Climbing Half Dome the easy way

Notice: beginning in 2011, Yosemite National Park will require permits for Half Dome Day hikers seven days per week when the cables are up. A maximum of 400 permits will be issued for each of these days. More information on the National Park Service web site.

The hiking trail to the summit of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, California is one of the most famous and scenic day hikes in the United States. Dozens (sometimes hundreds) of people do this hike every day during the summer. This page describes the tourist trail that spirals around the back of Half Dome up to the summit. Serious rock climbers climb straight up the face, sometimes faster than hikers coming up the trail.
Half Dome face
Warning: always check trail conditions before attempting any long hike in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. During the summer, repair work can close some trails. During the long Sierra Nevada winter (approximately mid-October through late-May), the park service removes the poles holding up the cables to the summit and climbing without them is recommended only for experts. Snow and ice can reach all the way down to the Yosemite Valley floor during the winter and the trail can be slippery and dangerous in those conditions. The Visitor Center in Yosemite Valley can give you the latest information about Yosemite trails. Some information is also available on-line at the official Yosemite National Park web site,

This hike is very popular and the trail can get very crowded, especially on summer weekend afternoons. If you want to hike at your own pace without too much congestion, then you should avoid those times. If you must hike on weekends, then leave early in the morning and try to get to the summit before noon. One hiker fell from the cables and died in 2007 (apparently the first time this has ever happened). Some witnesses suggested that crowding on the cables contributed to his accident. Please be careful and considerate of others when using the cables. If you are very tired when you get to the bottom of the cable section, you should consider not continuing since you will need your full concentration to climb the cables safely. Also, slow climbers contribute to the congestion, making the cables less safe for everyone else.

The hike is somewhat long (about 17 miles round trip), somewhat steep (about 5000 feet of elevation gain), and somewhat high in altitude (summit is 8842 feet above sea level). There is a (very crowded, permit required) backpacker campground about half way up the trail (Little Yosemite Valley), but most people do the hike in one long day. Fit hikers usually take 7 to 10 hours for the round trip. Less fit hikers can take 12 hours or more. The following topo map is approximately 1:32,000 scale (depending on your monitor resolution).
Half Dome map

The downhill hike is not real easy, so allow plenty of time to get back before dark (and bringing a flashlight isn't a bad idea). Even if you don't make it all the way to the top, though, the bottom half of the trail (the Mist Trail and the waterfalls) is exceptionally scenic and well worth a half day hike. I recommend starting hiking at sunrise (note that the Yosemite Valley shuttle bus may not be running that early, but the trailhead is within easy walking distance of many valley accomodations). Try to make it to the top of Nevada Falls by 9am and to the Half Dome summit by noon or 1pm. The downhill hike isn't going to be a lot faster than the climb, so you should consider turning around if you're behind schedule and don't want to hike in the dark.
Vernal Falls Nevada Falls
From the Happy Isles trail head, take the John Muir Trail and Mist Trail east along the Merced River. The first 4 miles of the trail climb about 2000 feet past the beautiful Vernal Falls (left above) and Nevada Falls (right above). The Mist Trail is so named because spray from the waterfalls soaks hikers during the spring, so be prepared. The volume of water in the river drops off significantly by late summer (when the weather can get quite warm). You'll find a lot of casual walkers along the first mile of the trail, but most of them stop at the bottom of Vernal Falls, where the trail steepens.
Soon after you reach the top of Nevada Falls, the Merced Lake Trail and John Muir Trail head east up the canyon. The Half Dome Trail branches off to the left and spirals around the back of Half Dome. The rear of Half Dome is less spectacular than the front, but still quite a sight. Half Dome rear view
lightening warning sign The trail continues, sometimes climbing steeply up a series of rocky switchbacks over the north quarter dome. There you'll find a sign warning you about lightening strikes. Obviously, a 5000 foot granite dome is a natural lightening rod and Half Dome does get a lot of lightening strikes during the summer.
The climb up the quarter dome can be strenuous and the altitude starts to bother people who live at sea level. All of a sudden you run into the infamous Half Dome cables. The last part of the trail is too steep to climb without hand support and the park service graciously maintains the cables up the last quarter mile to the summit. I'm told this section never gets steeper than 45 degrees, but you can judge for yourself. I recommend that you bring a pair of gloves (cheap gardening gloves are fine) to protect your hands, especially when climbing down.
cables cables closeup
You've reached the summit. If you started hiking at sunrise like I recommended, you should reach the summit at around lunch time. Take a break and enjoy the view. You can see a good portion of Yosemite Valley as well as a lot of the Yosemite high country from the Half Dome summit. Half Dome summit
diving board Take plenty of time to explore the summit area. Sometimes you can see rock climbers making their way up the face of Half Dome. Some climbers have been known to climb the 5000 foot face in less time than most hikers.

The tip of the summit extends outwards some distance beyond the cliff face. In the photo there are two people sitting in the upper left. You can see this lip when you look up at Half Dome from the Yosemite Valley floor. Climbers affectionately call it the "diving board", though I don't believe anyone has actually done that. Before you get any ideas, BASE jumping and hang gliding from Half Dome are strictly forbidden.

Take your time on the descent, but remember that the canyon gets very dark after sunset. The shortest route down is the same trail you took on the way up, though people with tired legs may want to consider the more gentle John Muir Trail, especially when the Mist Trail is muddy. Hopefully, you'll have time to rest in Yosemite Valley before you go home. The popular roadside view points are always crowded, but the views are always worth while. This picture is taken from the parking lot at the east end of Wawona Tunnel. The waterfall on the right is Bridalveil Falls. Half Dome is in the center at the east end of the valley. On the left is El Capitan, ever a favorite with big wall rock climbers.
Tunnel View

Preparing for the hike

Several people have asked me how to prepare for a hike like this. Here are some general suggestions. I recommend also asking your hiker friends for more ideas.

Hike Variations

There are two popular variations to the 1 day hike described here. First, you can do the hike in 2 or 3 days, camping half way up in the Little Yosemite Valley backpackers campground. This is a very crowded campground (the most crowded backpacker camp in Yosemite) with no running water (use river water) and portable toilets. Of course, you will need to haul your camping and cooking gear 2000 feet up the Mist Trail to Little Yosemite Valley. Backcountry camping permits are required for camping here and these can be hard to get. Contact the park for details.

Another variation is to start the hike from Glacier Point instead of Happy Isles. The Panoramic Trail from Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley is very scenic, but longer than the Mist Trail described above. The main advantage to this route is that you hike (mostly) down from Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley, instead of up the steep Mist Trail. The disadvantage is that you have to hike back up to Glacier Point at the end of the day. Or you could arrange some sort of car shuttle so you can hike down to Happy Isles at the end of the day. There is a bus service from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point, but service is infrequent. Contact the park for schedules and fares.

Personally, I always do the 1 day hike because it is logistically much simpler than either of these variations. The variations may appeal to larger groups, especially with children or mixed ability levels.

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