the uproar in his peaceful Ahwahnee, straightaway turned them all to stone. Nangas became Washington Column and North Dome. The upturned burden basket, hurled by his weeping wife, became Basket Dome. Tis- sa- ack became what is known today as Half Dome, still streaked with tears.
The tears of Tis- sa- ack were clearly visible last Sunday, as well as features I hadn’t noticed before. Back in early July 2015, a rock sheet estimated 200 feet tall and 100 feet wide fell off Half Dome.
According to park geologist Greg Stock, it took out more than two rope- lengths of a climbing route called the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome, first climbed in five days by Jerry Gallwas, Royal Robbins and Mike Sherrick in 1957.
The scar left by that rockfall was still evident. So were countless other details on the slopes of Clouds Rest and Half Dome. It was getting late so I started walking back. Every hundred yards or so I stopped again. Reduced light from the setting sun changed the way
“I stopped a few times and turned off the phone light, to listen to the silence and absorb the night.”
everything looked, from the gravelly surface of the dome I walked on, to the distant smoke from fires and faraway peaks beyond Half Dome.
By 6 p. m. the panorama before me in Tenaya Canyon was turning rust and then monochromatic. I knew it was going to get dark before I made it back to the trailhead. I didn’t worry. I knew the trail and I knew lingering light would persist.
By 6: 40 p. m. I could see the horned sliver of the moon would provide no extra light. When it got near pitch dark I pulled out my cell phone and a charged battery pack to power the phone’s light. Looking up I could see faint stars in the blackness above the treetops.
No matter how much you know about bears and mountain lions and their wariness of human contact, the knowledge carries less weight when the sun goes down and you are walking alone in dark woods. Every so often you’re tempted to make a noise to break the silence, and to let other animals know you are awake, alert and in motion.
In spite of the darkness, every trail sign and creek crossing was where I expected it to be. I stopped a few times and turned off the phone light, to listen to the silence and absorb the night. I made it back to my vehicle by 7: 50 p. m., where on a Sunday night, mine was the only one left in the parking area.
At this hour there were very few motorists on Tioga Road, the name for Highway 120 in Yosemite. The feeling of solitude persisted nearly all the way to Groveland. I was back in downtown Sonora by 10 p. m.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or ( 209) 588- 4585. Follow him on Twitter @ GuyMcCarthy.