This hike has it all! Epic views, thundering waterfalls, idyllic forests, wildlife, and so much more but you will have to work for it. Read on for my tips for hiking Half Dome. We’ll cover all the basics from what you need to carry, where to find bathrooms and water, and weather. I also give you a rundown on what to expect in each section of the hike. Details are also included on adjusting the end of the hike to return via the John Muir Trail or turning this into a backpacking trip.
About the Hike
This is one of the most spectacular hikes in the country. From start to finish, you will be surrounded by incredible scenery in the form of waterfalls, towering granite cliffs, and peaceful forests. This hike is 14 to 16 miles round trip depending on the return route taken. More details on that in the Options section. The elevation gain (number of vertical feet ascended) on this hike is 4800. This is significant and proper preparation is recommended.
The Yosemite National Park website notes that this hike takes hikers 10-12 hours on average. This will vary depending on fitness, weather, time spent to ascend/descend the Half Dome cables (which may have crowds), and other factors out of your control. It is always recommended to carry the 10 essentials for hiking (which includes a headlamp with spare batteries, in case you find yourself hiking at night unexpectedly). Check sunrise and sunset times for the dates of your trip. If possible, starting your trip at or before sunrise will mean less crowds and give you the maximum amount of daylight to hike.
Permits are required for final portion of this hike at the Half Dome cables. Look out for Part 2 of this blog in early February for details on the permit process.
What to carry with you:
On the day of your hike, you will need to ensure you have your permit-related items with you and ready to present to the Ranger doing checks at a location called Subdome (more details below). You’ll need: a photo ID for the Permit Holder and Alternate Permit Holder, the permit, and email confirmation that the permit has been paid.
There are a few different starting points for the Half Dome hike, with the most popular being from Yosemite Valley. If you start from Yosemite Valley, you will begin at Happy Isles Trailhead. There is a parking lot that is half a mile from the trailhead. Additional parking is located in Curry Village, about ¾ of a mile away. The park shuttle starts running at 7AM. When this is in service, you can take the shuttle to stop #16, very close to the trailhead. Planning to get an early start is one of the most important tips for hiking Half Dome. To do so, you’ll need to get started before the shuttle is running.
This is a long hike and it is essential you have enough water with you or a plan to stop and treat more water. The park recommends that hikers have a full gallon of water for this hike. The only treated water is very early on in the hike, within the first mile, at the Vernal Fall Footbridge. This is only available in the summer. The Merced River is accessible at multiple occasions, the last of which is at Little Yosemite Valley. To drink river water, you must treat it first to prevent illness.
If you need a water filter, I recommend the Sawyer Squeeze. I used it during my Half Dome hike. It is small and lightweight. Get more details here: https://expeditionswithevelyn.com/12-best-gifts-for-beginner-hikers/
There are four locations with bathrooms along the trail. From the start of the trail, these are: Vernal Fall Footbridge (these are the only flush toilets), Emerald Pool (top of Vernal Fall) above Nevada Fall, and at the Little Yosemite Valley Campground.
- You may want to keep your cell phone on airplane mode to make sure it lasts throughout the hike. Depending on the carrier, there may be service in some locations on the trail or at the top of Half Dome.
- There is a Ranger Station at Little Yosemite Valley. This is staffed in the summer but may not have anyone available when the rangers are out on patrol. After this, the nearest emergency assistance would be in the Yosemite Valley.
- Swimming above waterfalls and in the river is strictly prohibited and is one of the most common causes of death on this trail.
- Altitude sickness is possible on this hike. Be aware of nausea and severe headache. If you think you are experiencing altitude sickness, turn around and begin to descend. This is the only way to relieve the symptoms.
This route will outline the phases of the hike if leaving from Yosemite Valley via the Mist Trail.
Happy Isles Trailhead to Vernal Fall Footbridge:
This is by far the most popular part of the trail. Most people will take the trail up to the Vernal Fall footbridge or the base of the fall. The hike follows the Merced River. After a brief introduction on flat land as you walk from the shuttle stop to the trailhead, the inclines start shortly after the trailhead marker. This continues for a mile and is enough to get the blood pumping. This will bring you to the Vernal Fall footbridge, where you can pause for a while to take in the beauty of the water cascading over the fall. This area is the last opportunity on the trail for filtered water and flush toilets. Take advantage of both!
Fun fact: a waterfall like this that only has one tier is referred to in the singular form such as Vernal Fall, while falls with multiple sections like Yosemite Falls, which has a Upper, (lesser known Middle), and Lower sections are plural.
Vernal Fall Footbridge to the top of Vernal Fall:
As you begin to ascend past the footbridge, you will start to see why this trail is called the Mist Trail. In peak waterfall season, the granite rocks will be extremely slick and treacherous. Sturdy footwear is a must. Trekking poles can also help provide extra balance.
