So You Want to Hike Half Dome? Here are Some Tips How!

So You Want to Hike Half Dome? Here are Some Tips How!

If you have the slightest enjoyment from and love for hiking, I’m willing to wager you have a dream list of trail heads. I’m willing to double down and bet Half Dome is on your list, too. Who hasn’t sighed (and salivated) over Ansel Adams’s images of that monolith standing over Yosemite Valley? This hike continues to rise in popularity, and while the permit system to hike Half Dome has done much to protect the trail path and reduce crowding (thereby helping bring an overall better experience for hikers), actually obtaining a permit feels very much akin to the quest for Wonka’s golden ticket!

I tried two prior seasons to obtain a permit and was unsuccessful. I finally got my cable permit for September 30, 2016! Spoiler alert, I ultimately hiked Half Dome with a backcountry permit (a calamity that will be fully explored and expressed – hysteria – in another post… another spoiler alert, best to probably not soldier up and still attempt with an acute case of food poisoning).

Half Dome Summit

Logistics of the Half Dome Hike

Distance:

  • 14.2 miles round trip via Mist Trail (22.7 km)
  • 16.5 miles round trip via John Muir Trail (26.5 km)
  • 7 miles round trip from Little Yosemite backcountry campground – permit required (11 km)

Other trails by which people can hike to Half Dome include:

  • 20 miles round trip via Glacier Point (32 km)
  • 23 miles round trip via Tenaya Lake (37 km)

Elevation of Half Dome: 8,843 feet (2,695 m)

Total Elevation Gain from Trailhead: 4,800 feet (1,600 m)

Difficulty Rating: Strenuous (yes, it is, and yes, it is so worth it)

Time: average 10 – 14 hours depending on speed and physical condition

Knee Soreness Rating: Those angry mofos are going to ask you for a divorce (but you won’t be sorry, and they will forgive you)

Hiking Half Dome

Permits: Yes! You need a permit to climb the cables and summit hike Half Dome. There is a ranger stationed at the base of Sub Dome checking for your permit. Okay, so the ranger wasn’t there the day I hiked, or the day before, I was told, but I have reliable sources who promised me that was an anomole. The hike up to Sub Dome is beautiful in its own right. But if you have your heart truly set on summiting Half Dome and you don’t have a permit, and the ranger is there, you will be sorely disappointed.

I think the NPS site does an excellent job of providing information on the permit process. I used the data points provided (see here for popularity by day based on prior year permits) to strategize the days I would apply for my permit. A maximum of 300 permits are distributed each day during the season the cables are up, distributed for 225 day hikers (see here for information on securing a day hike permit) and 75 backpackers (see here for information about overnight wilderness permits).

  • Preseason Lottery: This occurs in the month of March. You can select up to seven dates, ordering preference, and request up to six permits for each of those dates. If you have multiple people with whom you’ll be hiking, it’s a good idea to hedge your bets and each person apply. However, permits are not transferable, so make sure you have a solid commitment from whoever is applying as the leader/alternate because either the trip leader or alternate leader designated on the application must carry and present the permit to the ranger. If you know you absolutely must plan ahead for your trip to Yosemite, this will be your best permit application option.
  • Daily Lottery: If you’re the type who lady luck loves and fortune favors, then my darling friend, this is your type of gamble! A portion of the permits are distributed through the preseason lottery, but based on cancellation of preseason permits and excess availability, there are, on average, about 50 or so day permits that can be had through the daily lottery. You apply for your desired date between 12:00 am – 1:00 pm two days prior, and you will receive an email the next morning (the day prior to your desired date) if you were successful. You also receive the “womp womp wommmmp” email (which I have a collection of these) to notify you if you were not successful, so you’ll know either way. If you plan to be in Yosemite several days you can do this each day until you either receive the permit or run out of days. Of the five days I applied, I ultimately DID receive a permit for September 30, the same day as my back country permit. But, because I didn’t receive the email until after I gave up my campsite in Yosemite to begin arrangements for my overnight hike (no cell service at the Hogdgon Meadow Campground), I was committed to having to hike to Little Yosemite Valley for the overnight stay in the backcountry camp.
  • Backpacker’s Permit: Most people hike Half Dome as a day hike, but if you have the equipment and the interest to backpack and stay overnight in Little Yosemite Valley, you can apply for a wilderness permit. From the research I did in anticipation of all the ways I could snag a permit, it generally appears this is your most solid bet if you are wiling to abandon all expectations of being a Curry Village glamper and can pack in (and out) your camping gear to stay overnight a night or two in the backcountry. While primitive, the campground is nicely maintained, is in a beautiful clearing about a mile from Nevada Falls, and really closes the gap between your starting point and Half Dome summit. You apply for the wilderness permit to camp in Little Yosemite, and you request the Half Dome permit when you apply for the Little Yosemite wilderness permit. You can do this online, or like I did, walk into the wilderness office in Yosemite Village. I walked in at 10:45 am, gave them my information and requested dates, and was told to come back at 11:00 am. Fifteen minutes later I had the permit. I was going to hike Half Dome!

So You Got Your Permit. Yahoooooo!! DANCE PARTY YAAAAAAY! Now What? Some Tips!

Bug repellent. Depending on the time of year, the mosquitoes are more notorious than BIG and RBG, combined. I hiked in late September and had not a single bite, but there were gnats that were terribly annoying. If you are hiking in warm weather, bring some repellent.

Bathrooms are located at the Happy Isles, below Vernal Falls, and pit toilets are at the top of Nevada Falls. Once you pass Nevada Falls, hold it or get comfortable with nature (or take a mini detour to the Little Yosemite campground where there are more pit toilets).

