Yosemite’s ultimate and most difficult day hikes. Rising nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley and 8,800 feet above sea level, Half Dome is a Yosemite icon and a great challenge to many hikers, both professional and amateur. The views along the way are amazing, with the spectacular mist trail steps up to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall, the panoramic view up top, and the famous cable that will test your courage and fear of heights.
Distance/Hike Time: 18 miles round trip (from the trail head parking lot via Mist Trails); 10-14 hours.
Trails to Use: Mist Trail is the prettiest but more stairs/ Muir trail is less steep, but with less view and longer.
Difficulty: On the scale of 1 to 10, this is 11, Extremely Strenuous. Many have died or seriously injured.
Permits: Because of crowd factor and death in recent years a lottery permit system has been put in place in 2011. The 1st lottery system takes application in March with results announce in April, allowing 300 people per day. The 2nd lottery system takes applications 2 days in advance of your hike and announces the results 1 day before. Lottery application costs $4.50 (online)/ $6.50 (phone), up to 6 permits per application, and lottery winners will pay an additional $5 per permit. You can request up to 7 dates in your application (you will only be awarded permits for 1 of the dates). You are allowed to enter the lottery only once, but if you are rejected from the1st 300 permits, you can still do the 2 days advance lottery. Permits are not transferable. Permits can be applied online here.
Best Time to Visit: Cables are up Mid-May to October. May/June are the best time as waterfalls are better and the heat less intense. If the cables are down, then Half Dome is for professional climber, not hikers.
What to Bring for Half-Dome Day Hike:
(1) Good hiking shoes with good grip (tennis/running shoes will not work). You would be glad you bought those new hiking shoes with good grip when you are clinging for your life on the cables.
(2) 4-6 16oz bottles of water. Actually 1 gallon or 8 16 oz bottles are recommended for a human to properly hydrate, but who wants to halt that much up 8 miles. You can also bring your own filters to fill water at the Merced River in Little Yosemite Valley.
(3) Lots of Food as you will need the energy. Sandwich for lunch, granola or power bars to snack along the way, and chocolate for some energy boost. Oranges/tangerines makes for a good fruit options as they are juicy and sweet (water and sugar).
(4) Flashlights (Lots of hikers gets caught returning in the dark).
(5) Insect repellent, sunscreens, hats, sunglasses.
(6) Carabiner (clips) and rope systems. Recommended to save you from the one mistake that can cause your life.
(7) A walking stick to help push yourself .
(8) A whistle and your cell phone (in case of emergency).
(9) A pair of glove with some rubber coating for gripping.
(10) Don’t forget your permit.
Camping: With a Wilderness Permit, you can camp at Little Yosemite Valley. Some people do this so they can do the sunrise or sunset on Half-Dome. You have to halt backpacks and camp gears.
Restrooms: There are solar composting restrooms (no water) restrooms along the way. The last one is at Little Yosemite Campground which is around half-way point.
Water: The last potable water is 1 mile into the trail at the Vernal Fall Bridge. From then on, you need to bring your own water or filtration system. About 4-6 16oz bottles is needed.
Crowds: Since permit system has been put in place, crowds are much less. At peak summer time, perhaps 30 were trying to go up/down the cables at peak 1pm time.
NEVER: NEVER attempt to scale Half-Dome when wet or when there are thunder clouds around. Most injury/death occurs during these 2 conditions. The granite rocks are very slippery when wet and you can be a lighting target. NEVER attempt to scale Half-Dome when the cables are down. NEVER go off the trail for shortcuts. NEVER attempt to hike Half-Dome unprepared with some of the items on the list above or if you are not physically fit. (We have seen people in the trail past Little Yosemite Valley hiking with only 1 bottle of water in hand or with a 1 yr old baby, resting under the shades around 3pm, and likely have made one of their biggest mistakes)
OUR HALF DOME HIKE (THE TRUTH TOLD)
Our Fitness and Preparation: We were very prepared on what to bring. We are fit, athletic, played competitive team sports in high school and college. We run 2-3 miles 2-3 times a week. We can do 25 long ski runs in one day on no lunch break. We had no preparation on pre-hike training and did not do a few short/medium hikes in advance leading up to the big day. We are fairly adventurous type and have backpacked across India and many difficult places. Keep that in your perspective as you explore how we felt along the way as it will help in deciding whether this is a hike for you.
4:30AM – Waking Up: Not being able to sleep any further due to excitement, we woke up at 4:30am, ate breakfast, and waited for some lights to shine. We left Curry Village at 5:30am exactly, and oh man the trail head parking lot was already 20% full as many people were already ahead of us. We later learned that some of the cars are likely from groups who started their hikes at 11pm- midnight to see the sun rise, or did an overnight camp at Little Yosemite Valley.
