Yosemite’s North Rim

In the Footsteps of John Muir [Part II]

John Muir described two single day Yosemite hikes in Chapter 12 of his book The Yosemite. The chapter is titled “How Best to Spend One’s Yosemite Time.” By today’s standards, these hikes are very difficult – about 20 miles with around 5000-ft of elevation gain.  We followed his advice and completed the first recommended hike back in October 2013.  It was probably the hardest day hike we’ve ever done.  We were game for the second one. Muir’s second single day hike takes you up Yosemite Falls to Eagle Peak, over to the top of El Capitan, then back down to the Valley via the (now abandonned) Old Big Oak Flat Road Trail (OBOFRT). 

In John Muir’s words, here is the description:

Another grand one-day excursion is to the Upper Yosemite Fall, the top of the highest of the Three Brothers, called Eagle Peak on the Geological Survey maps; the brow of El Capitan; the head of the Ribbon Fall; across the beautiful Ribbon Creek Basin; and back to the Valley by the Big Oak Flat wagon road.

We decided to hike the trail in reverse for a few reasons:

  • We were unsure of the exact condition of the OBOFRT.  A portion of the old road crosses several rockslides.  (It’s also been called the Rockslides Trail.)  We figured it would be safer to scramble over unstable terrain on fresh legs at the beginning of our hike.
  • We wanted to save the best for last.  Eagle Peak and Yosemite Falls are a bit more visually impressive than the forested, abandoned road.
  • We were staying at the Yosemite Lodge, near the end of the Yosemite Falls trail.  It made sense to drive to the trailhead, end the hike at our hotel, then pick up the car the following day.
Distance: 20.8 mi | Elevation: +8500 ft / -8500 ft | Download gpx

Finding the Trail: This hike is a little tricky because the Old Big Oak Flat Road Trail is not shown on most maps. It’s on the USGS 7.5′ El Capitan Quad map which can be viewed at CalTopo. The Rockslides and Rainbow View are labeled on many maps, but the trail itself is not.

The trailhead is on the righthand side of the road at marker V7 as you exit the Valley, somewhere past El Capitan Meadow. It’s approximately 3 miles past Camp 4. It can also be reached via the Valley Loop Trail (which we walked the next day to retrieve our car). There is a wide dirt turnout with plenty of parking. The hike begins at the closed gate.

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Trail Description:  We parked in the “V7” turnout at around 7am.  The parking area is next to a gate, connecting to a paved road that becomes the OBOFRT.  We followed the road up as it switched back and began climbing out of the Valley. The OBOFRT is fairly well maintained by park staff (and perhaps for park staff) all the way up to the North Rim trail.

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After about a mile, we began encountering minor and major rockslides.  We just continued following the same average grade of the road, right through all the slides.  In a few spots, we climbed over fields of large boulders but we were able to pick up the road again on the other side.

The old road next to an old rock slide.
The old road at sunrise.
Looking across Yosemite Valley to Bridalveil Fall.
Looking across Yosemite Valley to Bridalveil Fall.

We hiked west for quite some time until we reached a switchback in the road.  We looked uphill and could see the road 80-ft or so above us.  Rather than switching back (which would have been wise), we clawed our way straight up the steep gully.   We were slipping and sliding over loose gravel.  I put my hand in a thistle in an attempt to hold on.  Ouch.

Hiked up this. It doesn't look so bad....
Stupid steep gully we hiked up.

We did finally reach the road again.  We recovered from our dumb climb and continued onwards to Rainbow View.  Rob was disappointed that we did not see a rainbow, but Bridalveil Fall was pretty.  We sat behind the old railing, ate some food, then continued up the OBOFRT.

06
Rainbow View

About a mile past Rainbow View, we reached another open area with views up and down the Merced Canyon. We could see across to Wawona Road (Highway 41) and Tunnel View.  I pointed out the Fireplace Bluffs above us, which prompted Rob to check his map and see that there was a benchmark from 1935 somewhere near us.  After a quick search, we located it.

Benchmark somewhere along the Old Big Oak Flat Road Trail.
Benchmark somewhere along the Old Big Oak Flat Road Trail.

