Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is one of the most iconic and recognizable rock formations in the world! The granite dome is so famous that it has its own iPhone emoji. The nearly 17-mile hike to the top of Half Dome (8,844 feet) gains an elevation of 4,800 feet and is definitely an endurance challenge. The reward for the effort is not only panoramic views of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierras from the top of Half Dome but also throughout the hike including Vernal and Nevada Falls, Emerald Pool, Merced River, and Sequoia trees.
This was another hike I completed during my West Coast road trip. At this point in the trip, I’d hiked through several National Parks and completed some epic and challenging hikes. However, I was still anxious about my abilities to complete the hike to Half Dome including navigating the infamous cables. Two of my good friends from D.C. met me in Yosemite to do the hike with me and it assuaged some of anxiety. Although many people do Half Dome as a day hike, we planned it as an overnight backpacking trip and were lucky enough to secure permits in the preseason lottery (tips on this later in the post), which also let me feel more comfortable about the hike.
WHAT’S IN THIS BLOG POST?
- Backpacking Experience
- Route Summary
- Things to Keep in Mind
- Gear for the Hike
- Trailhead Information
After a leisurely lunch, we started our hike to Little Yosemite Campground (4.3 miles from Yosemite Valley), our stop for the night. It was a warm day and hiking with full packs didn’t make the trek through the Mist Trail (steepest section before the subdome) easier. Drinking plenty of water and taking lots of breaks, we slowly made our way first up to Vernal Falls (this part of the trail is usually wet and slippery but the falls weren’t in full force after Labor Day), then through a series of switchbacks to Nevada Falls. A couple of us in the group made the short trek to the top of Nevada Falls (0.2 miles). It was crowded so we took a quick look and then went back and proceeded to Little Yosemite Valley Campground (about half way to Half Dome).
After finding our camping spot, we set up our tents and went to the Merced River to collect our water for dinner and for the hike to Half Dome the next day. Collecting water from the river is not difficult but it must be filtered before use. After a meal of hot ramen, we were all tired and ready to hit our sleeping bags. I fell asleep pretty quickly but my friend who had never camped before had trouble sleeping. She only managed to get sleep in cycles of what felt like 30-seconds. Around midnight, all four of us were woken by a group of hikers that made it to camp late. They had their headlights on full blast as they approached the area of our tents which was also close to the bear boxes. All of us struggled to sleep through the rest of the night, but we were still ready to go at 5 AM the next morning.
We packed our packs with enough water and snacks for the day hike and left the rest of our belongings at camp. I realized I forgot my GoPro head strap two nights before our hike and my hiking partner on the road trip attempted to make one with the strap from my head lamp. In that process, I forgot my actual headlamp and had to try my best with my cell phone flashlight (it is not a good replacement because I could barely see the trail ahead of me in the dark). Fortunately, daylight started to seep through 20-minutes into the hike making this mishap only a small one.
Although the trail gained about 1,800 feet of elevation, the switchbacks through a forest of Sequoia trees eased the climb or it was early enough for me not to feel the full effort to move forward. In either case, we arrived at the subdome pleased with our timing and energy levels.
The hike through the subdome was as difficult as it is said to be. The granite steps were tiring and at this point our group of four split based on the speed of each hiker. I was on the back end and stopped every two or three switchbacks to take a quick water break. This strategy helped me keep moving forward. Our group gathered at the base of the dome, took some pictures, and we were ready to take on the dome. Just as we were heading towards the cables, someone’s water bottle made tumble down the dome hitting the granite every few feet. After a loud “oh shit,” we all started up the cables.
A few steps in, I realized my gloves were too slippery and didn’t grip the cables well. I turned around to sift through the pile of gloves to find a better pair. The rest of my group kept moving. I didn’t realize how smooth the rock or unstable the poles holding the cables would be. I ended up moving slowly and steadily, which meant that I couldn’t catch up to my group. About half way up the dome, a hiker behind me started having an audible anxiety attack which amped up my already frayed nerves. Adding to this was another group of fast hikers who was led by a man who kept screaming for the hikers to pass because I was moving too slow. They took so much space passing me on the narrow cables that I was forced to lean as far out to the cables as I could go (if I ever hike this again, I will not so easily give up my space because it’s both dangerous and anxiety inducing).