6:05AM – Vernal Fall Bridge: We got to the lower Vernal fall bridge where there are restrooms and a spot where you can get potable water. This is actually the last place that you can get potable water on the 8-9 miles trail, so fill up or drink up! The bridge is a nice spot for photos, especially with the beautiful morning glow. Most tourists hike to this point during the day time as it is only about 2 miles paved round trip to see a nice waterfall (Remember it is uphill, so don’t underestimate the short distance). We were huffing and puffing with our legs burning up to this point, and thinking “Holy, we are screwed and what are we doing here”. But after a few more minutes we found our strides and started to enjoy the surroundings.
6:20AM – The Stairs up Vernal Fall (Beginning of the Mist):The trail had been an easy walk so far until we got to these stairs, which turned out to be 20 minutes of pure stairmaster. Our jaws dropped as the views here are probably some of the prettiest during the hike. In front of you is Vernal Fall with the mist around it, left is a 50ft cliff (no railing), and it feels like you are hiking up to some mysterious ancient place. During the late spring/early summer months (May/June) when the mist is heavy and stairs very slippery (rain coats needed), you must be very careful here, especially on the way down as this is the biggest injury spot during the hike. In 2011, a girl slipped on the stairs and fell down the cliff to her death. Others often break a leg or twist ankles here. Toward the end of the stairs, you will have to walk up a very narrow path (2ft wide) on the side of a cliff. Don’t worry as there are railings on this part, but it quite unique and fun.
6:40AM – Upper Vernal Fall: We made it to the top of Vernal Fall and took 5 minutes to rest and took photos. The view of the waterfall and the river valley below is amazing and worth the stairs hike. The stairs took a lot out of us and we were tired already. So far, we have only seen about 15 people along the trail. Continuing on, we came across a bridge crossing the river feeding Vernal Fall, which made for another great photos spot. The next 30 minutes of the hike is another pure stairmaster. Half way up the stairs, you will see Nevada fall in front, and cliff along the right side. By this point, we were very tried but just kept pushing and hoping for a rest when we reach the top. So far feeling like a very good/tiring workout.
7:30AM – Top of Nevada Fall:We made it to the top of Nevada Fall, took a 5 mins rest, and ate some trail mix and chocolate to boost our energy. There are solar composting (no water) restrooms here that one can use. The morning light at the time made the forest very beautiful. The walk to Nevada Fall lookout is actually another 0.2 mile on a side trail, which we decided to do in the afternoon.
Continuing on for about 20 mins in much easier walk, we arrived at Little Yosemite Valley and got our first peek at the backside of half dome. You can see the cables if look closely. In Yosemite is the Merced River which is the last spot you can get water (if you have filters).
7:55 AM – Little Yosemite Valley Campground: This is a little over half point and the last spot with portable restrooms, so use it. There is a nice campground where some people hiked up during the day to camp and then do an early morning hike to watch the sunrise. Camping here requires a Wilderness Permit as well as carrying a huge backpack of camping gears 4.3 miles up. Remembering those stairmaster we just passed, this seems like a horrible idea to us.
The next 1.5 hrs of the hike is quite boring. You will be climbing on a bunch of switch backs through the forest with very little view, but because it was early in the morning, we did saw about 4 deer. Half way through this boring portion we came across a sign that says “Half Dome 2.0 miles” and were delighted and got a boost of energy to walk faster. Forewarn that this last 2 miles is long, tiring, and difficult. Thoughts came into our head on how are we ever going to make it up and back down given how tired we are. We popped some Trails Mix and chocolate into the system and kept pushing. A few minutes later we saw the subdome and yelled “We are going to make it!…Darn Subdome looks steep. We really have to get ourselves over that?”
9:30AM – The Base of the Subdome: We arrived at the base of the subdome, where permits are often checked. Because it was still quite early, there were no staffs to check our permits. There are no shades beyond this point, all solid rocks, and be careful of rattle snakes. Not sure if it is common, but we found a rattle snake along the rocky path. As the sun was moving upward, it was getting very hot, so leaving as early as possible is advised. This is the 3rdsets of pure stairmaster; probably the most difficult as it was a very steep and we were already exhausted. We kept telling ourselves that we can do it and kept pushing. The views from the subdome are amazing, but be careful not to lose your balance while taking photos here. A fall here is deadly as well. Do not attempt the subdome when wet as the granite will be slippery. About 25 mins later, we saw the Half Dome base and the cables. We were jaws dropped by the Half Dome’s beauty, scared by its heights and steepness, and delighted that we survived the last 8 miles of climb and that subdome stairs.
9:55AM – The Half Dome Cable: We made it! It was still quite early and the cables pretty much empty. There were only about 10-15 people hanging along the base, resting and preparing for the climb. The most famous–or infamous–part of the hike is the ascent up the cables. The two metal cables allow hikers to climb the last 400 feet to the summit without rock climbing equipment. The cables are 3 feet apart, the poles about 10 feet apart, and at each pole is a 2 x 4 to provide a resting spot.