Interestingly, 1935 was the beginning of the end for the Old Big Oak Flat Road, as planning and construction for the new Big Oak Flat Road began that year.

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An old retaining wall. Not really how we build them today, but still here after 140 years.
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Snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea). My favorite parasitic plant (because it’s hot pink!) It lives off the fungi that attach to the roots of trees.

We entered the forest again and after climbing over and under a number of fallen trees, we reached the North Rim trail (4.5 miles from our trailhead). Our well-graded, somewhat paved climb out of the Valley was over. We now followed a steeper footpath to climb up into the high country.

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Long way to go…

The hike started to feel long; it was another 5.5 miles from the junction to the top of El Capitan.  The OBOFRT is interesting because it has some historical significance  – it’s neat (for us civil engineers) to see the old retaining walls and washed out culverts.  The North Rim trail is mostly just forested.  We only saw one other person all morning: a backpacker who told us he was from the Pacific Northwet.  Eventually we reached a sad place called Ribbon Meadow.  Sad because it should be covered in snow and instead, was brown and boggy. There were no flowers but no mosquitos either. Still too cold.  We crossed Ribbon Creek but decided not to visit the top of Ribbon Fall as John Muir had suggested.  We’ll have to return in the future when there’s more water in all the creeks and falls.

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As we neared the top of El Capitan we started seeing other people.  There were a few climbers on a cliff to the west of El Cap, then we met a guy from the Czech Republic who had the exact same Leki trekking poles as Rob.  We talked gear; he was really excited when Rob pointed out that the Leki poles are made in the Czech Republic.  Several more people showed up as we sat and ate our lunch.  We took in the views but the wind picked up, we got cold, and soon we were back on the trail heading for Eagle Peak.

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Summit, El Capitan.
Half Dome viewed through the rock arch on top of El Cap.
Half Dome viewed through the rock arch on top of El Cap.

Eagle Peak is another 2.5 miles from the summit of El Capitan. The trail descended a few hundred feet that we’d have to make up again.  Soon we reached the trail junction: one path lead to Yosemite Falls, the other up towards Eagle Peak summit (0.3 miles away).

We hiked slowly; we were 10+ miles into this hike and getting kind of tired.   Eagle Peak (7779′) has several large rocky outcroppings at the top.  The tallest point is at the very end of the trail.  The view is breathtaking.  We could see mountains in every direction, Yosemite Falls, Nevada Fall, Half Dome and tiny little cars and buildings down on the Valley.

View from Eagle Peak.
View from Eagle Peak.

From Eagle Peak we had about 6 miles and 5000-ft of descent ahead of us.  We stopped briefly at the top of Upper Yosemite Fall.  There were a lot of other hikers at the overlook.  We watched as a guy accidentally dropped his 1-gallon water bottle over the railing – it disappeared down the falls in an instant.

Granite stairs down to the Yosemite Fall overlook.
Granite stairs down to the Yosemite Fall overlook.
Looking down Upper Yosemite Fall.
Looking down Upper Yosemite Fall.

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The wind picked up and the sun dropped behind the cliffs as we began the long descent down the Yosemite Falls Trail.  It was dark by the time we made it back to the Valley floor.  We reached Yosemite Lodge around 8pm, 13 hours after beginning our hike.

More Info: You can find some more information about OBOFRT in this PDF: Historical American Engineering Record (HAER) No. CA-147 

Backpacker.com has a description of a backpacking trip following (more or less) the same route: Alone in a Crowd: Hiking Yosemite’s North Rim.

A good description of our hike from the trailhead up to Rainbow View can be found on http://www.panamintcity.com/.

The book The Yosemite by John Muir is available as html for free from Sierra Club, or free from Amazon (Kindle version), or free from Google Books (EPUB, PDF).

5 thoughts on “Yosemite’s North Rim”

    1. Hi Maia,

      My GPS wasn’t very accurate on the switchbacks which probably leads to the elevation accumulation errors, especially when oversampled. What do you use to make your incredibly detailed elevation profiles?

Any thoughts?