This section has hundreds of stairs. Some of them are quite steep. It is good prep during your training to incorporate trails with stairs or some time on a Stairmaster. After you conquer this section of stairs, you will stand atop Vernal Fall. You’ll have a great view of where you just came from and can appreciate all the effort you just put in.
The section takes you through some woods and up more stairs. You are side by side with Nevada Fall as you work your way to the top. This section may have less people depending on the time of day. Completing this portion is a tough hike in its own right, however it is less than half way there. This is a good place to judge how you and your party are feeling and the amount of daylight you have left before proceeding. There is a composting toilet at the top of the fall.
Little Yosemite Valley:
This section is open, with little shade. It is sandy and can get hot. You will need to have enough water to stay hydrated here. This will also be the last opportunity on the hike for you to gather more water. The last bathrooms on the trail are at Little Yosemite Campground. There is also a good spot to access the river behind the campground to fill up your water. As you depart Little Yosemite Valley, you reach the halfway point on your hike! (Happy dance)
The next four miles are an enjoyable and peaceful hike through the forest. You will steadily be gaining elevation as you go. When you reach the top of the treeline, you will see the Subdome, the base of the dome before you get to the cables. If there is a Ranger on duty, they will ask for your documentation before you start to hike the Subdome (or will ask for it as you are leaving if they arrived while you were on the mountain).
The Subdome portion of the hike is, you guessed it, more stairs! These stairs are worked into the granite rock face. You are hiking at 8,000 feet in elevation. This alone can cause people to get out of breath more easily without the extra exertion.
If anyone if your group has a fear of heights, this section could be equally or more scary than the cables as there is nothing to hold on to as you ascend these stairs. This portion is completely exposed to the elements, so be very aware of the weather. Do not attempt this section or the cables if it is raining (the slick rock is extremely dangerous) or if it is storming or a storm is near (severe lightning danger in addition to the slick rock from rain).
You are nearly there! Now that you have ascended the Subdome, the final hurdle is the infamous Half Dome cables. The cables themselves are thick and made of steel. They are well spaced apart, so that you could reach one with each hand (if space allowed). In some spots you can gently pull yourself along the cables, in others you will have to work for it because the grade is steep. On the ground, there are wooden beams every 6 feet or so to stand on – to catch your breath, wait for someone ahead, etc. Having some upper body strength is beneficial for the cables to pull yourself forward as needed.
The cables themselves are not as bad as people make them out to be but there are several factors to consider that can have a dramatic impact on your experience ascending or descending the cables. These are:
- The more people, the more variables at play. There will be people who take their time (and rightly so) and there will be people who try to rush others. All of this is amplified during more crowded days and times. When people are trying to go up and down at the same time, then you also need to try to make room to let people pass. Going down is actually the harder part of the journey due to the incline. Planning your visit in less crowded months and/or arriving early can help to limit crowds.
- I visited in late September and arrived early. I had the best experience on the cables that I could have hoped for with minimal crowds.
To clip in or not to clip in:
- As you ascend the cables, to your right, the edge of the mountain is close enough that if an accident were to happen, someone could be in danger of falling off. For this reason, some visitors choose to wear a rock climbing harness and clip in/on to the cable (via ferrata style) to ensure that they are connected to the cables at all times. This is a personal decision comparing the risk factor against any potential negatives, such as a slightly slower climbing time.
- During my visit, I chose to clip in. I ultimately was not comfortable with the fact that one wrong move by me or by someone accidentally bumping me could put me in danger. This extra step did not slow me down much and only led one or two people to pass me.
- These are key. Pack gloves with grip to protect your hands. You will probably see a pile of discarded gloves at the base of the cables. Please practice Leave No Trace principles and take your gloves with your rather than adding to the waste.
- See above in the Subdome section. Follow the Yosemite National Park’s official guidance – link below in Useful Links.
Woo hoo! You followed the tips for hiking Half Dome and made it to the top! Views surround you in every direction. This is your chance to rest, take photos, and soak in the moment. Everything is open up here with little vegetation and no shade. There is plenty of space to sit and rest or enjoy a snack.
In planning your hike, you have two main logistical decisions to make. These impact how you prepare for your hike and the overall distance. The first is whether you will do this as a day hike in one (long) day or as a backpacking trip with a night (or two) of camping. The second is which return route to take once you get back to Nevada Fall – the Mist Trail or the John Muir Trail. Let’s take a look at the details, so you can decide what is best for you.
Hike vs. Backpack
- Makes for a very long day. If hiking in months with less daylight, it can be difficult to complete the hike while the sun is out. You may need to start before sunrise.
- This is a lot to ask of your body. Be honest with yourself about what your fitness and endurance levels will be by the time you do this hike. Many injuries occur on the way back down due to exhaustion.
- Will only need to carry a day pack but will need to ensure you have adequate water, the 10 essentials, and anything else you may need for a full day on the trail.
