Updated: Feb 17, 2021
If you're reading this post, I hope that means you're planning a trip to Yosemite National Park to take on the infamous Half Dome hike. If not, I hope this post will start to convince you that you should. This hike wasn't on my bucketlist for long before Colton and I just went for it, but conquering Half Dome is something I know I'll remember for the rest of my life! Completing this hike is such an accomplishment!
Colton and I on the Half Dome Summit October 7th, 2019
This post will go into detail about what to expect while hiking (general route), necessary steps to plan this hike (including the Half Dome Cables), what to bring, and our personal experience on the trail. Let's get started!
Half Dome Trail Facts
16.4 miles, out and back
4,800 feet elevation gain (with cables included)
Difficulty level: strenuous
Time it took us: 15 hours (3:30 am-6:30 pm)
Half Dome Cables are 400 feet in length at a 45 degree angle
General Trail Route
Happy Isles Trailhead
Little Yosemite Valley
Half Dome Cables
Half Dome Summit
Happy Isles Trailhead
This trailhead is located at shuttle stop #16. Park shuttles do not begin until 7 am. Because this hike is so strenuous and long, I recommend starting long before daylight.
The closest campgrounds near the trailhead: Upper Pines, Lower Pines, and North Pines
We opted to splurge and get the full experience by staying in a tent in Curry Village.
These tents are minimalistic, the walls are a thick tarp-like material held up by a wooden frame. There are 2 wooden chairs and a metal shelf for luggage. There is an outdoor, metal locker right outside of each tent for food and toiletry storage.
Cost: $160 per night
Bathroom Situation: Flush toilets & shower houses available nearby
*I recommend always having a pair of earplugs handy. Staying in the tent was such a cool experience, but each tent is located within a few feet of the next. A neighbor of ours likely had sleep apnea; I was awake most of the night listening to his snores.
From Curry Village, Happy Isles Trailhead is 0.75 miles away. We started our hike around 3:30 in the morning when it was still pitch black out, so we had packed our backpacks with our food, water, and supplies the night before- a useful hack to take note of! Using our headlamps, we followed a paved road until we reached Happy Isles.
Following the Merced River, you will continue on the Mist Trail onward toward Vernal Fall. It was kind of eerie walking in the dark listening to the river. The inclining path begins quickly, and I had to shred a few layers much earlier than I anticipated.
As you get closer to Vernal Fall, you'll start to hear the waterfall. The Mist Trail is known for being slippery, especially in the spring when the waterfall is full and mist covers the steep, granite steps to the top of Vernal Fall. Proper fitting boots with strong ankle support are definitely a necessity.
Check out my post, "Fit Your Fit, Hiking Boots Edition," to ensure you have a pair of boots strong enough to conquer this trail.
Once you've reached the top of Vernal Fall, you are already around 3 miles in with 1,000 feet in elevation gain. This hike alone is labeled as moderate, so stopping for a quick break is more than acceptable. I know I had already worked up a beating sweat on my forehead.
In another 1.5 miles, you'll reach Nevada Fall. This is, again, not without incline. The sun had yet to rise during our trip, so we were unable to enjoy either waterfall until our hike back. And if I'm being totally honest, we were so tired by the journey back, the enjoyment was short lived. Since our hike was in early October, the waterfalls were not as impressive as in springtime. I'd love to go back someday to simply hike to this point.
Because this overall hike involves a lot of inclining/declining slopes and steps, I would recommend having a sturdy pair of trekking poles. These poles will help lessen the impact on your joints. A true life saver for a post ACL repaired knee, like mine.
Little Yosemite Valley
After reaching the top of Nevada Fall, we stopped for a break again before continuing on to Little Yosemite Valley. At this point, the sun had started to rise and we became fully aware of the beauty all around us.
Little Yosemite Valley is a welcomed change after the miles of incessant steps. This 4 mile pathway offers a much flatter terrain while continuing along the Merced River. This is the last available water source until the trek back from the Half Dome Summit. We carried a water filtration system with us, not thinking we'd actually have to use it. We did end up drinking all of our water by the time we reached the summit, so I was beyond thankful for the river when we got to this point on our returning hike.
Here's a picture of Colton in Little Yosemite Valley shortly after sunrise
As your hiking leads you closer and closer to the Subdome, Little Yosemite Valley begins to offer an inclining path once more. This was the point I became increasingly fatigued, doubting my abilities to continue on. We had started the hike early enough that there was only one other group of hikers we consistently saw (and even hiked with for a time). But as my fatigue started to weigh heavier and heavier on my mind, our breaks occurred more often, and we started to see other hikers who (I assume) started their hike much later in the morning than us. This was discouraging and I became more and more frustrated with myself.
It wasn't until we started to see Half Dome that my perseverance returned. From this point, we could see little blips of color as other hikers began their climb on the cables. It was intimidating and exhilarating all at once to finally lay eyes on our final destination.
Colton and I trekking closer to Subdome with our first glimpse of Half Dome behind.
Hikers will know when they reach Subdome. A ranger will be waiting to verify hiking permits. They will ask for photo ID as well, so make sure you pack that with you. I'll get into how to get a hiking pass later in this post.
Subdome was more challenging than I anticipated. Granite steps are entirely open to the elements, so if climbing in the summer, definitely wear sunscreen. After awhile, granite steps turned into steep granite slopes that sometimes felt dangerously slippery. Trekking poles, again, helped to make me feel more stable and safe.
