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OUT THERE: Backcountry ventures in the Central Sierra

An occasional series


Cathedral Peak and Eichorn Pinnacle stand above Lower Cathederal Lake east of Polly Dome last Sunday in Yosemite National Park. (Guy McCarthy / Union Democrat)
Melting snow floats in a shallow alpine lake on the east shoulders of Polly Dome last Sunday. (Guy McCarthy / Union Democrat)
John Paul McCarthy of Chicago, Illinois stands June 10 on Polly Dome above Pywiack Dome across from Cathedral Peak and Lower Cathederal Lake, off Tioga Road/Highway 120 in Yosemite National Park. (Guy McCarthy/Union Democrat)
Tenaya Lake, Clouds Rest and Half Dome are visible last Sunday from a vantage point on Polly Dome in Yosemite National Park. (Guy McCarthy / Union Democrat)
Wildflowers cling to pine needles, dirt and gravel beneath a tree on Polly Dome last Sunday. (Guy McCarthy / Union Democrat)
A shadow slanting off Polly Dome obscures part of the northeast beach about 6:20 p.m. last Sunday on Tenaya Lake below Tenaya Peak. (Guy McCarthy / Union Democrat)

One of the best things about summer in the Central Sierra is the seasonal opening of Tioga Road, the stretch of Highway 120 through Yosemite National Park.

When weekend crowds swell in Yosemite Valley, it makes sense to skip those traffic jams, head to higher elevations, and visit places that are out of reach for most people during winter.

The area around Tenaya Lake has multiple options to choose from, including Olmsted Point to Tenaya Peak and a trailhead that offers access to Clouds Rest.

Last Sunday, my brother and I headed up Highway 120 through Groveland. He had visited

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One of the best things about summer in the Central Sierra is the seasonal opening of Tioga Road, the stretch of Highway 120 through Yosemite National Park.

When weekend crowds swell in Yosemite Valley, it makes sense to skip those traffic jams, head to higher elevations, and visit places that are out of reach for most people during winter.

The area around Tenaya Lake has multiple options to choose from, including Olmsted Point to Tenaya Peak and a trailhead that offers access to Clouds Rest.

Last Sunday, my brother and I headed up Highway 120 through Groveland. He had visited Sonora and Yosemite before. Last time we walked the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias and the base of Upper Yosemite Fall in February 2015.

This time we parked next to Polly Dome on the north shore of Tenaya Lake, about 8,150 feet above sea level, smeared on ample amounts of sunscreen, packed our jackets, and started walking up the gently sloping dome about 10:30 a.m. Maps show Polly Dome is about 2 miles long from where it meets Tenaya Lake to its northeast end opposite Medlicott Dome. We were heading for Polly Dome’s summit, which we could not see yet. It stands about 1,650 vertical feet above Tenaya Lake’s surface.

It was a bright, clear day with no clouds and intense sun beating down unfiltered in the crisp, alpine air. It felt like 65 to 70 degrees with cooler breezes at times. There were patches of snow clinging to northwest-facing walls of Tenaya Peak. The glacier-polished, lichen patched, gray-sand-and-white-colored granite dome surfaces reflected more light up on us as we leaned into the steepening grade.

To the west we could plainly see the prominent rock-and-snow flanks of Mount Hoffman and Tuolumne Peak, both about 10,850 feet elevation, high above pockets of conifer forest clinging to lower-lying granitic soils. To the southwest were Clouds Rest and the northeast-facing profile of Half Dome.

Below the first false summit we came to a couple spots where we had to fit our fingers and hands into loose, crumbling cracks in the granite. Higher still the sloping bald slopes of the dome were exfoliating like a giant rock onion with thick layers of grit-covered skin jutting out. These layers formed ramps that helped at times and posed difficulties at others.

