Great Hikes in Yosemite: Spending two hours atop North Dome, waiting for sunset.
This is the second post in a small series about some time spent in Yosemite National Park.
I mentioned in the first post, An hour at Tunnel View, that my buddy and fellow photographer, Sean McLean, and I made a quick overnight trip to Yosemite National Park with the goal of hiking to North Dome before Tioga Pass Road closed for the season. I first want to say a huge Thank You to Sean for actually making this trip & hike happen for me. I’d been out of hiking shape for most of spring and summer, and packed on some extra pounds over the last year. Time was running out; this specific hike lingered in my mind as a goal since the end of last year. I eventually began getting myself back in trail condition on Labor Day. I started by hiking 100 miles in the hills of Briones Regional Park near my house over four weeks.
After all those local miles, the idea of doing this hike came up in an online conversation. Sean said, “Heck yeah, let’s do it!” Even after all those hilly miles, I was apprehensive about making the 9.5-mile round-trip hike with my camera gear. I figured it would be near the edge of my physical envelope knowing I hadn’t hiked any distance at altitude, and my camera backpack, loaded with my Nikon D800, a few lenses, tripod, clothing, snacks, and water weighed about 40 lbs. Despite my apprehension, I was taken in by Sean’s immediate enthusiasm, so I committed when he said he had free day. Besides, also looming large in my brain was knowing if I didn’t make this hike now, I wouldn’t get another chance until next year (again).
Photo #1: (Above) Yosemite Valley from North Dome, Yosemite National Park, California #1: (Click here to purchase a print or license for use in publications. – 161023a_YOS-0152)
Driving into Yosemite in the morning, the sky was mostly blue with high cirrus (horsefeather) clouds. The weather forecast called for a storm coming into the Sierra the next day. We arrived at the Porcupine Creek Trailhead on Tioga Pass Road around 12:30 in the afternoon. Sean and I gathered our gear and hit the trail about 1:15 PM. A quick glance up through the trees revealed now puffy cumulus clouds noteworthy for the sheer speed at which they moved overhead. The trail begins with a leisurely downhill stroll along an old road before crossing a stream. (Note: After having hiked 8.75 miles, this 3/4 mile section of trail doesn’t feel quite so leisurely as you make your way back uphill toward Tioga Pass Road.) Four and a half miles and a bit over two hours later we arrived at North Dome at around 3:30 PM; perfect timing for a couple photographers hoping to stay for a couple hours while waiting to shoot the sunset before hiking back out in the dark. (There’s no overnight parking along Tioga Pass Road after Oct. 15, so a day hike was mandatory unless we wanted to do a brutally longer and harder overnight backpack trip climbing up out of Yosemite Valley, and that was most definitely not in the cards.)
The first thing we noticed after arriving at North Dome was just how fast and ominously the clouds had developed since we left the trailhead. Apparently some very late-season sub-tropical moisture was blowing in faster than expected from the remains of a Pacific typhoon. To the west was a wall of gray with little bits of light peeking through. To the north, east, and south were just sudden, solid apparitions of unfriendly looking clouds.
#2: Storm clouds building on a fall afternoon over Yosemite National Park, California (Click here to purchase a print or license for use in publications. – 161023a_YOS-0076)
The top of North Dome has two absolutely stunning views to offer those willing to make this modest hike. Looking to the southwest is Yosemite Valley, with Sentinel Rock and Glacier Point to the left, the Cathedral Rocks and Merced River in the center, and the tip of El Cap peeking over the ridge to the right. Turn to the southeast and you’re greeted with one of the most intimate views of the imposing, nearly 2,000-foot cleaved face of Half Dome. It was from here that we spent the next chunk of time watching clouds, photographing the landscape and the changing light, and totally relishing the experience. The haze in the valley created by a controlled burn just added to the moody afternoon light as it seeped through the gathering clouds.
