Conquering Half Dome was one of the most challenging days ever physically and emotionally, but worth every minute! I like to say it’s one of the most amazing things I hope to never do again. If you can grab a permit to make it to the top, DO IT!
Preparing for Half Dome
You’ve decided you’re ready to conquer this 16+ mile, 4500+ ft elevation gain behemoth – congrats! Step one is going to be getting yourself a permit to go up the cables. The cables are the scariest. most dangerous part of the hike, and they really limit the number of people who can go up each day to keep it safe! You can apply for a permit here during the month of March, and you’ll be notified in April. The more flexible you are with your dates, the more likely you are to get a permit! You’ll still need to book a campsite as well in addition to obtaining a permit. You can also apply for a daily permit two days in advance of when you want to hike, but these are even more difficult to come by!
Assuming you got your permit, you should start preparing! Unless you’re in incredible shape, I don’t recommend showing up to this hike with no practice. I was doing 8-10 mile hikes every other weekend for a few months, and still felt underprepared! What I didn’t fully take into account was the difficulty of the elevation gain, and the best advice I can give is to put in some quality time on the stair master! While not the most fun workout, it will get you in the best shape to handle hiking up 4000 feet including three separate aggressive granite staircases.
You’ll also want to spend some time breaking in your gear (you need a way to carry at least 5 L of water – I have a medium sized camelback I love – plus food for the entire day and good hiking boots and socks that prevent blisters, you can also use hiking poles but not a requirement). Once that’s all ready to go it’s just packing up your camping gear and preparing your meal plans!
Getting to Yosemite
You’re going to want to arrive at Yosemite at least 1 day before your permit date. If possible, stay on the Valley Floor, and as close to the trailhead as possible. The morning will be early and you’re already hiking so far, you want to minimize any extra steps.
When you arrive, take some time to enjoy the sights that are easy to get to! Stop at Tunnel View, and walk around the Valley Meadow or to the base of Yosemite Falls. You can check out my full list of Yosemite recommendations here. Then get some rest and be well fed for a big day. Prepare what you can before you go to bed so the morning is easy.
Rise and Shine! We woke up around 5:30 to be out of the campsite by 6. We wanted to beat the heat as much as possible, as well as some of the crowds. We ate a good breakfast, filled our waters, packed our bags, and headed out! I was worried about being cold, but a light windbreakers was necessary for maybe the first mile.
We packed a TON of snacks for our hike: Turkey sandwiches for lunch at the top, hummus and pretzel packs, apples and peanut butter, mixed nuts, trail mix, bananas, protein bars, and craisins! We wanted a good variety of fruit/ sugars, carbs, and protein to keep us going all day!
The hike starts by walking from your campsite to the trailhead at Happy Isles, which can add up to a mile each way, so make sure you are accounting for this. Once you reach the trailhead, you start heading up fairly quickly, but get some great views of the river right off the bat. About a mile into the trail, you’ll hit the last source of treated water so make sure to fill up, and then you’ll need to decide if you are conquering Half Dome via the John Muir Trail or Mist Trail. We opted for the steeper, shorter, but more challenging Mist Trail for the views of Vernal Falls. You’re hiking right up close and personal with this waterfall, and the path is shorter (but here you’ll find a daunting staircase). This is also where we saw a bear on our hike, so it’s one of my favorites! We saw the bear across the river and down a hill which was perfect because we could easily see it but felt we were at a safe distance. Always be cautious around wild animals – keep your distance and do not feed them.
You’ll keep climbing up past Vernal and then Nevada falls, and head to the left to continue on the Half Dome trail. This is the same trail you’ll take back down. It mellows out for a period of time as you trek through a gentle sloping forest, and past a campground. It is somewhere in here there will also be someone checking for your permits!
Eventually you reach possibly the most challenging part of the hike, the switchbacks. You’re already exhausted after several hours of hiking up thousands of feet, and here are huge, granite stairs just staring at you. This was the part of the hike that I was almost ready to give up, but I powered through and made it to the base of the cables.
The cables are probably what Half Dome is most famous for. To complete the cables, I highly recommend bringing a pair of work gloves to avoid burning your hands. The cables are metal poles connected by metal cables spaced about 3 feet apart in two rows going up the 1000 ft. side of half dome, at what feels like a 70% grade. There are wooden planks at each pole so you can regain your balance. I’m not afraid of heights but this was scary. One thing I saw other people do was attach a carabiner to their clothing, have a length of rope, and attach a carabiner at the cables. If I did this again, I would 100% attach myself to the cables to avoid any slipping. This is also why hiking boots with good traction is critical to get you up the solid granite. Once you reach the top however, you’re rewarded with 360 degree views from the top of the world. This is where you’ll want to rest and picnic, and revel in what you’ve accomplished.
When you’re ready to head back down, you’ll take another pass at the cables which may have actually been harder going down than up. You’ll continue back down the same path until you hit Nevada falls, another great place to take a quick break and appreciate the natural beauty around you. Here, you’ll want to stay to the left and take the John Muir Trail back down (stairs are hard enough to go up). As you make it to the bottom, you’ll be able to refill your water and a feeling of deep accomplishment at conquering one of the most difficult hikes out there!
It took us about 11 hours to hike the 16 miles round trip, including decent stops at least 3 times along the way. Another thing to remember when you are planning your hike is to make sure you have time to get back to your campsite before dark, and also do not climb the cables if there is any sign of weather. The last place I want to be if lightning strikes is at the top of a granite rock.
One thing that could be great to bring on the trip is a foam roller to start to knead out your muscles after a long day. I guarantee that you will be sore and exhausted, but also feel so accomplished! Make sure you take advantage of everything else Yosemite has to offer while you’re here.
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