Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Yosemite National Park: Sentinel Dome (Blog Hike #591)

Trail: Sentinel Dome Trail
Hike Location: Yosemite National Park
Geographic Location: west of Glacier Point, CA
Length: 2.2 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: June 2016
Overview: An out-and-back to 360-degree views from Sentinel Dome.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at the signed Sentinel Dome trailhead, which is located on the north side of Glacier Point Road 2 miles west of (i.e. before you get to) Glacier Point.  The small trailhead parking lot fills up quickly, so plan an early morning hike to ensure you get a parking space.

The hike: For my general comments on Yosemite National Park, see my first hike in Yosemite Valley.  If 360-degree dome-top views of Yosemite sound appealing but the 14.2 miles and 4800 feet of elevation gain required to summit Half Dome seem beyond your ability, then perhaps a hike to Sentinel Dome is in order.  At 8122 feet in elevation, Sentinel Dome stands more than 900 feet higher than nearby more famous Glacier Point but only 700 feet lower than Half Dome.  Thus, Sentinel Dome’s view is almost as good as Half Dome’s but requires only a fraction of the effort to obtain.
Sentinel Dome Trailhead
            From the parking area, the entrance trail briefly heads downhill before splitting with options going left and right.  The trail going left leads to Taft Point, another interesting viewpoint that is worth exploring if you have the time and energy.  As directed by a wooden sign, turn right to head for Sentinel Dome.  The brown-gray bare rock dome that is your destination can be seen ahead and to your right over the trees.
Sentinel Dome in the distance
            After dipping to cross a small creek on a wooden footbridge, the trail climbs briefly over bare rock.  Parts of this trail are rather rocky, causing me to rate the difficulty 7/10, but overall this hike is fairly easy until you get to the final assault on Sentinel Dome.  Low evergreen bushes, tall Jeffrey pines, and fir trees make up the sparse vegetation.
            As you approach the base of Sentinel Dome, the trail joins a gravel service road that enters from the right.  This service road leaves Glacier Point Road 0.7 miles east of the Sentinel Dome trailhead, so you could use it to give an even shorter approach to the dome if you wanted to.  At 0.9 miles, the trail forks where the longer trail to Taft Point and Glacier Point exits right.  As indicated by a rust-covered metal sign, you need to turn left to keep heading up Sentinel Dome.
            Near this point of my hike I experienced one of the hazards of summer hiking in Yosemite: limb drop.  Limb drop is a phenomenon in which a large limb falls off of a healthy tree with no warning, thus potentially injuring any hikers under the tree.  Though limb drop sounds odd, it is sufficiently common that signs at park entrances warn of it.  On this occasion, the limb dropped several feet away from me and caused me no physical harm, but the sudden noise did cause me some fright.  The limb drop phenomenon is a danger to be aware of even though its rarity means you are unlikely to get hurt by it.
Final assault up Sentinel Dome
            The grade intensifies as you climb the dome’s northeast shoulder.  Most of the dome’s smooth granite sides are too steep for hikers, but the northeast face offers a steep but hikable (as opposed to only rock climbable) route.  Upon reaching the dome’s northeast shoulder, the trail curves sharply left to begin heading straight up the bare rock.  The trail on the rock is unmarked and hard to distinguish, so you have to pick your way up the dome using whatever route looks most feasible.  I found that a winding switchbacking route worked best.
            At 1.1 miles, you reach the flat area on the dome’s summit.  The 360-degree view from here is even better than the more famous one from Glacier Point, in my opinion.  Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and North Dome take center stage to the east.  Mount Starr King and the Clark Range appear to the south and southeast.  Yosemite Valley drops off to the north with El Capitan and the Cathedral Spires, two stark nearly vertical multi-thousand foot granite cliffs, guarding its entrance.  Nevada Fall and Yosemite Falls are also visible below.  A summit marker helps you identify some of the sites that can be seen from here.
Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and North Dome

Yosemite Falls

El Capitan

Cathedral Spires
The trail ends at this magnificent view, and the other sides of the dome are too steep to descend.  Thus, the shortest route back to the trailhead is to retrace your steps 1.1 miles.  Alternatively, a 4.9 mile loop can be formed by choosing the trail that connects Sentinel Dome and Taft Point and then hiking from Taft Point back to the trailhead.

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