Start as early as you can. In fact, if I did it again as a day hike, I’d probably start around 2 or 3 in the morning. The trail is very well marked, particularly so at the start of the trail, so you can get good distance in before you would need to look for cues (footprints – get low, but not Trump low – and look for footprints on the path). I write this having hiked a significant portion in the dark on a moonless night (literally on a new moon).

Gloves! When you get to the cables, use gloves! Whatever you do, do not use leather or suede gloves, and absolutely stay away from fingerless gloves. I bought these gloves at Home Depot for under $5. They off gassed like crazy but they were like fly paper on those cables. On my way down the cables I encountered a woman wearing fingerless gloves and her fingers were getting torn up. We were near the bottom, and I offered a trade to her. She didn’t put up any argument. We swapped and even the short distance I had to go down with the fingerless gloves, my fingers were red, raw, and quite sore. You want something that covers the entirety of your hands and that is going to hold tight to those cables. There was a big pile of discarded gloves past hikers “donated” to the common good, but I read urban legends of rodents occasionally using that pile for beds. Yosemite is currently in a plague situation so if you must, you must, but if you can plan, plan to bring ridiculously grippy gloves. You’ll be glad to have them.

gloves for half dome cables

Layer! Bring a light layer. When you are hiking, you will be warm. The climb is consistently up an incline with some significant switchback action in some portions, mainly Mist Trail’s Vernal Falls stairs, switchbacks up to Nevada Falls, and the entirety of Sub Dome come to blistering mind. But, one you get to the top of Sub Dome, you’ll start to cool off. If you want to enjoy your well earned and deserved time up top of Half Dome, you’ll want a layer. You’ll also appreciate the layer if you are descending in the late afternoon and will be hiking down in the dark. Bring an extra pair of socks, too. Your toes will love you (and may be great intermediaries and character references for you between your knees and you afterwards).

Compression socks. The night after, consider sleeping in compression socks to help reduce swelling and soreness. I wore mine a couple nights afterwards while sleeping and whereas I tend to swell up after long hikes, I had much less swelling than I did following this summer’s Havasupai hike.

Have good shoes. Those Vernal Falls steps. Yes, eventually… eventually… as with all seemingly unending torturous things, will end. You can save your knees a lot of pain and take the longer John Muir Trail – which is still remarkably lovely and will give you gorgeous views – and bypass the Nevada Falls switchbacks and the Vernal Falls stairs. The Vernal Falls stairs on Mist Trail will be slippery depending on time of day and year. Make sure your shoes, in general, have really good traction. You’re really going to want to have ridiculously grippy shoes when you get to those cables.

On the subject of safety…. 

A climbing harness. So, I’m going to pull out my soapbox. Do you wear a seat belt when riding in a car? Maybe not, but you should. You should also seriously consider a harness for the cables. The way I see it is if I wear a helmet when I ride a bike, when I ride a horse, if I SCUBA dive with a backup regulator (which I NEEDED to use along a reef wall in Belize), if I wear a life vest when water skiing, why would I not use a climbing harness when climbing 400 feet up a very, very, very steep, smooth, granite rock face? I had one person on the trail actually try to dissuade me from using my harness, telling me it would slow me down and wouldn’t stop me from sliding down the cable to the lower pole, blah blah blah…. I have health, car, renters, home owner, life, and pet insurance, so it’s safe to say I’m a safety girl. SO much a safety girl. I’m so glad I had the harness and double carabiners to clip over the cables (some people suggest a via ferrata harness but I borrowed my friend’s climbing harness and she helped me fashion a sufficient setup that included two carabiners so I was always secured to a cable, even when transferring cable poles. My harness did not slow me down any more than my own anxiety did. Looking back, I can remember how skeeved out the exposure effects got me. I don’t like heights. And knowing I was secured to those cables was good for me and for everyone else on those cables with me. So consider what your limits are and what you are going to need to be confident and safe. Not only for your own well being but for the other climbers, too. I was not the only one I saw with a harness set up, either.

Do not attempt in inclement weather. If you see storm clouds in the sky coming in, if it is raining, don’t attempt the summit. Half Dome is one gigantic lightening rod. Granite is insanely slippery when it is wet. Most of the deaths on Half Dome are directly attributed to lightening strikes and falling off the cables from slipping on the wet granite.

Water. Water. Water. Plan to carry at least three liters of water with you, and plan to drink at least five liters. You can get potable water in two places along the trail, but the last place where you will be able to refill your water on the way up (and the first place on your way down) is at the bathroom stop at the bridge right before Vernal Falls. From Vernal Falls, you’re looking at about 12 miles, round trip, without access to potable water. Hydrate good and well before the hike and on your way up to Vernal Falls, refill at Vernal Falls, and refill on your way down upon return to Vernal Falls footbridge. If you have a filtration and treatment setup, you can get water from the Merced River, but unless you actually want to give yourself giardia – and I can think of better ways to lose a few pounds – don’t attempt to drink untreated water from that river.

Snacks. You’re going to burn through a lot of calories. Have plenty of snacks to eat during the hike. If possible consider having a carb heavy supper, similar to you would if running a half or full marathon. Also, treat yourself to something excellent to celebrate up top. I had a mini container of champagne and a tiny charcuterie and a supremely dark chocolate bar. Unfortunately, I was not feeling well, so decided to save the champagne to celebrate back on level land.

Aside from these tips, remember to pack out everything out, and remember to have sooooo much fun! I swore I would never hike Half Dome again, but three weeks later, I’m already wanting to go back! With proper planning and preparation, your Half Dome hike can be enjoyable, surpass your expectations, and deliver an amazing experience shared with your companion or savored solo, like me!

Let’s hear from you! I provided a list of tips to do, but I also have a near calamitous list of what not to do. What are your questions of Half Dome? What else would you add for recommendations to others seeking to capture this experience? Please comment below and share. 🙂

Hiking Half Dome

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