Article Overview: Half Dome Hike
The Half Dome hike of Yosemite National Park is the pinnacle, literally and figuratively, for many hikers and climbers. It’s one of the longest, highest, and most arduous hikes in any national park.
As an experienced (but not expert) hiker, I had a cocktail of anxiety and excitement stirring within as I applied for the Half Dome permit (more on that below), which is now required. Once approved, I started loading up my backpack and cleaning mud out of my hiking boot bottoms.
I think it’s important to know the facts and also have firsthand experience as you follow in my footsteps. The scariest part of Half Dome wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be.
I dreaded the cables, mostly due to the loss of control of other hikers climbing or descending. I now know that every step of a Half Dome hike is as precarious as any other.
This is your step-by-step guide to the risky climb of Half Dome at Yosemite National Park and my two cents on whether or not it’s actually worth it.
Ready to get started? Let’s dive in!
Half Dome Hike
Table of Contents: Half Dome Hike
Table of Contents: Half Dome Hike
- Things to Know Before Hiking Half Dome
- What Exactly Is the Half Dome Hike?
- Step-by-Step Guide to Hiking Half Dome
- Half Dome vs. El Capitan
- Is Half Dome Safe?
- Half Dome Hike Summary
Things to Know Before Hiking Half Dome
$35 per vehicle to enter Yosemite OR if you plan to visit more National Parks within the next 12 months, I suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more, including 2,000 sites for free after a one-time $80 fee.
Use it. Lots of it. Especially this one, which I never leave the house without because it plays nice with our dear friend, Earth 🙂
The Best Guide Book for Yosemite National Park is this one which we’ve marked up and highlighted quite a bit.
The Best Map: I like this map best for Yosemite National Park.
National Parks Checklist Map: This beautiful National Parks Checklist Map can be ordered to your house.
Framed National Parks Map: We’re a sucker for maps; this framed national parks map is the best.
Where to Stay in Yosemite National Park
Where to Stay: This is our favorite hotel in/around Yosemite National Park for those who want to be as close as possible to Half Dome.
What Exactly Is the Half Dome Hike?
The trail to Half Dome takes you up the side of waterfalls, through a designated wilderness forest, and up the side of a rounded granite rock with a sheer cliff on one side.
The hike is 14 miles roundtrip and takes anywhere from 10 to 14 hours, depending on your speed, skill level, and safety steps. The hike has a 5,000-foot elevation gain topping off at more than 8,800 feet above sea level. The last 400 feet are at a 45° angle.
QUOTE THAT DIDN’T AGE WELL: In 1865, a report by the California Geological Survey stated that Half Dome was “perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden by human foot.”
Half Dome Cable Details
The cables on Half Dome were installed in 1919, opening the rock to hikers who don’t have technical climbing skills. The cables aren’t up the entire year. In winter, they will come down. Since permits are now required, you won’t be able to get one unless the cables are up.
In general, the cables are up from late May through mid-October, but heavy snow pack years will delay that. In 2023, the cables went up on June 13.
Getting a Half Dome Hiking Permit
Day hikes to Half Dome require a permit obtained through a preseason lottery or daily lottery. You should enter the daily lottery two days before your intended hike date. You’ll get confirmation or denial by the end of the day.
The permit costs $10 for the lottery application and then another $10 per person when you’re approved. The preseason lottery starts on March 1 and ends March 31. You’ll need a Recreation.gov account to apply for either permit. Call (877)444-6777 for a permit application if you prefer.
For those who plan to be backpacking and/or camping with a Half Dome hike included, you’ll need a Wilderness Permit, which is a different process.
No more than 300 hikers are allowed on any given day for Half Dome.
Preparing for the Half Dome Hike
I jokingly said I was going to need an adult diaper for my Half Dome hike due to my fear of heights and relentless battle to beat them.
One of the most important things you’ll bring is your hiking boots. Leave your Keds, Nikes, and sandals behind because you need every bit of grip that good hiking boots offer. You should also bring a gallon of water for yourself.
This hike can take 14 hours, and you need hydration along the way. By the time you reach the summit, you should have half of your water supply left. Bring power snacks too. You’ll need the fuel for the way down as much as the way up.
You cannot leave any bags at the base of Half Dome, so get a properly fitted backpack that isn’t overfilled or will weigh you down. Remember—5,000-foot incline from the valley floor to the summit. When you hit the Sub Dome, you’ll be at 8,000 feet, and that’s when severe altitude sickness can start setting in.
