Thursday, June 9, 2011

Yosemite Epic North Rim Hike (6/9/11)

Trail: Upper Yosemite Falls trail, North Dome trail, Snow Creek Falls trail, Mirror Lake Loop trail
Trailhead Begin: Upper Yosemite Falls Trailhead
Trailhead Elevation: 3,994 ft.
Yosemite Falls Overlook Elevation: 6,540 ft.
Yosemite Point Elevation: 6,980 ft.
North Dome Elevation: 7,542 ft.
High Point: 8,129 ft. (Indian Ridge)
Trailhead End: Mirror Lake Shuttle Stop
Trailhead End Elevation: 4,004 ft.

Hike Elevation Total: 4,656 feet ascent
Hike Mileage Total: 16.58 miles


We left camp at Hodgdon Meadows around 5:45 for the Valley. We parked at the Yosemite Lodge public parking that is right next to the main north drive. During night hours it is closed to public parking unless you're a guest there, but during the day it was open to us. We gathered our gear up and were on the trail at 6:28am. We were slightly apprehensive about making sure we found the Upper Yosemite Falls trail but as we crossed the north drive we encountered a sign that cleared up those worries for us.
The hike to the Upper Yose Falls trail hugged the rim of the valley not too far from the road for like half a mile until it met the clearly marked trailhead. Past the trailhead it starts climbing steeply with short and numerous switchbacks. The grade of the trail itself was never too great but the switchbacks just keep going back and forth. At one point we spotted this beautiful bluebird who would pose on a rock before us.

As we would approach with the camera for a shot he would hop on further ahead of us. It was almost as if he was leading us along.

At the top of the switchbacks we'd gained about 700 feet of elevation and were sitting at 4700. The trail from here runs smoother for awhile as it begins a great traverse along the valley wall. We climbed up to 5200 feet along the trail. In this section is a stop called Columbia Rock. It isn't marked but there is a railing at the overlook and the views were pretty decent. Forawhile the trail then descended back to 4900 as it continued to traverse around the north rim wall. At this lowpoint is where the trail starts curling north "around the corner" and at this point you also begin to get the first of many fantastic views of the Upper Yosemite Falls. It was a beautiful sight and we could see a ton of mist coming up from the falls and were curious if we too would get wet ahead.

From there the trail begins to curl northwest into a gully that runs up the west side of the falls. Here again are a great many switchbacks and several steeper rock staircases that relatively easily take you up above the falls. Up until about elevation 5700 you'd wonder if you were in a rainforest as the mist was hitting the trees all about us and gently dripping on everything. We did not really get wet ourselves but everything else about us was. We were also impressed in here at looking to the west at the massive rock faces that towered above us. We followed the zig-zagging trail ever further and into thickening trees once more until around elevation 6600 where the trail junction finally arrived. From there we could have headed west on the trail towards Eagle Peak and on to El Capitan. That trail section also would have led out to Tioga Rd. Or we could have headed east towards the Falls Overlook and Yosemite Point, which we did. It's a short walk from that trail junction to another signed junction for the Falls Overlook. This was a short hike to a rock staircase that descends to the east above the falls, and then curls back around west on a very narrow and exposed staircase with just a single rail to descend to the overlook. The best views from the overlook were ironically not of the Falls, but rather of the Valley itself. I had to take video of our walk back up this narrow staircase as it was quite an impressive sight.

Back on the trail above we descended down to Yosemite Creek and across the footbridge which crossed over a dangerous and roaring creek below. From there we curled around to the north to gain some easy elevation back up to Yosemite Point which sits at roughly 6,950 feet. We had lunch here and Matt worked on drying out his camera which had taken on some moisture. The views were also spectacular here and we were intrigued by the aging railing at the Point which didn't look like it was hanging on to much anymore. Needless to say, we didn't really lean over it to look down to the valley floor.

From Yosemite Point we were surprised to find how difficult it was to actually narrow down what the trail was leading northeast from the Point. We used the GPS to spot check that we were relatively close but the terrain was so open and rocky that it was hard to nail down a definitive trail. The "trail" we followed crested out on a ridge at 7300 and from there descended slightly east into thicker tree cover. It was about 10am at this time and we were feeling great about making it all the way to North Dome. As the trees grew thicker we also found the snow cover to be growing stronger. About this time we ran into about 8 hikers who worked for a Search And Rescue outfit. It did not appear they were actively searching for anyone but they were helpful in giving us some trail beta. They said we'd lose the trail after Indian Creek and there was a lot of snow before and after North Dome. Indeed, they were right. After we met them we used their tracks in the snow to continue on as no actual trail was evident anymore. We were able to follow their tracks, sometimes off and on, all the way to near Indian Creek where we lost them for good.

At Indian Creek we realized what others had been saying in that it was difficult to find a stream crossing. There was drifts of snow on each side of the creek and the creek itself was several feet deep. We ended up hiking just over a tenth of a mile north til we found some downed logs that were positioned just right for us to cross. It was also helpful that the snow drift on the other side was relatively flattened out and we did not have a steep slope to ascend. This crossing went by without a hitch and we began to bushwhack south thinking maybe we'd find a trail. From this point on we were truly on our own and did not find the actual trail again til near North Dome. I used my GPS to spot check us from time to time and to get headings on where to go which we then used compass to make sure we were on track. We tried to find the path of least resistance as we encountered thin areas through trees and snow drifts to go over. We learned to watch out for the drifts over fallen logs as we postholed a few times several feet into the melted out openings around the logs. As the true trail towards North Dome remained elusively south of us and began to curl east we decided we might as well take advantage of being off trail and cut down the distance. We made a straight beeline east towards Lehemite Creek and at some point must have passed over the real trail and we crossed Lehemite Creek without much trouble.

