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Four Mile Trail, Yosemite, CA

2005-04-29 8 min read Great Hikes marco

{moszoomimglink:First view of Yosemite – El Capitan and Half Dome}Have you ever gone to Yosemite? Well, I had been living in California for years before I took the time and drove there. It was a chilly autumn morning, the leaves were already brightly turning and I had nothing better to do.

I left early and stayed no time. To a certain degree, I only wanted to say I had been there. Tell myself, that is, since there was nobody else who would have cared.

A year later, it was Thanksgiving, I had just come back from Hawai’i. My housemate surprised me by saying he had rented a room at Yosemite lodge for the holiday, just to escape the cooking. We would drive up on Thursday morning, have dinner at the lodge, and maybe do a hike or two.

{moszoomimglink:El Capitan}Things worked out beautifully. It was unseasonably warm, maybe five degrees above average. We got there in the early afternoon, went on a short hike to Vernal Fall and had dinner at the main restaurant. Mountain air, excellent preparation and the comparison with home cooking made it a real feast. The room was understandably full, but waiting times were close to nil – reservations were not required.

Choosing the Hike

Fat and lazy as we were we returned to the rooms to watch TV and choose a hike for the next day. The rooms at the lodge have no TV, so we were left with the choice of the hike. Good for us that we had no distraction, because we started a debate over the merits of one hike over the other that lasted for a few hours.

{moszoomimglink:The Merced river snakes its way through the canyon}The choices were aplenty. We could stay flat and do the valley floor loop. We could hike up the North-West wall, to Liberty Point and Yosemite Fall. Or we could go the other side, hike up the South-East flank to Union Point and then to Glacier Point. Finally, we could choose to hike up one of the two valleys that merge into Yosemite.

The main item of debate was the ascent we could bear on one day. I was strongly in favor of going high, while Kirk was wondering how much his legs and boots were going to survive. He strongly favored the short route to Liberty Point (which I am assured didn’t used to be called French point)>. That would have gotten us 1,000 feet above valley floor, which was just one third of the way.

{moszoomimglink:Bridal Veil falls}Ah, yes, the way. Yosemite is a marvel you can hardly imagine. A small river (the Merced) cut a small valley in a granite plateau. Nothing too exciting. Then the mountains rose, and the valley was steeper. The river got more cutting done. Then an ice age came and smothered the whole plateau (including the valley) under a thick layer of ice. Granite is really hard, but ice is very persistent. As a result, the plateau was smoothened for hundreds of miles, and the small valley was cut deep and almost vertical by the brutal force of the ice.

The ice melted and left a lake. The lake silted up – and there’s the valley. Put it all together and you have a flat valley with sheer granite walls, crowned by smoothened peaks that mark the outlyers of a smooth plateau. You can’t imagine a place more otherworldy and exciting.

Four Mile Trail

(My) reason prevailed, and soon we were on our way to the most difficult day hike accessible. The Four Mile hike goes from the valley floor to Glacier Point at the South point of the junction of the three valleys. You can drive there from the valley in the summer, but in the winter, we were going to walk up and walk down.

I confess I had seen a documentary on the point and its views while waiting for our room to get ready, and I had a very clear idea of what was going to expect us. I was excited enough to get Kirk to hike up 3,200 ft. I think he doesn’t regret that now. 🙂

{moszoomimglink:Bridalveil fall}The trail starts close to Bridalveil Fall. It is well marked, but the parking lot is very small (it’s streetside only) and may get really crowded early on in the summer. It was a very nice 58F at the start, and we were sweating in our winter clothes.

{moszoomimglink:Oak in fall colors}The initial part of the trail is easy. As I found in all National Parks, the trail is extremely well maintained and you can’t get lost. You start in the forest, and for quite a while you stay in the shade of aspens and oaks. Views are interesting, but not spectacular. You cross a few creeks (depending on rainfall prior to your hike), but nothing exciting happens.