The cables/dome are much scarier and steeper in person than in any pictures you would have seen. It looked a lot more difficult and steeper in person, and yes you can definitely die doing this. The steepest part of the cable is probably 50+ degrees. It was at this time that we seriously started to doubt whether we would be brave enough to climb the cables to the top. We decided to take a 15 minutes break to rest and eat to lighten up our backpack. There are people who made it up to the cables and refused to go up; it is that intimidating. One mistake and a fall would mean death or at the very least, life altering injury.
We got the clips (carabiner) and gloves on and began the ascent. Once on the cable, I thought I was already half dead. I was so scared and didn’t want to go any further. My hands were very tired about 70% up. Every time I pulled myself up, I told myself “I cannot die, I need to survive. Concentrate, keep pulling and hang tight”. None of us bothered to look at any views or risk messing with camara/photos; we just concentrated to hang on for our life. We stopped at each 2×4 to rest our hands and catch a breath before the next push. It gets windier as you move toward the top of the half dome. My arms were really tired at this point. I was thinking, “I can’t imagine how I am going to get back down”. We were going up with one hand on each cable, but later learned an easier way to do it with both hands on one cable on the way down.
11:00AM – Top of Half Dome: We reached the top, with no word to say except calming ourselves down while soaking in the 360 degree view of the whole valley. It took us 30-45 minutes to make it up the cables. Only for those who have brave hearts, it is well worth it. (For easy trail with a 360 degree view, Sentinel Dome is a great alternative). Aside from the views, the top of half dome is bare with no trees and kinda ugly. I lied myself down on a nice flat rock, reflecting on what just had happened, and thought “Wow, I cannot believe myself that I made it to the top of Half Dome”! Up top, we saw some 10-12 years old kids and wondered whether their parents are crazy letting them coming up the cable. It is not that they can’t do it, but rather the risk of that one mistake or them panicking midway through the cables and you having to help them. We ate our lunch, took some pictures on famous overhanging rock piles, and started to head down around 12:30pm.
12:30PM – Getting Down From Half Dome: We met an old man who he said it was his 33rd times climbing up the cables! So, we asked him a trick on going down as we were not sure whether to go down forward or backward (have seen people doing both). He recommended going backward with both hands on one side of the cable only. He was absolutely right and it was much easier than our 2 cables approach on the way up. We did not use the clip on the way down as we found it too distracting.
There were many people on the cable at this point as the crowd who left around 7 or 8am just made it. About 20 minutes later, we made it down the cables, and the scariest part of our hiking came to an end. Now we had to concentrate on getting our tiring legs back to the Valley (8 miles to go). On the way back, the trail looked slightly different from what we saw in the morning due to the intense sun/heat. Walking downhill actually put a lot of pressures on the joints. We were very tired and needed to rest every now and then. By the time we got back to Little Yosemite Campground (around 3pm), we really just didn’t want to walk anymore. There were still some people coming up and we really wanted to just tell them you are going to have problem making it up/down before dark.
4PM – Top of Nevada Fall: There were so many people here, as most of the tourist hiked here to see Nevada Fall. A sign reads 2.4 miles to trial head (probably wrong as it was 3.4 on the way up), but it felt like 24 miles, seriously! At this point, our legs seemed to be paralyzed. We did stop by at the upper Vernal fall and dipped our tiring feet into the water. The water was cold but it felt so good that we wanted to sit there forever. We ran out of water at this point (8 bottles of 16oz water, 2 12oz coconut juice and 1 Gatorade for 2 people). We did not feel like having any more water, plus we were approaching the lower Vernal Fall where potable water is available. On the way back down the misty steps of Vernal Fall, we saw many people coming up with flip-flops or regular shoes, which looked scary. This is probably why most injuries happen here, from casual unprepared tourist with improper gears. Hiking shoes with great grip and good support are needed. Do not kid yourself!
By the time we reached the Vernal Fall Bridge, our bodies were at a breaking point but we each pushed our brain to keep telling our legs to continue. Finally, we got to the trailhead and were trying to wait for a shuttle bus. It did not seem to come any time soon. We had walked 17 miles, and 0.5 miles more to Curry Village should not have made a different, so we decided to walk back.
6:30PM – Finished: Tent sweet tent. Cannot wait to jump into shower and have dinner!
Seriously, we could barely walk. After dinner, we went straight to bed and slept 11 hours! The plan of doing the 4-Miles Trail the next day had to be cancelled automatically.
Half Dome hike is not for the out of shape or unprepared visitors, and you need to have a brave heart as well. Be well prepared and enjoy it! Would we do it again like that guy who did it 33 times? Honestly…….hard to say! At least not for now. Perhaps some other medium/long hikes in Yosemite.
I am sure many are reading this and thinking we are a bunch of chickens, but look at the perspective of our fitness/preparation/adventurous type and think if this is a hike for you. Most try to brag and says it is a piece of cake and anyone can do it. We would recommend the hike to our more adventurous friends, but not to those more relaxing or typical/normal friends. The reality is that Half-Dome hike is physically demanding, scary, dangerous, intense, beautiful, exhilarating, and is not for everyone or most people.
Share your Half-Dome stories or leave us any questions in the comments section! Click LIKE if you want to do this hike.