Japanese artist Hokusai liked Mt. Fuji. Really liked it. So in the 1820s and 1830s, he made a series of 36 woodblock prints of the mountain, from near and far, in summer and winter. When they went over well, he made 10 more scenes. Then, because an artist must follow his muse, he started a new series: 100 views of Mt. Fuji.
When I’m looking at Half Dome, the great granite hood ornament of Yosemite National Park, I understand Hokusai and Fuji. You see Half Dome on a century’s worth of postcards, on Ansel Adams prints and Sierra Club calendars, on your waiter’s name tag at the Wawona Hotel, on the new California driver’s licenses.
Yet to me, it seems inexhaustible.
When I visited Yosemite with photographer Mark Boster in late May, we glanced at a few other popular spots, but mostly we chased Half Dome variations. Though we didn’t summit the big rock—the climbing cables weren’t in place for the season—we saw it from so many directions and elevations that I started thinking of it as the third member of our traveling party.
Some people say Half Dome looks like a football helmet or a broken bowling ball. I always saw a dented ranger’s hat. Until this trip.
For a proper introduction or a ritual re-introduction, a traveler heads from the park’s south entrance to the Tunnel View turnout. You may find yourself standing in a crowd—on a busy day, 5,000 people pause here—but you’ll spot Half Dome, bracketed by El Capitan to the left, Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall to the right. And if the crowds are thin, you may think: This is the place. No view can match this. But just up the road, plenty can.
Bob Roney, author of “The Road Guide to Yosemite” and a ranger here for 40-plus years, met us at Tunnel View to explain how a work crew in the early 1930s spent months creating a shortcut for travelers, using a ton of blasting powder daily to make about 20 feet of progress.
Eventually, they had the Wawona Tunnel, nearly a mile long, and a small mountain of tailings at its east end. And somebody realized that the new mound had a big view.
Naturally, it didn’t take long after the tunnel’s 1933 opening for Ansel Adams to turn up with his tripod. Before long, Tunnel View was the iconic Yosemite view. It scarcely changed for 75 years, until a 2008 upgrade that smoothed traffic flow and opened up the view by cutting down a bunch of trees. Yes, the park service does that sometimes.
Still, Roney reminded us, no panorama is permanent, especially in a park that records dozens of rockfalls every year. “Sure as time moves forward,” Roney said, “this view will be wrecked by some other geologic event,” perhaps transformed “into something even more beautiful.”
And so to Mirror Lake, which is really a seasonal water hole a mile’s walk from the Mirror Lake shuttle-bus stop. In spring, if kids aren’t splashing, the still water gives you a perfect reflection of shapely Mt. Watkins to the north. The view is so mesmerizing, in fact, that you might not realize the stone wall just east of you is the base of Half Dome.
And it was near here, at 5:26 a.m. on March 28, 2009, that 115,000 tons of boulders and debris rained down from Ahwiyah Point, 1,800 feet up, near Half Dome. The impact generated a blast of air that leveled hundreds of trees up to 50 yards away. Nobody was hurt. But rockfalls (both naturally occurring and human-caused) occasionally do kill people in Yosemite. Falling rocks dislodged by climbers killed one El Capitan climber on May 20, another on June 2.
I soaked my feet in the shallows, listening for distant rumbles. Then Mark and I headed for the high country.
At Olmsted Point, along Tioga Road, we found a rock scape scoured by ancient ice and peppered with “erratics,” stray boulders nudged into strange places by glacial advances. From there, Half Dome is a far-off rounded lump that sometimes glows red at sunset. For us it turned a faint orange.
Another day, we drove to Glacier Point, which is only 7,214 feet above sea level but feels like the roof of the Earth, with jaw-dropping views of the valley. From there you seem to be even with Half Dome (though you’re really 1,600 feet below it), and the spectacle is an invitation to consider eternity and forget petty human affairs.
But then you’d miss the hooded photographer fussing with his 8-by-10 camera, or the British tourist dropping to one knee and proposing to his girlfriend (who says yes), or the guy who is about to throw a pebble into the abyss until a second guy threatens to throw him instead.
It got quieter when the sun dipped and set the dome aglow. Then the moon and stars took over. We stayed for hours.
But that’s not the view that destroyed my ranger’s-hat idea of Half Dome. It was Washburn Point, less than a mile from Glacier Point, that did it.
There, as at Glacier Point, you are reminded how puny Yosemite Valley is: 7 miles long and a mile wide, surrounded by nearly 1,200 more square miles of rugged high-country parkland. But Washburn Point also has a different angle on Half Dome, an angle that shows it isn’t a dome at all. To my eyes, it’s a thick, uneven slice of bread, maybe the heel of the loaf. Of course, it’s epic and all that, but you’d never make it your logo.
The Half Dome we love is the well-rounded idea of Half Dome, as seen from the valley, Olmsted Point and Glacier Point. Seeing its unrounded backside is like being told that Humphrey Bogart never said, “Play it again, Sam” in “Casablanca.” Part of you doesn’t want to know. And the other part figures that’s a good reason to watch the movie again.
Hiking Half Dome: what you need
To hike Half Dome, you need a clear, summery day, a permit, strong legs, strong lungs, food, water, a flashlight and a plan.
A few things you need in order to hike Half Dome:
• A clear, summery day. Because hiking Half Dome can be dangerous, the park service strongly discourages hiking it in the rain, when there are storm clouds or any time but in summer. Rangers say five hikers have died on the trail in the last decade, most losing their footing, often in the rain. To make things easier for hikers in the summer months, rangers put up removable steel cables just before Memorial Day most years to help climbers ascend the last 400 feet to the top. The cables come down around Columbus Day (in October).
• A permit from the National Park Service. To keep the trail from clogging with traffic when the cables are up, rangers require that you have a permit, and they set a limit of 300 hikers a day. Fees are $12.50 (if you apply online) or $14.50 (by phone). Check the Yosemite website at www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/hdpermits.htm.