Iconic Hikes Vol. 1: Half Dome
Climb the cables to the top of this granite monolith in Yosemite National Park.
Every National Park has at least one hike so iconic, so exemplary of its hallowed lands that visitors flock to the trailheads in droves. These not-at-all-hidden gems can offer challenges on all fronts, from over crowding to strenuous climbs and difficult to acquire permits. Many times, however, they are more than worth the struggle it takes to get out and explore where many have tread before you. There is, after all, a reason they've grown so popular. With a little effort, you can visit them at ideal times, avoid the crowds, and get out in time to find a more secluded section of park to round out your trip.
This very first edition of Iconic Hikes features what is arguably the most famous summit in the whole National Park System, Half Dome, in Yosemite National Park. The trail to Half Dome is also one steeped in controversy for its extreme popularity and unique final stretch.
Towering almost 5,000 feet over Yosemite valley, the granite facade of Half Dome is an imposing sight. Getting to the top requires navigating a variety of variables, but the first and foremost thing to consider is the difficulty of the hike and your own abilities. A hike from the valley requires over 4,800 feet of elevation gain and covering 14-16 miles of trail, depending on which trails you utilize. To top it off, the last 400 feet of the summit is up the infamous Half Dome cables, two parallel wires anchored to the steeply sloped stone.
If you're feeling up for the challenge, then your next hurdle is to acquire a permit. Due to dangerous levels of congestion on the cables, Yosemite put in place a permit system several years ago. There are 300 permits issued each day, with 75 of those set aside for backpackers. If you plan to hike it in one day, you'll need to submit an application to the lottery in March. Permits submitted online cost $4.50, plus $8 per person if it's accepted.
Luckily, the permit system has yielded a lot of great data that can help you maximize your chances of getting a permit and having the trail to yourself. Saturdays are naturally the busiest, so definitely try and go on a weekday. Early or late in the season are also less popular and will have an increased chance of successfully acquiring a permit. Check out the links at the bottom of the post for statistics on which days are the most crowded.
In order to avoid some of the drawbacks to this hike, I suggest making the trip an overnight. Though fewer backpacking permits are set aside each day, the percentage of people vying for them is less than that of day hiking permits. Get a wilderness permit for a night at Little Yosemite Valley campground. Backpacking permits are requested 24 weeks before your trip, by fax ($5, then $5 per person if accepted). Be sure to specify that you would like a Half Dome permit as well. Tackle Half Dome the next morning. An early start will ensure that you stay ahead of the majority of day hikers, and give you a night's rest after tackling the elevation gain of the first day. While this may extend the trip a little more, your overall experience will benefit from the extra planning. After you summit, return to Little Yosemite Valley, pack up, and descend back to the valley.
Be sure to pack plenty of water for the long hike, and a flashlight or headlamp if you plan to leave before light, or hike late into the evening. Every day, hikers ill prepared for the strenuous climb have to be aided by park rangers. I was told it's not uncommon to see trail weary hikers in flip flops returning to the valley using the glow of their cell phones late at night. Don't be those people. Wear proper hiking shoes, and leave early enough to summit by early afternoon. Late day thunderstorms are your biggest concern. The exposed summit of Half Dome, combined with the cables, makes for a dangerous location when lightning is in the area. I suggest bringing gloves to help on the cables. Grippy, lightweight garden gloves work well. Please carry them out with you. Many disrespectful hikers discard them at the base of the dome, leading to an unsightly pile rotting near the base of the cables.
When you reach the subdome, you'll get your first look at the sheer size of Half Dome and the cable route. From there, it looks much steeper than up close. If you're growing nervous (I watched several people break down in tears) snap a photo and prep for the climb at the base of the cables where the slope doesn't appear nearly as steep.
When on the cables, take your time and allow faster hikers to pass to avoid congestion. Always hike between the two cables, never outside of them. Some people think a via ferrata set up might ensure your safety, but the frequency of cable supports means you'll be constantly unclipping and distracted. It's not worth it. Just keep a firm grip to the cables and you'll be fine.
Half Dome is an amazing hike, and well worth the effort it takes to get your chance at the summit. Along the way, you'll ascend the Mist Trail and pass Vernal and Nevada Falls, all worth the trip regardless. From the summit, you'll have impressive views of the valley below and the surrounding park.
Distance: 14-16 miles round trip
Difficulty: Strenuous, 4,800 feet of elevation gain, with last 400 feet over slick granite and up cables.
Trailhead: Happy Isles Trailhead. Shuttles run daily beginning at 7am or park at trailhead parking 0.5 miles up the road.
Route: From Happy Isles, follow the Mist Trail to the top of Nevada Falls. Pick up the John Muir Trail until it meets the spur trail to Half Dome. Return by the same route or follow the John Muir Trail the whole way to the valley for a shallower descent.
Permits: Yes, distributed through a lottery system. Apply in March. Or get a wilderness permit that includes Half Dome in your trip. Smaller groups will have better chances.
Possible Overnight: Little Yosemite Valley campsite is ideal for a summit attempt the following morning.
Best Time To Go: Spring or late summer. Try for a weekday hike.