In all its moods, in all its seasons, Half Dome remains as young as it was ten thousand years ago. It never seems to age, unlike the rest of us ordinary mortals who gaze in open-eyed wonder at its grandeur and beauty.
There are many ways to admire this most sublime of creations. One of the best is from the top of North Dome, a smaller sister dome on the rim of Yosemite Valley that provides a spectacular vantage point for Half Dome and other luminous mountain shapes in what John Muir called the Range of Light.
While, at first blush, climbing up a granite dome 7,525 feet above sea level may seem a long way to go for a view, North Dome is a popular and relatively moderate day hike. It begins at the Porcupine Creek Trailhead on Tioga Road. If you’re coming up from Yosemite Valley, it is perhaps an hour’s drive. But if you are staying at Tuolumne Meadows east on Tioga Road, it is only fifteen minutes away by car. There is a small parking area at the trailhead. The Yosemite buses also stop there. Pack a good lunch, wear comfortable shoes, and bring lots of water. There is no water on North Dome.
Pleasures of the Hike
You will find, however, lots of friendly fellow hikers. That is one of the pleasures of the day; it’s not some sort of “Into the Wild” extreme survival mission. As I climbed up the trail through the trees I reached one of the smaller domes that cluster around North Dome. There I came to a man, seated alone, leaning against his pack reading a Kindle. “Is this North Dome?” I asked him.
“Uh no. North Dome’s over there,” he replied, pointing to another dome down from the one we were standing on.
“Thanks. What are you reading?” We discussed books for a moment while I caught my breath. It turned out that he had spent the night on this rocky perch, sleeping under what was not yet a full moon. This is a popular option as well; many people lug up their backpacks stuffed with sleeping bags, tents and gear, plus enough water to last them, so they can revel under the stars and have a spot of tea when the sun rises in the morning.
One Hiker Encounters Trouble
One family of three that I met did just that, camping in the vicinity of North Dome after summiting it. Their small daughter was only five. “Yeah she’s a good little hiker,” said her proud Papa. A woman hiker and her boyfriend, however, were not having such a good time of it. On the trail leading down to North Dome there is a short, slick dollop of granite covered with loose rocks that make for insecure footing. She was reluctant to chance it while her frustrated boyfriend insisted there was nothing to worry about. “It’s not going down that bothers me,” she told two hikers who happened to come upon them at that moment. “It’s going back up again.”
One of the hikers explained that he had negotiated this tricky pitch by scooting down on his butt—not exactly the technique they teach at the Yosemite Mountaineering School. But this reassured her, and she slid safely down without incident.
Absorbing the View
I sympathized with her nervousness because I get an attack of the willies every time I step out on an elevated piece of bare Yosemite rock that, to paraphrase Jimi Hendrix, seems to kiss the sky. Such was the case with North Dome. Despite its rounded top, the dome narrows and projects outward somewhat like a diving board. Below your feet is a dizzying 4,000-foot drop to the Valley floor. There are no guardrails; this isn’t Disneyland. Nearing the summit the wind picks up speed and force as if to say, “Stay back! Beware all those who come too close.” Tying my stiff-brimmed hat tight around my chin, I obediently kept my distance from the edge.
Other summiteers were scattered around the rock, day hikers as well as those who had done sleepovers. They sat around in small groups and chatted quietly while absorbing the view. It’s a lot to take in. You are about shoulder height with Half Dome and are looking at it from only a short distance away. Its overwhelming size and power made me feel small, vulnerable, weak. And yet its graceful curving lines and gorgeous sheer face made my heart surge with emotion. I felt in awe of what the Native Ahwahneechees and the Yosemites called “the Great Spirit,” the Power that is greater than us all.
It also made me think of Alex Honnold. “I cannot believe,” I said to myself, “that some crazy lunatic climbed up that entire thing without a rope.”
Don’t forget Indian Rock
North Dome is about an 8 1/2-mile round trip from Porcupine Creek Trailhead whose elevation is 8,100 feet above sea level. On the way in you’ll face a climb of about 800 feet followed by a descent to the dome of roughly 1,000. On the way back be sure to leave enough energy to make a quick stop at Indian Rock. You will see the sign for it on the path to North Dome; it’s about a third of a mile to the top.
Whereas Half Dome should be around in its present state for the next hundred millennia or so, not so with the natural arch at Indian Rock. Peer through its opening; you will see a splendidly framed portrait of our old friend Half Dome. But you will also see cracks in the fragile, unsupported rock overhang, as time and erosion are putting irresistible pressures on it. It is not going to be there forever; go now before it is too late.