About three weeks ago I walked up switchbacks to the base of Upper Yosemite Fall and it was so warm I was sweating way before I made it to the horizontal cave near the melting ice cone.
To the south across Yosemite Valley, it looked like north-facing slopes that are normally covered in ice and snow this time of year were clear. Walking the path known as Four Mile Trail all the way to Glacier Point appeared to be possible.
A current conditions advisory for Yosemite National Park last week said Four Mile Trail was open, “but with long icy patches above Union Point” about halfway up.
A coworker and I decided to go for it. Two years before, I’d snowshoed about halfway up the same path and it was worth the effort. Even if we found the trail impassable at some point, at the very least we’d get some exercise.
We agreed to meet at 6 a.m. Saturday a week ago and we left Sonora at 6:15 a.m. We drove through the Big Oak Flat entrance to Yosemite before 8 a.m. We were parked at the trailhead on Southside Drive and walking by 8:30 a.m.
When it’s open all the way, Four Mile Trail climbs about 3,200 feet from the valley floor to the rim of cliff-walled ramparts of Glacier Point, one of the most popular viewing areas in the globally famous park.
A new sign near the trailhead at the bottom says it’s 4.6 miles to Glacier Point. A National Park Service web page devoted to Four Mile Trail says it’s 4.8 miles to Glacier Point. No matter how far it is, it’s a good workout and views along the way of landmarks like El Capitan, Sentinel Rock, Yosemite Falls and Half Dome are phenomenal.
Like most worthwhile trails in Yosemite, this walk is steep. One of the shortest routes from the valley floor used to be the Ledge Trail from Curry Village to Glacier Point. Park historians say people started using it at least as early as 1870 and it climbed 3,250 feet in 1.75 miles.
The Ledge Trail was so steep and dangerous a contractor was commissioned to build Four Mile Trail in 1872. The authors of “Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite” say concessioner David Curry told his employees in 1910 they could walk anywhere they wanted in Yosemite Valley, but if they hiked the Ledge Trail he’d fire them.
So many people fell and died or got lost and died on the Ledge Trail over the years, the park tried to close it in the 1950s and 1960s. People continued dying on or near the Ledge Trail in 1970, 1972, 1976, 1993 and 1998. The route today is known as the third-deadliest geographic feature in Yosemite, after El Capitan and the Merced River.
Four Mile Trail is safe to walk but it’s proximity to steep cliffs and gullies is what makes the views so stunning. There are railings at Union Point and at Glacier Point. There are no railings at multiple other places.
Walking the trail is like walking anywhere else, one step at a time. The key is to pace yourself and drink plenty of water.
One of the most interesting features we first noticed as we ascended was Yosemite Falls. The view from Four Mile Trail is one of the few places in the park where you can see the entire Upper Fall, Middle Cascades and Lower Fall in one glance. We could see the whole 2,425-foot combination by 9:30 a.m.
In another hour we were looking out toward Royal Arches, North Dome, Half Dome and Clouds Rest, all flanking the deep, rock-walled gorge of Tenaya Canyon. We passed through an open metal gate and sign that stated
Do Not Enter
Pretty soon we were level with or looking down on the tops of Sentinel Rock, El Capitan and Yosemite Falls.
That’s what one young man said to his friends as they approached the first patches of ice and snow melting on another steeply exposed section of Four Mile Trail. He repeated a declaration from a viral video made by two Riverside high schoolers in 2015 and viewed more than 19.4 million times since. Others looked up, saw what their friend was looking at, and said it again.
The trail itself, covered in places with ice and snow, looked completely safe. But the cliffs above the trail and falling away vertically below made this a dramatically exposed place to be. Down the chute of one near-vertical gully we could see all the way to the valley floor, dotted with tiny trees and miniature cars on a lilliputian road.
By 12;30 p.m. we were at Glacier Point, staring up Tenaya Canyon and the Merced River gorge that includes Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall and Liberty Cap. We agreed to take our time up here. This is what we’d walked so far to see and it was no time to rush.
Looking east up toward the high spine of the Central Sierra, it looked like typical late spring or early summer. There was little snow to no snow whatsoever on Half Dome and Liberty Cap, a dusting of snow up on Clouds Rest, and more patches of deeper snow higher up on peaks like Mount Clark.
There were pockets of people here and there at different vantage points on Glacier Point. There were no crowds though. Glacier Point Road itself was closed for winter. The only people up there last Saturday were people like us, people who had walked up from the Valley or from somewhere else in the park.
At one point we found ourselves completely alone at the most popular viewing area on Glacier Point. One group of hikers left when we arrived and no one else came to disturb the stillness and the silence for the next five minutes, save a full-throated raven.
It was just my third time walking up Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point so I noticed new things often. Before I had never bothered to notice how obvious The Ahwahnee, now known as The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, is down near the base of Royal Arches.
Tree mortality looked more pronounced in the Valley, with more and more dead and dying evergreens turning brown. Details of Yosemite Falls and the Upper Yosemite Fall amphitheater also seemed much more obvious.
We started walking down about 2 p.m. It’s important to mentally prepare for the descent, which can take just as long or longer than the walk up, depending on fitness and how often people stop. I braced myself for several more hours of ordeal, but we made pretty good time.
By 4:30 p.m. I was walking out of the trees and into a flat area dominated by a multistory house-sized boulder, where young women with chalk, climbing shoes and crash pads were working out on the rock. Our parked car was visible less than a hundred yards away.
It’s been a warm winter so far in the Central Sierra with daytime highs about 10 degrees warmer than average since mid-December, Carlos Molina, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Hanford, said Friday.
That could change this weekend, with forecasters calling for a “big cool down” that’s bringing cold air from western Canada expected starting Sunday. That means conditions are likely to change again on Four Mile Trail and many other places in the Central Sierra.
Reporter’s note: Before I began working for newspapers in the early 1990s, I spent seven years with VisionQuest and Outward Bound as a paid, certified wilderness instructor and emergency medical technician accountable for groups of felony offender teens, court-ordered children and adult Cuban refugees. I am in my mid-50s, and anyone who walks OK on their own can keep up with me anywhere.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.