- Allows you to divide the hike into smaller pieces. Gives you an opportunity to rest.
- By leaving from camp to the summit, you can get to the top earlier before the crowds.
- You have to carry more weight for camping supplies for the half of the trip that is to/from camp. It is ok to leave your tent set up at camp on the day you hike Half Dome and gather your stuff on the way back down. Still carry your day pack for the summit hike with all essential items.
- This is an enjoyable campground – it’s a scenic spot, there is adequate space, huge bear boxes to store food, and the bathrooms are well-maintained.
To follow the Mist Trail, you will descend the way you came once you reach Nevada Fall.
- This is the most direct route. It will make your total hike 14 miles.
- You will descend the hundreds of stairs that you came up earlier. For anyone with bad knees or ankles, this may be uncomfortable.
- Depending on the waterfall flow, the trail and steps could be slippery as you descend.
John Muir Trail:
To follow the John Muir Trail, you will cross the bridge over Nevada Fall to pick up the trail from there.
- This route will add two miles to the trip, bringing the total distance to 16 miles.
- The decline along this route is more gradual with mostly switchbacks rather than stairs. It is easier on your body.
- You can enjoy new scenery along this route. There are some fantastic lookouts to marvel at Half Dome and Nevada Fall.
- This route is generally less crowded. Factor that in depending on whether you are looking to escape crowds or if you are in a situation where you feel you need to stay closer to others.
To get ready for this hike, it is essential to build hiking into your routine beforehand. Try to include some hikes that are on the longer side and, if it’s possible in your area, elevation gain. Using the Stairmaster at the gym can also be a good way to get ready for the inclines and stairs that you’ll be facing.
Practice hiking with the gear you plan to carry, including the amount of water you plan to take so that you know what it feels like. Be sure that your shoes are broken in BEFORE you start this, or any, major hike.
My Half Dome Experience
My BFF and I arrived in Yosemite several days before our Half Dome hike. This gave us time to see the park, since it was my friend’s first visit, and to get used to the elevation. The Yosemite Valley sits at 4,000 ft in elevation. Since this is an adjustment from where we live and the hike itself gains so much elevation, we thought it best not to force all those changes at the same time.
We chose to backpack and took the John Muir Trail on the return trip. Both decisions worked out very well for us. We hike at a slower pace and would have been stressed about completing the hike in a day given the shorter daylight hours in later September. Breaking it up by hiking to camp the first afternoon and then doing the summit and return trip on the second day, gave us a chance to not rush ourselves. We enjoyed the sites along the way up on the Mist Trail. It felt great to already be half way there when we woke up on the second day.
There were so many parts of this hike that I really enjoyed. The Mist Trail is phenomenal! I especially liked having the Nevada Fall area mostly to ourselves during the hike up. The peace and beauty of the forest between Little Yosemite Valley and the Subdome was enjoyable. I stood in awe (and a little fear) when I finally reached the last step to the top of the Subdome and saw the face of Half Dome and the cables before me. You see it in pictures and videos but it is not the same until you see it in person! No doubt about it, the views from the summit were the absolute best part. Seeing this 360 degree view of so many of my favorite Yosemite locations, accomplishing one of my life dreams, and celebrating something that had been a work in progress for months was a great feeling!
Tips for Hiking Half Dome Part 2: Permit Lottery
Stay tuned for the Part 2 of this Half Dome blog post series. Part 2 will focus on everything you need to know to get ready for the Half Dome Permit Lottery.
Tips for Hiking Half Dome Highlights
- This trail is heavily trafficked. Follow Leave No Trace (LNT) principles including packing out trash and burying waste if you have to go to the bathroom off trail. Details on LNT principles are in the Useful Links section. Everyone working together to follow these principles will help minimize the overall impact on this special place.
- Take preventative steps to keep yourself safe by having the 10 essentials, sturdy footwear, plenty of water, making smart decisions regarding daylight and water, etc. These actions help reduce the chances that you will need assistance from a Search and Rescue Team. While they are there to assist in emergencies, a large portion of their calls on this trail are for incidents that could have been prevented. Help them conserve their resources.
- Leave No Trace Principles – https://lnt.org/why/7-principles
- Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome Hiking Info – https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/halfdome.htm
Expeditions with Evelyn Exclusive
If you are looking for a unique experience while in Yosemite, check out Scenic Wonders Vacation Rentals. They have a few locations inside the park. I’ve stayed in both a cozy cabin and a condo at the Yosemite West location. They both worked out perfectly for our respective trips and are about 35 minutes from the Valley. https://www.scenicwonders.com/
Tips for Hiking Half Dome – Final Thoughts
Is this a hike you’ve been considering? What else would you like to know? Leave me a comment with your questions!
If you’ve done this hike, what tips for hiking Half Dome would you add?