Hiking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is not for the faint of heart. Take it from someone who (just barely) made it to the top and back, successfully completing this hike requires preparation and stamina. Clocking in at 17 miles round trip, 5,457 feet elevation gain, and 10-14 hours to complete, do not underestimate it. But with proper preparation and a can-do attitude, the awe-inspiring views and adrenaline rush is well worth the effort.
I’ve put together a list of things I wish I had known before I hiked Half Dome, from applying for a permit to conquering the cables. If you’re looking to check Half Dome off of your adventure bucket list, here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions.
Do I need a permit to hike Half Dome?
A permit is required to hike Half Dome, and applying for one is no easy feat. In order to control crowding, protect the natural environment and improve safety, a maximum of 300 hikers is allowed on the Half Dome Trail beyond the base of the sub dome.
Permits for day hikers are distributed by lottery on Recreation.gov, with one preseason lottery having an application period in March and daily lotteries during the hiking season. If you plan on backpacking, you’ll need to apply for a wilderness permit with your Half Dome permit.
When is the best time to hike Half Dome?
One of the first steps is figuring out the best time to hike Half Dome. The cables are open from Memorial Day through Columbus Day, weather depending. You’ll want to keep your dates fairly flexible, as much will depend on when you’re able to secure a permit. For the best odds, apply for a permit on a weekday, when you’re three times more likely to secure a permit than on the weekends.
What gear do I need for hiking Half Dome?
If you’re planning on hiking Half Dome, you’ll want to invest in the right gear. Here are some of the essentials:
- Hiking boots: Tennis shoes won’t cut it on the slippery granite face of Half Dome. You’ll need footwear with good traction, proper ankle support, waterproof technology, and a comfortable fit.
- Climbing gloves: These will definitely come in handy for the cables. When you’re gripping on for dear life, you’ll be thankful you have something to protect your hands.
- Hiking poles: Having the extra support of hiking poles can be a game changer for long hikes, especially on the descent. These ones are collapsible and have a great cork grip handle.
- First aid kit: True story, we almost got bitten by a rattlesnake on the trail. Even for less major scares, you’ll be glad you packed a reliable first aid kit.
- Water filtration system: If you don’t want to carry all of your water or if you find yourself in a pinch, use this to purify your drinking water. Just be sure to give it a few practice runs before relying on it.
- Backpack: You’ll need something to carry all this gear in. Get a daypack that can accommodate a water bladder so you can stay hydrated on the go.
How do I physically prepare for the Half Dome hike?
I can’t stress enough the importance of doing practice runs beforehand. You’ll want to test out your gear, break in your boots, and determine how much water you need to carry. Start with some shorter hikes and work your way up. Just make sure you’re getting in a nice variety of elevation gains and terrain. And don’t forget about cross training! This is a strenuous hike, so you’ll need to be in the best shape of your life.
In the week leading up to the hike, make sure you’re eating healthy and getting plenty of hydration. This is much like preparing for a marathon! You’ll want to continue to exercise in the days leading up, but make sure to give your body enough rest the day before.
Where should I stay nearby?
I highly recommend staying within Yosemite National Park. It helps to get an early start, and after over ten hours of hiking, you won’t want to walk a single extra step to get to your bed. We stayed in one of the canvas tent cabins in Curry Village. It was simple but centrally located. For more luxurious accommodations, consider staying at The Ahwahnee. We had dinner in their grand dining hall one night, and it was a magical experience.
Which route should I take?
There are several ways to reach the top of Half Dome, and you’ll want to choose your route wisely. If you decide to do it as a day hike, be sure to start early to maximize daylight. We chose to take the Muir Trail on our way up. It adds an extra 1.5 miles to your hike, but is less steep than the Mist Trail. Then we took the Mist Trail on our way back down so we weren’t retracing our steps. We started at 4am and it took us about 12 hours to complete. Alternatively, the shortest distance is to take the Mist Trail both ways. Either way you choose, both trails begin after the Happy Isles Bridge. They split after the Vernal Falls Bridge, then meet again at the top of Nevada Falls to continue on through Little Yosemite Valley.
Alternatively, you could split up your Half Dome hike by backpacking and camping overnight in Little Yosemite Valley. If I were to do it again, this is what I would suggest. You’ll have more time to enjoy the journey and can beat the day hiking crowds up to the cables. Note that you will need a wilderness permit in addition to your Half Dome hike permit.
How much water do I need to carry?
It’s super important to stay hydrated during this strenuous hike. A good rule of thumb is that you’ll need at least a gallon of water per person. There is a water fountain to fill up 30 minutes in the hike just past the Vernal Fall Bridge. Don’t make the same mistake we did and carry all of your water with you from the start, it’s not necessary. But note that this is your last chance to fill up unless you plan on filtering water from the Merced River.
Is hiking Half Dome dangerous?
Needless to say, do not attempt this hike if you have a fear of heights. Even if you are fearless, you need to take safety seriously. There have been over 300 accidents and 13 deaths from scaling Half Dome since the national park was established. Most years, hikers safely summit and descend from Half Dome with no fatalities. However, adverse weather conditions and lack of caution on the cables can put you in danger.
Take it from us, the cables are especially dangerous during rain and lightning. A thunderstorm rolled in while we were on top of Half Dome, so we quickly turned around to get down the cables. But the rain had turned the granite face of the dome into a giant slide. My feet slipped out from underneath me several times during the descent, and my death grip on the cables was the only thing keeping me from sliding off the edge. Plus, the cables and the granite itself act as a lightning rod when there’s electricity in the air. Don’t make the same mistake we did! Keep a close eye on the forecast and don’t summit if you see storm clouds coming in.
If I were to do it again, I would definitely take the option to clip into the cables. It might slow you down a little, but it could save your life.
That said, if you are plan ahead and are prepared, your Half Dome experience will pay off in spades. The views at the top are indescribable, and the feeling of accomplishment after you successfully complete the hike is incredibly rewarding. Above all, don’t forget to enjoy the journey. You worked hard for it!
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