From there we worked east moving a few hundred feet south of the true trail and at points we thought we had met up with it. The third creek crossing was small and easy once more when a suitable and safe crossing point was found. It was about a quarter mile west of Indian Ridge that we finally found the trail and the snow lessened for awhile. It was also there we found a nice small stream to filter some more water and reload. The ascent up Indian Ridge was a quick set of switchbacks and we soon found ourselves at the North Dome trail junction. It was about 12:15pm at this time and I was starting to get a little nervous about time and the snow cover still to come. It was a surprising mental exhaustion having encountered far more snow than we had anticipated and having to constantly route-find through the woods with little ability to see anything beyond the trees.

We made the descent down the east side of Indian Ridge and then the easy walk up the slope of North Dome. Out on North Dome we had another "lunch" and took in the amazing views of Clouds Rest and Half Dome and the rest. As amazing as North Dome was it was a little hard for me to enjoy for very long as it was nearing 1pm when we finally left. We knew we had at least another 8-9 miles out with lots of snow covering it.

We retraced our steps from North Dome back up to Indian Ridge and then began to follow the North Dome trail north along Indian Ridge. When we gained the Ridge proper at around 8,050 ft we hit thick snow. It was melting heavily up there and we were sinking in as much as 6 inches on our steps there. The trail-runners were taking on water quickly and we were starting to get wet. Once again, it was about this point that we had to start navigating by GPS and compass once more. We were able to stay pretty close to the true trail though it was unseen. We caught the junction for the trail to Indian Rock and we saw the natural arch and snapped some shots. I debated hiking the couple hundred feet northeast to the arch for a closer look but with the uncertainty of time and snow decided not.

From North Dome
Just past that point we began the descent and made our way down a slope and found a hint of the trail. From there it traversed the side of the ridge gradually descending and we did well following close to the true trail. We followed this to the junction with the Snow Creek Falls trail. We were looking for the sign in this area but many of the snow drifts were 5+ feet deep and we never actually saw the sign. So we used compass to simply start bearing east for the hike around the north end of Indian Ridge. The snow was quite deep in here but firm enough to travel on.

We gave up once more at actually finding the true trail and just took bearings on the compass to continue east. We were tracking south of the actual route for most of the way. Eventually we realized that if we continued to track east and eventually even bear southeast we could once again shortcut the actual route. The true route had headed north to take an easy switchback to lose elevation towards Snow Creek. We curled around Indian Ridge and at elevation roughly 7200 on the east side of the ridge we lost the snow and found a moderately steep slope to descend. We worked our way progressively south as we descend down the slope. It was about 3pm when we rejoined the true trail (which was buried under 3 feet of snow below us) and we were on track to follow Snow Creek all the way out.

It was about 20 minutes later after having bushwhacked our way through the terrain along Snow Creek that we were overjoyed to find the snow had cleared and we had trail before us. The elevation was about 7000 feet at this point. We took a stop on a big log and had some celebratory snacks and drinks as well as taking a moment to make a change of socks. It was a great feeling to know the snow was behind us and we had plenty of daylight to complete our epic dayhike.

We had another mile til the switchbacks started and this was a very pleasant and enjoyable portion of the hike and one of the few flat sections we had. We noted the footbridge that went over Snow Creek towards one of the High Sierra camps and beyond. The switchbacks began at elevation 6632 and they were very reminiscent of what we started the day on with the Upper Yosemite Falls trail. It was just before 4pm when we started the descent here and we mostly put it on autopilot following the back and forth.

From the Snow Creek Falls Trai
It was 5pm when we hit the bottom of the descent and we were looking forward to a quick and easy (and short?) walk out on the Mirror Lake trail. If nothing else, it was graet to be back on level ground. The views from the Snow Creek Falls descent were memorable as we got to see just how amazing this side of Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon were, but we were also glad to be down. It was also at this time that the magnitude of the day's distance and elevation were finally being felt in our legs as we were up to about 16 miles at this point.

The hike out on the Mirror Lake trail would feel like the longest 2 miles ever. There wasn't much for views until we actually passed by Mirror Lake and were treated to a nice reflective "mirror" view there in the lake. It was disappointing when shortly thereafter we hit the parking lot for Mirror Lake and we were hoping we were almost out, only to realize we had to walk the extent of the road out to the shuttle stop. This was a real test on the legs which weren't ready for the walk on the hardened pavement. But it was a treat when the shuttle stop came into view and a surprise when we realized that a shuttle was actually sitting there loading people. We ended our epic hike with a near all-out sprint for the last 40 yards to catch that shuttle. And oh, what a feeling when the A/C of the shuttle hit us and relief was there.


My track for this hike was taken with my Nokia N800 tablet using a Nokia bluetooth GPS. The GPS did not pick up well at the start as we were on the edge of the north rim of the valley. It also lost signal at some point as we were ascending west of Yosemite Falls. At Yosemite Point I got all of this corrected and the track from there on was perfect.

My Track


If you would like to see all of my photos from this epic hike you can click the photo below and it links to my Google Photos Album:

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