The North Dome Gully, primarily used as a descent route for technical climbs of Washington Column and North Dome, is also a highly enjoyable class 3-4 scramble. Much of the route is well marked with ducks, though to reach the summit of North Dome will require a fair mix of boulder scrambling, slab climbing, and bushwhacking. The class 4 sections are easy, short, and mostly avoidable, particularly if you're not in a rush.
There are two approaches to North Dome Gully. Both start on the north side of the Valley Loop Trail near Washington Column. Follow the road towards Mirror Lake. Shortly after crossing Tenaya Bridge, look for restrooms on the left side of the road. The trail can be accessed just north of the restrooms. The surest approach is to then head west towards the Awahnee for about a quarter mile. Look for the climbers' trail heading northeast to the base of Washington Column, marked with a small cairn just east of a large rock
. An NPS sign
aimed at climbers will tell you you are on the right trail. Follow this trail up (it's sketchy in places and there are multiple braids), marked irregularly by ducks. The route basically follows through the forest where it meets the granite apron of Washington Column. Go past the start of the Washington Column routes until you see a mostly treeless series of sandy ledges and slabs that mark the start of the route.
A second approach comes up more directly below the start of the route but is harder to find. Go right when you get on the Valley Loop Trail near the restrooms and look for a faint trail when you are directly under the North Dome Gully route (which is darn hard to tell from below!). This lower section and approach has huge moss-covered boulders and poor route-finding (I couldn't find the start and others have reported getting lost at the bottom during descents), the poorer choice of the two. Climb through the boulders until you reach the sandy ledges and slabs above.
If ascending, the route-finding is fairly straightforward and not nearly so devious as the descent. The ascent is described here, followed by additional notes for a descent.
This route is fairly heavily used and consequently there are numerous braids in the trail along the way. Some of the trails that head more east go to rappel trees that are of little value in an ascent. Generally head diagonally up and right, preferring up instead of more right when the trail diverges. Aim for the wide, tree-filled gully above for which the route is named. Only the east side of the gully is well-defined, the west side more or less morphs into the Death Slabs further to the west. Climb the gully until you are well above the top of Washington Column and can find a way to traverse left (west) without too much difficulty. If you head left too soon, you will find more difficult climbing among the Death Slabs. Head southwest and slightly down towards the saddle between Washington Column and North Dome. This section has many braids, a number of which lead to difficulties. Take your time and this section should be no harder than class 3.
Once at the saddle, it is an easy walk to the top of Washington Column (and the views are well worth the side visit). To reach the summit of North Dome, contour west and then north around the south and west sides of North Dome. The first section past the saddle has much bushwhacking over large boulders. Some side trails lead to camps in some caves protected from the elements. Give North Dome sufficient elbow room as you contour around it - If you climb too close you will find yourself on some class 5 friction slopes. This may or may not be desireable depending on your comfort level. As you round the SW side of North Dome head up towards the start of the Crest Jewel route. you can find one of several climbers' trails that can help you through the bushwhack in a clockwise fashion around to North Dome's north side. The bushwhacking here is the most difficult of the entire route, so finding a trail can save a great deal of time and effort. Join the North Dome trail at the saddle on the north side and walk the trail to the summit.
This route is often used for descents off the top of Washington Column. The region between Washington Column and the North Dome Gully is called "The Death Slabs," because it is notoriously steep and dangerous. There is much loose debris on the slopes and a thick layer of pine needles makes it slippery. Descending at night without prior experience of the route is not recommended!
From the top of Washington Column, head north to the saddle between it and North Dome. Head northeast, climbing up slightly as you go along. You need to climb at least 100 feet vertically to reach the easiest way into the gully. Beware of turning right too soon and falling into the Death Slabs trap. If you are unsure if you've gone far enough, you probably haven't. This traverse should take you about a third of a mile before you reach the top of the gully. The descent point into the gully should be obvious, and is usually well marked with ducks. Follow the gully down, descending diagonally to the right (southwest). At the bottom of the sandy ledges, continue down into the forest towards Mirror Lake, or up slightly before going down past the base of Washington Column and its climbing routes.
Water is scarce on the route, so be sure to bring a full supply with you (there was no water on the entire route in the fall when I climbed it).