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April 26, 2010

Yosemite: Snow Creek Falls Hike

One of the few drawbacks about Yosemite National Park is that if you happen to like sleeping in a bed at night, you need to plan a trip very far ahead of time.

You have to make reservations for Yosemite Lodge almost a year ahead of time for any reasonable chance of scoring a room, so planning a hiking trip in the springtime - Yosemite’s most beautiful but most unpredictable time of year – is something of a dice roll when it comes to weather conditions. And when you’ve scheduled a date nearly ten months out, you’re pretty committed to seeing it through – even if spring snowfall totals approach record levels, or air temperatures are 25 to 30 degrees below average, or the forecast calls for another day of snow flurries. Or, in the situation we experienced last week, even if all three of those conditions apply.

Another notable, and far more distressing, drawback of Yosemite is that people die there. Lots and lots of people, in fact – more than 900 since the park’s inception. I happened to be acutely aware of this, because for three weeks prior to our trip I tore through Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite, an exhaustively researched, morbidly fascinating account of every known traumatic fatality within the park borders, written by two longtime Search and Rescue dudes. The appeal of the book – aside from the morbid fascination thing – is its reinforcement of what NOT to do when you’re cavorting in the wilderness. If you spend lots of time in the wild, the book should be required precautionary reading. If you’re interested in learning about the crazy things some (overwhelmingly male, naturally) people do to get themselves killed, it’s really an outstanding collection of tales.

But if you’re too busy to check it out, I’ll help you out a bit. The main theme of Off The Wall can be effectively condensed to a couple of fairly simple rules: 1) Follow the rules, and 2) Don’t be an idiot. Use common sense, and don’t overestimate your abilities just to stoke your ego. Coincidentally, we’ll file that little lesson away for later in the report on the hike my wife and I took in the Snow Creek Falls area. For now, we’ll get started with the photos:

Our hike began from the Tenaya Creek Bridge on the far eastern side of the valley floor. All week long, rain and snow showers had been forecast for this day – so when the morning broke with merely near-freezing temperatures but no precipitation, we decided to go for it. We weren’t sure whether this would be a 30-minute hike or an eight-hour day; we just knew we wanted to give it a try.

The first mile of the trail is actually a gently graded asphalt path that winds past Mirror Lake. During this trip, we learned that the name of the area is officially called Mirror Meadow now, for reasons that are more evident from above.

After the first mile, the trail assumes the signature Yosemite Valley mixture of dirt and granite, with large rock slide areas on one side …

… and the looming presence of Half Dome on the other.

About 2 miles in lies the trail junction for Snow Creek Falls trail, which is also the route to North Dome and Indian Rock. The Falls are about 1.8 miles from this point, most of which is straight uphill.

Snow Creek is perhaps the steepest route in and out of the valley, with several very tall switchbacks to help offset the morning chill.

Along the way, you cris-cross a handful of mini-waterfalls bursting from the overhanging rocks. In another park, a waterslide this large would at least be given a name; in Yosemite, it’s considered a seasonal runoff channel - one of perhaps thousands.

Gaining elevation quickly, we enjoyed some nice views down into Tenaya Canyon …

… and the series of Quarter Domes on the other side …

… as well as a cool angle of the top of Half Dome. That sharp upturn is where the cables run, and the little notch is the famous diving board. (Photo links from this report).

If you click to enlarge this shot, you’ll see a pair of waterfalls on Tenaya Creek (at lower right) in the floor of the Valley below. Even with our remote distance, the sound of these waterfalls was clearly audible for most of our ascent. Meanwhile, we were getting closer to …

… this thing, which was looking more and more like a real waterfall the nearer we got to it. It was also making the trail somewhat treacherous in places …

… as cold granite tends to get pretty slick with an ankle-deep sheet of snowmelt running over it. Trust me on this one.

Above 5500’ or so, the entire face of this rock was covered with runoff, and we were beginning to get hit from above by snow falling off of overhead tree cover. It was around this time that I optimistically remarked how lucky we were not to see snow on the trail.

Around 5600’, we saw it.

I found the view from the end of this switchback particularly arresting: water streaming over the granite ledge to the right, Half Dome still imposing on the left, and the steepness of the canyon we were climbing out of plainly visible on both sides.

Also, see those white clouds rolling in to the right? …

… They became more and more prominent, as we gradually lost our killer views across the valley …

… and quickly lost our trail underfoot. The trail we were following was about 6 to 10” below what you see here, but we were plucky, and decided to soldier on for another 500’ or so of vertical gain.

It wasn’t much longer before whiteout conditions found us: we couldn’t see the sky, couldn’t see the trail …

… and had completely lost our view across the canyon. And suddenly we weren’t so warm anymore.

Also, remember that book I mentioned earlier? Its chapters are (again, somewhat morbidly) divided into mechanisms of death: waterfalls, drownings, rock climbing (a very big chapter, by the way), BASE jumping, etc. I mention that because it was right around here that my wife and I started having the following conversation:

Wife: So if we die out here, would we make the book in the “Hiking Off Trail” section, or somewhere else?

Me: Nah … there’s a whole chapter on “Snow”, and another on “Getting Lost”; I think we’d be in one of those.