{moszoomimglink:The Ahwanee}After a very long mile, you finally get out of the trees and start seeing your surroundings. The trail switchbacks tightly, and you are rewarded with a 180 degree panorama of the valley, from the entrance to Yosemite Falls. You see the river, El Capitan, the roads. You hear cars roaring in a strange amplification of sounds. At some point, you see the Ahwanee, the fancy hotel on the valley floor.

We were early, so we didn’t get to meet too many people, and all of those we met were evidently avid hikers. We being not so avid hikers, we started wondering how far up we had gotten; this of course is the adult’s version of the eternal: “Are we there yet?” We were just about to give up when the trail started getting smoother and going towards the North.

{moszoomimglink:Kirk at Union Point}We were not prepared for the view. All of a sudden, the trail had turned a corner and we were standing right in front of Half Dome, the most amazing sight in the valley. We were so high that we could look down to Yosemite Falls, and we could almost see the top of Half Dome.

This is an excellent stop for a brief snack and a gulp of water. Just the sight of the valley from Union Point is worth the trip, even if you don’t even think about making it all the way to the top. Turns out that Union Point is about half way (in height, not in distance) between the end points, and it gives you a chance to make up your mind. You will know here whether Glacier Point is doable or not.

{moszoomimglink:Snow to burnt grasses}We, of course, had no idea. A few times I turned around and asked Kirk whether we should go back, but he was an excellent sport and went on with me. The trail, though, started getting really snowy now. Initially, there were a few isolated patches in the eternal shadows; soon these started becoming continuous strips of ice on the trail, and soon afterwards, the whole trail was covered under thick snow and ice.

{moszoomimglink:Kirk at the edge of the frosty precipice}Walking without sticks was out of the question. The trail is very narrow and without shoulders, and to your left you have over 2,000 ft of precipice right into the valley. Kirk retrieved two dead branches we would use on our way up and, more importantly, down. Don’t forget hiking sticks, though, if you are planning on a fall hike!

{moszoomimglink:Closeup of the lodge}The Trail is relatively flat here, and you will do the bulk of the hiking after Union Point. You’ll be in a dense forest most of the time, and the views of distant peaks are replaced by a struggling wild life trying to get ready for winter. But then, just about when you are ready to quit once more, you see a clearing, signs and a huge lodge that signal you made it!

Glacier Point lodge has a large parking lot, and it must be a lot of fun to get there in the summer. It would be even more fun if it were open in winter and you could get a hot chocolate after hiking for hours on end. But no, we had to do with our trail mix and water bottles.

{moszoomimglink:Stone cabin}A short hike gets you to a stone cabin. The view from there is absolutely spectacular, even on a cloudy day like this Thanksgiving. Another short hike and you are at Glacier Point, and from there you have a 270 degree view of the world. To your South, Yosemite valley proper, from the portal to Yosemite Falls. El Capitan is majestic in this light, and although the Falls were almost entirely dry, you could formally imagine what a spring melt could pour over the rock.

{moszoomimglink:Moving on from Half dome}Straight to the North is Half Dome, standing between Tenaya valley from Merced valley. To your right, Vernal and Nevada falls merrily jump down the canyon walls. But the most amazing sight is the top of the plateau. Seeing how smooth it is, and then the sudden drop into the three valleys!

Of course, the effect is reinforced by the blanket of snow that covers the entire plateau. Dotted with trees, the white goes on as far as the eye can see, to mountains in the distance that must have been the origin of all the ice. You can really imagine how all the domes here must have been regular mountains at one point, but then the ice has just rounded them to their present shape.

{moszoomimglink:The giant pine cone}A family of four had hiked all the way up and was having a short lunch. We stayed only briefly to marvel at the beauty, the started our way back to the valley floor. We were already tired by then, but we managed back in spirit. We would meet a lot of people on a late morning hike. No matter how far down we had gotten, the one question they all asked was: “Are we there yet?”