Most visitors seeking views of Yosemite Valley from above will drive out to the end of the Glacier Point Road for a fantastic, but crowded, vista. Those looking for a greater challenge with arguably greater payoff, however, should consider the all-day hike out to North Dome (7,542’), which has maybe the best vantage point of Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon in the park. Starting and ending at the Porcupine Creek Trailhead on Tioga Road, the North Dome Trail traverses thick pine forests, climbs granite-topped Indian Ridge, and ends with a descent to the smooth dome perched at the precipice of Yosemite Valley. On the way back, take the short detour to Indian Rock, site of the only known natural arch in Yosemite.
There are a few ways to approach North Dome, but the easiest access is from Porcupine Creek Trailhead along the Tioga Road. (Note: Tioga Road is closed in winter/spring.) Parking is sparse at Porcupine Creek, but there is some room on the shoulder and, in a worst-case scenario, there is additional room one mile up the road at Porcupine Flat Campground. From the trailhead, the path descends a wooded slope, following an asphalted road. The asphalt ends at ¼ mile, returning to dirt as the North Dome Trail continues through a mixed conifer forest.
At 7/10 miles, the trail, having shed around 200 feet in elevation, enters Yosemite Wilderness and crosses Porcupine Creek, which can have relatively high volume in spring. Rock hop over the creek and follow the trail, now climbing uphill at a modest incline, for another mile to the first trail junction of the hike. Stay right, then cut left at the subsequent junction steps later, following the signs for North Dome.
From this saddle between ridges, the North Dome Trail begins a steeper ascent up the western slopes of Indian Ridge. At 2.2 miles, there is a rock outcrop on the right with the first sweeping views above the trees: one can make out the lower reaches of Yosemite Valley in the distance. From here the trail climbs amid low bushes, then continues southward with some open views on the right of woody Lehamite Creek Valley.
The final ascent to Indian Ridge is particularly steep but brief, ending at about 2.9 miles with a trail junction. Here a spur trail to Indian Rock heads left; leave this for your return journey. Continue right as the North Dome Trail traverses the top of Indian Ridge, first downhill, then slightly uphill an over a second hill. At 3.3 miles, the trees give way to pure granite, and hikers get their first views of Half Dome on the left.
At 3.4 miles, the trail cuts abruptly to the left and begins a sharp descent. (Note: There is a well-trodden path also heading straight, which also leads to North Dome, but this is not the official trail.) The main track drops back into the woods (though they are not too thick to block views of Half Dome) then rounds a right-hand bend, heading south again toward the final destination. At 3.8 miles, stay left at an unmarked junction, then continue down the chalky granite slope, with North Dome now visible ahead.
At the 4-mile mark, follow the sign for North Dome, starting the final approach. North Dome is actually situated well below Indian Ridge, so the trail descends sharply over the course of the next ¼ mile. There is a tricky slickrock section at 4.1 miles that requires some to use their hands to slowly crawl down the slope, then the path drops down an east-bound section, away from North Dome, that follows towering granite walls on the left. By 4.3 miles, the trail reaches a low saddle between Indian Ridge and North Dome.
From here it is a short, uphill jaunt to the summit of North Dome, one of the most spectacular—and windiest—viewpoints in the park. The showstopper, of course, is the view of Half Dome (8,836’), its whole face visible straight ahead. Below Half Dome is Tenaya Canyon and the Mirror Lake area, with Clouds Rest (9,926’) beyond. The hulk of granite on this side of Tenaya Canyon to the north is Basket Dome (7,612’).
To the southeast, on the horizon to the right of Half Dome, is Mount Star King (9,092’) and the vast Yosemite Wilderness. Almost due south are Glacier Point (7,214’) and Sentinel Dome (8,122’). Finally, to the west, Yosemite Valley unfolds, with the back side of El Capitan visible on the right-hand side.
Once you’re ready, head back the way you came, ascending back to the heights of Indian Ridge. Most travelers will return to the trailhead, but those with remaining energy can veer off at the spur for Indian Rock Arch on the right at about 6.8 miles (2.9 miles from the trailhead). It’s a worthy detour: not only is Indian Rock Arch the only named arch in Yosemite, the 20-foot span is perched on top of a ridgeline with stunning views of the surrounding landscape. Climb a modest slope for 3/10 mile, wrapping around to the back side of Indian Rock to reach the arch.
After visiting Indian Rock, return to the trail junction, bear right, and follow the North Dome Trail for about three miles back to Porcupine Creek Trailhead. The North Dome/Indian Rock hike is likely to take most of a day; bring sufficient water and hearty hiking boots for the 5- to 8-hour journey.