The most magnificent place in the Sierra Nevada: an ode to the Dana Plateau

A view from the top of the Dana Plateau (photo by Beth Pratt)When naming spectacular places in the Sierra Nevada, Yosemite Valley or Mt. Whitney inevitably rise to the top of the list.  While the entire region is filled with remarkable scenery, my favorite place in the Sierra, if not the world, is the sublime, ancient landscape of the Dana Plateau.

When exploring the Dana Plateau, located just outside the eastern border of Yosemite National Park on Tioga Pass, your feet walk on a land with remnants of terrain 25 million years old. The rock-filled plateau resembles a Martian landscape and presents an ancient geologic wonderland—the high alpine basin remained untouched by recent glaciations, and as a result, offers a rare glimpse of a landscape millions of years old. According to King Huber in his The Geologic Story of Yosemite National Park, “these upland surfaces have significance far beyond being unglaciated, because they are very ancient.”  

On the northern end of the plateau, you can wander through fantastic rock gardens that have grown over millions of years. The oddly shaped granite boulders that inhabit the area act as aged sentinels who have endured an eon of winds, rains, snows, and sun that have shaped their unique character. Some rocks display distinct “weatherpans,” shallow depressions formed by water and erosion over thousands of years.

Mount Dana and its glacier also stand watch over the plateau and the adjacent Glacier Canyon. The Dana Glacier, one of about 100 active glaciers in the Sierra Nevada, is clearly visible on the northern slope of Mt Dana. Formed sometime during the Little Ice age (1450 to 1850), the glacier has lost a third of its size since 1883 as the result of the changing climate. On clear days the deep cerulean blue waters of Dana Lake reflect the sky and the mighty peaks that surround it.

Each visit to the Dana Plateau transports me back to a prehistoric time—indeed, during my visits I would not have been surprised to observe a pterodactylus extending its enormous wings as it soared over the waters of Dana Lake. 

The magnificent landscape, although underscoring my insignificance in the greater scheme of things with its unavoidable reminder of the far-reaches of time, produces what I can only term a state of rapture.  Or as John Muir said with much more eloquence, “Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.” 

For a short video of the Dana Plateau and a photo slideshow, see below:

The Trek to Electric Peak

 Electric Peak in Winter From My HomeAt 6:00 am a group of seventeen intrepid hikers from the Yellowstone Association, Xanterra, and other park organizations gathered to meet for the day’s journey. Our mission was the summit of Electric Peak, the spectacular mountain that dominates the horizon of Gardiner, and the view from my home.

Normally the trek to Electric Peak involves a twenty-four mile round-trip hike, but for a few weeks each summer the USFS opens a dirt access road to the public, which shortens the journey to 14 miles.

Electric Peak BasinWe could not have picked a more perfect hiking day. Clear blue skies dominated, without even a hint of cumulus clouds—a break in the pattern of the last few weeks of consistent afternoon thunderstorms. Even the wind seemed to be resting as only a faint breeze blew at times.

  The approach from the north begins on the access road, and meanders through fire-scarred forests, wildflower covered hillsides, and an endless alpine meadow. Although a trail exists in some sections, much cross-country travel is required. The final push to the saddle involves walking on a precarious trail over loose scree, and then some fun scrambling up rock to the summit.

Trail to the Summit of Electric PeakElectric Peak, elevation 10,992 feet, (the sixth highest in the park) boasts some spectacular views. To the south the Grand Tetons are visible in the distance, while to the west Lone Peak and Sphinx Peak in the Madison Mountain range stand prominently on the horizon.

The peak’s distinct appearance is due to many geologic artists: formed from sedimentary rocks in the Cretaceous period, decorated by lava in the Eocene, and sculpted by glaciers during the last ice age. The mountain received its name when a member of the Hayden survey in 1872 was almost struck by lighting on the summit—you can read more about the story in another entry of my blog.

