Trail Guides

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There is no shortage of hiking guidebooks to Yosemite, that's for certain. Again, picking one is somewhat a matter of taste. The truth is, I usually choose my hikes by poring over maps, but there are a few books that are notable for their utility or interest.

Sharon Giacommazzi, Trails & Tales of Yosemite Yosemite and the Central Sierra

Trails & Tales is a trail guide for the Yosemite lover. On the one hand, I mean that in the positive sense. If you're really obsessed with Yosemite, its trails and its history, this is the book for you. Hands down my favorite. The only hiking guidebook that you can sit down and read for the fun of reading. On the other hand, if you're just interested in finding a scenic hike, it may not be the book for you. Each trail description consists of a short or long introduction explaining what makes the trail interesting. Usually it has to do with the human history that is revealed on the trail, more than the natural history, and the introduction can be several times as long as the trail description. The author has a long essay on the long-gone Hite's Cove mining town for the Hite's Cove trail and excerpts from John Muir regarding a hike to find one of John Muir's favorite spots and so forth. In other words, this book tells you the story of the trail, not just what you'll see there. As a historian myself, that makes this book far and away my favorite, but it might not be for everyone.

Suzanne Swedo, Hiking Yosemite National Park (2nd ed)

For a long time, Swedo's Hiking Yosemite was my clear favorite among the hiking guidebooks. It has a nice selection of trails, good descriptions and is well-organized. I particularly like the table she has that gives a quick overview of hikes by type and difficulty. Of course, it's not a complete guide to the trails of the park. It does, however, include some hikes of high quality that are on the borders of the park. All in all, I always find that this book just has a good "feel" to it and is probably my favorite straight-up trail guide though, as I say, every guidebook has something to recommend it. If you aren't really much of a hiker or you'll be bringing small kids along, you can also check out Swedo's more petite Best Easy Day Hikes. For a few dollars more, though, you can get the full guide which has the easy hikes and many many more.

Jeffrey Schaffer, Yosemite National Park: A Complete Hiker's Guide, 2nd edition

The only truly comprehensive guide to the hiking trails of Yosemite as far as I know. You have to watch out here as Schafer has three editions out. He has one that has selected popular trails, a first edition that seeks to include all trails in the park, and a second edition of the same. The second edition of the complete guide is the one to get. The first edition gives no guidance at all and doesn't have any "quick facts" so it's hard to really peruse and find something that will suit your fancy without reading the whole thing. It has good, but long and very dry descriptions (like mine!). The second edition has some added features that make it more like the Swedo guide, allowing for quick scanning and perusing, but has more thorough coverage within the park. The Schafer book, however limits itself to the park itself, so some high-quality outings on the borders are omitted.

Rick Deutsch, One Best Hike: Yosemite's Half Dome

Do you really need an entire guidebook for one trail that is only seven or eight miles long? Apparently so, as the folks at the Yosemite Mountain Shop tell me it's the best-selling hiking book in the store and indeed this book is now in its second edition. It has pretty much everything you might want to know about the Half Dome trail — sites and scenes, mileages, preparation, suggested gear, history, an associated mobile phone app and so forth. Everything except the required permit that is! Also, see Sönke's additional review in the comments below for his opinion of the book. My wife hiked Half Dome with a guy who also had great things to say about Rick and his book (but see my quibble about that later on, heh heh!)

But of course you don't need a whole book for this one hike and, if you're a fit person with outdoor experience, you don't need any book or map at all except what you get at the visitor center. The truth is that the Half Dome trail is a cattle train, with wide trails and, typically, people everywhere. Put it this way, the trail has bathrooms and a snack bar at the trail head, a drinking fountain at the 0.8 mile mark, and no fewer than three bathrooms along its seven miles. This is really not wilderness. If you are a competent mountaineer (i.e. can do roped climbing), you might even consider climbing Mount Starr King. It ain't Half Dome, for good and for ill. In any case, if you are fit and experienced, there's no reason to buy any book if you simply want to get to the top and see some scenery.

