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Hiking from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point on the Icy 4 Mile Trail

The icy 4 Mile Trail led me from the Yosemite Valley floor, starting where the old Leidig Hotel stood back in 1870, up to Glacier Point, full of wonderful views of the snowy high country.

Where: Yosemite National Park
Distance: 9.84 Miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
Elevation Range: 3,979′ – 7,207′
Date: November 16, 2020
Maps: El Capitan Topographic Quad
Dog Hike? No

I parked at the 4 Mile Trailhead pullout on the right hand side of Southside Drive, west of the Swinging Bridge where there was a sign and two trash cans. The 4 Mile Trail begins in the Yosemite Valley Floor and climbs up a switch back trail 4.8 miles to Glacier Point. Since Glacier Point Road had closed due to storms, the shortest way to get to to those gorgeous Glacier Point views is to take the 4 Mile Trail.

Did you know that there used to be a hotel at the base of the 4 Mile Trail? It went by the name of Leidig’s Hotel but there were actually several hotels in the area as you can see from this map. Even though the Leidig Hotel is long gone, the meadow across Southside Drive to the north still carries the name on. This is that spot that you can capture beautiful reflection pictures off of the Swinging Bridge area when the meadow is flooded.

Cultivated Fields, Fences and Areas of Excessive Landscape Management, Yosemite Valley 1883-1890 (Yosemite: the Park and its Resources (1987) by Linda W. Greene)

Early Hotels in Yosemite Valley Courtesy Yosemite Tales

Early Hotels in Yosemite Valley Courtesy Yosemite Tales

You are probably asking why it is called the 4 Mile Trail if it is 4.8 miles in length. When this old toll trail was originally constructed in 1872, it was 4 miles but in the early 1900’s, the trail was reconstructed, resulting in the increased distance. You will gain about 3,200 feet in elevation by the time you get to Glacier Point, then another 920 some odd feet in elevation if you chose to continue up to Sentinel Dome. This trail is closed during the winter because of ice and down trees that routinely occur but it hadn’t closed yet.

 

 

 

 

 

You just might be wondering how this trail came to be. James McCauley, who later built and operated the Mountain House at Glacier Point in 1878, began construction of the Four Mile Trail from the base of Sentinel Rock to Glacier Point in 1871 and completed this project in 1872. He then entered into a contract agreement with the Yosemite Valley Commissioners to build a toll trail up to Glacier Point. McCauley selected the master trail builder, John Conway, to survey the route and build the trail up the 3200 feet to Glacier Point.

Linda Greene captured wonderful history related to Yosemite National Park in her 1987 Historic Resource Study: Yosemite and Its Resources and below is an excerpt:

James McCauley, an Irishman, came to Hite’s Cove, California in 1865 to mine. In 1871 he entered into a contract agreement with the Yosemite commissioners to build a toll trail from the south side of the Yosemite Valley floor up to Glacier Point. McCauley selected John Conway to survey the route and build the trail. Conway was one of the most famous trail builders in Yosemite, making many of the points on the valley rim accessible to later visitors. Conway and a trail crew began work in late November 1871 and worked until snow stopped their progress. Starting up the next spring, they had completed the trail to Union Point when Conway was injured in an accident. Because they had completed the survey to Glacier Point, trail work continued to completion in early summer 1872.

Helen Hunt Jackson described the Four-Mile Trail as. . . a marvelous piece of work. It is broad, smooth, and well protected on the outer edge, in all dangerous places, by large rocks; so that, although it is far the steepest trail out of the valley, zigzagging back and forth on a sheer granite wall, one rides up it with little alarm or giddiness, and with such a sense of gratitude to the builder that the dollar’s toll seems too small.

H.H. [Helen Hunt Jackson], Bits of Travel at Home (Boston:Roberts Brothers, 1894). She also mentioned stopping to rest at Union Point, where she thought McCauley evidently lived, “in a sort of pine-plank wigwam, from the top of which waved the United States flag. This was more likely an equipment storage shed.

In the 1920s the Park Service slightly rerouted the trail and changed its grades until it is now nearer five miles long; it still, however, retains the historic name. When the Yosemite Valley commissioners initiated their policy of eliminating all private holdings as rapidly as possible, they requested $7,500 from the state legislature in 1877 to purchase trails from their private owners. An act for the purchase of trails in Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove finally passed in March 1881. As stated previously, that bill appropriated $25,000 from the state treasury, part of which was intended for purchasing and making free the trails within the Yosemite Grant constructed and controlled by private individuals. In 1882 the state purchased the Four-Mile Trail from McCauley for $2,500 and made it toll free.

The old abandoned trail parallels the present one up the talus slope below Sentinel Rock. It begins on the valley floor about fifty yards east of the present trail and proceeds via five switchbacks to the base of Sentinel Rock, which it avoids by swinging 1,300 yards to the east. After another 200-yard swing to the west, the old trail enters another series of switchbacks to avoid a short rock-filled chimney at an elevation of 1,200 feet above the floor. From there to Union Point is another irregular series of zigzags, turning to the east and southwest, a prime example of Conway’s engineering competence. Union Point is 2,314 feet above the valley floor, and from there one can see Yosemite Fall, Half Dome, North Dome, El Capitan, Cathedral Rock and Spires, and the Big Oak Flat and Wawona roads.

The trail continues in several long, gentle switchbacks to an elevation of 7,000 feet. There it squeezes east under and over precipitous granite cliffs, emerging within sight of Glacier Point’s overhanging rock. Then the early-day hiker followed a level stretch of trail and made the last climb of a 100-yard rise to Glacier Point.