Given the distance required to reach Electric Peak, we think our group—along with four young Gardiner residents, and four park visitors who approached from the south—all hold the record for the most people on the summit at one time. After the hike, some of the group celebrated our accomplishment with beers and the delicious outdoor barbeque at the Two Bit Saloon and Raven Grill in Gardiner.

For more photos of the hike visit my photo gallery.

Team Electric

Hellroaring Creek Trail

hellroaring trail.jpg.jpgHow could I pass up exploring an area with such an enticing name? The origin of the title, however, has no ties to Hades. According to Yellowstone Place Names, a prospector on a hunting trip in 1867 reported back to his group that the next stream was “a hell roarer.”

The beginning of the trail descends through a Douglas fir forest until it reaches the Yellowstone River. A sturdy suspension bridge spans the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the river underneath rushes fiercely through the rock walls, perhaps angry at being confined to so small a space.

hellroaring mountain.jpg.jpgVelvety green rolling hills welcomed me once I climbed out of the river canyon, and the distinct Hellroaring Mountain dominated the landscape as I headed toward the creek. Hellroaring Mountain belongs more appropriately in my Yosemite world—it’s one of the rare peaks in the park composed of granite; indeed it’s Yellowstone’s largest granite outcropping. Most of Yellowstone’s peaks display rock formed from surface volcanic eruptions.

forget me not on hellroaring.jpg.jpgHellroaring Creek definitely lived up to its name. The mighty waters surged toward their destination and I was very glad I did not have to ford the creek. Instead, I picked a comfortable spot on the soft grass near the banks of the creek, and watched butterflies flutter from wildflower to wildflower.

Lake Yellowstone

avalanche peak across lake yellowstone.jpg.jpgOld Faithful may be the most popular part of Yellowstone, but it's tough to beat the Lake Yellowstone area for spectacular scenery. Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake in North America over 7,000 feet in elevation, is 20 miles long by 14 miles wide, and its deepest spot is 410 feet. Numerous mountains, such as Avalanche Peak, guard its lengthy shores, and its waters create a blue sky on the ground.

Although regular readers of this blog may recall my fondness for swimming high mountain lakes (Tenaya Lake in Yosemite for one), I won't be freestyling in Lake Yellowstone anytime soon--due to its extremely cold water, I would have a survival time of about 30 minutes.

bison at lake.jpg.jpgScientists have been surveying Lake Yellowstone since the late 1990's. While mapping the bottom of the lake, they have discovered some spectacular features similar to hydrothermal structures found in the deep ocean. One such type of feature is the spire, a silica structure formed by the cooling of hydrothermal fluids rising from the lake bottom. The US Geological Society estimates that some of the spires may be more than 11,000 years old.

Bunsen Peak & Sheepeater Cliffs

trilobite holmes dome antler.jpg.jpgSpring decided to make an appearance today in Yellowstone and I relished the intermittent sun peaking through the rapidly forming cumulus clouds. I climbed Bunsen Peak (8,564 ft), and my feet traveled over rocks some geologists think are 50 million years old and the remnants of an ancient volcano. The 360-degree view from the top proved to be quite spectacular and the horizon revealed a number of mountain ranges including the Gallatin, Washburn, and what I think might have been the Grand Tetons.

sheepeater canyon.jpg.jpgAs I noted in a prior entry, Bunsen peak is named for the German physicist Robert Wilhelm Bunsen, who invented the Bunsen burner. His scientific work on geysers contributed greatly to their study, but he never actually visited Yellowstone.

The name Sheepeater Cliff at first struck me as something out of a horror movie, but I later learned the designation refers to the Sheepeater Indians, or “Tukudeka,” the only Native Americans thought to spend the entire year in Yellowstone. According to Anderson’s great guidebook, A Ranger’s Guide to Yellowstone Day Hikes, “there’s evidence that the Tukudeka herded bighorn sheep off steep cliffs.”