Lather up in the sunscreen because you’ll be in several sun-exposed spots on the trek. The rays become even more intense with every step up.
Bring climbing gloves to hold onto the cables as you climb and descend. Rain, sweat, and cable residue can make the cables slippery.
Step-by-Step Guide to Hiking Half Dome
I watched hours of videos showing people making the entire hike. It either looked so steep I questioned my life choices or so easy I couldn’t understand how people needed the cables. The camera angles you see are nothing compared to the actual view.
MORE: Here is a map of the Half Dome wilderness hiking trails for those camping and backpacking.
The Half Dome Trailhead
The most common day hike for Half Dome starts at Happy Isles, which is #16 on the shuttle list. The Mist Trail and John Muir Trail overlap. They will split later on and then once again reconnect to make the way up to Half Dome.
Keep in mind that the Mist Trail gets its name from the mist that blows off the massive waterfalls you’ll pass. Since the hike is an average of 12 hours, you’ll need to start just before or right at sunrise to get back down before it’s dark.
“Along the trail, there are several spots where the rock is guaranteed to be wet & slippery,” Dov Bock, a Yosemite Search & Rescue Ranger, told us.
Waterfalls on the Half Dome Hike
My first eye-opening moment of the day was the incline of the trail to Vernal Falls. I couldn’t help but quietly hum Miley Cyrus, “Ain’t about how fast I get there, Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the cliiiiimb.”
You go parallel to the Merced River, but it’s all uphill. Haphazard stone steps lead the way up the side of Vernal Falls. It’s a calf burner. If twitches of charley horses build up, take a step to the side. I travel with Gua Sha tools to scrape out the knots or twitches of my muscles as I hike.
SAFETY WARNING #1: More than 100 incidents of search & rescue happen on this stretch of the trail every year due to people wearing the wrong footwear or not realizing how slippery it can be.
Here the John Muir Trail and Mist Trail split. You can take either one to get to the same place where they reconnect. Both give you great views of Nevada Falls. The John Muir Trail crosses over the top of the falls.
SAFETY WARNING #2: Absolutely no swimming or wading is allowed at Emerald Pool or Silver Apron due to life-threatening risks.
Like leveling up in a video game, the stairs after Vernal Falls turn into switchback stairs on the way up to Nevada Falls.
Once the trails meet again, the Mist Trail ends, and you’re almost halfway there. A short distance later (and more calf-burning), you’ll reach Nevada Falls.
John Muir Trail/Little Yosemite Valley
The trail then eases up a bit as you work your way through Little Yosemite Valley, though “valley” is a liberal use of the word because you’re still going up.
SAFETY TIP #3: The valley is another hot spot, literally, for rescue calls. People can feel dehydrated and dizzy here. Make sure you keep sipping that water.
Right as the John Muir Trail veers toward Half Dome, you’ll be at the last water supply of the Merced River for those who are using filtration. Unless I’m staying overnight, I always just carry my own water, but if your water is running low, this is the place to get it and filter it before the biggest climb of them all.
The entrance to the valley is also a great place to reapply sunscreen and bug spray. Especially if you’re like me and bugs seem to LOVE the taste of your blood.
Little Yosemite Valley is the halfway mark, and you’re about to leave the trees and go above the treeline to the unprotected rock face.
The Sub Dome
Up until this point, nobody will check your Half Dome permit. Once you’re facing the first stage of the dome, known as the Sub Dome, you’ll need to show a ranger your permit.
Sub Dome does not have cables. You will have more stairs to climb mixed with sheer rock face sections. For those uneasy with heights, this will surely test your limits. There are some spots where a slip and fall would send you down the edge of the rock. Take each step carefully.
The steps of Sub Dome end, and you’ll take the final steps on the granite rock to the top where Half Dome ominously and awesomely lies ahead.
Final Stretch of the Half Dome Hike
As a bonding moment, dear reader, I’ll tell you that I have sweaty hands. As I put on my gloves for the cable walk, I wrapped duct tape around my wrists to keep the gloves from slipping off. I also recommend clipping yourself to the cables as you go in case you slip, or someone around you slips.
Take your time and allow others to do the same. I was filled with a mix of anxiety about holding up the line and a frozen fear. Early on, a sign was attached to the rock warning that thunderstorms can build quickly and I should not ascend if there are clouds forming.
