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Yosemite: Four-Mile Trail and Sentinel Dome Hike

Posted Sep 14 2010 12:00am

From the floor of Yosemite Valley, four primary routes take you up to the north or south ridgelines, and three of them are named after waterfalls: Yosemite Falls Trail and Snow Creek Falls Trail on the north side, and the Mist Trail that includes both Vernal and Nevada Falls on the south side. They're the trails that get the most publicity, and they're the ones that tend to be most heavily trafficked during the park's long summer hiking season.

That leaves Four-Mile Trail as the relative oddball of the Yosemite Valley group. It isn't as famous as its more popular neighbors, and - considering that the actual distance of the trail is generally acknowledged as 4.7 or 4.8 miles - it isn't even as accurately named. And if you're really lazy, you can get all the benefit of the hike without even getting your shoes dirty, as the upper terminus of the trail is the scenic overlook at Glacier Point, which also happens to be accessible by - you guessed it - Glacier Point Road.

And yet, by just about any standard, Four-Mile is an absolute gem of a trail, with fantastic views around nearly every corner. It provides you a complete "best of Yosemite" package, as every famous landmark of the Valley is visible at some point or another. It's also a significant challenge, rising 3200' from start to finish - which made it a perfect adventure for my 12-year-old son and me last weekend.

He's got it in his head that he wants to climb Half Dome someday, so this climb seemed like a good introduction to Yosemite's high country that would lay the groundwork for more ambitious outings in the future. There was also a compelling either/or proposition at the top, as Glacier Point also hosts a trailhead that leads to 8100' Sentinel Dome , another 1.5 miles and 900 vertical feet beyond what we were facing on Four-Mile Trail.

So while Glacier Point was the official "must reach" destination, we agreed that if the day was going well we should keep pushing on to Sentinel Dome, which would give us nearly as much vertical climb as a Half Dome attempt in just a couple less miles. Sort of a Half Dome starter kit, if you will.

One of the biggest challenges for my son came right off the bat: the 5:15 AM wake-up at Curry Village, which preceded a short drive to the trailhead to put us on the trail just as darkness was starting to lift.

This photo is also a good point to mention one of my only pet peeves about Yosemite: the posted mileage on various trail signs makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. There are large discrepancies with various maps (including Yosemite's own trail maps), and inconsistencies from one sign to another on the same trail (as I'll demonstrate later). And since much of this hike was under heavy tree cover, my Garmin was wildly inaccurate as well. The lesson I passed on to my son from all this was basically to saddle up for a long day, and not worry about the specific numbers. To his credit, he seemed OK with that - or maybe he was just too sleepy to complain.

The majority of Four-Mile is what hikers refer to as "wilderness highway": nicely groomed, wide enough for two-way traffic, and pretty much free of any debris or major obstacles. The only obstacle to overcome was the hill itself, as you gain elevation right off the bat, and the climbing is pretty much constant for the next 4.7 (or 4.6 or 4.8 - your pick) miles.

Once the sun finally peeked over the horizon, we were greeted with this cool sight: the dome-shaped shadow projected on the north wall of the valley was provided by none other than Sentinel Dome, awaiting our arrival some 3000' overhead.

Long stretches of Four-Mile skirt around and beneath Sentinel Rock, whose sheer 1500' face stands guard over the south side of the valley. It's one very cool-looking rock, especially when you get to see it from the multiple vantage points the trail leads you to.

Another cool view you get within the first 1.5 miles (or so) is what's called a reverse tunnel view: it's a mirror image of the popular tunnel view tourist spot , in this case looking west with El Capitan on the right and Cathedral Rocks on the left.

If you're a fan of switchbacks like I am, there's a lot to like about this trail. Actually, this is a feature of most floor-to-rim trails in Yosemite, but I'm always amazed at how paths like this were engineered more than 100 years ago; I doubt that a team modern-day engineers with state of the art equipment could have done much better.

The switchbacks also take you in a constant direction of "up", where the views get better and better ...

… especially across the valley, where a dried-up Yosemite Falls begins to fall lower and lower on your visual horizon.

About 2 miles along the trail, a few more switchbacks bring you around a corner where the first beams of sunlight begin to spill onto the trail ...

… and you get your first glimpse of this guy. Apparently it's some kind of landmark or something.

Your first views of Half Dome are short-lived, however, as the trail returns to tree cover and continues its uphill push ...

… and before you know it, you're looking down on the Sentinel Rock that was towering overhead just a little while ago.

As the trail climbed higher and the views got more impressive, I was pretty sure my son had shaken off his early morning doldrums, until we had the following discussion …

Me: So what are you normally doing at 7:30 on a Saturday morning?

Him: Sleeping.

Me: So which would you rather be doing right now?

Him: (long pause) I'm not sure.