This experience helped me bond with a hiker who was just slightly ahead of me and we both supported each other the remainder of the way. When I finally stepped on to the top of Half Dome, the fear and anxiety melted away and I could only stand awe struck by the beauty all around me. Just like on Camp Muir, I sat down for a few minutes just appreciating the strength of my body to push past my own preconceived limits. After about an hour at the top, we decided to make our way back down. People have different strategies for making their way down the cables – for us the crowd had gotten larger and I preferred to hike down facing forward rather than hiking backwards so I could see the hikers in front of me but it also helped me keep my balance better. While still nerve-wrecking, it was much less so than on the way up.
We took a quick break at Little Yosemite Campground – refilling our water, eating a quick lunch, and packing our camping gear back into our packs – then started our return hike to Yosemite Valley. Although I tend to struggle less on the downhills, this was a long day of hiking and my feet were tired so I made my way down much slower than anticipated. Once I got to the trailhead, I still had to walk more on the road to Happy Isles to catch the shuttle back to the cabin. After waiting in a long line and realizing I’d likely have to wait two more shuttles before making it on, I decided to walk the 1.5-miles back to the cabin. That felt like the longest, slow walk of my life. After a hot shower and dinner of pizza at the cafeteria, we came back to the cabin and had the best sleep.
HIKE TO LITTLE YOSEMITE CAMPGROUND
The trail technically starts at Happy Isles (stop #16), which is 0.5 miles along the loop road. Immediately to the right of the bridge is the trailhead for the Mist Trail. The trail begins on a paved section that switches between uphills and short downhills but steadily gains in elevation. At just under the one-mile mark is the Vernal Fall Footbridge and the last chance on the trail to use flush toilets and fill up on portable water.
Continue along the footbridge to reach the top of Vernal Fall in about 0.7 miles. A short while after crossing the bridge the trail will come to the junction of the John Muir Trail (JMT). Veer to the left to stay on the Mist Trail, which in a short distance will become a series of granite steps. The trail is wet and is misty, earning its name, in the spring and early summer. I hiked in early fall after Labor Day and barely felt any mist spray. As you approach the top of the Vernal Fall, the trail narrows to a fenced in cliff. The trail isn’t marked at the top of Vernal Fall but veer to the right along the fence to continue on the Mist Trail.
Past the fence will be the famous Emerald Pools to the left and a short distance away will be a series of signs indicating the trail ahead. Veer to the right and follow the granite path until you intersect with a trail heading to the JMT and Clark Point. This time veer to the left to stay on the Mist Trail. At this point the trail winds through forest and switchback sets of granite stairs. Two miles after the top of Vernal Falls arrive at the junction to Nevada Fall (the top of the fall is through a short (0.2 miles) out and back trail, but you can also see this view via the JMT on the return trip from Half Dome. The Mist Trail ends at this junction.
To continue to Little Yosemite Campground and Half Dome head left past the compost toilets. After a short hike up granite rocks will be the campground. There’s also a short trail to the Merced River at this junction. Whether camping for the night or continuing up to Half Dome, the Merced River is the last place to refill on water. The campground also has compost toilets and a small ranger station.
HIKE TO HALF DOME
The trail follows a sandy flat stretch at this point. Several trails to the right will emerge but they all lead to camp sites. Shortly after the Little Yosemite Valley Campground, the trail climbs (1,800 feet of elevation gain) through a series of switchbacks in a forest of Sequoias. In just over a mile, the trail will cross with the JMT again. Proceed to the left towards Half Dome, which is about two miles away. Shortly after this point, the climb mellows and the trail emerges onto granite rocks. The trail flattens as you approach the subdome. Hikers are allowed to hike to this point without a permit, but proceeding any further requires a permit under penalty of very expensive fines.
A ranger will be stationed at the subdome to check permits. If a ranger is not present, proceed with the hike and they’ll check permits on the way back down. The trail is now above tree line (at 8,000 feet) and the stairmaster section of the hike begins. The next 1.8 miles will be one set of granite steps after another! At the end of the stairs, the trail emerges to incredible views and the base of the dome. The cables and line of hikers on them are very visible now.
The remaining 0.2 miles are through the cables fixed to the rock face of Half Dome. The rock is well-trodden and smooth. The cables are often not tightly fixed to the rock and the wooden planks are less stairs and more guideposts. The time it takes to travel through this section depends on the time of day and the size of the crowd ascending and descending the cables. The first few steps are not too steep, helping ease into the task ahead, soon after the climb becomes steep and marked by wooden planks. The planks are gone again towards the top signaling a less steep section and the near end of the hike!
