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Alone in a Crowd: Hiking Yosemite’s North Rim

Yosemite Valley may be popular–rightfully so–but it still holds secrets. Hike this long-forgotten trail on the North Rim, and you'll have the granite icons to yourself.

The next day, we leave the OBOFRT and pick up the North Rim trail, following it east toward El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. We cross open expanses of glacier-crushed granite where the blue sky blazes overhead, then enter a forest of giant sugar pines.

In a few hours, we arrive at the top of Yosemite Falls, the tallest verified fall in North America at 2,390 feet. Now, in mid-October, Yosemite Creek is a string of placid pools, and it’s difficult to imagine it as a mammoth firehose capable of blasting me off the cliff. Yet even without the crushing torrents of water I’d see during peak runoff in May and June, I still shiver when I lean out over the precipice and gape at the falls. From below, when runoff is low, the water can break up into wispy curtains and blow across the granite face in a rainbow of colors.

At the top of the falls, I bid farewell to Pete: This is where he must peel off, hiking back to his car via the Yosemite Falls Trail so he can spend tomorrow in the office. Tonight I’ll camp alone, a little upstream from the falls. “But tomorrow night,” Pete says, “you’re in for a treat. I wish I could stay out with you,” he sighs before turning for home.

The next morning, I pack quickly and follow the cairns up Yosemite Point, a smooth lump of granite that looms high enough above the falls to catch the morning’s first rays. I bask for a minute to warm my chilly fingers, then continue east along an open ridge affording 360-degree views: On my right is the Valley, 3,000 feet below; to my left, the rounded mountains of the Sierra present a montage of gumdrop-shaped hills of granite. I don’t meet another hiker for 4.5 miles, until I come to North Dome, a 7,542-foot promontory and a popular nine-mile dayhike from Tioga Road. A scant six people bask on the rock–a tiny fraction of the numbers you’d encounter on other, shorter dayhikes. Continuing on, I travel another six miles through sun-soaked forest so dry my boots stamp puffs of dust from the trail. The afternoon’s heat releases the pines’ pleasant fragrance, but by the time I reach Snow Creek and the gravelly bench where I’ll camp, salt and grit plaster my skin, so I strip for a bracing bath that’s almost as invigorating as the scene from my tent.

Tomorrow, I’ll descend into Yosemite Valley with its gridlocked parking lots and milling crowds. But tonight, blissfully removed from the traffic, I camp at Snow Creek, a grandstand spot with the best view ever framed by nylon.
Like the moon enlarged 1,000 times, Half Dome fills the sky above me, its circular sweep interrupted by impossible flatness. Its neighbor, Clouds Rest, contrasts Half Dome’s massive plane with random bulges and ripples that look like liquid, not stone. I’d expect to be over granite by now, after admiring it all week, but I’m more mesmerized than ever. As the slanting sun turns those monoliths orange, then pink, then an ominous gray, I can’t tear my gaze away. Maybe because there’s no one else here to bear witness, I watch with the eyes of 10 people.

Despite working and hiking alone, Colorado-based freelancer Kelly Bastone insists she likes people.

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