In my opinion Mount Watkins has one of the best views in the Yosemite Valley region. Unlike some of the more famous vistas which have a road or a designated trail leading to them (and associated crowds), Mount Watkins has neither and this largely explains its relative obscurity both in summer and especially in winter. I won’t deny, the solitude one can experience from this majestic perch is part of the allure for me. What’s certain is from the end of the Watkins Ridge one receives the best view of the massive granite apron that constitutes the northwest face of Clouds Rest. The vista also includes an excellent vantage of Half Dome as it towers above Yosemite Valley. The stunning panorama encompasses a good chunk of the National Park including Mount Starr King, the Clark Range, North Dome, Basket Dome, Mount Conness, Mount Hoffman and Glacier Point. In the summer it’s merely a 4 mile jaunt down from the Tioga Pass Highway to the edge of Watkins Ridge (where the best views are located) but in the winter it’s a more arduous trek up from Yosemite Valley via the switchbacks of the Snow Creek Trail and then off-trail from the vicinity of the Snow Creek Cabin up to the Watkins summit and down the ridge. However, the extra effort to reach Mount Watkins in the winter is richly rewarded with an experience is enhanced by snowy winter conditions.
The Snow Creek Trail is south facing and the lower part typically melts out a few days after snowfall (at least to the point snowshoes are not required; though some snow and ice may remain). After a fairly level trek to Mirror Lake and about a mile beyond, the trail gets to business with a long series of rocky switchbacks. Fortunately, views open up pretty quick and they only improve as one ascends. The most spectacular feature during this ascent is Half Dome, directly across the canyon, but in my opinion, the view across Tenaya Canyon to the Quarter Domes is equally impressive. Unless a heavy low elevation snowfall just occurred, snowshoes are typically only required near the top of the Snow Creek climb at ~6,500 ft where the gradient begins to flatten. The trail follows close to picturesque Snow Creek for a short distance before crossing the creek using a bridge. After the crossing the trail resumes a gradual climb through the forest up to a meadow area. Trees are marked with blazes to guide the direction if you happen to be breaking trail. The stretch from the Snow Creek crossing to the cabin passes through a forest that turns into a winter wonderland with an excellent mixture of large and small trees along with a diverse variety of pines and firs. The Snow Creek Cabin is just off the trail on the opposite side of a meadow. Topo maps have the cabin marked relatively close to its actual location and there are plenty of posts on the internet providing GPX tracks and specific directions. The cabin used to be somewhat of a secret as it’s open to the public for overnight stays during the winter, but word has gotten out and the internet is not helping. Staying at the cabin in the winter used to be unrestricted but unfortunately, too much demand has caused the park service to get out their free-flowing ream of red tape to implement yet another quota. Now one must either pick up a permit the afternoon before the trip (and arrange for accommodation or camping int he Valley) or the morning of the trip when the visitor center opens with no guarantees any spots are remaining. Neither option is convenient and makes heading up there for a day trip much more appealing. It turns out climbing up the steep Snow Creek trail to the Snow Creek Cabin and beyond to Mount Watkins is much more pleasant without overnight gear anyway. Perhaps if one wanted to continue beyond for a winter ascent of Mount Hoffman or Tuolumne Meadows I would consider a night at the cabin.
Although off trail, reaching Mount Watkins is fairly straightforward from the cabin. From the Snow Creek Cabin head southeast through open forest and then make a short but steep climb directly to the high point of Mount Watkins at 8,500 ft. The summit area is quite broad and therefore the high point does not have the best view. Instead, I highly recommend continuing down southwest from the summit around a half mile along the gently-sloping granite ridge studded with occasional pines. Eventually at around 8,200 ft the ridge becomes narrower and steeper and at this point the superior views are realized as one can gaze down into the depths of Tenaya Canyon all the way up the granite face to the summit of Clouds Rest. The sweeping panorama takes in everything from Mount Conness to the Yosemite Valley floor. The ridge is quite exposed to the elements and the stunted pines and junipers growing here are particularly picturesque making for some great photography subjects to pair with the magnificent view.
