Mt. Starr King is an impressive granite dome a few miles south of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Due to the smooth granite walls that encircle these two peaks, they were declared "unclimbable" by Josiah Whitney in the 1860's. To prove Whitney wrong, locals climbed both peaks within a decade.
Mt. Starr King is really a series of 3 domes running north-south, the north dome being the high point. The summit is class 5 from all sides, while the other two domes are class 2. The two main routes are the Southeast Saddle and the Northeast Side, with the Southeast Saddle far the more popular route. Because both routes are easy class 5 and can be climbed in a few pitches, they make excellent beginner rock climbs.
Though much less famous than Half Dome, Mt. Starr King is actually the higher of the two. Mt. Starr King lacks the dramatic relief of Half Dome's Northwest Face, as well as the nearly 5,000 vertical feet of relief.
The closest approach is via the Mono Meadow Trailhead, off the Glacier Point Road. To get there, take Highway 41 to the Glacier Point Road and drive east. The trailhead is on the right side of the road, just after the road turns north to head toward Glacier Point. There is a large dirt parking lot that rarely has more than a few cars. Bear boxes have been installed at the trailhead - put all your extra food there instead of in your car.
mpbro has checked out some alternative approaches using TOPO!:
1) Happy Isles to Starr King: +5000', -not much', 7 miles one way.
2) Glacier Point - Panorama Trail - Starr King: +3500', -1500', 8 miles one way.
3) Glacier Point - across Illouette bridge - cross country to the Starr King trail: +3500', -1500', 6 miles one way.
These three approaches are all similar, and more mileage and elevation gain than the Mono Meadow TH. With a car shuttle (or using the Valley bus), you could entertain a one way Mono Meadow -> Happy Isle route. This would avoid the 500 foot climb on the return at the cost of extra mileage and shuttle coordination.
$20 fee to enter Yosemite NP. Good for seven days.
Wilderness permits are required for overnight camping. These can be obtained at any Ranger Station in Yosemite.
Check out the Yosemite Valley page for a great deal of more information.
Climbing is usually done May-Oct. Before and after this time the Glacier Point Road is closed past the Badger Pass ski area. One can still climb Mt. Starr King when the road is closed, but it adds about 10 miles to the approach. Early in the season the Illilouette Creek is raging and becomes a significant obstacle to cross as there is no bridge.
In the winter, a trip starting at Happy Isle is easiest. Though harder than the summertime hike from Mono Meadow, it can still be done in a long day if snow conditions are favorable. Well consolidated snow on the Northeast Slope can make the climb even easier than it is as a rock climb. Because of its southern exposure, the Southeast Saddle Route can often be free of snow in winter. A good yardstick to use is the Snake Dike route on Half Dome - if that route (visible from Yosemite Valley) is free of snow, it is likely the Southeast Saddle on Mt. Starr King is snow-free as well.
Camping is allowed in most areas of the Yosemite Wilderness that surrounds Mt. Starr King, with a valid Wilderness Permit. Camping on the wide summit is possible, providing spectacular sunsets and sunrises. If you hike in late in the afternoon with insufficient time to reach the summit, there are some great bivy sites on the central dome. Both of these camp locations provide excellent protection from bears which roam lower below treeline.
The dome was named during the Civil War for Thomas Starr King (1824-1864), a Unitarian minister of San Francisco, who was influential in keeping California in the Union. The mountain was known as South Dome before Starr King's name became attached to it. The northeast peak of Mount Diablo [Contra Costa Co.], now labeled North Peak, had been named Mount King by Whitney when he, accompanied by King and others, ascended the mountain on May 7, 1862.
- Erwin Gudde, California Place Names
"On Saturday night [June 22, 1861] at ten o'clock a flag was raised on T. Starr King's church. He is very strong for the Union, and this was a surprise for him on his return from up country. A crowd was in the streets as he returned from the steamer. He mounted the steps, made a most brilliant impromptu speech, and then ran up the flag with his own hand to a staff fifty feet above the building. It was a beautiful flag, and as it floated out on the breeze that wafted in from the Pacific, in the clear moonlight, the hurrahs rent the air -- it was a beautiful and patriotic scene.
Sunday I went to hear him preach. He is a most brillian orator, his language strong and beautiful. He is almost worshiped here, and is exerting a greater intellectual influence in the state than any other two men."
- William Brewer, Up and Down California
"'Mount Starr King,' Whitney declared 'is the most symmetrical and beautiful of all the dome-shaped masses around the Yosemite. Its summit is absolutely inaccessible.' Once again Whitney was wrong, for in 1876 George Bailey, the same who had been with Muir on Mount Whitney the year before, together with a young lawyer named Schuyler, conquered it, 'with the exception of a few branches of spirey needles, the last of Yosemite's inaccessibles.'
Muir, San Francisco Evening Bulletin, September 6, 1876. Even the 'Spirey needles' were ultimately climbed."
- Francis P. Farquhar, History of the Sierra Nevada