After two days of exploring Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows and the Mariposa Giant Sequoia Grove with my mother, it was time to head out on the most ambitious hike I had ever undertaken: day-hiking from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Half Dome and back.
Half Dome is an enormous granite dome rising nearly 5,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley. It gets its name from appearing as though half of the dome was broken off by glaciers, and, aside from El Capitan, it is probably the best known feature of Yosemite National Park.
There are a few different options for reaching Half Dome’s summit. The most direct is to free climb up the northwest face, but I’ll leave that for Alex Honnold. For non-climbers, the NPS has installed a cable railing system (known as “the cables”) to help hikers reach the summit. The route is so popular that the park instituted a 300 person per day limit to avoid creating dangerous overcrowding. Many hikers opt to split the trip to Half Dome’s summit over two days. With my mother skipping the hike, I chose to take the one day route so as not to leave her waiting for two days. For the August hike, I had to apply online in March. I was lucky enough to get my permit on my first choice date leaving me with nearly 5 months to get nervous!
Even before the cables, you have one heck of a hike in front of you. Reaching the base of the cables means hiking seven miles and gaining over 4,000 feet of elevation from the Happy Isles Trailhead. That’s a lot! It is like walking to the top floor of the Empire State Building over three times.
Knowing how demanding this hike is, I got an early start. My mother dropped me near the trailhead right around sunrise. I was nervous about how my body would respond to the hike I had been thinking about for months. Things started off poorly when I began heading up the wrong trail!
In my defense, there is a pretty nasty web of trails in the Happy Isles area and cars are not allowed to drive directly to the trailhead. My mother dropped me off at a hikers’ lot about a half mile away. After walking on a trail along the road, I turned onto what I thought was the trail. But, after worrying that I was on the wrong side of the river (I was) and seeing a trail that looked like it was headed in the correct direction on the other shore (it was) I pulled out my map and turned around. By the time I reached the trailhead I had already walked well over a mile.
The first few miles of the hike are brutal, gaining 2,000 feet on what is essentially a giant granite staircase. You don’t really notice the burn in your legs, though, because of the incomparable views. The trail climbs right next to two enormous waterfalls: Vernal Falls then Nevada Falls. Both are astounding and beautiful. Even though most of the park’s waterfalls had shut off for the summer by this time in August, Vernal and Nevada were still roaring. The trail along their sides is known as The Mist Trail because of how wet you can get from the falls’ spray.
After climbing past the falls, I reached Little Yosemite Valley. This is the only flat part of the trail. Just to be sure you don’t enjoy it too much, the trail is mostly soft sand. The trail runs right along the Merced River and gave me a chance to refill my water bladder. In my trip planning, I worked hard to limit my pack weight. Instead of lugging enough water for the full day (probably 1.5 gallons), I elected to bring my Sawyer Water Filter. At only 3.5 ounces, this was sure better than carrying an extra four or five pounds of water. I took a short break in the shade of the Merced River, refilled my bladder and then strode down Little Yosemite Valley before starting back uphill towards Half Dome’s base.
This was my first view of Half Dome along the trail. I immediately thought, “How is it still so high up and so far away?” At this point I was really feeling the hike. In attempt to avoid rush hour at the cables, I had been booking it. I had begun to pass folks who had camped in Little Yosemite Valley that evening. I even passed one group of women who had started hiking at 5 pm the night before. They looked miserable. I would be miserable too if I had been unable to enjoy the views of Vernal and Nevada Falls. I had my own discomforts going on though. I had already climbed 3,500 feet and needed some motivation to continue. Seeing Half Dome spurred me on, and I continued up the trail while my calves and quads burned.
powering dragging myself uphill a bit farther, I began to be able to make out the hikers climbing the cables. Things didn’t look too bad from here!
After showing my permit to the ranger (who had an iPad?!) and confirming I could continue, I walked to the base of the cables. I had forgotten my gloves (whoops!) but there was a pretty hefty pile waiting at the base. I eventually found gloves that fit my hands and began climbing.
I left my camera in my pack at this point for obvious reasons. But plenty others have brought GoPros and other gear up the cables. Here is one video I found:
I have done some pretty hairy and scary hikes including Angels Landing in Zion (twice) and some climbing in the Tetons on Class 4 terrain, but the cables scared me more than anything I had previously done. The cables were exposed and on polished granite at a 45 degree angle. By the time you reach them your legs are fried, but you need them to get you up the steep slope between the 2×4 resting spots. You can see in the video that it takes real arm strength to get from one wooden step to the next too. Despite this, I was pretty sure I had the strength left to make it up (and down) without falling. I was more nervous about the other people.
People are not smart! Having spent a good chunk of time in National Parks, this is one of the clearest lessons I have learned. I have seen people five miles from a trailhead wearing jeans in 95 degree heat, with no water, and walking barefooted because they got horrendous blisters from their Tevas. I have seen people standing ten feet from a bison just to get a better picture. And, on Half Dome’s cables, I saw people doing ridiculously dumb things.
I should clarify by saying that most people were great! They moved patiently, gave each other room, and took their time. However, there were folks climbing up on the OUTSIDE of the cables. There were folks who insisted on jumping from 2×4 to 2×4 and sliding down the slope without holding onto the cables. Their choices are extra scary on a route like this, where a fall could lead to them pin-balling down the face while knocking others off. On my way up the cables, it was relatively less crowded. I often had to wait on each 2×4, but I was rarely sharing a resting spot. Taking my time I eventually reached the top.
Reaching the summit of Half Dome was amazing. Humility be damned, I felt like a total badass. The top, though, was not what I expected. First, it was MUCH larger –easily a few acres and mostly flat. People were setting up all over, enjoying the view and rehydrating and eating after the arduous climb.
Half Dome has an amazing feature known as the Summit Visor (often mistaken as the diving board). The Summit Visor is a block of granite that leans out over Half Dome’s edge. You can walk out to the precipice and have your photo taken. Everything feels fine while you are standing there, but when you see the Summit Visor from the side you see how overhung and exposed the rock is.
After about an hour on the summit, I began my trip down. I survived rush hour on the cables, dropped my gloves back into the pile, and started the long trek down the trail. At this point I also took my camera out of my pack and held it while I hiked. On the way up I had it stored so I would keep moving, but on the way down I wanted to capture many of the views and sights I had missed. Here are a few shots.
While the trip back down to the valley was long, it was not as tiring as the hike up–no spoilers here. While my leg muscles recovered, my joints were really feeling it. For no good reason, I had decided I wanted to make it back to the parking lot in 9 hours, so I power-walked my way back to the lot. By the time I reached the Mist Trail, it was packed. I had to wait for the swarms of visitors to move out of the way as I tried to weave between them on the granite staircase. Eventually I reached the hiker’s lot and collapsed for the day. In the end my hike totaled to about nine hours and I covered eighteen miles with 4800 feet of elevation gain. Not too shabby!