Looking back the way we’d come, we could see shoulders of Polly Dome we’d ascended now blocked most of Tenaya Lake from our view. To the east we could see we were now far above Pywiack Dome. East of Pywiack there was a gentle rock slope with a waterfall coming down from Lower Cathedral Lake. Above Lower Cathedral Lake loomed the jagged ridges of Cathedral Peak and Eichorn Pinnacle. The waterfall descending gently from Lower Cathedral Lake flowed into Tenaya Creek to feed Tenaya Lake.

Along the summit ridge of Polly Dome we found the exfoliating rock ramps we were on dropping occasionally into deeper chasms. Some of these gravelly, sandpaper rough-edged crevices, 30 feet deep and deeper, held banks of snow in north and northwest facing pockets. Sometimes we could step or easily jump over these gaps in the rock. Other times we had to backtrack and pathfind a way to continue ascending toward the very top of the dome.

There were short trees, pine and juniper, scattered in places along broader sections of the summit approach. Tiny five-petaled, pink, lavender and white tinted wildflowers sprouted from thin layers of pine needles, dirt and gravel under some of the trees. The sun was directly above so the trees provided little to no shade as we walked and scrambled. The breezes picked up and we put on our jackets. It remained perfectly clear, cool, sunny and cloudless as we eased into afternoon.

By 3 p.m. we were relaxing on the gritty Polly Dome summit, just over 9,800 feet above sea level. We ate snacks and gulped water and looked out over the rocky alpine vastness stretching out below and across from us in every direction. To the northeast we could see Fairview Dome and Pothole Dome and Tuolumne Meadows.

I had walked and scrambled up Polly Dome with friends and co-workers once before, in August 2016. The trick now was getting down safely. All that sloping, loose, ball-bearing gravel we’d walked and scrambled up would now be underfoot as we descended gently-graded and steeper, sloping, exfoliating rock ramp layers back down toward Tioga Road.

On this northeast side of Polly Dome, it was easy to follow the wrong ramp and end up ledged-out on the edge of a cliff. We had to backtrack a few times to get off the summit ridge. We focused on easing our way toward flatter ground. I peered over a 50-foot east-facing cliff straight down into a tiny, shallow alpine lake, half-filled with a boulder and a floating patch of melting snow.

Cutting back to the south, I could see a field of flat rock far below, peppered with erratic boulders and rocks, some that were moved there by glaciers and some that fell and rolled off the dome we were descending. That was our final exit point to step off the rock and onto Tioga Road.

Now we had to take extra care to choose the right path. Many of the down-sloping ramps below us led to ledges and cliffs. We had to use our hands in places. In spots the crumbling rock was covered with more gravel, providing a surface unstable enough to make one false step the start of an unplanned airborne fall into space.

We spoke to each other about the footing and the route we chose at times. Sometimes we split up to scout promising gullies, ledges and ramps. Finally we were nearly level with the tops of the nearest, highest, hundred-foot-tall pines. More steep, grassy and pine-needle-covered ground led finally to the near-flat rock apron we craved to stand on.

We paused to sit on the most comfortable looking boulders just above of Tioga Road and sipped more water. Then we walked a mile and a half or so in the deep, leaning shadows of Polly Dome, back to where we’d parked. It was about 6:30 p.m. and we were thrashed. We shared my brother’s warm bottle of cola next to Tenaya Lake.

Given the lack of a definite trail or marked path to ascend and descend, as well as the need for pathfinding and the loose footing on unstable, sloping, exfoliating layers of rock in places, I do not recommend Polly Dome to anyone who has never been there before. It’s a place where an ankle injury can turn into an emergency, and a fall off a cliff can end in tragedy.

For those who admire the scenery below Polly Dome, there are plenty of other more moderate walks close by, including a 2.5-mile loop trail around Tenaya Lake. There are also multiple 2- and 3-mile paths that lead from Tuolumne Meadows trailheads to Cathedral Lakes, Budd Lake and Elizabeth Lake, and each of them are alpine gems at elevations above 9,000 feet.

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 gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.