Monday, October 7, 2013

Breathtaking views of Yosemite's top sights

Yosemite Fall as seen from Glacier Point
on the Four Mile Trail.
Day hikers can view almost all of Yosemite Valley’s famous landmarks from above via the Four Mile Trail.

The trail runs from the Yosemite Valley floor to Glacier Point – but rather than make the steep ascent that will be impossible for most young children and backbreaking for parents carrying them, instead hike the 4.6-mile trail backward from the Glacier Point rim to the valley floor.

To do that, you’ll need to purchase a one-way tour bus ticket to Glacier Point, available at one of three locations: Yosemite Lodge tour desk; the Tours building next to the Yosemite Village Store; or the Curry Village main check-in desk. Tour buses leave Yosemite Lodge for Glacier Point at 8:30 a.m., 10 a.m., and 1:30 p.m. Tickets should be purchased at least the day before the hike.

Early June marks the best time to hike the trail if only because snowmelt is peaking so the waterfalls you’ll see from the trail will then be at their most amazing. Early mornings offer the clearest views. Typically the trail is closed December through May. No matter what time of year, expect there to be crowds.

Descending a mountain can be physically taxing, and hikers will have to handle switchbacks. Fortunately, they’re well-graded and the trail is wide and smooth. There are some steep drop-offs at points, though, so always keep children close by.

Yosemite from the gods’ vantage point
The tour bus drops you off at the gift shop on the south valley rim at Glacier Point. You’re at 7200 feet elevation, and despite that you might want to start hiking, take some time to walk around the point for its impressive views. Among the sights are North Dome, Mt. Hoffman, Clouds Rest, and Half Dome, to name but a few. To the right of Half Dome are Nevada (upper) and Vernal (lower) falls.

Be aware that the Glacier Point restrooms are closed, so be sure to go potty before getting on the tour bus. Officials determined after a rock fall into the Happy Isles Nature Center area that the septic system leach field may have contributed to a rock face’s instability, so to be safe the restrooms were shut down.

The trail begins with a gradual descent through an evergreen forest. Watch for the ever-changing views of Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and the Merced River running through the valley below. You’ll also be able to look down on the Sentinel Rock summit; the rock provides a good “measuring stick” of how far you have left to hike as it’s almost always visible the entire trail.

About a half-mile down, you’ve gone far enough that the Glacier Point summit is no longer visible. The trees also begin to shift from evergreens to oaks. At about 0.75 miles, the trail becomes a series of switchbacks.

Among Yosemite’s oldest trails
A third of the way down, you’ll reach Union Point, which is a good place to rest. There are great views of Tenaya Canyon and such geological landmarks as Half Dome, Clouds Rest, North Dome, and the Royal Arches. To the west are wonderfully framed views of El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks.

Several more switchbacks make up the trail for about a half-mile below Union Point. Oaks, maples and laurels begin to dominate the forest.

The Four Mile is one of the oldest trails in Yosemite. John Conway — who also built the Yosemite Falls Trail – completed the Four Mile in 1872. It originally was a toll trail, one of the many commercial ventures that caused many to call for the area to be named a national park. The trail was rebuilt and lengthened to 4.7 miles during the early 1900s, but the “Four Mile” name stuck.

A little more than a mile or so from the bottom, Yosemite Falls and other sights begin to disappear as you cross into a forested area. Instead look for moss-covered boulders and blooming wildflowers. Bug repellent is necessary in this section during spring and early summer.

You’ll know you’re near the trail’s end when reaching several boulders with white chalk marks left on them by several generations of rock climber. From the boulders, the trail takes a sharp left turn, ending on the valley floor near the Swinging Bridge and the base of Sentinel Rock’s north face. You’ll have descended 3200 vertical feet.

Find out about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.