See, here’s the thing: when you’re having conversations about how your impending death might be classified, that’s probably a good indication that it’s time to turn around. Recall rule #2 – don’t be an idiot – that I mentioned above. And since the terrain ahead looked like this:

… and snow flurries were starting to fall on us, turning around seemed like a very good idea.

(However, to demonstrate that I can’t completely abandon my foolishness, we continued upward far enough to go from 6990’ on my GPS to an even 7000’. To her credit, my wife didn’t punch me when I proposed this.)

Aside from watching our step on a very slippery downhill slope, backtracking our route was fairly easy: all we had to do was follow the two lonely sets of footprints in the snow that we made on our way uphill.

Here’s another example of how I married the right girl: about 10 minutes down the hill, trying to escape a possible snowstorm, I said “Hey, wait! I need to get some pictures of the gear I’m wearing for a blog review!” and only received a mild eye roll before she agreed.

Curiously, once we descended below the cloud bank, the snow flurries seemed to cease as well; it was like the snow was completely self-contained in the overhead clouds, and couldn’t be bothered to fall all the way to the valley floor below. Not that we were complaining.

(This is also a great shot of why it’s called Mirror Meadow now; the whole area is more of a marshy pool than an actual lake. Credit Yosemite for being ecologically correct.)

At the base of the trail, we were kind of bummed that we couldn’t reach the summit of the climb, so we cruised around the valley floor for a bit – first, to this footbridge further up Tenaya Creek …

… and later on the trail that skirts the north edge of the valley towards Yosemite Lodge. The trail is full of massive rock slides and improbable boulder formations …

… such as this one that forms a natural cave, with a pine tree somehow growing straight out of the granite roof. Whenever I walk around Yosemite, I get the feeling that God just decided to show off a little bit when creating this place.

Eventually we made it back to Yosemite Falls, and then to the Lodge after about 10 miles of hiking. Our discouragement from not reaching the goal of Snow Creek Falls was quickly remedied by a heated room, hot shower, and a quick nap before dinnertime.

While it may be hard to predict exactly what you’ll encounter in Yosemite on any given day, it’s fair to say that any part of this park you explore will leave you impressed and amazed. Perhaps we’ll see Snow Creek Falls another day, or maybe we’ll keep discovering new hikes to occupy our days here. The only thing I know for certain is that I’m looking forward to finding out.


Thomas 4/27/10, 11:34 AM  

As an idiot who constantly breaks rules, I better stay away from Yosemite, then.

Richard 4/27/10, 12:23 PM  

Two things:

First, read "Deep Survival" by Laurence Gonzales. It's THE book on why some people survive while other die. Great stories and lessons.

Second, I had to face a similar decision when I climbed Mt Whitney with my wife. We're from Quebec, Canada and manage to get a one day permit while traveling. We climbed up to the final ridge when some dark clouds started coming. We did not want to find ourselves on the ridge in a thunder storm so we took the hard decision of turning back. The thunder never came but I still think it was a good call although I still think about it sometimes. It's sad but I did not summit and will not have an occasion to do so in a while... Not sure I would have taken that decision without my wife. Probably would have run for it! Proof that my wife usually increase my intelligence!

stronger 4/27/10, 1:38 PM  

I don't know about your running skills, but your photo skills sure have gone leaps and bounds- great shots. (and I kid, you're the best runner I know...scratch that...Anita is...but you're like top 5).

Gretchen 4/29/10, 10:11 PM  

Donald, this looks awesome! What a great day you guys had. Amazing scenery, 10 miles with some solid elevation gain, fun challenges, and peace and solitude in Yosemite with someone you love. Could it get much better, really? Yosemite is beautiful with the snow and water falling all around.

Also, you can officially no longer claim to hate snow/cold. You're a badass. Pretty sure most people I know would have turned around much earlier. Not that I wouldn't have believed this of you, but I do appreciate the photographic evidence ...

And if it makes you feel any better, you have to make reservations just as early for camping.

Thanks for the awesome photos! I'm hoping to get back there in about two months myself. hopefully with a little less snow.

Rodney Ninow 7/4/10, 10:00 AM  

Great report! Just FYI, that overhang on HD is called the Visor. The diving board is not actually on the dome, but looks up at it. http://www.google.com/images?hl=en&source=imghp&q=half+dome+visor&gbv=2&aq=f&aqi=g10&aql=&oq=&gs_rfai=

Gary Duran 9/8/11, 1:14 PM  

Thanks for the hike. Found it while looking for Snow Creek Falls. Your account was both well written and insightful. And may I say humorous?

I loved the comment about when God created Yosemite, he went overboard. I always feel blessed going there--except when there is too many people--oh well.

Donald 9/9/11, 12:00 AM  

Gary: thanks! I still haven't made it back to try this one on a clear trail, but it's high on my list. Hopefully without crowds.

Anonymous,  11/28/11, 9:08 PM  

We love Yosemite and your description of this trail has set us off on a new quest tomorrow. We've done most every day hike from almost any place in Yosemite, top and bottom, but not this one...We are looking forward to having another breathtaking hike.

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