On my hike along Sheepeater Canyon and the Gardner River, I met three Israeli young men who were traveling on a five-month road trip in North and South America. We hiked together for the last few miles and I enjoyed their company. Two of them had just finished their military service and were taking this trip before beginning university.

view of gallantin range.jpg.jpgOne of my companions asked me, “aren’t you scared hiking alone in grizzly country?” My answer was yes. During my hike today, I exhausted my entire repertoire of U2, Eagles, Beatles, and Counting Crow songs. At some point I wondered if a grizzly offended by my poor musical ability would attack me, so I switched to reciting T.S. Eliot and Yeats poetry. Nothing like a recitation of “The Second Coming” to put the potential of being mauled into perspective. For the record, I do realize hiking alone in grizzly country is risky, but solitary wandering is one of my joys in life.

By the way, if you want to see some stunning photography of Yellowstone by a talented artist, visit

Snowshoeing on a Volcano (Sort of)

Mammoth%20from%20Upper%20Terraces.jpgA park ranger telling the story of a thousand year-old tree around a campfire in Rocky Mountain National Park inspired my passion for national parks. Although I did not realize my childhood dream of becoming a park ranger, I have been lucky to work in roles that support our national parks.

During my time in Yosemite, I learned an enormous amount from the dedicated interpreters who were so generous about sharing their love for the park—Dick Ewart, Dean Shenk, Margaret Eissler, Erik Westerlund… and many more. Thank you for teaching me so much about Yosemite!

Of course all that knowledge is useless now—my decade of Yosemite-oriented study counts for nothing in Yellowstone. I have to start from scratch. And what better way to learn than by attending a ranger-led walk!

Thermals%20in%20Mammoth.jpgAfter donning about eight layers of clothes, I ventured outside in twenty-degree weather to the Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces—the northern part of the park’s most active geothermal area.

While Yosemite’s geology and landscape centers around solid granite batholiths, Yellowstone’s terrain is all about volcanic activity—steaming, colorful hotsprings and geysers. Indeed, Yellowstone is known as a geologic hotspot—an area where hot molten rock rises to the surface. Lurking under this park is a vertical plume of hot rock 125 miles in depth. (Sorry, Mom, this does mean I am living next to an area that could blow sky high at any moment!)

Orange%20Spring.jpgRobert Smith and Lee Siegel open their book, Windows into the Earth: The Geologic Story of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, with a quote from an early scientist that captures the landscape perfectly:

“Anyone who has spent summers with the pack-train in a place like Yellowstone comes to know the land to be leaping…The mountains are falling all the time and by millions of tons. Something underground is shoving them up.”

Our park ranger for the day, Debbie, took her party of two intrepid students (myself and a woman from Texas) on a delightful two-hour walk on the terraces. She gave a great introduction to winter survival strategies and the formation process behind the terrace development.

Orange%20Spring%20invading%20the%20Road.jpg Halfway through the hike, snowflakes began falling, yet the whiteness in both land and sky lent this already surreal landscape an even more mystical quality. Elk grazed on uncovered grass near thermal pools, rising steam disappeared into the falling snowflakes, and a highway of animal tracks decorated the snow.

At Orange Springs Mound, we saw evidence of nature asserting her authority. The water flow had shifted from the top of the mound to the side, and the water had begun running down the asphalt road, leaving mineral deposits to color the pavement. Two park geologists were checking out the site when we arrived. As this is a popular road in the summer, the water’s route is problematic, but I think the beautiful oranges and greens left by the bacteria and algae are works of art.

Pete%20Devine.jpgFor Pete Devine---You will be so proud of me!!! On our walk, a park visitor asked the ranger what bird call we were hearing, and I said without evening thinking, “that’s a clark’s nutcracker.” And I was right!

Note--although Pete's not an official national park ranger, he's also an interpreter I learned an enormous amount from--thank you, Petey, and watch out for the buttoned shirts.