NATIONAL PARK ó 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.
Iím looking at Half Dome, the great granite hood
ornament of Yosemite National Park, I understand Hokusai
and Fuji. You see Half Dome on a centuryís worth of
postcards, on Ansel Adams prints and Sierra Club
calendars, on your waiterís name tag at the Wawona
Hotel, on the new California driverís licenses.
to me, it seems inexhaustible.
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 didnít summit
the big rock ó the climbing cables werenít in place
for the season ó we saw it from so many directions and
elevations that I started thinking of it as the third
member of our traveling party.
people say Half Dome looks like a football helmet or a
broken bowling ball. I always saw a dented rangerís hat.
Until this trip.
a proper introduction or a ritual re-introduction, a
traveler heads from the parkís south entrance to the
Tunnel View turnout. You may find yourself standing in a
crowd ó on a busy day, 5,000 people pause here ó but
youíll 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,
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.
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.
it didnít take long after the tunnelís 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.
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
so to Mirror Lake, which is really a seasonal water hole a
mileís walk from the Mirror Lake shuttle-bus stop. In
spring, if kids arenít 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
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
soaked my feet in the shallows, listening for distant
rumbles. Then Mark and I headed for the high country.
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
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 youíre really 1,600 feet
below it), and the spectacle is an invitation to consider
eternity and forget petty human affairs.
then youíd 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.
got quieter when the sun dipped and set the dome aglow.
Then the moon and stars took over. We stayed for hours.
thatís not the view that destroyed my rangerís-hat
idea of Half Dome. It was Washburn Point, less than a mile
from Glacier Point, that did it.
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 isnít a dome at all.
To my eyes, itís a thick, uneven slice of bread, maybe
the heel of the loaf. Of course, itís epic and all that,
but youíd never make it your logo.
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 doesnít want to
know. And the other part figures thatís a good reason to
watch the movie again.
HALF DOME: WHAT YOU NEED
hike Half Dome, you need a clear, summery day, a permit,
strong legs, strong lungs, food, water, a flashlight and a
few things you need in order to hike Half Dome:
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).
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 for more