Head back to the cables to descend the dome and head back on the Half Dome trail through the familiar sections of the subdome and sequoia trees. Arrive at Little Yosemite Campground to collect any camp gear that you left behind and head towards Nevada Fall again. At the trail junction, hikers can descend to Yosemite Valley via the Mist Trail on the right (retracing steps through the steep and often wet stairs) or the JMT on the left (much less steep but 1.5 miles longer).
RETURN VIA THE JMT
To follow the JMT, head to the left over Nevada Falls and veer to the right of the footbridge. The JMT descends back into the forest here. In less than a quarter mile the trail will cross with the Panorama Trail but keep straight to proceed on the JMT. Pass through the Ice Wall (blasted mountainside), which usually has water dripping and makes for a good spot to cool down. At the next trail junction, turn left to stay on the JMT. Just over two miles later, the trail will intersect with the Mist Trail again. Turn left to follow the Mist Trail again to the trailhead.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
- Yosemite requires permits to hike the Half Dome Cables. Hikers can go up to the base of the subdome without a permit but going any further will result in a fine up to $5,000 and/or 6-months in jail.
- Day hikes permits are awarded through a preseason lottery in March and backpacking (wilderness) permit requests that include Half Dome permits can be submitted up to 180 days (6 months) in advance of the hiking dates.
- The ranger at the subdome will need to see the Half Dome permit and ID for the trip leader or alternate leader. The listed trip leader or the alternate leader must be present for the hike or the permits for the entire group will be canceled.
- More details on Half Dome permits available at the Securing Half Dome Permits blog post.
- DO NOT attempt this hike if there are rain clouds on the horizon, the ground is wet or snowy, or when the cables are down. Fatalities on Half Dome are usually the result of one of these conditions.
- ALWAYS remain on the inside of the cables!
- This is a long and strenuous hike (seriously, there’s a lot of climbing and more climbing!). Consider breaking it up into a two- or three-day backpacking trip instead of a day hike (this can also be a less competitive way to secure a permit).
- Do not underestimate the intensity of the hike up the cables. It can be anxiety-inducing even for the most experienced hiker. It’s ok to turn around if you don’t feel comfortable.
- Be patient with slow hikers on this portion. Let faster hikers pass if you feel secure and comfortable (for example when on a wooden plank).
- Black bears are very active in Yosemite’s wilderness areas. Be aware of bears and if you spot one scare it away by making loud noises and making yourself bigger.
- Always keep food within arms reach and don’t ever leave food unattended. Yosemite can fine visitors up to $5,000 for improper food storage.
- Do not feed wildlife along the trail and don’t leave your pack unattended even at the base of the dome!
- The Half Dome Cables are only up from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. The dates can change based on weather conditions.
- Yosemite charges an entrance fee ($30 for a car and good for seven consecutive days, $60 for an annual pass to Yosemite, or $80 for an annual interagency pass that gives you access to all areas managed by the National Park Service). This is separate from the fees related to the Half Dome and wilderness permits described above.
- Yosemite also requires a vehicle reservation to enter or drive through the park during peak hours (6 AM – 4 PM) between May 20 and September 30. However, this reservation is not needed for hikers with a permit for Half Dome.
GEAR FOR THE HIKE
- Many hikes including ones in National Parks don’t require expensive hiking footwear, but hiking shoes or boots with good traction and well-broken in are a must so it minimizes slipping in the cables section of the hike.
- Hikers find nitrile utility work gloves extremely helpful in gripping the cables, which can feel slippery and get hot. Although there are many gloves laying around at the base of the dome, make sure to pack out the gloves!
- Layers of clothing because the summit of Half Dome can be 10-15 degrees cooler and frequently cold and windy.
- Water filter (I use the Sawyer Mini that can easily screw to the top of a Smart water bottle). Staying hydrated is key to any successful hike, especially the hike to Half Dome. Water is heavy to carry though and carrying a filter to refill at the Merced River will make the trip more pleasant.
Most hikers take Yosemite’s free shuttle (Valleywide and Easy Valley) to Happy Isles (stop #16), which is 0.5 miles away from the trailhead. The shuttle runs from 7 AM and 10 PM everyday. Alternatively, hikers can also park just beyond Curry Village, which is 0.75 miles away.
Curry Village has most amenities – portable water, flush toilets, and stores. Happy Isles has flush toilets and portable water.
The last place for portable water and flush toilets on the trek to Half Dome is at the Vernal Fall footbridge. There are compost toilets at the intersection to the top of Nevada Fall and at Little Yosemite Valley Campground.
CHECK OUT THE VIDEO OF MY TREK TO HALF DOME!