Disturbing the peace? 5 hikes to avoid Yosemite crowds
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK >> Dappled sunlight kisses the valley floor of Yosemite National Park. Granite monoliths, gushing waterfalls and giant sequoias abound. The wilderness is calling.
But instead of hitting the trails in a place John Muir called “by far the grandest of all the special temples of nature,” you’re sitting in a traffic jam, vying for limited parking.
More than 4 million visitors poured into Yosemite in 2018, and because its main attractions are concentrated along a 7-mile loop, it gets congested. Like, 5 p.m. in downtown Los Angeles congested. Parking can take hours.
“In general, national parks everywhere, they become more and more popular every year, and a place like Yosemite, you can’t just show up unprepared,” says James Kaiser, author of “Yosemite: The Complete Guide.” “It feels like a huge disappointment visiting a place to experience natural beauty and spending your time looking for a parking space.”
But there’s no reason anyone’s trip to the majestic park should be so fraught. Going any other time than summer, planning valley activities on any day but Saturday, getting an early morning start and choosing lesser-known trails can all help ensure a peaceful and restorative vacation.
The following hikes aren’t as famous as Half Dome or the Mist Trail, but that’s the point. They offer just as much beauty and a lot more serenity.
Like most of the recommended hikes on this list, this 8.8-mile roundtrip trek is off Tioga Road just north of the valley. Everything outside the actual valley automatically will be less busy, but the views are no less stunning. The last quarter of the hike offers a front-row view of Half Dome and the valley floor below, and without the crowds.
“The view of Half Dome is so unlike any other view in the park,” Kaiser says. “Half Dome is such an iconic site in Yosemite — to be able to enjoy it from North Dome I really think is special.”
To get to the trailhead, take Tioga Road to Porcupine Creek, about 28 miles east of Crane Flat and 21 miles west of Tuolumne Meadows. It’s easy to miss, so keep your eyes peeled for a small building with pit toilets and parking spaces in a row on the south side of the road. After parking, look for a wooden sign that says, “Porcupine Creek Trail Head.” Below that you’ll see it’s 4.4 miles to North Dome.
The first few miles of the trail are easy, quiet and heavily forested. Don’t be surprised if you see deer or even a black bear (don’t worry, they’re more afraid of you than the other way around). The views start opening up after 3 miles, but the highlight of the hike is hoofing it to the top of North Dome, scurrying a bit farther down the other side and drinking in views of Half Dome.
Climbing the actual dome can be challenging but isn’t dangerous unless you like to court peril by walking too close to the edge. Hikers who tackle the dome should be generally fit or highly motivated.
Temperatures can vary wildly from the bottom of the dome to the top, where there’s nothing to block the wind. Bring layers, 2 liters of water and snacks. Even better, bring a lunch and restore your energy on top of the dome. On the way back, check out Indian Rock Arch, the only granite arch in Yosemite and just a .6-mile detour.
Dog Lake, Lembert Dome
Another conquerable dome in Yosemite is quicker to get to from its trailhead than North Dome. Lembert Dome looms over Tioga Road, jutting so seemingly straight up, it looks doable only with rock-climbing gear. All it really takes is a smidgen of bravery.
The well-marked trail to Lembert Dome is next to Tuolumne Meadows, just 10 minutes from the eastern exit of the park. It’s a haul if you’re staying in the valley or the towns south of the park, so consider combining the hike with other smaller jaunts to May Lake (2.8 miles roundtrip off Tioga Road) and Tuolumne Grove (see below).