North Dome Trail
The Trail and the Plants
I have become a huge fan of the renowned naturalist and mountaineer John Muir. His writings are like nectar from the most beautiful flower. Like a bee I nudge my way into his works and come away with a bountiful harvest. Of course Muir is best known for his work in Yosemite. On his first extended trip to the Sierras; traveling with what he called ‘hoofed locusts’ (sheep) Muir found his way time and again to North Dome to revel in the beauty of Yosemite Valley. He spent many hours sketching the amazing scene. It is a place that I just had to go to.
North Dome is on the northern rim of Yosemite Valley, just east of Yosemite Falls and directly across from Half Dome. This is a glacier-polished block of granite carved by a massive river of ice that swept over the region.
The trailhead is located on Tioga Road, Highway 120, at the Porcupine Creek parking area. This is a popular starting point for many hikes so it’s best to get there early and find a good parking spot. Be sure to put any extra food or anything with an odor in the Bear boxes located there.
From the roadside parking area you enter a Silver Fir forest, Abies magnifica. Muir loved these graceful trees with there symmetrical whorls of branches clothed in silvery blue-green needles. The trunks are tall and straight creating a cathedral-like affect below. Just on your left, at the start of the trail, is an unusual Oak, the shrubby Huckleberry Oak. At only 4’ in height it at first seems to be some other kind of plant. But when you see the flowers and fruit the kinship to Oaks is evident.
Quickly the trail begins to follow an old paved road that leads down to Porcupine Creek. In the filtered shade of the Silver Firs the ground is sparsely populated with clumps of grassy Carices, golden-yellow Violets and the bright yellow daisy flowers of Mock Leopardbane. Leopardbane is a perennial that spreads via rhizomes so stems arise sporadically across the forest floor.
In the Sierra spring, around mid June keep an eye peeled for the bright red spires of Snow Plant pushing there way up through the forest floor (or if snow is still on the ground, up through the snow).
There are meadow openings in the forest and one arrives on the left. The areas are usually to wet for trees but feature many water loving species. This first wet meadow is filled with Corn Lily. These slender upright plants have large, wide leaves, like corn.
Where light penetrates the tall trees clusters of annuals arise. Out first is Small flowered Blue-Eyed Mary. Areas can be carpeted with their small blue flowers. Porcupine Creek descends on our right and the sound of sparkling water occasionally wafts through. Soon we see the Creek just to the right and will cross the water 4 times. The first crossing is at about ¾ of a mile in. There is some interesting stream loving plants here. The large leaves of Cow Parsnip emerge in the spring and will be topped with large umbels of small white flowers. (Note, do not touch as the leaves and stem can cause dermatitis.) There is also Western Labrador Tea a Rhododendron (or Azalea) relative here. Spring or early summer brings clusters of white flowers on the tips of the branches. The new, young, leathery oval leaves were sometimes boiled to make a tea.
The trail levels out as it repeatedly crosses the winding creek. There are more small clearings with an array of flowering plants. 2 blue flowered perennials greet us. First the prostrate silver leafed Brewer’s Lupine and the upright Sierra Stickseed. The Stickseed resembles our garden ‘Forget-Me-Nots.
At the 3rd stream crossing, on the far side, Sticky Currant with its pale rose flowers and fragrant, gummy resins. Then another clearing on the right features Clarkia seedlings sprouting, not sure which one. A lovely meadow opens up on the left and this one is filled with plants. More Corn Lily, Sierra Baby Blue Eyes, Mountain Bluebells and Broad-leaf Lupine join the chorus.
Just after this meadow we make our 4th stream crossing. And again there is another Currant. This is Alpine Sticky Currant with clusters of small, star shaped, pale yellow to red flowers and shiny bright red berries. Some very large Silver Firs are in this area with trunks 4-5’ in diameter. We also begin to see Lodgepole Pines with their short needles begin to mix in with the Silver Fir. We soon reach a trail junction at 1.5 miles. The left side trail leads to Yosemite Valley via Mirror Lake. It is 6.3 miles with a great set of switchbacks as it descends into the valley.
Quickly a 2nd junction arrives. The right fork goes to Yosemite Falls, 4.5 miles away. We continue on the left fork. The trail climbs moderately through a beautiful forest around the base of Indian Rock. Near the top of this section the ground is carpeted with low growing Pinemat Manzanita. (Note in more sun this plant mounds to 4’ or more.)
There is a clearing at the top of this moderate climb. The trail will jog left but straight ahead, amongst large boulders is our first extended view. The boulders are clothed in Huckleberry Oak. There are also a few Ponderosa Pines here, with their reddish, plaited bark.
The trail winds around to the left and climbs steeply through a bright open area. It then straightens and levels off. Here the taller specimens of Pinemat Manzanita can be found. On the right more extended views take prominence. There is a very attractive plant dotting the gravelly soils here, the round, yellowish leaves of Mountain Jewelflower. And in the open sunshine on the left are 4-5’ mounds of Bush Chinquapin with their rusty-bottomed leaves. After slicing across this mostly level section we enter the forest again and find a cool mountain stream, our 5th crossing and a good place to take a rest and snack.
After a rest we head back into the forest and on the right look for more Snow Plants. There is a short straight section then the trail turns left and climbs up a steep slope to a saddle and junction with the Indian Rock trail. Keep a sharp eye on the ground to the left, near the top of this pitch, for clumps of White Veined Wintergreen, a small but charming member of the Erica family. The thick dark leaves striped with white lines and summer brings spikes of delicate pink, nodding flowers.
For the adventurous take the short side trail up to Indian Rock where its famed arch lies. After this junction the trail heads out across Indian Ridge, a gravelly covered area. Here there is more Mountain Jewelflower and more small-scale offerings like the yellow flowered Frosted Buckwheat, the gray leaved Mouse Tail Ivesia and more Bush Chinquapin.
The trail becomes a wide gravelly path as it cuts across Indian Ridge. And now the tempo begins to increase. At the next clearing views of Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest enter on the left. The trail, here marked by rocks on its edge, makes a sweeping curve left and descends. There is a great view of Half Dome framed by a large pine straight ahead.
The great view fades briefly as we drop back into the forest. Here is Greenleaf Manzanita, with its smooth green leaves and panicles of small white flowers. The trail now cuts downward across the slope through a forested area. There is some jaw dropping views of Half Dome here where the trees open up some. The trees fade away into an open, smooth granite slope where plants find homes in the crevices. Pussy Toes with its pink flower clusters brighten the path. Gray-green Cliff Brake Fern and a dwarf Phacelia with small purple flowers add to the color.
Follow the trail down to the left over the smooth granite via rock cairns and the more weathered use areas caused by previous hikers. Ahead in the distance are North Dome (to the right) and Half Dome (to the left). As the trail snakes down through the open granite slope look for Mountain Pride with its bright pink flowers tucked into rock crevices. As you descend stop occasionally and look back, you can often see the parallel grooves cut by the ancient glaciers in the smooth granite surface. We reach a trail junction, to the right is the route to Yosemite Falls and to the left is our track to North Dome. Just ahead, tucked in more crevices is Sierra Sedum with orange-yellow flowers. And on the right look for the brilliant blue flowers of Azure Penstemon. One section of this steep descent hugs a sheer rock cliff where more Mountain Pride is found. At the bottom there is Huckleberry Oak and then we briefly head back into forest. This brings us to a protected saddle where campers pitch their tents.
Now here is the Dome, one last ascent over smooth granite. Views are everywhere. Enjoy!