Mount Dana sits on the eastern border of Yosemite National Park, astride the Sierra crest just south of Tioga Pass. It is the second highest peak in the park -- 51 feet higher than Kuna Peak, but 61 feet shy of Mount Lyell's glaciated summit. Many factors contribute to make Mount Dana a popular climbing destination for mountaineers of all strains. For one thing, it is very accessible: the mountain is adjacent to a major highway (CA 120), and although the peak is high, the trailhead is high also (~10,000 feet). It is also beautiful: the summit views are panoramic and quite impressive, with vistas of alpine glaciers, innumerable rugged peaks, sub-alpine meadows, high desert valleys and perhaps most interesting, Mono Lake.
Mount Dana is also a justifiably popular backcountry skiing destination. In mid-winter, access is difficult due to the closing of the Tioga Pass road (see "Winter & Early Spring Access" section below). However, adventurous types can ski up Lee Vining Canyon, following the roadway, and set up a base camp near Tioga Pass. Alternatively, the Tioga Pass Resort -- located just across highway 120 from Mount Dana -- offers rustic cabins in the dead of winter. It ain't cheap, but they will haul your stuff up and provide you with a warm and comfortable base from which to explore the world class BC skiing in the Tioga Pass area. When the road opens in the spring, that's when the action really gets going on Mount Dana, for the skiing is steep, scenic and easily accessed by car.
Mount Dana is an interesting mountain with many unique characteristics. The peak rises gently out of Dana Meadows on its reddish, metamorphic west side. And, like many peaks on the Sierra crest, Mount Dana's east side drops precipitously to the floor of the Owens Valley. What makes Mount Dana somewhat unique is that this steep east side is pierced laterally by a large glacial cirque ("Glacier Canyon") that separates the main peak from the appropriately named Dana Plateau to the east. Glacier Canyon is easily accessed from Tioga Pass, and is used to approach many popular climbing routes, including the Dana and Solstice Couloirs, and the east face.
The easiest route to the summit is is the NW Slope (or West Slope) Route. This route starts at the Tioga Pass entrance station (9,941 ft; ca. 3000 meters), and is not technically difficult, but presents a reasonably strenuous half-day hike to the 13,053 ft summit. Because Mount Dana is one of the more readily attained of the higher Yosemite summits (Mount Hoffman also falls into this category, although that peak is significantly lower than Dana), you can expect to have company on this mountain on pleasant June-October weekend days.
As noted, the Dana Plateau is a broad and rocky bench across Glacier Canyon from the summit. It forms the eastern edge of the Mount Dana massif. Off the east side of the plateau, sheer rock walls drop thousands of feet down to the Owens Valley. Some of the best rock climbing in the Sierra can be found on these walls, which are clearly visible from US 395 and highway 120. In addition, on the lower flanks of the mountain, down in Lee Vining Canyon, some of the finest ice climbing in California is found.
Overview of Principal Climbing & Skiing Routes
Summit Hiking/Climbing Routes:
- NW Slope/West Slope ("Standard Route"): Class 1-2 from Tioga Pass entrance station. Secor says, "The northwest, west, and south slopes are class 1." Personally, I tend to think of Class 1 as being on-trail (e.g., Mt. Whitney Trail), so I would view this route as class 2, since the use trail is fleeting and sometimes difficult to follow, and the route involves a fair amount of (easy) talus hopping.
- Glacier Canyon: Class 2.
This is a variation on the NW Slope route. It starts in Glacier Canyon, then ascends the mountain's NW ridge about a third of the way up the mountain, and ultimately follows the NW Slope route to the summit. According to John, "this route provides a much more scenic and nicer start than the standard West Slope route from the YNP Tioga Pass Entrance Station."
- Solstice Couloir: Class 3-4, 35-45° snow/ice. This route starts in Glacier Canyon and ascends the prominent couloir to climber's right of the northeast face of the peak, ultimately gaining the NW ridge. This route may harbor a nasty cornice at the top in early season (as seen in this photo), making it significantly more difficult to attain the NW Ridge.