It was around 9:30 am when we finally closed in on Half Dome. More and more hikers were looking to make their ascent as well, causing the cables to appear crowded. I'll be honest, staring up at Half Dome with the thought of potentially climbing it was terrifying. People have fallen off and died. I had never climbed a mountain before, let alone considered myself good at the one attempt I had at rock climbing.
Truth be told, I toyed with the idea of sitting the whole thing out and waiting for Colton to climb himself. But I knew if I didn't at least try, I'd regret it for the rest of my life. So we walked up and just started. We became a team, making sure the other's harness was always attached. By the time we were half way up, I felt the anxiety fade and determination set in. I was awestruck by the insane views all around. I knew we were going to reach the top.
Not everyone climbing shared my emotions. A few teenage girls froze a few feet ahead of us. It took them around 10 minutes to continue up Half Dome. Some people below us on the cables yelled up in annoyance and it broke my heart. If you ever climb Half Dome, please don't be those people. Inner fear is terrible enough on the side of a mountain, being called out by someone else is just cruel.
Half Dome Summit was like nothing I've ever seen before. We spent at least an hour up there, taking it all in. It's truly the closest thing to Heaven I think I've laid eyes on. There was actually much more surface area at the top to walk around than I thought. Check out this short video from my phone to get a glimpse of this incredible view.
Colton, taking a much needed break on the top of Half Dome
Preparing for a Half Dome Hike
Climbing Half Dome Cables Requires A Permit
Each year, the cables are opened for a designated number of hikers to attempt from mid May to early/mid October. A permit is needed every day of the week in order to attempt this climb. These dates are subject to change and cables may be closed throughout the season dependent on weather conditions.
Never attempt to climb the cables during storms, expected storms, or wet conditions.
Every year there is a preseason lottery offered for hikers to receive a permit to climb. This occurs during the month of March, with responses given via email in April. 225 passes are awarded to day hikers and 75 are given to hikers planning on spending the night in Little Yosemite Valley (backpackers). Those choosing to backpack will also need a wilderness permit.
If you happen to miss the preseason lottery, around 50 daily permits are given based on potential cancellations or no shows. To receive this permit, you need to apply for it 2 days prior to your desired hike day (from midnight to 1 pm PT).
Those wanting to climb with others can apply in a group of up to 6 members.
To increase our chances of getting a permit, we applied for multiple days during our week vacation and planned to schedule our other stops around this hike.
You can prioritize your highest desired date. Weekdays are more likely to be gifted, if this is your desired date.
Each application requires one person to be designated as the permit holder. Another person must be listed as an alternate. You can only apply and list names as either role one time. If you attempt this more than once, your application will be removed.
Hikers are required to have photo identification and permit to show to a ranger at Subdome.
If you receive a permit, the person labeled as alternate must create an account and accept their role as alternate shortly after notification of permit acceptance.
There is a $10 nonrefundable fee required for the application. Another $10 fee is required when you receive your permit. This can be refunded if you decide to cancel the night before your hike (by 9 pm PT).
To apply for the lottery or learn more click here: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/hdpermits.htm
The Big Day: What to Pack
The Obvious Items:
I would hope if you're attempting Half Dome, this isn't your first time hiking. But check out my post about starting a hiking hobby for other ideas or specific items that we always have on hand (including food ideas): https://www.oliviahalephotography.com/post/so-you-want-to-start-hiking-now-what
Half Dome Specific Items:
While it isn't required to have a climbing harness or gloves to climb Half Dome Cables, I cannot tell you how happy I was to have them when we did.
People have died from losing their grip on the cables without a climbing harness. Some have even fallen to their demise not attaching their carabiners correctly. A climbing harness was a definite requirement in my book- and I hope yours, too! (You're already climbing a mountain, you don't need to be more daredevil than that).
Attached to the picture is a link to the exact harness we used. It worked out great for us!
Disclaimer: I am not a rock climber. Not even close. As I mentioned before, I only attempted once indoors and I was terrible at it. Because of this sad truth, we didn't buy an official climbing harness. Ours is more for building and construction work, but it did the trick and seemed to be less expensive than rock climbing gear.
If you want to browse more official equipment click here: https://amzn.to/2RKAXmo
The cables themselves are metal wires and can take a toll on your hands while holding and pulling yourself up a 45 degree angle. I originally thought the gloves we had purchased were a little too much for the job, but by the end of the descent there was obvious wear on the tread. I can't imagine what my poor little hands would've looked like if we hadn't brought gloves!
Attached to the picture is a link to the gloves we brought. I'm SO grateful we made the investment!
Keep in Mind Items:
Just like anywhere else in nature, I encourage you to leave it how you found it.
On a long hike like this, you're bound to have wrappers from food and snacks build up. Pack a few Ziploc bags to store garbage you accrue throughout your hike.
You'll probably go to the bathroom a time or two out in the Yosemite wilderness, too. Colton and I brought a roll of toilet paper with us, dedicating another plastic bag to toilet paper waste.
I grew up on a farm and still consider myself a tomboy. I have no problem going to the bathroom outside. Ever since our first hiking vacation, I have kept my GoGirl urination device in my hiking bag. Awkward to mention, I know, but it's little things like this that can really make a big difference for a girl on the trail. It's basically a funnel you can use to pee through so crouching isn't a necessity/you can go standing up.
Well, that's an odd point to end on, but that's really the key points I would tell others wanting to check this hike off their bucketlist. I hope this helped you! If you're planning on making it to the top, I would LOVE to hear about your experience! Half Dome by far is the hardest thing I have ever conquered physically and I will continue to brag about it forever!
"Travel far enough to meet yourself" -David Mitchell