There are a lot of impressive mountains in Yosemite and plenty more all around it so getting to the top of the park for a view of the world is only logical. Now to be fair, Mount Dana doesn’t actually rank as the tallest peak but at 13,061′, it’s less than 60′ shy of Mount Lyell and a heck of a lot easier to get to. With a 360 vista, it’s more than enough to get that view.
While I say easy to access, what I really mean is easy in summer. You see, Mount Dana is located on the eastern edge of the park just off highway 120, a world apart from the usual Yosemite Valley icons like Half Dome and El Capitan. It’s a part of Yosemite far fewer people venture to both for its distance to the main icons and the simple reality that for much of the year, the road it lies next to is covered in huge piles of snow.
But when 120 opens and the snow melts off, it’s an area that is worth every minute of the drive to see and hiking Dana gives you a bit of it all.
Warning: Despite its road-side accessibility, Mount Dana is nothing to take lightly. In early season, significant snow may cover the mountain (this post covers a summer hike). Even in summer, be aware of rapidly changing weather conditions and consider the altitude impact. Bring the 10 essentials + plenty of food, water and layers.
Getting to the Trailhead
The path to Mount Dana (it’s not an official trail but more on that below) starts at the Tioga Pass gates on highway 120. Navigation is simple given the landmark. From the south or west entrances, drive to highway 120 and take it until you leave Yosemite. From the east side, take 395 to 120 until you reach Yosemite.
There is significant parking just outside the park boundaries but staying inside and walking from the small lots down the road saves you from having to wait for people coming into the park to pay up.
Facilities, Lodging & Things Around the Trail
The east side of Yosemite is far more remote than you may be use to in the Valley. While you have a ranger station right at the trailhead, you won’t find much in the way of food or bathrooms, especially not food so pack what you need in.
Be sure to fill up on gas in advance as well. The closest station is at 395, just 15 minutes away but it’s quite expensive so if you come from the west, fill up before you hit the park. You’ll also find food and lodging at the 395 junction in Lee Vining.
Along the road through Yosemite is the Tuolumne Valley store and restaurant. It’s small with limited hours and selection but gets the job done for a beer, snack and souvenir after the hike if you’re headed back west. Camping inside the park can be booked months in advance, there are forest service campgrounds and dispersed camping just outside the park towards 395 however.
The [Official] Hike to the Top
While Mount Dana is probably one of the most accessible 13ers (mountains in the 13,000′ range), there’s not actually an official trail up it apparently. But that shouldn’t stop you: the route to the top has a use trail so well defined I have to imagine it was once developed formally. You won’t find a trailhead sign, you will find a trail.
What should stop or at least give you a reason to pause is the climb and the altitude. The hike up Dana starts right at the Tioga Pass aka East Gate of Yosemite which sits at 9,943′. The summit via the use trail is less than 2.5 miles away at 13,061′. That means an effective gain of 3,118′ are coming at you real quick. Thankfully with more than a 1,000′ to climb per mile, there’s not much in the way of extra downhill to content with but expect to be going up and up at a solid clip start to end. Furthermore, you’ll be going up to 13k which brings the very real risk of altitude sickness and will almost certainly slow you down.
As for the trail its self, you can divided it into 3 major sections: the dirt, the easy part and the rocks.
Heading out from Tioga Pass and highway 120, you’ll immediately find yourself in a conditions that make you think my warnings are crazy. A gentle trail cuts through tall grass past a couple rather nice lakes. It’s a great sight but the mellow terrain won’t last and very soon, you’re headed up via a meandering but direct trail. Small switchbacks and short turns along the dirt trail bring you up the hillside and will quickly have you feeling the 10,000′ elevation.
Making your way up towards 11,000, you’ll pass between some larger rocks and leave the comfort of the lush landscape behind entering the second part of the climb.
As the dirt path leads you further up, it crests at a flat-ish area where you’ll find a small rock shelter (look for local residents who will gladly steal the food out of your pack if you turn your back here). While no part of the trail is ever flat, the next bit is as close as it gets as you transition onto rock now able to see Mount Dana above you.
It’s not long before flat turns to uphill and the third and final stretch begins as the use trail marked by a mix of large carins and some defined dirt patches leads you right on up the mountain. If you’re following the beaten path, it remains a hike but there are some bigger steps along the way where a hand or two may come into play to aid your ascent. Pushing up ever higher, it’s not long before the summit becomes clear, there’s no trick to this one, it is right where it should be.
At the top, you’ll find a large plateau with a few good lunch spots and a small, rock built wind shelter. There’s an old benchmark on the high side near where you summited as well. Enjoy the view in all direction, take a a few 13k breaths and soak it in before the fast return.
Tip: Trekking poles are your knees best friend and extra helpful for avoiding a bad slip on the steep, rocky and dusty trail down.
Quick facts about the trail:
- Route: Out and Back
- Official Rating: Difficult
- Start point: Tioga Pass Gate
- Distance: ~5.25 miles r/t
- Duration: 5-7 hours
- Elevation Gain: 3,100′
- Facilities: None
- Water: None
- Crowds: Light
- Cell coverage: Some on the summit
- Permits: None