No two years are the same. With precipitation far below average, this year looks to be one where the high country will be best enjoyed early in the season.
Plowing of Yosemite’s Glacier Point Road began on Monday and work will begin on the Tioga Road (Highway 120) next Monday.
Sonora Pass (Highway 108) is already open to Kennedy Meadows and the remainder of the route is likely to open soon.
While the Tioga Road Pass remains closed, Smith Peak is one of the best places to experience a bit of Yosemite’s high country. Although the summit may seem relatively low at only 7,751 feet, it stands far enough away from other peaks to offer grand, 360-degree views of northwestern Yosemite.
From the top you can see parts of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir far below you, gaze up the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, and spot peaks throughout the park and the neighboring Emigrant Wilderness.
The trek is a long one, no matter which trail you choose. From Mather Ranger Station at the Hetch Hetchy Entrance to Yosemite, it’s a 16-mile round trip with 3,300 foot elevation gain. You can shave 2.5 miles off the distance by driving six miles beyond the entrance station and parking at a turnout marked “Smith Meadow.”
A steep climb up the mountainside will connect you with the main trail for a 13.4 mile trip with a 3,700 foot elevation gain.
The Hetch Hetchy Entrance opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 7p.m., so it is necessary to pace yourself if you plan to accomplish the hike in a day. We arrived when the gate opened and exited just before closing time.
Although we took the shorter trail and avoided long breaks, we had just enough time to enjoy the hike and get back to the entrance station. For this reason the trip is probably best enjoyed as an overnight backpack. Difficulty-wise, it’s nearly comparable to Half Dome and the view is just as grand.
Getting to the summit involves a near constant climb. There are some flat stretches in between, but the majority of the hike is uphill to the summit. The trail has not yet been cleared for the season and there are a few trees to be circumnavigated, but the route is relatively clear until the final mile below the summit.
That final mile is rougher, with a lot of thorny ceanothus overgrowing the path. The bare granite of the summit had some large patches of lingering snow last weekend, but with the warm weather it won’t be there much longer.
Most hikers camp at Smith Meadow, 1.5 miles below the final climb to the top. Water is currently available at the meadow, but later in the season Cottonwood Creek is the most reliable source.
Much of the trail is exposed, passing through an area that burned several years ago. Now is the time to go because it can be a hot hike. We each drank three liters of water on the way up and had to refill our bottles for the trip down. We enjoyed some wildflowers on the lower part of the trail, though spring has not yet come to Smith Meadow.
Despite the grand views, we only saw four other people the entire time we were on the trail. Hetch Hetchy is one of the least-visited parts of Yosemite that you can access by road. The Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station is located on Evergreen Road. To find it, head east on Highway 120. About a mile before the Big Oak Flat Entrance, watch for signs indicating a left turn on Evergreen Road.
If you’re not up for the challenge of Smith Peak, the Hetch Hetchy area offers other springtime hikes. The five-mile round trip trail to Wapama Falls is my favorite moderately easy hike in the area. The water falls and cascades downhill for a total descent of almost 1,300 feet. The trail crosses the fall on a bridge where hikers get blasted with cool mist – a true refreshment after walking the hot, exposed trail. To minimize the heat, start early and don’t forget a broad-brimmed hat and sunscreen.
By mid-May this trail is often too hot to be enjoyed. Start your walk by crossing O’Shaughnessy Dam and walking through the tunnel on the other side. The trail follows the shore of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir with some moderate uphill and downhill sections. Wapama Falls and Smith Peak are both unforgettable hikes.
Adam Blauert is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org