The impressive engineering and construction skills of the builder are apparent everywhere. Abandonment of the trail and construction of the present one in 1923 have hastened obliteration of the old trail, but only in the narrow, rock-filled chimney below Union Point is one unable to follow its course. The modern trail, paralleling the old, traverses an additional 0.6 mile to eliminate a one-step grade. The present Four-Mile Trail, therefore, is actually 4.6 miles long.

The trail led me across remains of old asphalt paving. From what I know, paving roads and trails in Yosemite started in the 1920s and 30s but has grown out of favor over the years, being removed as it deteriorates.

As I climbed, the morning views into Yosemite Valley were gorgeous.

I expected ice on this trail but didn’t know how much would be there. I brought my trekking poles and microspikes, not needing them for the entire trail but they are useful tools for icy conditions. I didn’t want to take a chance and ice skate off the sheer drop offs on the trail. Crazy as it sounds, I saw some people hiking the trail with just tennis shoes and I don’t know how they did it. The trail was extremely icy and slippery in the morning with those straight drop offs in places. I didn’t stop at Union Point because there was a group of people hanging around at the junction with an ice sheet but that is a stop that you should consider making if you are hiking this trail. Here are a few pictures to give you a good feel for the icy conditions on the day of my hike. If you click on any of them, you can view them larger and move forward through the photos.

And then the trail flattened out as I approached Glacier Point.

And my reward were these views!

A couple of groups of people were at the viewpoint so I didn’t go out there, finding a prefect spot all by myself for my lunch at the amphitheater.

It was time that I headed back down the trail. I was careful heading down because there is something about going downhill on this trail that can get tricky. Although the ice on the trail had melted in some spots, it had some slick, icy places. Also, the granite sand and pebbles act like ball bearings on some of the surfaces such as rocks and asphalt, making them super slippery.

As I reached the lower part of the trail, I was surprised to see a dog on a very long lead heading up the trail ahead of its humans. Dogs are prohibited on this trail and if these people and dog reached the icy sections, it could have been hazardous for other hikers also. I don’t know what these people were thinking.

I had a good workout on this hike and the view of the snow covered peaks of the high country were just what I needed. I didn’t need so many people though. I encountered more people hiking on this trail than I had seen on all of my previous year’s hikes. I should have expected this because Tioga and Glacier Roads were closed, the Park had recently ended the Day Pass Reservations and this has attracted more people into the Yosemite Valley area, concentrating the hikers on a few trails. I had thought that by hitting the trail early, I would beat the crowd but there was still quite the crowd. Just wanted to give you a realistic picture on the crowd factor.

Here is some more information on this trail from Yosemite National Park: 

The Four Mile Trail typically opens for the season sometime in May and closes below Union Point due to treacherous conditions after significant snow accumulation (usually by November or December). After major snowfalls, the entire trail may close. When partially closed, only the lower three miles are open to the gate below Union Point; good views of Yosemite Valley are still possible, although Glacier Point and Union Point would not be accessible. This lower section is also very icy and slippery during winter and early spring. View current conditions for trail closures and view historical opening and closing dates for this trail.

I also located a great page from the Hiking Guy on this trail during drier conditions that you may find interesting here.

Dog Hike? No

Dogs are not allowed on the 4 Mile Trail.

Where Pets Are Not Allowed

  • On trails, including the trail to Vernal Fall (however, pets are allowed on the Wawona Meadow Loop)
  • On unplowed roads covered in snow
  • In undeveloped and wilderness areas
  • In public buildings
  • On shuttle buses
  • In lodging areas
  • In all walk-in and group campgrounds/campsites, including Camp 4
  • In any other areas, as signed

These regulations protect both pets and wildlife from disease and each other. The National Park Service has prohibited pets on trails for many years. In particular, some pets chase wildlife, pollute water sources, and can become defensive and dangerous in unfamiliar surroundings. Pet owners have the burden to assure their pet does not damage the park values for others in those areas where pets are allowed.

Doarama:

What is a Doarama?  It is a video playback of the GPS track overlaid on a 3 dimensional interactive map. If you “grab” the map, you can tilt it or spin it and look at it from different viewing angles. With the rabbit and turtle buttons, you can also speed it up, slow it down or pause it.

Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point Doarama

Map and Profile:

4 Mile Trail to Glacier Point Topographic Map

4 Mile Trail to Glacier Point Profile

Sources:

Day Hikes in the Tioga Pass Region, John Carroll O’Neill & Elizabeth Stone O’Neill, 2002

Kahtoola MICROspikes® Footwear Traction

Pathways: A Story of Trails and Men (1968), by John W. Bingaman

Yosemite: the Park and its Resources (1987) by Linda W. Greene

Historic Resource Study: Yosemite and Its Resources by Linda Widel Greene 1987

Yosemite: Where To Go and What Go Do (1888) by George G. MacKenzie

One Hundred Years in Yosemite (1947) by Carl P. Russell

Yosemite Tales: Yosemite of Yesteryear – Part 1 Upper & Lower House, Leidig’s and Peregory’s

Pulu Mattresses in the Gold Rush

Prior Blogs in the Area:

Hiking up the 4 Mile Trail to Glacier Point & Sentinel Dome November 29, 2017

Hiking up the 4 Mile Trail to Glacier Point November 4, 2016

4 Mile Trail to Glacier Point May 14, 2014

4 Mile Trail to Glacier Point & Sentinel Dome Hike November 26, 2012

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