- Dana Couloir: Class 3-4 , 35-45° snow/ice. Similar in steepness to the Solstice Couloir, this route also starts in Glacier Canyon, but ascends the prominent couloir to climber's left of the northeast face. The exit to the summit ridge from the couloir is generally less gnar than the exit from Solstice.
- Dana Couloir: A springtime rite of passage for most California backcountry skiers. A sustained steep (but not too steep) pitch and generally favorable snow conditions combine to make the Dana Couloir one of the most sought after ski descents in the state.
- Ellery Bowl: Another springtime favorite, Ellery Bowl has some of the steepest "right to your car" extreme skiing in the Sierra. With a short car shuttle, you can combine the Dana Couloir and the Ellery Bowl for a perfect day of steep BC skiing. Ellery Bowl also has some good intermediate skiing lower down in the bowl.
Click on the photo below for an illustrated overview of these routes.
Lee Vining Canyon Ice Routes:
While they don't lead to the summit, there are some fine ice climbs on the lower reaches of the Mt. Dana massif, down in Lee Vining Canyon. John has put up a nice description of these routes.
NOTE: These rules apply only when the Tioga Pass road (CA 120) is open through the park -- generally from Memorial Day through late October/early November each year. For access when this road is closed, see the "Winter & Early Spring Access" section below.
General: The "standard route" trailhead is right at the Yosemite entrance station at Tioga Pass. Trailheads for most other routes up Mount Dana are slightly to the east, just outside Yosemite National Park on highway 120, in the Inyo National Forest. Visit the Glacier Canyon Route page for approach information regarding that route and also the Dana Couloir Route.
From the West: Take CA 120 east through Yosemite National Park to the top of Tioga Pass. From the SF Bay Area, the most direct route is I-580 E to I-205 E (Stockton/Tracy) to I-5 N (Lathrop) to CA 120 E (Manteca). There are a few shortcuts along the way, and I won't reveal all of my secrets, but the one that most everyone knows about is the "Old Priest Grade" road that makes the first big climb into the foothills from the Moccasin Hetch Hetchy pump plant, up the hill to Big Oak Flat. Look for the turnoff on the right side, just past Moccasin. DRIVE SLOWLY ON THIS ROAD, especially on the way home. Keep it in low gear and stay off the brakes. Once inside the park, drive for 20 minutes or so until you reach an intersection where you will turn left to go to Tioga Pass. Follow this road for about 45 minutes to an hour until you reach Tioga Pass. Watch out for cops on the TPR -- especially near Olmstead Point and Tuolumne Meadows, where the legal limit plummets to 25mph. Click here for info on roads and speed traps in Yosemite.
As an alternate route, some visitors approaching from the west may prefer to use highway 108 over Sonora Pass, instead of highway 120 through Yosemite. For one, you can avoid paying the national park entrance fee ($20), if you never plan to enter the park anyway. Second, you can score breakfast in Bridgeport or Lee Vining. Third, if you plan on doing an overnight trip into the wilderness, starting from a national forest trailhead, you'll have to get your permit in Lee Vining anyway. Here are Yahoo! Driving Directions from SFO to Lee Vining.
From the East: Basically, make your way to US 395, a beautiful and often desolate road that hugs the eastern escarpment of the Sierra. Once on US 395, head to Lee Vining, which is about 2 1/2 to 3 hours south of Reno, and about 35 minutes north of Mammoth Lakes. At Lee Vining, turn onto CA 120 W and drive about 13 miles to the top of Tioga Pass.
Winter & Early Spring Access
The seasonal closure of the Tioga Pass road (CA 120) renders the standard approach from the national park impassible for cars from (roughly) mid-November to late May. The NPS closes the road at Crane Flat, 40-odd miles from Mount Dana. However, there is some good news: CalTrans closes the east side of the Tioga Pass road 3 miles west of US 395, making a winter approach from the east (approximately ten miles) much more feasible. Access to the ice routes in Lee Vining Canyon can be had by driving up to the Edison Power Plant (directions on the route page).