Two spots are referred to as the Diving Board on Half Dome. The most commonly visited, but unofficial diving board is located near the summit on a small overhanging lip above the precipitous northwest face. This feature has also been named “The Visor” and is the preferred name to differentiate with the official Diving Board (as labelled on the USGS topographic maps) located just west of Half Dome and directly below the northwest face. Discussion of the Diving Board hereinafter refers to the official Diving Board. The Diving Board is the location of one of Ansel Adams’ most famous photos, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, taken in 1927. Ansel was mesmerized by this location and described it as a “wondrous place… a great shelf of granite, slightly overhanging, and nearly 4000 feet above its base…the most exciting subject awaiting me.” 87 years later the Diving Board is just as captivating with the perspective of Half Dome from the Diving Board simply spectacular. The northwest face rises a sheer 2,000 feet and takes on the appearance of a colossal skyscraper. Most of the day the face is in the shade but in the afternoon it is slowly “revealed” from left to right as the sun progresses toward the western horizon. Ansel Adams captured this transition beautifully in his photo, remarking that he saw “the majesty of the sculptural shape of the Dome in the solemn effect of half sunlight and half shadow.” Ultimately, the entire face is illuminated by the afternoon sunlight and the evening progression brings an array of colors from grayish white in the late afternoon to yellow in the evening to orange at sunset and finally reddish at alpenglow.
The Diving Board is not far from the hustle and bustle of Yosemite Valley, but no trail reaches the point and any route requires some navigation and route finding skills. The most common and easiest route utilizes a use path that starts above Vernal Falls that travels behind Liberty Cap and Mount Broderick to Lost Lake. The use path continues past Lost Lake to a small saddle between Mount Broderick and Half Dome and then descends on the other side of the saddle before beginning a climb up steep slopes to the Diving Board. The more scenic and aesthetic route, known as “The Ledges” takes a different use path uphill from the Broderick-Half Dome Saddle to a series of well-placed ledges that cut across a granite slope. The Ledges route is the rock climbers’ approach to the popular Snake Dike route and other rock climbs in the vicinity. With close attention to cairns marking the path of least resistance, most brush can be avoided on this approach route. When the route reaches the ever-steepening cliffs of Half Dome’s southwest face, the ledges cut across the granite to climbers left. The various ledges are separated by short sections of class 3 climbing and a couple friction moves on the granite. From the ledges there are excellent views of Little Yosemite Valley, Cascade Cliffs, Bunnell Point, Mount Starr King and Mount Clark. Beyond the ledges, the approach switchbacks up to the start of the Snake Dike route. For the Diving Board, leave the approach route before it reaches the base of Half Dome and traverse right across lightly bushy terrain to a forested area in a small bowl. From the forest, travel up steep gravel slopes for the final couple hundred feet of vertical to the Diving Board.
The view from the Diving Board is remarkable. Aside from Half Dome’s massive northwest face front and center, North Dome, Basket Dome and Mount Watkins are prominent across Tenaya Canyon. Most of the major features of Yosemite Valley are visible including Glacier Point, the Royal Arches, Washington Column, Yosemite Falls, Eagle Peak and El Capitan. The view immediately below from the overhanging rock is vertigo-inducing with nearly 3,000 feet of air to the floor of Yosemite Valley. On this day, the black oaks and maple trees in the Valley were in full fall color adding further intrigue to the view at the bottom of the precipitous drop. An alternative approach route to Lost Lake is the small gully between Liberty Cap and Mount Broderick. This narrow corridor is situated between too massive, sculpted granite features and is worth the extra time and effort versus the easy usetrail above Vernal Falls. The route to this corridor between Liberty Cap and Mount Broderick begins at the point where the Mist Trail touches the granite of Liberty Cap. The use path traverses alongside the base of of Liberty Cap before dropping into the gully. Once in the gully it’s fairly obvious to head up the narrow corridor passing by some pine and fir trees along the way and a hanging valley with a meadow. The final portion enters a forest of fir and aspen before joining up with the primary use path to Lost Lake. The first dozen or so photos below are from this alternative route through the Broderick-Liberty Gap corridor and the remainder are from the Ledges Route and the Diving Board in general chronological order as the sunlight exposed the northwest face of Half Dome and the subsequent evening light progression. The Diving Board is certainly a spot I will return to experience in different season with varying light angles and clouds. I also hope to visit the spot when it is snow covered.