Hiking In California – Half Dome

Yosemite National Park, CA
Family Friendly?:  Only for the most ambitious and experienced hikers
Age Range:  Teens +
Recommendations:  This is a long hike with potentially deadly drops in places.  You should be an experienced hiker in good shape to undertake this adventure.  People who are afraid of heights should think long and hard before attempting the cables.  However, the payoff is huge!

When it comes to the all-time classic hiking in California, Half Dome in Yosemite National Park has to be right at the top of the list.  It features spectacular waterfalls, beautiful forests and you will never forget the last 400 vertical feet – guaranteed.  This article is meant to share what I have learned from enjoying the hike multiple times and to encourage you to put it on your list as soon as possible!

Before we get to the fun, a little housekeeping.  The National Park Service has instituted a permit system for the Half Dome hike limiting the number of people who may go past the shoulder (or sub dome as the NPS refers to it) to 400.  You may learn more about the permits  and apply here.  Be sure to secure a permit – you need it to experience the best part of the hike!

The Half Dome hike is a very strenuous hike.  Depending on the route you take it is between 14.2 and 16.5 miles.  The total elevation gain is 4,800 feet and remember that coming back down is often harder on your legs.  My round trip times have varied from just short of 9 hours to over 11 hours but take that with a grain of salt.  People say I walk too fast, but I also like to stop for photos.  Give yourself at least 12 hours, especially if you want to take time to savor the endless great views or snap some photos.  This is not a hike to be rushed!

You will be in a high mountain environment topping out at almost 9,000′.  Chances are that the weather in the valley with be warm, but up high things can change quickly.  Bring a fleece and rain gear just to be safe.  Sunscreen is essential, slather it on often or you’ll get an epic burn very quickly.  Sunglasses and a hat are also important.  Plan on about a gallon of water per person unless you have a filter.  With a filter you can refill in Little Yosemite Valley, a little short of half way up.  Be sure to wear shoes that provide support and have a good tread.  One last thing – bring a pair of work or garden gloves (not ski gloves).  When you get to the last 400′ you’ll be really glad you did.

It is best to get an early start – plan on being on the trail by 6 am and off the top no later than noon.  Why?  Thunderstorms often blow in during the afternoon and you don’t want to be on top if they do.

The trail starts at Happy Isles and is very obvious.  I would suggest using the restroom here even though there are a few further up the trail.  Follow the trail through a scenic forest until you reach the bridge below Vernal Falls.  It may be a bit dark to enjoy it so keep on moving for now – the light is better in the afternoon anyway.  Soon you are faced with a choice – Mist Trail or Muir Trail?

The Mist Trail is very scenic and is the more popular choice.  It is about a mile shorter each way, but is very steep in places.  The trail goes right next to Vernal Falls and offers amazing views of the power of water.  However, when the water is high you are likely to get soaked so be prepared.  It also offers some great closeup views of Nevada Falls.

Personally, when my goal is Half Dome I prefer the Muir Trail.  Yes it’s longer, but it’s easier on the legs and offers classic views of Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap and the back of Half Dome.  I just prefer to stay dry and save the steep stuff for up higher.  My advice would be to use the Muir Trail for the Half Dome experience, then come back and do the Mist Trail to the top of Nevada Falls on another day.

Above Nevada Falls the two trails merge and continue up Little Yosemite Valley.  The section after the falls can be hot and dry but avoid the temptation to take a swim in the river.  The current is swift and people have been swept over the falls.  If you have a water filter, this is your last reliable source for water.

After a relatively easy ramble through Little Yo, the trail turns uphill again at about the half way point.  Plan on a steady, but shaded climb for a few miles.  Once you top out you are faced with two obstacles – the permit requirement and the shoulder.  If you have your permit, the first part is easy.

The shoulder is the smaller ridge that you see just to the left of Half Dome from the valley.  Don’t let it fool you – it is steep and very exposed.  You need to pay attention and watch your step here as fatal falls do happen.  Somewhere on the shoulder you will have a moment where you look up at Half Dome proper and say “oh #$%^”.  That will be the moment when you first really see the cables and understand what they mean.  Do yourself a favor and put them out of your mind for now – pay attention to the task at hand on the shoulder.

After the shoulder you drop into a shallow saddle at the base of the cables.  If you are OK with heights, you probably can’t wait to get to it.  If you have a problem with heights, you probably will need a change of underwear.  The cables go straight up the side of Half Dome and at places can be quite steep.  There is a lot of exposure on both sides with long drops to the valleys on either side.  Take a moment to gather yourself and put on the work gloves you carried up there.  There usually is a supply left by other hikers, but a fresh pair of dry gloves is golden on the cables.  Take a deep breath and go for it!

The climb starts out at a reasonable angle but quickly steepens to a pretty frightening pitch if you don’t like heights.  Do your self a favor and just keep going at a slow but steady pace.  Focus on the rock and cables in front of you – the drops on either side are irrelevant.  Just when you think it’s just too much, the pitch will begin to lessen and before you know it you’re on top.  Then you will realize it was all worth it.  Most people are surprised how big the top is – at least a couple of football fields of relatively flat area to explore.  Remember that you are on a dome, if the pitch increases as you roam around, chances are that is will just keep getting steeper so turn back.

The big moment is when you go to the brink and look down into the valley.  It is breathtaking and well worth the effort.  Stand on the “prow” right at the top and have someone take your picture from the rim toward Glacier Point – it’s a great shot.  One thing you will notice is that the valley looks different here than from any other overlook.  Then you will realize why.  Half Dome dominates the view from so many places in the park that it is odd not to see it because you are standing on it.  Keep an eye on the weather, if you see clouds forming, get down.  The cables are your only way down and they make great lightning rods.  Regardless of the weather, plan to start down by noon just in case.

Your euphoria will quickly end when faced with the prospect of going back down the cables.  What looked a bit scary from below now look like the edge of the world as you can see all the way down.  Many people try to go down facing the rock like you would on a ladder.  I have found that it is much easier to descend facing down.  I just feel more in control and I think it offers better footing.  Plus, once you relax, the view is amazing. Before you know it you’ll be back down to the saddle and will be feeling like a superhero.  Leave your gloves for someone else to score some extra brownie points.

On the way back down to the valley be super careful.  By now you will have over 7 miles of hiking and 4,800 feet of elevation under your belt so you’ll be tired.  The adrenaline will be pumping from your summit adventure so you may forget that there is a lot of serious hiking to come.  Take your time and watch your step!

The hike back down is the same route in reverse.  If you did the Mist Trail going up, I recommend the Muir Trail coming down as your legs will probably be jello by the time you get to the top of Nevada Falls.  From there, just put one foot in front of the other and enjoy the view!  If you didn’t see Vernal Falls on the way up, be sure to stop and take a look as the light should be perfect on your way down.

Congratulations!  You’ve just completed one of the classic hikes in North America.  Go have a big dinner and savor the moment!


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