#3: Photographer shooting over Yosemite Valley from North Dome, Yosemite National Park, California (Click here to purchase a print or license for use in publications. – 161023a_YOS-0169)
#4: Half Dome, as seen from North Dome, Yosemite National Park, California (Click here to purchase a print or license for use in publications. – 161023a_YOS-0098)
Two and a half hours and a few warning raindrops later we began our hasty departure back toward Tioga Pass Road. We managed to get back to our vehicles before 9:00 PM, after a pretty solid uphill walk. We were lucky to beat the storm which resulted in the 36-hour closure of Tioga Pass Road just a few hours later. I’ve got more info about the hike at the end of this post. For now, I hope you’ll enjoy this selection of the images taken during our short window of time on top of North Dome. If you’d like to let me know which of these images you enjoy the most, please feel free to leave a comment below. Also read the final post in this series, 42 seconds on Half Dome.
#5: Storm clouds over the Cathedral Range, Yosemite National Park, California (Click here to purchase a print or license for use in publications. – 161023a_YOS-0405)
#6: Sunbeam through storm clouds over Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California (Click here to purchase a print or license for use in publications. – 161023a_YOS-0355)
#7: Clouds over El Capitan, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California (Click here to purchase a print or license for use in publications. – 161023a_YOS-0380)
#8: Sentinel Rock, along the side of Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California (Click here to purchase a print or license for use in publications. – 161023a_YOS-0086)
#9: Clouds over Yosemite Valley from North Dome, Yosemite National Park, California (Click here to purchase a print or license for use in publications. – 161023a_YOS-0187)
#10: Clouds over Yosemite Valley from North Dome, Yosemite National Park, California (Click here to purchase a print or license for use in publications. – 161023a_YOS-0148)
For more information about the hike to North Dome: 9.5 Miles Round Trip out and back hike. (Some guides list it as 8.8 miles and others 10.5, but my GPS agrees with those who mark it as 9.5. There is a side hike to Indian Rock Arch that may affect some mileage.) Starting elevation: 8,100 feet / North Dome elevation 7,540 feet. Total elevation gain, according to my GPS: 1,598 feet.
Trail Difficulty: The National Park Service rates this as a Strenuous hike, while other sites rank it between moderate and difficult. Even with carrying a 40-lb. pack, still being a bit overweight and a bit out of shape, my buddy and I ranked the hike about 3/4 the way through as a 3.75 out of 10. Then we hit the last uphill climb toward Tioga Pass Road on the return, and while the climb uphill was pretty mild by Yosemite standards, it occurs just as your fatigue starts to kick in. So all things considered, including a couple mildly difficult spots of trail descending to North Dome, I’d rank it as a 4.375 out of 10. (So what’s a 10, you ask? Hike to the top of Half Dome from the valley floor and back in a day; that’s a pretty good measure.)
Description of the hike from the NPS: “Wind through mixed-conifer forest for 0.7 miles (1 km) on a paved path, and cross Porcupine Creek. At each of several trail junctions, follow the signs toward North Dome. The trail passes through a small grassy meadow and descends along a ridge. Near the end of the hike, descend steep rock steps to the base of North Dome. Climb the dome’s rounded summit to take in a magnificent view of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley. On the return trip you can take a short detour on a side trail, 0.3 mile (0.5 km) to an unusual natural arch, Indian Rock.”
Read more about hiking to North Dome at YosemiteHikes.com and ModernHiker.com. For those not too familiar with Yosemite, here’s a view of North Dome from above Glacier Point, and a view of North Dome from Yosemite Valley.
Want to see more from Yosemite?
Check out these awesome links:
My Premier Yosemite Gallery – Pictures and Fine Art Landscape Photos of Yosemite National Park.
Great Hikes in Yosemite: Hiking to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. (Blog post)
Great Hikes in Yosemite: Hiking along the Tuolumne River. (Blog post)
* A final note about the photos in this post: All the images are made from single file RAW Images shot with my Nikon D800, and processed in Lightroom and Photoshop. While I shot multiple exposures for possible processing of HDR, the dynamic range of the D800 proved once again how capable this camera is when it comes to handling difficult exposures and fast-changing natural light.
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Gary Crabbe is an award-winning commercial and editorial outdoor travel photographer and author based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, California. He has seven published books on California to his credit, including “Photographing California; v1-North”, which won the prestigious 2013 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal award as Best Regional title. His client and publication credits include the National Geographic Society, the New York Times, Forbes Magazine, TIME, The North Face, Subaru, L.L. Bean, Victoria’s Secret, Sunset Magazine, The Nature Conservancy, and many more. Gary is also a photography instructor and consultant, offering both public and private photo workshops. He also works occasionally a professional freelance Photo Editor.