Yosemite’s Snow Creek Trail: You will grind your teeth and smile a thousand times!
Spring Break screams out for hiking and camping after a tough winter of studying and exams. A loose group of us from a couple of different campuses agreed to caravan to Yosemite. I had been looking forward to the trip for weeks. Friends of friends tagged along: we ended up with about 15 people in the group. Hikers were at various levels of physical condition, skill and enthusiasm for a challenge.
Much to our disappointment, portions of the park were closed due to weather and other seasonal constraints. I was very disappointed that I would not be able to climb to the top of the renown and infamous Half Dome. But, I guess I can look forward to that experience on a future trip!
The various closures forced us to find different hiking trails than we had originally intended. With so many people in the group, we needed alternatives. We checked with the park ranger (always a good default plan) who recommended two different trails given the differing levels of challenge members of our group requested.
Those of us who wanted a peak experience opted for the Snow Creek Trail. While Snow Creek Trail may not be quite as popular as
some of Yosemite’s other trails like Upper Yosemite Falls or Panorama Trail, it should not be overlooked. Most hikers who have completed the trail have described it as “strenuous’ and “brutally difficult.” The casual hikers in our group felt those descriptions were too mild. The rest of us just found it to be awesome fun; just what we wanted. We had a good work-out, spectacular views of Half Dome and sun and snow. What isn’t to love about that kind of day?
The official starting point is at Trailhead Camp 4. There are no signs to direct hikers toward the Snow Creek Trail itself from Curry Village. We had to follow the signs to Mirror Lake, which does lead to the entrance to Snow Creek Trail. We struck out along the main trail past Mirror Lake. The lake was a placid body of water along the floor of Yosemite Valley underneath the looming Half Dome. Some of my friends wanted to linger by the water, so our group became a little smaller. Mirror lake also provides the last bathroom stop before embarking on the Snow Creek Trail – a bit of information especially appreciated by some female hikers.
We struck out along the main trail past Mirror Lake into a heavily wooded area for roughly half a mile. The main trail branches into a labyrinth of connected trails that wander throughout the Yosemite Valley floor. A lot of the trails were temporarily closed due to rock and mud slides. But there, right before us and clear as day, was a large boulder with a metal plaque affixed that announced were at the Snow Creek trailhead.
I have heard or read that there are between 96 and 108 switchbacks on the trail. I wasn’t counting: both sound about right to me. It was the beauty of the views that what captured our attention. In the first two miles, the trail rises 2400 feet. It is damn steep.
As it went, we lost a couple of other people from our group after a mile or so. I was fine with their decision since they went back to camp to start dinner. Our small remaining group forged on. Our original motley (colorful) crew clearly demonstrated that hikers should be in good physical condition for this hike. The Snow creek Trail presents a physical challenge equal to that of the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail. It is a 6.8 mile round trip, but that is a little deceiving. The grade and rapid elevation increase bump it up significantly.
For those of you who are thinking about cool places to explore, the Snow Creek Trail effort is definitely worth it. Snow Creek Trail is one of the most beautiful trails in this world famous park. Breath taking views of the valley emersed us along every inch to the top.
On the hike up, we gauged our ascent along the trail by comparing our elevation to nearby landmarks such as basket Dome, Tenaya Falls and Half Dome. And any disappointment that I had felt earlier in not being able to scale Half Dome was more than offset by the splendor of seeing it before me from the vantage point of Snow Creek Trail.
As the small gaggle of our remaining party looked over the glorious view, I stood in awe. Half Dome is closed throughout the winter and into early spring. Snow and ice make the trip too hazardous for nearly any hiker. It is a great thing that Snow creek is open year round, lying directly across from the fabled Half Dome.
When we started this hike, we began in the shadows of the 8,842-foot high edifice of the Half Dome; excited, but feeling somewhat like
we were on an intrepid journey. A new trail, a new hike is always invigorating and a bit intimidating. When we reached the top of the trail, we were face to face with Yosemite’s most fabled view of its valley. The pain and sweat were an extremely meager price to pay. The pay-off was the180 degree views.
As a group, we experienced nearly every biome that Yosemite has to offer along the trip. The valley floor is a dim forest under the shadow Half Dome. The temperature was cool but only required a light sweater. We began to peel off layers of clothing though as we hiked along the trail in the spring afternoon sun. There were scattered patches of trees which provided ample amounts of shade but didn’t hinder our views of the valley around us.
Conditions suddenly changed toward the summit of the trail as we soon found ourselves in a snow covered pine forest. The snow was quite thick (waist deep at some points), but didn’t prevent us from enjoying a well-earned afternoon lunch. It should be noted, however, that hikers on the Snow Creek are advised to carry some type of winter gear or space blanket in case they are caught on the trail in the dark. Yosemite is notorious for having temperatures that drop rapidly, as we soon found out.
Snow Creek trail is not as popular as some of Yosemite’s other trails. In spring, that was a good thing: we had the trail almost to ourselves. As mentioned above, this description of the Snow Creek Trail bear repeating: Hikers, myself included, would describe the trail as “strenuous” and “brutally difficult.” It is the steepest of the five trails from the Yosemite Valley floor.
Yet, once you have completed the trail and experienced the views, you may well agree that ‘the juice is worth the squeeze.’ To a person, our remaining small group of hikers agreed. Snow Creek Trail is a terrific experience for Fresh Air Junkies looking for a physical challenge, truly breathtaking views and overall moving Yosemite experience.
By Kevin Varner
Photography: Kevin Varner and colleagues