It might be half a dome, but it’s a full day’s hike – 16 miles round trip from Yosemite Valley with 4,800 feet of elevation gain. Is Yosemite’s much heralded bucket-list hike worth all the hoopla? You bet it is. Half Dome is an iconic element of the Yosemite landscape, and the trail to its summit is a one of a kind.
Get a permit. Due to the popularity of the hike up Half Dome, Yosemite National Park has instituted a permit system. Reservations are required seven days a week and there are no first-come first-serve permits available. The 400 daily openings fill up as quickly as the park releases them, demonstrating the popularity of the trail. A permit can be reserved at recreation.gov for $1.50.
Prepare for chains. To climb the dome itself, you will ascend 400 feet of exposed granite at a roughly 60-degree angle. A walkway of planks and cable hand railings is used to ascend the steep rock. Bring gloves for a comfortable grip of the braded-fiber steel cables. The chains to the summit are taken down during the winter, so plan your hike between late May and early October (depending on the snow).
Get ready. Before starting this hike, you will need to train. It is a marathon effort. In the weeks prior to attempting Half Dome, condition yourself with at least a couple 12 to 14 mile hikes with 2,000 or more feet of elevation gain. The hike up Half Dome will be more enjoyable and feasible if your body is conditioned for the effort.
Get set. It will likely take over 12 hours to complete your hike, so aim to start up the trail before 8 a.m. Pack plenty of water, sunscreen, and food. Hiking shoes with good traction are a necessity for steep and slippery sections of the trail. It is also a good idea to carry a flashlight.
Go! From Happy Isles Shuttle Stop in Yosemite Valley, turn left and cross the Merced River to the start of the Mist Trail. Turn right and begin the slog. There are views of Yosemite Falls and Illilouette Fall over the first mile to the Vernal Fall Footbridge. Across the bridge, you will find bathrooms and a water fountain. Continue along the bank of the river another quarter mile to the junction with John Muir Trail. Straight ahead, the Mist Trail climbs steep steps alongside Vernal Fall, before climbing upriver past Nevada Fall to rejoin Jon Muir Trail on the way to Half Dome. This is the more exciting route, but it is much steeper. The stone steps are narrow, and are tricky to descend as well, especially when you are tired. John Muir Trail is slightly longer, more gradual, and better suited for the long haul. If you are feeling especially ambitious head up the Mist Trail, but it is probably best to explore that trail on a day when you don’t have so far to travel.
Turning right up John Muir Trail, the single track climbs a long series of switchbacks that reward the effort with a direct view of Nevada Fall. The 594-foot tumbler is cradled to the left by Liberty Cap, a bald granite dome in front of Half Dome. Take in the waterfall-filled view from Clark Point and continue across a ledge on the right side of the valley above a sheer depression carved by the Merced River. Cross through pines down to a footbridge just above Nevada Fall. This is a good place to rest and peer over the railing at the observation deck. You’ve climbed 1,900 feet, but somehow, you aren’t even half way. Three miles down. Five to go.
Follow the trail along the left bank of the river, passing a bathroom and the top of the Mist Trail as you cross the pine forest in Little Yosemite Valley. At around mile six, turn left, leaving John Muir Trail for Half Dome. This is near Little Yosemite Valley Trail Camp. Turn north through tall conifers to reach the base of the sub dome below Half Dome. From here (about 8,000 feet), you get a unique side view the daunting dome. Begin up a series of grueling switchbacks in advance of the chains on the dome itself. This is the toughest climb of entire hike. The switchbacks are steep, you are tired, and the rocky slope offers little shade.
When you reach the chains, catch your breath, slip on a pair of gloves, and grab hold. Walk up the center between the two cables, spaced about three feet apart. Put one hand on each of the waist-height cables and pull yourself up. There are wooden planks spaced out every six feet. Transition from plank to plank, pausing at each to let the person coming down the chains pass. If everyone follows the system, you can get to the top efficiently. Given the crowding on this trail, it is often a slow process to reach the top. There are a few extra steep climbs, but most of the ascent is at about 60 degrees, which is more than you would want to do without the chains, but not enough to make you cling to the rock face. Do not attempt to climb the cables in anything but perfect weather. They can become very dangerous in an electric storm or even a light rain.
The flat area at the top of Half Dome is surprisingly vast, about the size of three football fields. The big open space has even bigger views. Green valleys and snowcapped peaks surround this 8.842-foot perch. Your starting point, Yosemite Valley, can be seen almost a mile below. To the west, Yosemite Valley stretches past North Dome, Glacier Point and more epic landscape. Half Dome offers a remarkable view, and if you’ve made the climb, you’ve earned it. Behold the grandeur of El Capitan and the full majesty of Yosemite.
There is a point protruding from the crown of Half Dome (like the imaginary face at the top of a peanut when you split it in half). If you are feeling brave, walk out onto “the diving board,” but be cautious. Visitors have fallen to their death from Half Dome, often by trying to get too close to the edge. Fear not, there is plenty to see from a safe distance.
When you are ready to head down (you have earned the right to linger as long as you like!), make your way back down the chains. You can face out from the rock now, and take in more of the view, but it is helpful to walk backward down the steep sections. Expect the descent to be a bit more challenging than the way up. At the bottom of the chains, return down the switchbacks, through the forest, and down the river past the falls to the trailhead.
Pack lots of water. Then pack more water (at least one gallon per person). A filter to drink from the Merced River is helpful. The hike is best done as a one-day marathon, but you may divide the trek over three days by backpacking in five miles to Yosemite Valley Trail Camp, lugging more gear along the way. There are other routes to the top of Half Dome, including taking the Panorama Trail down from Glacier Point past Illilouette Falls, down to John Muir Trail, and up to Half Dome (10 miles one way), or hiking south from Tenaya Lake on Tioga Road through the Yosemite backcountry to Half Dome (11.5 miles one way).
The hike up Half Dome an unforgettable and exhausting achievement. Be careful and enjoy. The hike lasts a full day, but the memories last forever.
To get to the trailhead: Drive into Yosemite Valley and park at Curry Village. Take the free park shuttle for three stops to Happy Isles and walk across the Merced River to reach the start of the Mist Trail. There is also a parking lot between Curry Village and Happy Isles for backpackers, but this will add about a mile of level hiking to your trek.
Trailhead address: Happy Isle Loop Road, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389
Trailhead coordinates: 37.732178, -119.558036 (37° 44′ 44.67″N 119° 31′ 58.73″W)
|The Mist Trail to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall |
This 1.8 to 5.5-mile hike takes an exciting course past two of Yosemite's prize waterfalls.
|Panorama Trail |
This 10-mile one-way hike travels from Glacier Point down to Yosemite Valley in the most scenic way possible.
|Mirror Lake |
This 2 to 2.8-mile hike visits a reflective pool on the east end of Yosemite Valley.
|Lower Yosemite Fall Trail |
This 1.2-mile hike delivers visitors to the base of the tallest waterfall in North America. The experience is not to be missed.
|Bridalveil Fall Trail |
This easy paved half-mile trail visits the base of a 620-foot single-drop waterfall on the south side of Yosemite Valley.
|More trails in the Sierra Nevada Mountains |
Explore other destinations in Yosemite National Park and the rest of the range.
|Yosemite National Park Campgrounds |
There are 13 campgrounds with over 1,600 total sites spread throughout the park to facilitate your visit.