Mount Starr King: Half Dome without the Crowds (5.0 or 5.4)



Quick Facts

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Approach Time: 

2-4 hours
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Descent Time: 

2-5 hours
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2 pitches
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Your rating: 4
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Is Mount Starr King really Half Dome without the crowds? Like Half Dome, it is a large granite dome near Yosemite Valley, rising to a similar, in fact slightly higher altitude (9092' versus 8836' for Half Dome). With its extra 250 feet, you actually look down on the summit of Half Dome. The standard route up Half Dome was pioneered in 1875 by George Anderson. The standard route up Starr King was pioneered in 1877 by none other than George Anderson. Like Half Dome, you have 360-degree views across the Clark Range and the Sierra Crest. But there's more! Unlike Half Dome, from Starr King, you actually get a view of Half Dome. And with Starr King, instead of some cut-rate partial half dome, you even get a full and entire dome.

So what don't you get? There's no view of Yosemite Valley, no cables, no trail, no view of Starr King, and no throngs of thousands of people jostling with you on the final ascent. Oh yes, and the easiest route is considered 5.0 by Secor, which is to say that it is at the bottom end of what is considered technical climbing, requiring ropes and technical gear. Of course, the old Roper guidebook put it at fourth class (hardly!) and the Spencer Southern Yosemite book puts it at 5.4 or 5.5 (out of print and selling at $90 on Amazon, so I don't and won't own this one!).

5.0 is sort of a Catch-22 of climbing. Most people who actually know how to use climbing gear find it unnecessary to use said gear on a 5.0. Most people who don't know how to use climbing gear would find it rather disconcerting to scramble up something quite this steep. Obviously, experienced peak baggers like George Anderson would be the exceptions. In short, though quite easy for anyone used to technical climbing, if you slip and are not being belayed, you could die. Let's say that again a little more clearly: If you slip from a good ways up and you are not roped up, you will almost certainly die. This is a summit for climbers, peak baggers and mountaineers, but not for people who would be challenged by the Half Dome Cables Route.

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There are many different ways to approach and ultimately to climb Starr King. The route shown in the photos below approaches Starr King from the Northwest, contours around to the Southeast, summits via the Southeast Saddle route, then descends the South Face, heads South to the trail and then circles back around to the starting point (see the Google Earth image at the bottom of this page). That, obviously, is more effort than necessary if your one and only goal is summiting Starr King.

Approach Possibilities

There are basically three obvious options for getting to Starr King:

  1. Starting from Happy Isles and going up the Mist Trail is obviously the most amount of effort, involving 5100 feet of elevation gain and 7.6 miles until the point that you reach the trail. On the plus side, if you're staying down in the Valley, it saves you a solid hour of driving each way. This is the only way I've actually summited Starr King, deciding that I would rather spend those two hours or more hiking than driving. That said, I have hiked into the Starr King area using both of the next two methods.
  2. Starting from the Mono Meadow trailhead is the easiest and shortest way to go, involving only a 700' descent and 700' climb over a distance of 4.6 miles. On the down side, the Illouette Creek crossing might be difficult during spring flood and Mono Meadow will be quite wet. Later in the year, though, this is the way to go, and it's a pretty nice hike through the recently burned forest and some burned longer ago. An interesting lesson in forest and fire ecology.
  3. Not that much more effort, and a sure bet, is to start at Glacier Point, cross Illouette Creek on the Panorama Trail footbridge, and the travel as if starting from the Valley. This takes 4.7 miles to the point where you leave the trail (so the same as leaving from the Valley), but just involves a loss and then gain of about 1,000'.

Whichever way you choose, your goal is to hoof it on over to the trail intersection at N37 41.08' and W119 31.22', which is clearly marked on the Trails Illustrated Yosemite SW map (Trails Illustrated map #306). Once past the trail junction, take a hard left and head north (uphill) until you reach the drainage at about 7500'. From here, just follow the drainage up until you've passed the subsidiary knob that defines the Southeast Saddle. If coming from the Valley, you might be tempted to shortcut and bushwhack straight over to Starr King from a point about a half mile after leaving the Panorama Trail. Having done this, I can say that it is definitely a lot more work and only a bit more interesting, unless the Spreading Phlox (Phlox diffusa) is in bloom, in which case you may be treated to the most extensive beds you've seen. If you want to just get up Starr King, though, stick to plan A.

