If you are looking for an easily accessible day hike that provides a top of the world experience, Mt. Dana in Yosemite National Park California is a great choice. Topping out at 13,053′ the hike is strenuous but the views from the top are outstanding.
Even though this is a relatively short hike at a little over 6 miles round trip, it starts at a higher elevation than most people are used to and gains over 3,000 vertical feet. In addition, there is no maintained trail, just trails that have formed naturally from use over time. Therefore it is wise to be prepared. It is usually pretty cool and windy at the summit so bring a fleece or jacket no matter how warm it is at the trailhead. Sun protection is a must. Slather on high SPF sunscreen, wear a hat and sunglasses that block 100% of UV light. At this altitude, you can get fried at an alarming rate. As always, be aware of the weather and start down as soon as any signs of storms appear. There is no quick way to get off the summit if a storm sneaks up on you. You will get dehydrated quickly at this altitude so drink early and often.
The trail starts at Tioga Pass. Look for it to the east of the parking area. As mentioned before, it is not maintained so the condition changes over time, but it gets enough use to make it pretty easy to follow. Early in the hike you will pass two small ponds. A few hundred yards beyond the ponds the trail begins to climb moderately for maybe half a mile or so – then the climb really begins. The path climbs steadily, quickly knocking off about half the elevation gain to the summit before fading out about a mile and 1,500 vertical feet from the summit. This area has been marked by a cairn but at this point your objective is pretty clear. The top 1,000 feet or so is mostly large scree so the going can be very slow as you rock hop your way to the top. I usually go east and follow the ridge up, but there is no one correct way to go from here and you may see people scattered all over the summit pyramid. Remember, you are over 12,000 feet here so take your time. The summit isn’t going anywhere and there is just too much view to soak in to rush it.
The view from the top is a truly outstanding 360 degree panorama that will blow your mind. The first thing I notice is the sky. It is usually a brilliant dark blue that most people never see. Turning your eyes outward there are just too many sights to list here. My eye is usually drawn first to Mono Lake with a view that looks like you are in an airplane. If you haven’t been to Mono Lake, the tufa preserve is a great place to go after your hike. It is really cool later in the day and looks otherworldly at sunset. The flat plateau below the summit to the east is the Dana Plateau. It is easy to picture the uplift that created the Sierra Nevada when you see the flat plateau ending in an abrupt drop as if it was ripped from the valley floor below. Then look for Boundary Peak in Nevada, many familiar peaks in the Mammoth Lakes area and a stunning view of most of the Yosemite National Park high country.
Once you have soaked in the view remember to take your time coming down. The footing is often rough and the view will continue to draw your attention away. There are often snow fields that can look like a welcome break from the rock hopping but they can be deceptively dangerous. If you choose to descend one be sure you are able to arrest yourself in a fall and watch out for places where the snow may give way into gaps between the rocks. Once you get back to the parking area you’ll see why the Mt. Dana hike offers some of the best hiking in California.