So apparently we needed a few more "Wow!" moments to tip the scales in my favor.

Luckily, the big rock to the east was more than able to oblige us.

(We interrupt this report for a word from our sponsors … )

In case anyone’s interested, here’s the gear I used for the hike: I wore my Vibram KSO Treks , which have become my favorite hiking shoes in addition to being very impressive trail runners. I wore a fully loaded GoLite Rush pack , which is far and away my best day hiking pack. The shirt is the GoLite Manitou I reviewed here , and the shorts are REI’s Sahara brand which I’ve used reliably for more than two years. As expected, all of them were totally comfortable and performed just about perfectly.

(Now returning to regularly scheduled programming … )

You know you're getting close to the top of Four-Mile when the trail unexpectedly levels off through the forest and continues on a very gentle grade to the upper terminus.

Reaching Glacier Point, this was decision time: continue to Sentinel Dome, or head back down. The two of us had made pretty good progress, and my son was holding up quite well, so we just munched on some trail mix while enjoying the view for a few minutes ...

… before walking over to the trailhead for the final 1.5-mile push to Sentinel Dome. I might have been mistaken about my son's earlier doldrums, because continuing to the top was a much easier sell than I anticipated.

Most of the Sentinel Dome trail meanders between the feet of tall trees, climbing all the way …

… and about a half-mile from the top, the trail builders seemingly said, "You know what? That's enough switchbacks. Let's just run this baby straight uphill now." By this point, you've come far enough that you're not going to turn back ...

… especially when you finally see the bald granite top of Sentinel Dome ahead in the distance.

Above the treeline, the trail dies out and you're left with an open scramble up the face of the rocks …

… until you finally reach this landmark at the top of Sentinel Dome. It's a very cool 360-degree etching of all the surrounding landmarks that are visible from that point - which, considering that it's the second-highest point in the Valley, is quite a few. El Cap, Yosemite Point, North Dome, Basket Dome, Mt Clark, Mt Starr King, Clouds Rest …

… and of course Half Dome, which, thanks to a cool optical illusion, looks like it's far below you, even though it's actually 700' higher.

These rocks were naturally an ideal spot to open our backpacks and have some snacks …

… which, just as naturally, immediately brought out the resident critters who live for hikers to come along with bags full of trail mix. This little guy wasn't nearly as plump as some marmots I've seen in these parts before …

… so we decided he could use a few nuts to bulk up a bit before winter comes.

After about 30 minutes on the summit, we finally made our way back down the long trail we had just climbed. Here's another dose of mileage confusion for you: this sign is probably accurate in marking Glacier Point one mile away, but it then has Yosemite Valley at 4.8 - which would make the Four-Mile Trail we climbed a 3.8-mile trail instead of a 4.7-mile trail. Like I said, don't look at the numbers - just keep walking.

By the time we returned to Glacier Point, the parking lot was quickly filling with tourists - or as my son started to refer to them, "people who took the slacker route to the top." We dealt with the crowds for a few minutes and took in some views from the overlook ...

... including this top view of the Curry Village campground we had slept in the night before. It's down there in the trees somewhere.

Numerous times on the remainder of our return, there are places where you get a glimpse of the trail plummeting into the distance, and it's almost hard to believe that you climbed UP that same trail earlier in the day. My son and I had been on the trail for more than seven hours, the last hour of which became pretty difficult for him: his feet were sore, his legs were achy, and there was a general sense of "I just want this to be over with".

Of course, the reality of the situation might not have been so prominent in his mind if I hadn't announced "Hey, guess what? If I hadn't dragged you up Sentinel Dome, we would be done by now!" In hindsight, that might not have been the shrewdest comment under the circumstances.

So about 3 miles from the bottom, I shifted into pacer mode - providing constant encouragement and reassurance, telling goofy stories and corny jokes just to keep him distracted, even reminding him to drink water every so often. And eventually, we reached the Four-Mile trailhead …

… which would have been great news if I hadn't parked at the Swinging Bridge parking lot a little bit farther down the road. I sort of neglected to tell him that I purposely parked away from the trailhead in the early morning darkness to get a little extra distance in - and by that point, he wasn't exactly thrilled with the concept of "bonus mileage."

Fortunately, the remaining trail was flat and short, so there was no problem making it to the car. We crashed on a picnic table for a while, cooled our heels in the Merced River, and finally climbed into the car to start the long drive home.

On the way, the kid was pretty quiet, but seemed altogether satisfied with his effort, and with how the day turned out. From my standpoint, everything went about as perfectly as I could have asked for: a beautiful day, a wonderful park, and a memorable shared experience with my son.

Best of all, both of us think we’re ready for the next big challenge on the horizon – and I’m already looking forward to it.

See other photo tours under tab at top of page.

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