Moraine Dome
Sugarloaf Dome P300

Tue, Jul 16, 2013
Moraine Dome
Sugarloaf Dome
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile


Knowing the others wanted to sleep in, I got up quietly around 5:30a and left my wife and daughter in our tent cabin at Curry Village. I wanted to pay a visit to two dome near Yosemite Valley on the north side of the Merced River, Moraine and Sugarloaf domes. The second of these is officially unnamed, but at one time in the past it had been known as Sugar Loaf, the more recent incarnation of Sugarloaf Dome now found in Secor's Sierra guidebook. With the busses not running until 7a, I had to walk the mile distance to Happy Isle where I found myself by 6a. I crossed the Merced River at the bridge and started up the JMT which has a whole host of signs nowadays, warning of the many dangers and of course the need for a permit to hike to the summit of Half Dome. One of the signs was for a young lad who was swept over Vernal Fall on Jun 1 and has yet to be found. Not the sort of thing you'd want to run across while cavorting about in the river on a hot day in July. There were few hikers out on the trail, compared to what it would be like later in the morning. One group I came across in the beginning had just found a California King snake wandering across the trail, the first time I'd seen one of these in the Sierra. I crossed the bridge below Vernal Fall and started up the Mist Trail, passing more early risers here including a family with a few pre-teens. I'm always impressed with those parents that can get their kids going so early in the morning.

I was at the top of Nevada Fall by 7:15a where more signs reminded me to be sure I have enough water and a permit for Half Dome if going that way, and also recommending I take the JMT on the way down to be safe. I felt warm and secure knowing the Park Service was looking out for me. My route to Moraine Dome was pretty tame, following the JMT through Little Yosemite and around the backside of Half Dome, then up to the junction with the Half Dome Trail and east on the JMT until it passed within a quarter mile of the summit. The cross-country to the top was not difficult, through forest with modest amounts of downfall until reaching slabs higher up and taking these to the top.

I arrived in the sunshine at 9a, the top unobstructed by vegetation and more or less open to views save for the large size of the summit. Neither Half Dome nor Clouds Rest are particularly impressive from this vantage point, but there is a fine view looking up the Merced River past Bunnell Point and up into the drainage to the high peaks around Mt. Florence. Though lower, the better looking dome was Sugarloaf, and it was to this I next headed.

Getting between the two summits was less trivial than the three hours of mostly trail work that I'd already put in. If one drops down too quickly to the south or southeast, the slabs grow steeper and will eventually cliff out. I made a descending traverse to avoid the more circuitous route along the ridge crest and over Pt. 8,014ft but still found some steep slab slopes on the southeast side. I eventually found my way to a brushy gully that took a modest amount of thrashing through waist-high manzanita, but got me near the saddle between the two summits. During this traverse I was keeping an eye on the much larger gully descending from the saddle to the southwest between the two domes and down to the Merced Canyon - this was the shortcut back to Little Yosemite Valley that I planned to try and I wanted to get a measure of the brushiness and whether there were any unexpected drops that might stop downward progress on the way back. From the saddle to the top of Sugarloaf Dome was mostly brush-free thanks to more granite slabs that dominate the approach from the north. In all it took about 40 minutes to get from one summit to the next. The view of the Merced Canyon was better here than on Morraine Dome, but Half Dome and Clouds Rest were partially blocked by Moraine Dome. The broad cliff of Bunnell Point can be seen directly across the river on the south side of the canyon and Mt. Starr King can be seen with its distinctive three humps to the southwest.

I expected the most interesting part of the day would be the descent from Sugarloaf Dome and in this I was not disappointed. I returned to the saddle and started down the broad gully to the southwest that would offer the shortest route back to civilization. At first the going was pretty easy as it looked like bears may have created a use trail of sorts through the manzanita and other brush that grows thickly in the gully. Water runs down the center seasonally, but it was dry today as I clambered down boulders in the streambed and made my way down the first hundred yards or so. Things got brushier soon afterwards and I came to find myself thrashing down some of the nastiest stuff one could imagine. It didn't have any poison oak or sharp needles (those would have made it far nastier), but it was a real struggle. I had the advantage of going downhill that allowed me to step on the alder branches as I moved downward, not always able to see the ground itself and sort of trusting to no serious drops. The brush was tall enough in only a few places to make it easier to crawl through the stuff, but for most of it I had to wade into it, pushing aside what I could, going over or under if possible, and backtracking and finding another route where the most straightforward options just wouldn't work. At one point I heard what I thought was rockfall and paused to look across the canyon for signs of dust or debris coming down. But I realized the sounds were from below me where there was no rockfall possibilities, just acres of brush. The sounds continued, only fading now, and I realized it wasn't rockfall but the breaking of branches that I was hearing. I surmised that I must have startled a bear who took off down the gully ahead of me. The brush was too high to allow the bear to be seen and as he was much faster through the stuff than I could ever be, the sounds soon faded and it was heard from no more.

After 50 minutes I emerged on a granite slab below the brush, only a few minutes from the Merced Lake Trail I knew was below. There had been no serious drops at all for the length of the gully. I was little worse for the wear, a few new rips in my pants, the usual scratches and a couple of bruises, but otherwise intact. During the descent I could hear the roar of the Merced River below and spied a cascade into a pool not far from where I met up with the trail. I crossed the trail and went in search of the water feature, finding it in a few minutes. It looked to make an almost perfect waterslide, running down a smooth granite slab perhaps 30ft in height. It looked too good to pass up, so I wasted little time in stripping off my clothes and giving it a try. I made a short slide from near the bottom to test it out, then made three additional slides from the half way point. The speed that builds up is impressive, so much so that I was afraid to give it a try from the full height, but it was great fun. Afterwards I dried off in the sun, put my clothes back on and rejoined the trail.

The rest of the hike was not so eventful, following the the trail back to Little Yosemite Valley, and then down the Mist Trail past Nevada and Vernal Falls. Below Vernal Fall the crowds were at their peak, hundreds having come to hike the granite stairs to the top of the fall. It was quite scenic, and having expected the crowds I didn't really mind them. There were even more folks at the bridge below where one can hike a short distance of about a mile from Happy Isle to get a view of Vernal Fall. This is as far as most visitors seem to go go. It was 1p by the time I had gotten back to Happy Isle, making for a decent 7hr outing. I would spend the rest of the afternoon doing more bouldering and bike riding with my daughter. Not a bad way to spend a summer day in Yosemite...

Anonymous comments on 07/23/13:
Probably a good thing that the park service is looking out for you now that you are getting up in age.
Ed comments on 07/25/13:
I camped below that water slide slab on the Merced River about a decade ago with my son and his Boy Scout troop. Made for a nice afternoon....especially grateful no one slipped and cracked a bone.
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