Like I was going to look around and above me to see clouds, right? (If you’re afraid of heights, that will make more sense). I bellowed, “ARE THERE ANY CLOUDS FORMING?” and the line gave me a comfortable series of laughs. Encouraging words came back at me, fueling my burning calves and determined mind.
There are poles every 10 feet along the walk-up with wooden beams to rest your feet.
Why Watching the Weather for Half Dome Is So Important
One of the videographers at the park told us his story of being stuck on the cables in a sudden storm. As the group on the summit started down, the slick cables made the descent nearly impossible.
In 2009, a group of 41 people was trapped on top of Half Dome in a storm that also led to a man falling to his death on the cables.
After Half Dome: You’re Only Halfway Done
For those who are even a little uneasy about heights, let me tell you this—the descent of the Half Dome hike is harder. You’re using the same cables as those going up, and instead of pulling yourself forward, you’re battling gravity with every step back. Add the elevation and risk of altitude sickness to the mix, and you’re fighting many factors at once.
I was relieved when Yosemite Search & Rescue Ranger Bock agreed that the hike down is the hardest part of the journey.
Plan ahead for the hike to take more time, and keep a headlamp or flashlight with you to find the trail in the dark.
Half Dome vs. El Capitan
If you can only choose one at Yosemite, hikers should go for Half Dome since the cables help. Climbers will love the nearly flawless wall of El Capitan. You can hike to the top of “El Cap” using the Upper Yosemite Falls track.
Both provide a strenuous hike, but El Capitan doesn’t need cables for hikers.
Is Half Dome Safe?
Half Dome is as safe as you make it. Of the deaths that have happened here, the majority were during wet conditions. Most can be attributed to people not being in shape to handle the tough hike or having the wrong footwear and supplies.
The rock is smooth and worn down by thousands of other footsteps on the cable route. All safety warnings are in place, but it’s up to you to take the risks seriously.
I can’t imagine the disappointment of reaching Sub Dome and seeing storm clouds form, sending you back down. I also can’t imagine climbing a cable route that’s intimidating on a sunny day when it’s raining, or a storm is approaching.
You can’t rush Half Dome. You can’t mentally tackle it if you aren’t physically fit enough. You’ll be climbing the equivalent of 473 flights of stairs in changing weather conditions, with wet spots and thinner air as you go.
Where Is the Rest of Half Dome?
The glacier carving that left Half Dome half a dome broke up the other side of the granite into boulders that can be found along the Merced River Valley.
Half Dome Hike Summary
Half Dome is an invigorating but difficult hike. Beginning hikers can build up the stamina to eventually make the summit. Go with people who support your goals but respect your fears.
I was blessed to have an army of people, led by my best friend, encouraging me. They stopped when I couldn’t find air. They pushed when I wanted to guzzle the rest of my water and “Wait here.”
Who you hike with is just as important as what you take with you.
“When I was about fifteen, I went to work at Yosemite National Park. It changed me forever. Nature had carved its own sculpture, and I was part of it, not the other way around.”Robert Redford, Actor
Is the Half Dome Hike Worth It?
Honestly as much as I would love to answer this question differently, for me it just wasn’t worth the hubub. Don’t get me wrong, there were some really stunning parts. But there are much safer hikes that are just as rewarding if not more so.
The views from the top of half dome are great but the photos are by no means the best you can get in the park or anywhere close. Why? Well for starters they don’t have Half Dome in them.
The hike is basically the Everest of Yosemite, complete with long, dangerous lines to the summit. People die here regularly and it’s very easy to see why when you hike Half Dome.
So, personally I don’t think hiking Half Dome is worth it. Do Clouds Rest instead which has much better views, is still challenging, but without all the life-threatening parts.
Looking for more alternatives? We wrote about all the best hikes in Yosemite.
Half Dome Hike Map
FAQ – Hiking Half Dome in Yosemite
Given the grueling nature of the trail it takes most hikers between 10-12 hours to hike Half Dome.
Half Dome is one of the most difficult day hikes in the world due to its intense elevation gain of over 5000 feet and length of the trail.
No. Hiking Half Dome is a serious undertaken that should be attempted only by experienced hikers. The trail is both arduous and dangerous with deaths happening on the hike on a yearly basis.
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