Without a question, the trek up Half Dome in Yosemite is one of the park’s signature hikes, and one of the park’s most popular hikes. But, for those people who want to climb one of the park’s signature granite peaks - and a dome no less with a fraction of the crowds, and almost none of the red tape (permits), Lembert Dome is the spot to visit. Similarly, for those who a sixteen mile roundtrip hike is unfeasible for due to physical concerns, or because of other limitations, such as small children, Lembert Dome is also the spot to visit. Finally, for those who appreciate a fantastic three hundred and sixty degree view of northeastern Yosemite, just off the Tioga Pass, Lembert Dome is also the spot to visit. Named for Jean Baptiste Lembert, who homesteaded in Tuolomne Meadows in the nineteenth century, the dome today is a great hike in the region, and the park as a whole.
Directions: The trailhead for Lembert Dome is well-marked off Tioga Pass Road (Highway 120), and is located on the eastern side of the Tuolomne Meadows village/complex that includes the Tuolomne Meadows store and campground. From the Tioga Pass entrance station on the eastern side of Yosemite, visitors will want to follow the road seven miles to the west. It is worth noting that from late fall to late spring, or early summer the Tioga Pass Road is closed due to snowfall, so visitors to Yosemite will want to check if the road is open for travel during the months of April, May, June, and November, as closure times vary on weather conditions. For visitors heading up to Tuolomne Meadows from Yosemite Valley, the route heads North on Highway 120 to Crane Flat, which is the junction of Highway 120 North and Tioga Pass Road (Highway 120 East). From Crane Flat, visitors will want to head forty miles to the east, where the parking lot is readily apparent. During the summer months, this parking lot is popular with climbers attempting a variety of routes on the dome, hikers to the dome and Dog Lake, and backpackers headed into the backcountry. Correspondingly, on many occasions, the actual lot will be full, and while there is a slim amount of nearby street parking, hikers should take care as to where they do park if it is not the lot, due to traffic concerns, and environmental concerns surrounding the fragile nearby meadows.
From the parking area, the trail heads out on a flat, straight section that passes through a stand of trees before opening out onto a granite expanse with a perfect view of the dome at .1 miles. While the dome is visible both from Tioga Pass Road, and the parking area, both of these views are less than optimal as they are full of cars and visitors. Once past this early view, the trail curves around the backside of the dome before beginning to ascend the nine hundred feet of total elevation gain. While the elevation gain is not a factor over the course of a mile and a half to the summit, hikers may find themselves working a little harder than they would expect as the starting elevation for the hike is a respectable 8,500 feet.
During these early switchbacks, the trail circles the dome, and passes a number of other trail junctions - including the turnoff to Dog Lake. In early summer, or during a wet year, the trail crosses a number of seasonal streams, and also passes a number of seasonal waterfalls that add to the charm of the alpine forest. At the point one starts to wonder if they are actually going to climb the dome itself, the trail ascends the back of the dome, and clears the treeline. While the summit of the dome appears readily visible from this point, what one is actually looking at is the false summit, which becomes apparent in short order. Once on the false summit, or saddle, one can experience the first of many great views of the area as one is above treeline, and on the shoulder of the dome itself. With its gentle sloping sides, Lembert Dome will not confuse any hiker with some of the steeper drop-offs in the park, such as El Capitan, Half Dome, or Cloud’s Rest.
Yet, for those with a fear of heights, the drop off on the northern side of the dome will likely provide some moments of trepidation, even though there is ample room to traverse along the shoulder safely. My advice: if you have concerns about heights, or falls, the shoulder of the dome provides great views that do not change by a great deal at the summit and is a great spot to stop. For those that are more adventurous, or not perturbed by the albeit mild sloping drop-offs, the remainder of the hike is up the back or side of the dome to the summit, which is a unique, smaller experience that is reminiscent of Half Dome (minus the cables, of course). From the summit, the views are some of the best in the park, with Mount Dana readily visible to the east, and Cathedral Peak, Tuolomne Meadows, and Mount Hoffmann readily visible to the west. In between are massive forests, and other stunning features that comprise the northeastern segment of Yosemite. When one is done taking in the view, the return is back the way one came, even though one can elect to take a different variation back for a slightly longer hike, or head onto Dog Lake for an even longer adventure.
Tips: Even though Lembert Dome is relatively close to the Tuolomne Village, and is one of the shortest hikes available to visitors entering from the east, it remains a hike that is rarely busy, which is surprising considering its short distance, minimal elevation gain, and fantastic views. Whether one is a first time visitor to the high country of Yosemite, or a repeat visitor, this is a hike that is worth doing at least once, and perhaps more than once at different times of day as the views are that stellar.