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:
Point of Interest Altitude,Feet, Cumulative Mileage
- Top of Vernal Fall: 5,062 feet, 1.6miles
- Little Yosemite Valley: 6,095 feet, 4.8 miles
- Apex of Half Dome: 8,842 feet, 7.2 miles,
- Junction of Mist & John Muir Trails: 5,950 feet, 11.7 miles
- Nevada Fall Bridge: 5,977 feet, 11.9 miles
- Mileage-marker sign: 4,093 feet 15.5 miles
Precautions While this is basically a safe hike, there are a few things to be aware of.Intensity: This is an extremely strenuous hike.
You need to be in good health and train well in advance to condition your legs.
Weather: Thunderstorms can arise in any month. Men have died from lightning strikes on the summit. Retreat if there is any hint of a storm in the area.
Giardia: Do not drink untreated water from any natural source. Use a purifying filter or other method.
Bears: Your biggest chance of an encounter will be at your campsite – use the bear boxes for your food and scented items.
Falling: Falling is the most common type of injury. Wear good hiking shoes and use trekking poles. The cables are scary and steep (45 degrees), be very careful.
Waterfalls: People have gone over the falls. Respect the signs and hike safelyDehydration: Ensure everyone in your party is well hydrated. Water is the key to your success.
You should begin your Half Dome training about 2 months prior to your trip. By starting your conditioning early, you will have time to recover from any injury prior to the hike. Get clearance from you doctor. Build your training sessions until you can walk well over two hours at a good pace. If you are able to run, progress to running two to three miles. Find some hills and move your workouts there. Biking, the stair stepper, elliptical trainers, and an aerobics class will all help.
When you’re within a month of the trip, seek out some long hills to hike. Work up to ninety minutes, then three hours.
The Half Dome hike will take you 10 to 12 hours; a good test will be to see if you can walk that long during your training. In the last week, reduce your workouts and taper down. Do nothing for the three days before the hike.
GearBoots: For most, lightweight boots with ankle support are best. Running shoes will not protect your feet from sharp rocks along the trail. Full-fledge leather hiking boots with Vibram soles are fine, but make sure they are well worn-in. Showing up to do the hike with brand new boots will result in blistered feet. Thin liner socks and medium-weight hiking socks are recommended.Pack: You’ll need a container to carry all your food, first aid kit, raingear, water treatment system etc. A compact, waist-mounted fanny pack, works well because it rides above your hips and near your center of gravity. It should have pouches to hold your water bottles and a small central compartment for food and supplies. Backpacks may feel hot on your back and may cause back strain. Bladder-tube water carriers are very hard to refill on the trail, and they can become very heavy. The fanny pack will allow you to easily remove your bottles from their holster while you are on the move.
Water: Water is the most important factor on this hike. Dehydration will sap your energy, and cause you to think irrationally. It can also have severe medical consequences. You can either bring all the water you’ll need, or purify water along the trail. Water weighs 2 pounds per quart. Bringing a water purifier pump is a good idea.
Giardia is a concern in Yosemite. It is caused through infection of the intestine by the parasite, Giardia lamblia. Giardia is spread by contact with the fecal matter of deer, rodents, bears, birds and people. The risk is that you may end up with a range of discomforts including severe diarrhea. Don’t assume that because you find a “natural stream,” or see the crystal clear waters of the Merced, that you are safe. Clean your hands frequently with anti-bacterial gels.
Other: Good alternatives for food include energy bars, trail mix, electrolyte powders, jerky and fruit.
Other essentials: Hat, shorts, sunglasses, spare socks, blister pack, first-aid kit, sun screen.
Accommodations: Plan to book your reservations early. Call or book on line at: (559) 252-4848 and www.nps.gov/yose/.
The Curry Village tent cabins are close to the trailhead, sleep up to 4 in beds (with blankets, pillows, towels included) and are very economical. You can book them a year in advance.
Yosemite boasts many fine alternative accommodations as well, from basic ground-tenting to the Lodge to the Ahwahnee Hotel. Off-site hotels would be a long drive before and after the hike.
Rick Deutsch is the author of “One Best Hike: Yosemite’s Half Dome”. It is available from Wilderness Press, Amazon.com, REI, outdoor retailers, and major book outlets. For more information check out www.HikeHalfDome.com An avid adventure traveler, Rick makes his home in San Jose, California.