Mt. Watkins Day Hike

At 8500 feet Mt Watkins sits 4500 ft above the Yosemite Valley, making this one very difficult day hike if you are coming in from the valley floor. Mt Watkins is known mostly for the gorgeous image it presents from Mirror lake as visitors experience life below North dome and Half Dome looking East out of the valley.

Mt. Watkins sits atop the northwest side of Tenaya Canyon directly across from Clouds Rest and 2.6 miles northeast of Half Dome. This gives you a massive unobstructed up front view of those giant granite monoliths, the 2 largest faces in Yosemite. The summit is a huge rolling dome of acreage much larger than Half Dome but with a few pines growing out of the rock here and there. The south and southeast face were heavily carved by the Tenaya Glacier and offer at least one challenging vertical ascent for climbers.

However the views from the top of Mt Watkins looking down on Mirror lake provide one of the iconic shots of Yosemite National Park, capturing Mirror Pond, Half Dome, North Dome and Glacier Point in the panoramic image. Hikers coming from the valley will travel up to Mirror Lake and then travel beyond to set of steep switchbacks that will test every hiker, and yet reward each with spectacular scenic views at every turn. Once on top hikers will travel up Snow Creek to the bridge and then follow the climb up out of the Snow creek valley up to the saddle on the north side of Mt. Watkins. From the saddle the forest will open up on to the granite slab of Mt. Watkins and hikers will choose how far down the peak they wish to travel, which similar to Northdome, requires a hike back up as well in your return.

Mirror Lake with Mt. Watkins Towering in the distance.

For a less strenuous day hike, you can access Mt. Watkins from Hwy 120 near Olmsted Point or the May Lake Parking area. From either May Lake or Olmsted Point the hike is roughly a 10 mile round trip and includes a rolling terrain that is much easier for the average hiker. The hike is long a dry however with little to no water so hikers should come prepared with water and sun protection.

The trail to Mt. Watkins is solid & wide path that is easy to follow till the top elevation point then turns solid granite as you hike south towards the edge of the mountain. This section provides 360 degree panoramic views including Clouds rest, Half Dome, and MT. Clark in the far distance.

West slope from Yosemite Valley: The hike starts from the Mirror Lake Junction. Take the paved walkway .07 miles to Mirror Lake. Take the trail on the northwest side of the lake and walk another mile to the junction with the switchback trail that climbs up the northwest side of Tenaya Canyon to Snow creek.

Take note: Bring plenty of water. This steep trail is 2,500′ verticals of exposed switchbacks and can get real hot in the summer.

At the top of the switchbacks the trail levels off and goes .3 mile to a junction by a footbridge. Take the trail to the right over the footbridge and go about a half mile as it gradually ascends the west slope of Mt. Watkins.

North slope from Olmstead Point off Hwy. 120: Take the trail below the parking lot that skirts to the right and descends into the forest valley then along a steep slope until it comes to a huge saddle at 2.7 miles. From this forested saddle just head south staying on the big rounded crest .9 miles up the gradual north slope to the top of Mt. Watkins. This hike is about a 1,500′ gain round trip.

North slope from May Lake Parking area – This is a 5 mile hike that will travel past one of the snow cabins in the high sierra. Take the Easterly trail from the parking area to wards Yosemite valley. Travel across HWY 120 and then along the East slope of Mt Watkins, picking up views of Snow creek and Indian Arch to the West and clouds rest to the east.


Mt Watkins is part of several popular Backpacking routes on the rim as well. The face of the mountain is very exposed and provides no protection from the wind, however just to the North of the dome there are serval wooded camp areas near the saddle that provide a great nights rest.

Backpackers coming from the Valley floor typically either climb Snow creek trail and all its switch backs choosing MT. Watkins as a stopping point on their way around to Clouds rest and before looping back around to half dome and the John Muir trail. Or they will climb Yosemite Falls and hike easterly by North Dome and down Porcupine creek trail into Snow Creek basin then climb out to Mt. Watkins to Olmstead Point /Tenaya Lake and shuttle back to the valley or hike on to Clouds rest or a hand full of other loops from this area.

Backpackers can also make loops from May Lake that take you down to Mt. Watkins and Snow creek and then East to Murphy’s creek trail where you can choose to stay at Polly Dome Lakes or travel further on into Glen Aulin, before returning to May Lake in a loop. Or you could choose a much easier experience in May Lake to Mt. Watkins / snow creek then travel west over North Dome and onto Yosemite Falls before descending into the Valley. this route would require a bus transport back up to May Lake.

Climbing Mt Watkins

36 pitches and 200 feet vertical climb

Of course there is the option to climb Mt Watkins and the pinnacles as well. According to the folks at Summit post: The Climbing route, South Face VI 5.8 C2 was First ascent Chuck Pratt, Warren Harding and Yvon Chouinard in summer 1964. They slowly ran out of water and into an epic.
Chuck Pratt wrote: “By the fourth day Yvon had lost so much weight from dehydration that he could lower his climbing knickers without undoing a single button. For the first time in seven years I was able to remove a ring from my finger, and Harding, whose resemblance to the classical conception of Satan is legendary, took on an even more gaunt and sinister appearance.” The 2,000′ climb took them 11 days and 36 pitches. Check out the review at Super Topo for detailed climbing info.

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