Story and photos by Rick Deutsch
Of all the possible adventures in Yosemite National Park, possibly the most spectacular is the hike from the valley floor to the top of 8,842 foot Half Dome. The picturesque monolith is the most climbed mountain in the Sierra Nevada, with about 50,000 ascents per year. Reach the top and you’ll understand why so many love the rugged challenge. Yes, the view from the top IS incredible. Still, this is a big hike–a full ten to twelve hour day for most, comprising about sixteen miles round trip.
The final 425 feet to the top is a harrowing climb of the nearly 45 degree granite shoulder of Half Dome. This is accomplished with the aid of two steel cable handrails. The National Park Service puts up the famous “cables” on Half Dome for the duration of the summer – usually early June until mid October. Many first timers will find the cables to be extremely intimidating. Those with a fear of heights will have to dig deep to surmount them. However, with training and preparation, the Half Dome hike is a very rewarding day trip that just about any reasonably fit hiker can finish. Complete the journey and you will see why some consider it to be the greatest single excursion in any National Park in the country. For many it is a kind of personal Mt. Everest, a challenging pilgrimage to be undertaken every season
The start of the trail is next to the Merced River at Happy Isles. There are variations, but the most scenic route is 15.5 miles and over the Vernal Fall Bridge, up the Mist Trail, through Little Yosemite Valley, then on to Half Dome. The return is via Nevada Fall and the John Muir Trail. The actual apex of Half Dome is only two miles from Happy Isles on the valley floor—as the crow flies. However, your path will cover many more miles as you weave a circuitous route around the back side of the monolith while gaining nearly a mile in elevation. The trail is well marked; just follow the crowd! Upwards of 800 people do this hike on a summer weekend.
You should try to begin your hike by 6 am. The goal is to be at the cables by 11 am. Arrive much later and you will be greeted by a long line, resembling a caterpillar slowly going up the cables. It is much easier if you can go at your pace versus standing hundreds of feet up the cables waiting for the human logjam to clear. Bring a flashlight in case your hike takes longer than you hoped. There is no ranger or other authority on Half Dome to restrict hikers. Lastly, there are several well maintained trail toilets along the way. Practice the “Leave no Trace” principles of hiking.
Some of the major trail attractions and their particulars are listed below:
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