In mid-Spring (usually coincident with the commencment of fishing season in late April), the road is plowed up to the eastern park entrance of Yosemite at the pass itself (although the NPS generally does not open the gate until a month or so later). As the opening dates approach, rumors usually abound about plowing activity on the road. Follow the message boards here and on the talk forum at Telemarktips.com and you will generally get good beta on road openings.
In winter, visitors from the north, east and south can take the all-season US 395 to Lee Vining and then drive/ski up the Tioga Pass road from there. However, visitors from the west (generally, the Bay Area) have to somehow get over the Sierra crest and drive down US 395 to reach Lee Vining. The options are slim, since there are only three roads that cross the Sierra in Northern California during the winter: CA 88 (Carson Pass), US 50 (Echo Summit) and I-80 (Donner Summit). The shortest route is to take CA 88 to Woodford, and then into Nevada, where you will hit US 395 near Minden/Gardnerville. (You can also take US 50 over Echo Summit, then south on US 89 to Woodfords).
Once in Lee Vining, some combination of driving, skiing, snowshoeing, hiking and/or bicycling will get you up to Tioga Pass. Note that although the road will be gated about 3 miles west of Lee Vining (you can park here), the road will likely not be completely snow-covered beyond the gate, especially later in the spring. Thus, you will find yourself part-hiking and part-skiing up the long Lee Vining Canyon. Some folks have taken bikes up the road to reach snowline with some success. Take care if you head up the road, particularly if you do so later in the day, for there is significant rockfall danger on the road, as shown in these pictures.
As noted above, Tioga Pass Resort, located at 9600 feet elevation, just east of Tioga Pass, may haul your gear up on snowmobile if you are staying in their cabins. Check their website for details.
No permits are required for day trips to Mount Dana. Because the summit is less than three miles from the highway, overnight trips to Mount Dana are fairly rare. Trips into the surrounding backcountry are another story, however. The red tape for visits to the backcountry around Mount Dana can get a bit complicated. Straddling the Sierra Crest, half of the peak lies within Yosemite National Park, the other half within Inyo National Forest. For example, Dogs are prohibited on all trails in Yosemite (except the Yosemite valley floor), but are not prohibited everywhere in the Inyo NF (click here for more detail). Around Mount Dana's fragile environment, its probably best to leave Fido at home.
For trips originating in the national park, the Tuolumne Meadows page summarizes all the pertinent red tape. One special note is that camping is prohibited in the Parker Pass Creek drainage inside the park. If you want to camp in this area, you have to cross Parker Pass and exit the park.
For trips originating in the national forest, the Mono Basin Ranger District of Inyo NF maintains an excellent and thorough page, with many means of contact.
Homepage for backcountry camping in Inyo NF can be found here. After you follow the instructions to make a reservation, you will probably find it most convenient to pick up your wildnerness permit at the Mono Basin Ranger Station, located 1/2 mile north of Lee Vining on US 395.
Too poor for even a $7 national forest campground? John notes, "you can sleep at the Tioga Lake Overlook (just outside of YNP on CA SR-120) for free :-) Most people sleep in their cars here but it may also be possible to sleep down by the lake without being bothered. Neither rangers nor bears will disturb you as late as the summer of 2001. Also if you hike up Mount Dana from Tioga Lake via the Glacier Canyon Route you don't enter the park until 11,200 feet (read - no fee!)."
With its massive bulk composed of loose, bright red rocks, the first time viewer of Mount Dana from the west notices that it is incongruous with the "trademark" light granite peaks of Yosemite. The rocks which now make up Mount Dana were emplaced many millions of years ago, as sediments along the continent, buried, and later uplifted. Tectonic stresses, and proximity to the hot Sierra Nevada batholith (the source of the Sierran granites) considerably metamorphosed the original sediments into brittle, slate-like minerals.