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The Easy Off-Trail hike to Mt Watkins (long)

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The Easy Off-Trail hike to Mt Watkins (long)
June 29, 2012 11:40PM
While recently compiling my list of off-trail hikes near Yosemite Valley (see link), I was surprised to find no good links to the very easy off-trail hike from the quarry on Tioga Pass Road to Mount Watkins. This is such a nice easy hike, with such spectacular views, that I just had to dig around and find some info and photos on it. This is the hike that we take visiting family members on, when they complain that all the usual trails are full of people in the summer. You may see a few people on this hike, in the summer, but it could never be called "crowded".

From the highway to the northeast summit of Watkins is two miles, with a drop in elevation of 400 feet. The walk is down an open ridge, very easy going, to the saddle behind the summit, then an easy walk on granite and grass to the top. From there you have incredible views of the Pywiack Cascade in Tenaya Canyon, of Clouds Rest, of Half Dome and North Dome and Basket Dome, and all the rest.

First a couple words about Mount Watkins. It is a lot like El Capitan, except it doesn't have any roads and trail along its base. Like El Capitan, it has a smooth granite face 3000 feet tall. The main summit is 4500 feet above Yosemite Valley. From there you walk along two major branches of the mountain. The Northeast Summit looks down at Pywiack Cascade. Here is the view looking back up at the Northeast Summit from near Pywiack Pool at the cascade's bottom:



and the corresponding view looking down from Mt Watkins, with Pywiack Pool just peeking out from Airplane Gully.:



The usual route down Tenaya Canyon traverses over to the right edge of the photo, then diagonally downward to the left. That little speck about a third of the way down the cascade is actually a rather large pothole cave, as a long lens will prove:



Mount Watkins is a splendid sight from Clouds Rest:



That is a view of Watkin's main summit and the south ridge leading from it. Note the Watkins Pinnacles along its left edge.

But the view of the face of Clouds Rest from Mt Watkins shows a few wrinkles:



OK. Enough tourist photos. You can take your own photos. Here is what you need to know. Mt. Watkins (like North Dome) forms the south end of a long ridge that goes right up to Tioga Pass Highway. You can park there, instead of way over at Olmstead Point. You should park in the large pullout area on the north side of the highway at a big bend and road cut. This is an official trail head, just not one intended for Mt. Watkins. At the east end of the road cut is a gated road into a quarry that was used in building the highway. The quarry itself is hidden from the road, but you will follow a pack trail that goes up and along the top edge of the quarry, then follow the trail until it foolishly takes a right turn and heads off down hill to the west. At that point, you walk ahead down the ridge until you hit the trail from Olmstead Point at the slight saddle behind the peak. If you keep your eyes open, you will observe that you are following a cross country ski route with small metal flags up high in the trees along the east side of the ridge.

The quarry:



The highway is in a road cut just off the the right. The trail runs above the quarry on the ridge.



Here A1 is the parking area, A2 is along the existing pack trail, A3 is where you clearly see that the saddle is slightly to the left. As you start up the dome at A4, you can decide whether to go the the Northeast Summit at A6 first, or to the true summit at A7. From the true summit, you will continue down the south ridge towards Half Dome until you are happy with the view. Eventually you will be able to see right down into gorge of Tenaya Canyon.

Here is the profile from the highway to the Northeast Summit:



You can see that the saddle is only 400 feet below the highway.

When we do this hike, the geezers then go back to the car, but the young bucks head back towards the saddle and then down the Snow Creek Trail to the valley.

From Half Dome:



5 is the parking area. 1 is the true summit. 2 is the northeast summit. 3 is the usual viewpoint on the south ridge. 4 is as far back as you need to go if you are heading down to the Snow Creek Trail. You can head directly down from there.
avatar Re: The Easy Off-Trail hike to Mt Watkins (long)
June 29, 2012 11:45PM
Wow, beau-tee-full, and very informative.
Re: The Easy Off-Trail hike to Mt Watkins (long)
July 01, 2012 12:17PM
Coolio.

You know, I've seen it on maps countless times, usually in reports like this, and I've been close to it at Olmsted, but I've never actually seen a pic of 'Hidden Lake'.

Can you see it from the trail, or is it too, well, hidden?
avatar Re: The Easy Off-Trail hike to Mt Watkins (long)
July 01, 2012 12:43PM
Quote
tanngrisnir3
Coolio.

You know, I've seen it on maps countless times, usually in reports like this, and I've been close to it at Olmsted, but I've never actually seen a pic of 'Hidden Lake'.

Can you see it from the trail, or is it too, well, hidden?

It is not visible from the trail but it is an easy few minutes to get to it.



Old Dude



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 07/01/2012 11:29PM by mrcondron.
Re: The Easy Off-Trail hike to Mt Watkins (long)
July 01, 2012 04:35PM
Thanks for this. Watkins is, perhaps, my favorite mountain of all. I believe it was Secor that turned an easy hike into a difficult one by going down the steep gully between Watkins side buttress and the main mountain, down into Tenaya Canyon. Any crazies have successfully navigated down that insane path?
Re: The Easy Off-Trail hike to Mt Watkins (long)
July 01, 2012 10:15PM
Quote
Ohnivy-Drak
Thanks for this. Watkins is, perhaps, my favorite mountain of all. I believe it was Secor that turned an easy hike into a difficult one by going down the steep gully between Watkins side buttress and the main mountain, down into Tenaya Canyon. Any crazies have successfully navigated down that insane path?

Secor writes mountaineering guides. I haven't seen that particular quote, but I have read an account, at least a hundred years old, by a fisherman who spent a week up in Lost Valley (above the first rappel), who said that he had checked out several different routes up to the rim on the Watkins side of the canyon. Only one of those could have been Airplane Gully. The route that you mention looks possible from a distance, but very steep in places and very bushy in others. You would have to go there and check it out, and probably be willing to do some seriously steep friction pitches.
Re: The Easy Off-Trail hike to Mt Watkins (long)
July 02, 2012 10:14PM
You're right, it wasn't Secor. I think it was an Italian guy that went down that Watkins gully. It was not a good idea, he nearly lost his life. I'll think of the name at some point, lol.
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