Friday, August 10, 2012

Return to Mt Dana

Mono Lake from the summit of Mt Dana
After enjoying the clear, bright, starry sky and pale moonlight overnight, I had every indication of a clear day ahead. These are the kind of conditions which are absolutely perfect for a peak hike. Having been above 8000 feet for 2 full days now, I was feeling like I was acclimated enough to make a return visit to one of the most awesome viewpoints I have ever seen. Mt Dana is the second highest peak in Yosemite after Mt Lyell. (Be sure to click the link to view the Mt Dana page on wikipedia. There’s lots of good information there and a really nice scrolling panorama). The peak is visible from many different locations around the Tioga Pass and Tuolumne Meadows areas. It’s not a big bad 14’er, but it has what is arguably a better overall panorama than any of them. The day I was on the summit I was talking to a couple who came up the mountain behind me, and as they reached the summit, they could hardly contain their amazement with the sights. It made me smile to hear their exclamations of joy, which seemed to validate what has been my own opinion ever since my first hike to Dana’s summit. After sharing some conversation they began telling me about how much more impressed they were with the views from Dana than from Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous states. And they were there without having to win a mail-in lottery, or needing a permit of any kind beyond simple park admittance fees. I call that a very well kept secret.

Tuolumne Meadows from the summit of Mt Data
The last time I hiked Mt Dana was back in 2005. I was with a group of people that were Yosemite Association members, now called Yosemite Conservancy, with a volunteer naturalist as a guide. I had signed up for that hike because I hadn’t even known that there was a trail to the summit of Mt Dana. I had always assumed that all the highest peaks required technical climbing, or at least an advanced permit. After seeing that there was a guided hike there, I had checked every map I could find, and never found anything marked as a trail on Dana. A trail does indeed exist, but it is what’s referred to as a “social trail”. Meaning that the trail is technically not maintained, and as such, it generally does not appear on maps. There is however is a group of volunteers that work with the national park service, who perform rudimentary maintenance on the Mt Dana trail. The trailhead is on the south side of the highway directly across from the Tioga Pass entrance station into Yosemite. There is a small parking area on the north side of the road which is the trailhead for the Gaylor Lakes basin. It’s not very distinct, and there is no sign. If you did not know it was there you would probably not even notice it, but it gets easier to follow further on. Most of the trail is actually very easy to follow, but you need to look for the cairns once you get into the rocky sections. Something else to look for if you hike this trail is the little blue flags that have been placed in some areas by the trail volunteers. The flags were actually a bit confusing for me because I am used to seeing little flags like those to indicate sensitive areas where you are not supposed to walk. But in this case they are used to mark the trail.

Zoomed view to the Mt Lyell glacier
The distance is actually very short. From the trailhead to the summit is only 2.58 miles by my GPS. Beginning elevation is at Tioga Pass at 9,985 feet, and the summit is 13,042 feet (GPS margin of error applies). Doing the math; that makes the Mt Dana trail the steepest trail that I personally know of. That’s a steeper overall profile than any trail in Henry Coe, Mt Diablo, or the Ohlone wilderness. That is even steeper overall than the Four Mile, Yosemite Falls, or Half Dome trails.  That’s why a couple days of acclimation is important even though the distance is short. At 13,000 feet your lungs will be working harder. I recommend trekking poles, plenty of hydration, and bring a soft shell, or some other layer(s) combining light warmth with a wind layer. The breezes at the summit can be quite chilly even in summer sun. This hike is not recommended on cloudy days when there is a possibility of thunder storms, so be sure watch the weather.

View to the Mt Dana summit from the shoulder
From my observations, I think of the trail as 5 distinct sections. Sub-alpine, the base slope, the shoulder, the peak, and the summit talus. The trail begins with a nice casual walk through the sub-alpine forests past some nice little ponds and green meadows rimmed with wild flowers. I was seeing 6 foot high mountain larkspur all around along with other offerings. One interesting historical point is a tree carving made by a Basque sheepherder in the 1870s. I remember this being pointed out by the naturalist we had back in 2005. The carving is said to depict a woman longed after by lonely men camped out up here for weeks on end having only sheep for company. After taking your time to admire the sights, the trail begins climbing in earnest and soon you loose tree cover completely and break out onto the slope. Down this low it’s much warmer than when you get up into the mountain breezes.

Mt Dana has a large base below the actual peak, and this section of trail ascends that base steadily using many switchbacks. The trail is not hard to discern but there are also some cairns to mark the way. The slope is a mixture of gravely dirt and rock. There are a couple of springs on the base slope, and you can easily spot where they are by the vegetation and wild flowers. At 11,593 the slope levels out onto a kind of plateau which I call the shoulder. The gentler climb on this section gave me pause to catch my breath and look up and begin to admire the landscape. I noticed that the views were beginning to get dramatic. Looking west you can see out over Tuolumne Meadows and Dana Meadows areas, and many peaks are already showing. Below you can see Tioga Road as a tiny strand leading off into the park. The mountain breeze begins to make itself noticeable as the air currents pick up. The cool air really mitigates the exertion keeping your core temp cooler. Having a short respite is nice before climbing higher.

View north from Mt Dana summit
Once you are on the actual peak section the trail becomes very rocky and steep, but the trail is mostly easy to follow. Looking up you can now see the summit talus above looking like some kind of crazy pyramid made of fragmented cinder blocks. Upon closer inspection the rocks reveal much more character though. I suspect a rock hound could find much to ponder on these weathered slopes. The story is there to be told for anyone with the knowledge. There is also lots of interesting plant life thriving amongst the rocks, some of which you simply won’t find at lower altitudes. At one point the trail seems to evaporate leaving you looking up the jagged slope searching for the best way through. You have to look closely to spot one of those the little blue flags that indicate where you can pick up the trail again. Otherwise it’s a lot more work to scramble up the talus section to the summit.

As you first make the summit you can see to the east for the first time on this hike. Mono Lake immediately jumps into your consciousness as it dominates the easterly view. I am impressed with the progress that has been made to restore Mono Lake. Even in a drought year like this one, the lake looks great. Judging by the historical water marks it's back to being nearly as big as it ever was. In my view this is a great success story for conservation. In my opinion the summit of Mt Dana is a 360 degree panorama that would be very difficult to beat from anywhere on earth, no matter how high. At the very least it must be the best view you can get without technical climbing ability, Mt Whitney included according to the people I met that day. Rather than wear out all my best superlative terms attempting to describe it, I will simple offer my pictures; for what they are worth, which is not enough to describe it. I have 2 photosets from Mt Dana. One from 2005 and one from 2012. I also uploaded a track log at Every Trail for further reference on the trail.

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