Last Saturday I left Sonora about 7 a.m. and drove to the stables parking area in the east end of Yosemite Valley, to reach the Mirror Lake trailhead and try to walk up Snow Creek Trail, one of the steepest signed hiking paths in Yosemite National Park.
I’d never been up there before but I’d read some online trail guides and they made it sound like an ordeal.
One guide maintained by the National Park Service calls the walk “strenuous” and “grueling.” Another guide shows a blue line on a map for “the infamous stretch of the Snow Creek Trail that switchbacks its way from the valley floor up to the rim. It's surprising how much pain can be packed into such a tiny little squiggly line.”
I decided to go anyway. I took trekking poles to keep my balance and my footing on loose gravel. I took two litres of water, a stale granola bar and some peanut butter. I took sunscreen and bug dope. I wore sturdy shoes, shorts, a light jacket, a hoodie and a ballcap to keep the sun off. I kept a map handy but I didn’t need it. I started walking about 9 a.m.
Topographic maps show Snow Creek Trail climbs about 2,700 vertical feet on the way up switchbacks headed north, in the general direction of Mount Watkins, Olmsted Point and Tioga Road. It’s about 7 miles round trip, depending on where you turn around.
The first couple miles are on flat, paved roads and trail from the stables to Mirror Lake, the pond that backs up on Tenaya Creek below Half Dome. Mirror Lake is at 4,100 feet elevation and the top of Half Dome looms above at 8,839 feet.
There were no clouds in the sky but it was cold and cool in the 50s for this flat part. The start to Snow Creek Trail is back a ways further east in Tenaya Canyon, the glacier-carved cleft dominated by 9,930-foot Clouds Rest. I came to a sign about 10 a.m. and started walking uphill.
I’d made up my mind to pace myself, to walk slow, to watch every step. Poles proved useful every inch of the way on this steep path. Uphill effort prompted me to peel the jacket and put on sunscreen.
By 11 a.m., I was up out of the trees and walking on loose rocks and boulders stacked and wedged to make a stony staircase angling ever upward. Wisps of cloud began to blow in high above Tenaya Canyon, Half Dome and Clouds Rest. Looking west down-canyon, there was a clear view of Glacier Point.
From here to up near the canyon rim, most views from Snow Creek Trail remained unobstructed. You could take in 4,700 vertical feet of Half Dome in one glance. You could see North Dome and Basket Dome above on this side of the canyon. You could look down and far below were tiny hikers coming up the switchbacks.
By noon more clouds were blowing in and cool winds gusted at times. It felt like 80 degrees in direct sunlight when the wind stopped, but a minute later it felt like 40 degrees in the shade. Some of the clouds were turning darker. It felt like it could rain, sleet or snow at any time.
I was nowhere near the top but I decided to keep going until 1 p.m. The views kept improving. The canyon rim looked far away whenever I looked up. I stopped and slowly ate the granola bar. I figured I could keep going until 2 p.m.
Then finally the trail leveled out. After so much cliff-side switchbacking, it felt unnatural to walk a flat, non-treacherous carpet of pine needles, straight through an open conifer forest. I saw some people I recognized from earlier in the day. I quizzed them on our whereabouts. I confirmed we were close to Snow Creek itself, but there wasn’t much to see at the creek.
The real payoff at the top of Snow Creek Trail is the view from the top of a partly brush-covered, exfoliating dome, a couple hundred yards off to the south as you walk northeast on the flat section through forest. You can see the top of Clouds Rest again and the sheer faces of Half Dome and other formations. I put my jacket back on against the winds and stayed 45 minutes.
With the mixed weather, patches of bright sunlight were highlighting rock fall chutes and wet gullies in places on the opposite walls of Tenaya Canyon. It underscored how gravity and rock and water were constantly at work in this vertical world.
Sometimes when walking in Yosemite, I look at Half Dome and wonder, “How do I explain to people who have never been here how tall that is?” Engineers say a Manhattan skyscraper where movie King Kongs have met their end is about 1,450 vertical feet including its antenna. From its base at Mirror Lake to its tip-top summit, Half Dome is more than three times taller than the Empire State Building.
I drank more water and decided to start the walk back. By 2:30 p.m. I came across a solitary, bright red snow plant. Biologists call it sarcodes sanguinea, for blood-red flesh. Snow plant comes out in spring at alpine elevations up and down the Golden State. The ones I’ve seen are always sprouting from a bed of pine needles.
Returning to the switchbacks, I headed down, intent on walking even more slowly and deliberately than I had come up the stony staircase. It took several hours. It’s important to save at least half your energy, willpower and enthusiasm for any descent. Going down can be infinitely more dangerous than going up.
By 5:50 p.m. I was back on the flats, watching a young mule deer buck forage next to Tenaya Creek. By 6:15 p.m. I was back among the day trippers at Mirror Lake. By the time I got back to the stables I’d walked about 10 hours. It was worth the effort.
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 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.