Trail details last updated 6/11/2018.
At 8,842′, Half Dome is hardly the tallest peak in Yosemite National Park. Heck, if you drive in through Tioga Pass you’ll be near 10,000′ just passing by the ranger station (it’s well worth exploring the northern part of the park FYI. But what Half Dome lacks in prominence superiority it more than makes up for in visual dominance, iconic status and potentially fear factor. It is one of those wonders you can’t just see once so no surprise that hiking to the top is on pretty much every extreme trail guide ever written.
There’s a ton of great information on the Half Dome Hike out there (see YosemiteHikes.com for many tips, facts and climbing details) so in this guide I’m going to talk more about what the day entails and what it really takes to from Yosemite Valley to the top of Half Dome (and back down again.) Call it a practical example or just a story with some facts.
Permits: The real pain of the hike (kinda)
If you’ve done any research into Half Dome hikes you already know that a permit is required any time the cables are up and that they’re assigned via advance lottery (225 / day) or last minute lottery (75 / day). While it was once possible to go on a complete whim, crowds of 1,000+ crawling up and down along the single set of cables created massive bottlenecks which is obviously not safe in any respect and that led to the system we have today. There’s a lot of debate around it all but sufficient to say that’s the rules we have to contend with at this point.
With the advance lottery, you pay a few bucks in April for a shot at getting a spot for later in the season. If you win (selection is announced about a month later), you pay another $10 to claim your reservation and you’re all set come summer. Obviously the best way to win a lottery is by increasing your odds and for that Yosemite allows you to pick several alternative dates on your reservation. You can also combine forces and have a few members of your group enter as well but the most helpful factor of all is just to go with a weekday later in the season (here’s the requests by day.)
In the past 5 years, I’ve lucked out in the advance permits only once for a group of four but plenty of people try just once and walk away winners too — it’s the luck of the draw. For those of you thinking you can sneak on by with an early start, I’ve seen rangers checking permits around sunrise every time I’ve been — get the permit.
The trick? I’ve climbed Half Dome more than once (legitimately) thanks to that last chance lottery. Like the advance lottery, this one is done all online with a couple bucks to enter and a couple more if you win. The difference: you’re entering just two days before the hike. Naturally this means you need to (a) be close to Yosemite and (b) be willing to hike with almost no notice. As a result, I’ve had much better luck here though like with the advance lottery, consider your timing (weekdays vs weekends) and your group size (less to win is easier than more.)
If you do elect for the last minute lottery, sure it’s a little less certain but it makes for a cool story to say you randomly hiked half dome.
Preparing for the Half Dome Hike
There’s a lot to think about for a Half Dome hike: what to bring, when to leave, where to stay, how to train and so forth. Researching through dozens of blogs and hiking forums, everyone had a little different take on the specifics but essentially it all boils down to being prepared in your fitness, your gear and where you’re going to stay so I’ll take you through my approach.
Elevation: 8,863′ is not a whole lot of altitude really and while altitude sickness is possible, most are not going to find that to be a major factor. Still, it’s always better to acclimate so staying in The Valley or above is a good way to go — not to mention putting you close the climb. Since Yosemite is basically jam packed all summer, I suggest Crane Flat which has the advantage of a little more room, a little more quiet and being at 6,200′ too, though you will have to drive about 45 minutes from there to the trailhead.
Training for the climb: Admittedly, I’ve climbed Half Dome on a whim but I’m no ultra trail runner either and on my first visit, my group ranged from very regular hikers (me) to those who hadn’t hiked much at all. Obviously, being in shape is essential here — the goal is not to kill yourself on the climb up nor do you want to be on the cables totally exhausted.
There’s no better way to train for mountains than by climbing mountains so if you have local peaks, tall hills or a treadmill if nothing else, throw on a full backpack and start hitting the trails. Every weekend, the gym a few times a day, weights on that. You can read up on this at length, you should talk to your doctor if it’s a new regiment but simply put, the better your endurance, the more use to a pack and hills and steep stairs that you are, the easier the day will be so that you can enjoy it.
The other advantage of training is the chance to dial in your gear and that’s really important. So don’t just run up that local hill with a waterbottle — get use to the weight, feel out how your pack fits, find the hot spots in your boot so you can come to Half Dome comfortable.
Gear for the day: While I carried up a fair amount of “extra” gear including a large med kit, stove, emergency kit and the like, most of the group packed for what they would need for the day which is nothing crazy. Seeing people in the descent on my last Half Dome hike with barely no gear is downright infuriating — sure, it’s a popular route but understand that you’re in a remote place, things change, things happen and if you can’t bring a day pack with essentials, you really shouldn’t be hiking something like that.