So why would you buy this book then? Having a book may, and probably will, enhance the experience. Here are some reasons why:

  • You want to really know the trail and not miss any of the highlights. Rick lays out mileages, points of interest and so forth so you won't miss anything.
  • You really aren't sure of what you're doing in the outdoors and you want guidance on gear, training and preparation.
  • More generally, Half Dome is a major goal of their trip for many people and this is unquestionably the most thorough information on the subject, so it lets you make sure you're prepared before you leave home. Deutsch tells you pretty much everything you need to know in terms of how fit you need to be, what gear to take, and otherwise how to prepare. You may be spending hundreds or thousands of dollars and for a few dollars more this book might enhance the experience (that's my general argument about buying a few worthwhile books — they're cheap in the overall context of most trips).
  • You need to get in shape. Keeping this book by the toilet will motivate you to get ready. I suspect it's often given as a gift to motivate someone who is dreaming of Half Dome.
  • It has a picture of the last spring where you can fill up on water. This may seem like a small thing, but it can be damn hard to find that spring and on a hot day, you might be glad of it. Someday I'll put a similar picture up on the site, but for now, Rick's book is the only place I know of to find it.

So depending on your goals and your background you may or may not want to buy this book. If you're still having trouble deciding, you should check out Rick's Hike Half Dome website for lots more info on Half Dome, excerpts from the book and ways to meet Rick if you so desire (mostly in the San Francisco area).

I do have some quibbles. My wife once guided someone who had been prepared for the hike by Rick himself and had read the book, from whence he got the advice to just simplify his trail food by just carrying bars. He was awfully jealous when they got to the top and he pulled out his bars and my wife pulled out her pizza. He said "I'll trade you a bar for a slice of pizza." Generous soul that she is, she complied. Pizza is a much better trail food than bars and don't let anyone tell you otherwise! Try it sometime. Remember, bars=yuck, pizza=yum!

R.J. Secor, High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, Trails

Not exactly a "trail" guide as mostly this guidebook covers off-trail routes. But if you want to get off the beaten path and yet still have a little guidance, this is the book. If you think Yosemite is crowded, many if not most of the destinations in this book will lead you to parts of Yosemite where you will be entirely alone. Descriptions are minimalist and the book covers the entire Sierra, but there's simply no other book like it for the Sierra. Many Yosemite routes are documented nowhere else. The Secor book occuppies that often under-served middle ground between trail guides and technical climbing guides (though many of the routes are technical climbing routes). For the most part, Peaks, Passes, Trails just gives you an idea of how to find the route and no detailed descriptions. This book is for people who know how to use a map, travel cross-country without trails, be self-reliant and stay out of danger. If that's you, this book will give you lots to think about over a long cold winter.

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Great reviews. I will get he

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Great reviews. I will get he Trails & Tales of Yosemite and the Central Sierra based on your comments. I also have Deutsch's Half Dome book. I like it. Remember that 50K people do the hike each year and most have no clue as to what they are getting into. This book really lays out what to expect and how to prepare.

While your pizza might taste good, I'd bet it's a ball of goo by the time you get to the summit. And I don't want to eat anything greasy that might cause me to make a panic "cat hole". I'm sticking to energy bars (e.g. Probar (my favourite), Clif Bar, Power Bar or Odwalla Bar). I'll save the pizza for when I return to Curry Village (pretty decent pizza there). ;)

I also like his Pg 74 Summary of the point sof interest. The odometer, altitude and time listings are pretty handy guides. He also maintains are website with lots of interesting news about Half Dome, Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada. From my personal experience I can say that Rick is very happy to answer all questions concerning the hike.

Happy New Year from Hamburg, Germany



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Thanks for the nice comments. I'd gladly have you send me a picture of the spring, but you didn't leave any contact info. If you send one, I'll post it. Otherwise, when I get off my lazy butt and get up there, I'll get a picture.

I'm surprised someone from Germany is interested in the Tales and Trails book, but I'm glad. I think it's wonderful, but as I say, it isn't for everyone (what book is?). If you are a regular to Yosemite, seriously consider the John Muir Laws book (see the page on My Top Two Picks for Yosemite Books). No book has enhanced my experience of nature in Yosemite like that one even though I already owned a large shelf of flower, bird, tree and animal books.

I take your point about Rick's book and have modified my comments a little bit to make it clear I mean those comments for people who are comfortable in the outdoors. Having started dayhiking alone when I was five, rock climbing when I was nine and camping in the mountains in the winter without adults when I was 12, I think I underestimate where some people are starting from. I didn't want to be negative about Rick's book. He's actually the only author in this list that I've had personal contact with! Personally, if I were going to buy just one book it would again be the John Muir Laws book, but I forget that lots of people will need basic hiking advice.