From the saddle, the route is pretty obvious and Secor, p. 390-91 rates it 5.0 (see Secor, The High Sierra at Amazon). For what it's worth, I'd rate it a 5.0+ (as noted above in the highlights, the Spencers rate it 5.4, and that's probably closer). Secor describes the route as follows:

Friction climbing leads up and left from a slab to a small right-facing open book. Traverse to the right under a flake and up to a big ledge. The second pitch is class 4, and goes up and left from the belay ledge to some slabs. Scramble up to the summit. Two ropes are recommended to rappel this route.

Short as that description is, it is probably more than you actually need. Take the advice about a rappel line seriously if you have any doubts whatsoever about your ability to downclimb. There is a handful of fixed anchors, mostly runners over flakes and such, to rappel from. Like I said before, the climbing is very easy, but there is some serious exposure and anyone who isn't comfortable soloing 5.5 or so should not attempt to climb up or down without ropes.

Other options.

You can also climb the South Face. I've only climbed down this one. It's probably a bit easier than the Southeast Saddle route, but it has a lot more climbing on it. There are occasional pins here and there on the face, though you would be hard pressed to find them if you were actually looking. This route is perhaps also 5.0 and fine for soloing, but hard to protect if you wanted to climb it as a roped party.

Finally, the third easy route is the Northeast Face route (see photo below). I have only explored the base of this one (but I did get Theresa to take a picture), but it looks like a small step up from the Southeast Saddle in difficulty. There's an obvious tree up above more or less the high point of the ground. From there, there are some easy flakes to scramble up. When it gets a bit steeper, go up and left and then up the obvious 2-inch munge-filled crack, and then up easier slopes to the top (Secor, p. 391).

There are harder routes as well, but it's sort of a long way to hike for a medium-quality 5.9. For more on these possibilities, see Mark and Shirley Spencer, Southern Yosemite Rock Climbs, p.10-17, if you can find it (out of print), as well as the summit register, where Mark Spencer and others have added some route descriptions (and topos if memory serves).

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This one looks very

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This one looks very interesting Tom!
Love the detail on your route descriptions.

DSD, it's definitely a nice

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DSD, it's definitely a nice outing, especially for people who like to hike (rather than climb) and can handle the technical aspects easily. It's not for your average Half Dome hiker because of the difficulty, which is probably the main thing that keeps SK so nice. On the other hand, it's not for the average technical climber because it's a long walk for what you get. It's really for the small number of people who will hike miles and then do easy fifth class just for joy.

That keeps the numbers down: in the summit register, our friends who did it the previous season were the last ones listed. When some other friends went up a few weeks later, we were the most recent entry. I bet more people climb Half Dome on Memorial Day Sunday than climb Starr King in a decade. It would be a nice place to put a summit stone!

Starr King Lake

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I am planning a trip to the lake, and have only gone in there through the Panorama trail. Would the lake be more easily accessible via another arrival route (e.g. Mono Meadows), or would you suggest just going with familiarity?

Much appreciated.

Depends on the season. Since

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Depends on the season. Since there's a nice bridge over Illouette on the Panorama Trail, that's always feasible. Early season, though, Mono Meadows will be deep in water and the Illouette crossing has no bridge. Late season, the Mono Meadows trailhead is the better place to start.

Thanks Tom - Mono Meadows

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Thanks Tom - Mono Meadows sounds good. Assuming that we stick to the lake and do not go for the dome, do you think that the approach will require less gear? Is the lake easily accessible from the trail? Is there a trail that goes directly to the lake?

There's no trail out to

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There's no trail out to Starr King. It's relatively open country once you get to a certain altitude. Probably the easiest thing to do is to either dust off your navigation skills (or your GPS) and go straight to the lake, or to reckon off the dome and hike up to the shoulder for the view and then head down to the lake (though if you're camping, why carry everything up to the shoulder?).

Either way, you should hike up to the shoulder, because you get almost the same views of the Clark Range from the shoulder as you do from the summit.

By the way, the Google Earth rendering that I have in this article shows a more forested landscape than what's actually out there between the dome and the lake.

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