So what do you need? That link gives you a comprehensive link but I’ll stress the highlights: Lots and lots of water (I’m talking 4 liters+ per person, you’ll drink it, especially on a summer day), there is no treated supply on the trail past the fountain at Vernal Falls Footbridge (and that’s not open early season), plenty of high energy & tasty snacks for fuel, layers for the changing conditions, gloves for the cables and the cold, a headlamp, sunblock, spare socks / blister tape, first aid kit, map backup and all the rest of the 10 essentials.
What time to start the hike: Unless you’re hitting the trail right after the cables open, you can expect a hot day with crazy crowds. Thus it’s common for people to start in on Half Dome early but I suggest going really early, like midnight. Yes, this means hiking in the dark but you’ll avoid the sun beating down on you, have the trail to yourselves more or less, get plenty of time to hike on up without worrying about hiking down in the dark (and yes, that’s harder.) Obviously starting at midnight or two am or even five means navigating in the dark but the trail is well marked for much of the way and as you get towards the less clear upper portion, the light should be hitting (plus just pay attention, use your map, etc.)
The hiking route: While just about everyone day hiking Half Dome starts out at the same place (Happy Isles), there is an important route decision to make early into the hike: take the steeper Mist Trail or the longer John Muir trail and its switchbacks.
I’ve hiked the trail both ways, up, both ways down and a mix of the two but on my group trip, we made a game time decision to take the Muir Trail. This meant an extra mile and change up but I can’t recommend the decision enough for a less experienced group. First off, the switchbacks are easy to follow in the dark. Next, they’re far less crowded in the daytime. And finally, they’re a lot less steep. Oh, they’re also dry.
When it’s just me, I’ll push through the Mist Trail but if the idea of knee high stone steps doesn’t sound fun to you, take the long route up and you can always experience the Mist Trail on the way down anyways. This trail map from YosemiteHikes.com does a great job of illustrating the choices.
Making the (Midnight) Hike Out
Whatever it usually takes for you to hike a mile, ignore it (unless you hike mountains all the time, then ignore like half this post.) Once you consider the distance, elevation gain, breaks and time enjoying the summit, you’ll realize why they list this one as 10-14 hours. I’m no trail runner but I am use to hiking mountains this big and bigger, and it’s still about 8 hours. Thus back to my suggestion of a midnight (or 2am) start.
The only real difference about starting in the early morning is where you actual start from (you should have a headlamp no matter when you hit the trail, you may need it later!) From 7am and on, the Yosemite Shuttle Bus will take you right up to Happy Isles #16 to catch the trail where as at midnight you have to walk from the parking lot to there, about 3/4s of a mile further. But if you’re starting at 7am and not camping at Little Yosemite on the way, you’re pretty much doomed to some serious crowds, heat and just yikes.
Even in the darkness, the trail is easy to follow at the start as you head out on the paved though often steep path towards Vernal Falls. In the early season, you get to enjoy the sounds of a roaring river which is a great view (don’t worry, you’ll see it on the way back if you night hike) though that quickly dries up as summer rolls in.
Crossing the footbridge just under a mile into the trail you’ll hit the first of a few restrooms on the trail and the last stop for treated water. While it’s early into the hike, it’s a great place to really hydrate and take a quick break to assess how things are going, adjust for any hot spots or whatever. If you’ve been confused by the length of the hike which gets listed anywhere from 14 – 16.5 miles, it’s because of the fork in the trail that lies just beyond the footbridge (the route decision I mentioned earlier in this post.)
The most direct route is to follow the Mist Trail to the top of the Vernal Falls and then again to the top of Nevada. While the rise over run doesn’t look all that crazy, it’s a tough route and rate strenuous on its own as you climb 1,600′ over 1.9 miles mostly up giant stone steps that are serious knee busters. To the right is the JMT (John Muir Trail) which takes a switchback approach for a more gradual 2.7 mile approach. The view of the Mist Trail is well worth it one way and there’s something to be said for saving mileage but burning yourself out 1/3rd of the way into the hike won’t help either.
Walking up in middle of the night has another benefit along this section of the trail, no crowds. Unlike the daylight hours where people swarm to the trails, in the pitch black there’s little in your way and little to distract you so aside from perhaps a couple quick breaks for food & water, it’s quick time up to the top of Nevada Falls. Going up the JMT do be sure to pay attention to the signs as there are many other trails that connect in, even a way to cross back to (or from) the Mist Trail if you like.
Phase 2: Nevada Falls to Half Dome’s Base
As the trail profile shown here points out, there are few places where things level out for more than a couple minutes on the trail and a few moments where you walk downhill too (boo down hill!)
After dropping maybe 100′ above the falls, you hit the flat stretch around Little Yosemite Valley b(you’ll have to turn at the fork to actually get to the campground and / or its bathrooms). It’s unavoidable distance that you have to cover in approaching the mountain but also quite pleasant as you basically wander through a large clearing in the forest picking up speed thanks to the mellow terrain. This is your last point for sure fire water at the river though you’ll have to treat it!