And yes, Rick is very forthcoming with help and very good about answering email. No question about that. It's already in the review, but again his website is (which makes me wonder if any of the other authors have websites).

As for food, I've eaten more bars than most human beings. I used to depend on them a fair bit. After I got pinned down in a storm on Mount Robson for some days, with nothing but Apricot Clif Bars for the last 2-3 days, I sort of lost my taste for them. Also, most of them, including Clif Bars are very sweet and as any ultrarunner will tell you, if you put a lot of sweets down, somewhere around 30-40 miles they tend to want to come back up. So for energy products, I like Hammer Nutrition Products which are made without simple sugars and are even diabetic friendly. I'm planning a series on long day hikes similar to this section on books, but here I'll just say that I strongly recommend Hammer Gel and Endurolytes. Endurolytes in particular have made a huge difference for me on days when I hike more than 25 miles.

As for pizza, it's never been a ball of goo. Pack two slices in a zip-lock with the cheesy sides faces each other.

I know a fair number of ultrarunners including a past winner of the Leadville 100, a Badwater finisher and some others, as well as others who do sick endurance events. Most of them try to eat "real food" rather than bars for as long as possible during an event. After a certain distance, which varies from person to person, they switch to gels or bars. When Jack McBroom set the record for the California 14ers, he fueled himself partially on pizza, which is where I first got the idea. Hans Florine downed a lot of burgers when he did the California 14ers. Dean Karnazes is famous for ordering pizza in the middle of long runs. Scott Jurek, one of the dominant ultrarunners in America, fuels himself on his winning runs of the Western States 100 with rice burritos and bananas and switches to gels and bars later.

That said, according to one article, the British guy who set the record on the Triple Crown (Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail and Appalachian Trail) fueled himself primarily on cheapo granola bars.

You have to find what works. That's the key with any food (or "fueling strategy" as the Hammer people call it).

Thanks a lot!

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Hi there,

Thanks a lot for taking your time and responding in great length.

Yes, I'm from Germany but I can read English. ;) Since 1987 I spent approx. 99,9% of my holidays in the US of A and fell in love with the West and Southwest shortly after. I own a couple of hundreds travel guides, books etc. - most of them in English. Would you buy/trust a guide on the Suisse Alps from someone who lives in let's say Seattle?! ;)

I'm also a subscriber to Backpacker, National Geographic Adventure and Outside (most European or German magazines have a different focus and if they report on travel destinations in the US it's most likely very artificial writing and research).

Yes, I agree: many people need basic hiking advice. I'm far from being a "real" outdoor person (I make my living sitting behind a desk 5-6 days a week) and usually have very little opportunity for explorations over here but if I compare myself to most of the people I've met during my travels and "little expeditions" in the US I was always surprised how ill-prepared many people are. Unfortunately Half Dome draws more and more attention and this unfortunately also means that more unprepared people show up. So Rick's book and his website(!) are highly recommended.

I also agree that you've to find what works for food. Pizza definetely is a no-go for me. ;)
Very interesting facts on the guys you mentioned but then again I hardly believe those guys compare to the average Joe taking a hike once or twice a year. Also imho ultrarunners are a very special kind of breed and clearly their needs must be different from a casual Half Dome hiker. But before I go a long year on granola bars I'd definetely prefer pizza. :)

Contact: big_k [at]

Cheers from Hamburg!


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Ha! Your comments on food make me laugh.

Now I understand about the books too. You seemed very knowledgeable, more like a local, so it surprised me that you signed it from Hamburg.

Would you buy/trust a guide on the Suisse Alps from someone who lives in let's say Seattle?! ;)

Funny you should say that - I spent three years living in Switzerland and exploring the Alps (mostly around Chamonix) when I could find time (not that much in the long run). And yes, indeed, all my guidebooks are written by Swiss and French guys. Logical, but Americans who know the ins and outs of guidebooks to the Alps and German guys who know the ins and outs of guidebooks to Yosemite are rare!

I'm far from being a "real" outdoor person (I make my living sitting behind a desk 5-6 days a week)

Sadly, me too. Although I like what I do at a desk fairly well in fact.

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