Leaving the Little Yosemite Valley area, the trail once again returns to it’s uphill profile with a mix of dirt switchbacks and now unavoidable granite climbs. In the dark parts of the route can be hard to find as you continue on and more so up here but the trail is well worn in and well marked sign posts and natural features alike, it just takes more attention than on the obvious sections below (in the daylight it’s pretty obvious.)
There’s plenty of climbing to be done in the 4.5 miles from the top of the falls to the cables, 2,800′ of it in fact and as such this is certainly the part of the hike that wears on you the most no matter how enticing the trail landscape may be to look at. That’s ok. Starting early, having plenty of water and snacks, means you can afford to take your time.
Avoid breaking right and left for good, full cycle stops of 5 – 10 minutes to handle your business and recharge. If it’s hot, fill your waterbottles with ice the night before for colder drinks, dip a towel into the river (safely), keep moving of course but pace yourself doing it.
As you approach the subdome and the last 1,000 vertical feet, the dirt trail starts to fade away completely as you return to switchbacks, now on stone. The cables ahead are the crux of the day but this can be the most tiring as you don’t get the rush of that steep feel and yet are essentially climbing up something very similar. It’s not long however before you’re standing between the subdome and the cable line to the summit, time for one last break before the fun!
Phase 3: Climbing the Famous Cables
Note: If it’s raining, has been raining or is in any way slick / wet out, don’t climb the cables, wet granite is stupid slippery. Seriously. People die this way.
With a midnight start, I’ve arrived at the cables in the dark and on other days just after a nice sunrise. There’s something to be said for not really seeing ahead though really, the cables are all about your head. It’s a mind game and a physical reality to consider, push through but also be wise about. I’ve watched the strongest people in a group freak out and I’ve met plenty of hikers who stopped below or just a little ways up the cables — pushing is good but there’s no shame in doing what’s right for you either.
That said, this is the part you came for! The cables not just some light line either, they’re solid, perhaps a bit slick but not going anywhere to use them (stick one side though if it’s busy) and find your pace. It’s a steep push to the top so expect to take some breaks, the wood slats along the way and cracks in the rock make for a good place to relax at, relatively speaking. Of course, be mindful of those around you, let others pass safely and try to get to the top quickly, that keeps the height out of your head far better than anything else. On the way down, do as one REI Guide once suggested to a friend — play batman. Trust the cables, lean on back (with a good grip) and move. Trying to catch every fall and inch on down is brutal.
Some people opt to clip on in but unless it’s early season and the cables are down, this is going to slow you down considerably and requires some gear knowledge — just hooking into your backpack is only safe for, well, your backpack.
The Summit of Half Dome!
Even as big as Half Dome looks from the valley, I don’t think it’s evident just how large the top really is. Just getting around to the edge from where the cables end is a decent walk meaning plenty to explore and tons of room for a well earned break too. Time at the top seems to move slowly as you wander around, dare to stand near the edge for a photo (or not) and perhaps just happen to see a climber come up the mountain’s real face while you stop for lunch, relax and prepare for the second half of the way (you didn’t forget about the trip down, did ya?)
Another reason for an early start is having plenty of time up top without risk of a night hike down. Much as hiking up in the dark may seem scary, hiking down the cables and down the subdome and just down in generally without light is worse. Plus, with every moment of daylight, more of the 300 permits will find their way up making those cables that much harder to navigate. Go early and you get both sides for your descent!
Heading Home One Painful Step at a Time
The way back is the way you came, save perhaps for switching to the JMT to save your knees or to the Mist Trail to get the view but otherwise the route doesn’t change much. What does change is the fatigue you start to notice in all that downhill walking (and of course the view if you go with a night ascent.) After 8 miles of walking up, 8 miles back is not fun and can take nearly as long as the climb up (or I’m sure it becomes a fun & fast trail run if you’re into that sort of stuff.)
Water can become a real issue on the way back. On my first hike up, we neglected to stop for more, opting to just move and by the time we hit the fountain, we were all pretty low if not out. Taking time to refill (and treat) on the descent or just to splash your face is a nice way to break up the hike though there’s nothing wrong with pushing to get back to that shower and a real meal!
From the end of I suggest an immediate visit to the showers at Curry Village and the Pizza or Burger place next door, in whatever order you prefer.
Directions, tips & other trail details:
- Official Rating: Very Strenuous
- Start point: Happy Isles Shuttle Stop
- Distance: 14 – 16.5 miles R/T
- Duration: 10-14 hours or more
- Elevation Gain: 4,800′ total gain
- Facilities: Restrooms & water @ trailhead and footbridge in summer
- Water: None past the footbridge (treat streams)
- Crowds: Moderate due to permit system, heavy on the Mist Trail
- Cost: About $20
- Permits: Required via advance or daily lottery (very competitive)