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The ultimate guide to hiking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Including crucial information, helpful tips and the best videos of the trail to be found anywhere.
Ascending the Half Dome Cables.
Yosemite National Park is home to some of North America’s best-known and iconic trails, and the trek to the summit of Half Dome is easily the park’s most famous, and consistently named as one of the best hikes in the world. In the words of National Geographic “[it’s] the hike you’ll talk about as all others fade into pleasant memories.”
For those who have made it to the summit, there’s no denying the appeal of this one of a kind mountain experience. Whether you’ve climbed this Yosemite icon before or are looking to cross the experience off your adventure bucket-list, here’s everything you need to know before hiking Half Dome.
“One does not simply [hike Half Dome]”. Due to the trail’s difficulty and popularity, successfully reaching the summit requires more planning and foresight than just throwing some snacks into a backpack and lacing up your hiking boots.
Crowd pressures, coupled with trail limitations and the Park Service’s charge to preserve and protect Yosemite as well as maintain access for the public has given rise to a sometimes controversial permit system.
Without a permit, you will not be permitted past the base of the subdome where park rangers check permits and IDs. Ascending the subdome and cables without a valid permit can result in a fine of $5000 and even jail time.
In short: Item #1 on your to do-list is to apply for a permit (day and overnight options available).
How to apply for a permit:
During the peak season (generally between May 25th and Oct 9th), “a maximum of 300 hikers per day are allowed” access to the subdome, cables and summit. These permits are split between day hikers (225) and backpackers (75).
Plan ahead and decide if you’d like a day permit or an overnight wilderness permit. To improve your chances, avoid weekends and holidays if at all possible; and if your schedule allows, apply for a range of days rather than a single day. If your schedule is flexible you’ll improve your chances. For a breakdown of days with more favorable odds, click here.
Day hike permits (lottery only)
To apply for the day hike permit lottery go to recreation.gov between March 1st and March 31st, submit your application for a maximum number of six day-hiking permits and pay the $10 non-refundable application fee.
Only one application per person is allowed, “additional applications will be voided without refund”. The results of the day hike permit lottery will be available on or around April 12th. Awarded permits must be paid for in full by 11:59pm Eastern Time on April 25th or they will be canceled.
Backup: Depending on the number of remaining or canceled permits, around fifty day-hike permits will be distributed via a daily lottery during peak season. If you draw a zero from the March pre-season lottery, you may apply for the daily lottery at the Yosemite Valley Wilderness office near the Ansel Adams Gallery.
(Important) Daily lottery applications must be submitted two days before you’re intended hike date. Hiking to summit during the offseason is allowed without a permit. If attempting a pre or post season ascent, be advised that the cables will be “down”, meaning the steel posts have been removed. This makes the ascent more difficult. Addition climbing gear is recommended.
Photo taken from the Vernal Fall View footbridge.
Wilderness or Backpacking Permit Reservations (lottery/first come)
Applications for Half Dome backpacking/wilderness permits are accepted beginning 24 weeks (168 days) before your intended start date up until 48 hours before your intended start date. Consideration of your application will begin the day after being submitted. Again permits will be awarded via a lottery system so the exact time of day when you submit your application is unimportant.
As with the day hike permit lottery, multiple applications for the same party and day will be discarded. The backpacking/wilderness application process is free but a $5 confirmation charge is required if your application is approved.
Applications for Half Dome backpacking/wilderness permits can be submitted by fax (best option), phone or mail. For applications and further instructions click here.
If awarded a backpacking permit, you must pick up your permit at the wilderness office before 10am the day of your trip. Should you be unable to make it to the wilderness office by 10am the day of your trip you may call the wilderness office at (209) 372-0308 and request they hold your permit for late arrival.
Finally, if you missed your application window or were passed over for day-hike or backpacking permit lotteries, you may apply for a wilderness backpacking permit on a first come, first served basis at the Yosemite Valley Wilderness Office one day prior to the beginning of your backpacking trip. Applications are accepted beginning at 11am, but it’s not uncommon for hopeful hikers to begin lining up early in the morning in order to guarantee their permits.
The number of first come, first served wilderness permits varies depending on cancelations. The earlier you arrive the better your chances.
(Important) If you obtain a wilderness or backpacking permit for Half Dome, YOU MUST camp in the Little Yosemite Valley backpackers campground. Camping elsewhere within the Half Dome area is strictly prohibited.
The level of difficulty will vary from person to person and depend upon both fitness and hiking experience. That being said, even veteran hikers can find themselves in distress when ascending as well as descending. Do not underestimate this trail.
At 14 or more miles round trip, and up to 4800 ft of ascent, Half Dome is considered the most strenuous day hike in the Yosemite Valley area. You should not attempt if you have not prepared physically or do not have adequate gear.
Mere mortals will require 10 or more hours to complete the shortest route (Yosemite Valley via The Mist Trail). Begin your hike early in the morning (possibly before sunrise) and plan on finishing in the evening if you attempting to complete the whole trail in one day. A flashlight and/or headlamp should without question be included with your gear.
Above video shot in June 2017 after record snowfall. You've never seen a Mist Trail video like this.
The trail to the summit of Half Dome has frequently been called one of the best hikes in North America, but having claimed more than 60 lives in the past 50 years, it is also one of the deadliest.
While the permit system, implemented in 2010, has reduced crowds on the subdome and cables by 66% there has been no corresponding drop in injuries and deaths. The potential perils associated with attempting to summit Half Dome should not be taken for granted.
Here’s what you need to know to stay safe.
Water Hazards are perhaps Yosemite’s leading killers, second only to car accidents. The jaw-dropping waterfalls that punctuate Yosemite’s dream-like landscape can pose a great danger to the inattentive or foolhardy. The Mist Trail alone keeps Yosemite Search and Rescue busy, responding to an average of 100 incidents a year.
Wear good shoes, preferably hiking boots with good traction and ankle support, and exercise extreme caution near rivers and waterfalls, especially during spring and summer runoff.
Just days before our trip a local jogger slipped and fell along a portion of The Mist Trail and disappeared into the raging torrent beneath. A week later The Park Service was still looking for his body. Lives are lost every year because hikers fail to take the proper safety measures or become complacent near Yosemite’s rivers and waterfalls.
(Note) Highly oxygenated whitewater decreases buoyancy and makes swimming impossible.
Weather: During our mid-June visit in 2017, daytime temperatures reached 93 Degrees Fahrenheit. Travel when possible in the morning or evening hours to beat the heat during the hot summer months. That being said, due to the time needed to complete this trail (10+ hours) plan on hiking in hot conditions in the summer. Water features can offer some relief from the heat, but as mentioned above they can also be quite dangerous. Use good judgment and err on the side of caution.
Adults should drink one gallon (4 liters) of water when hiking Half Dome. The last reliable filterable water is located along the Merced River in Little Yosemite Valley near the backpackers' campground. Do not proceed past this point without enough water for everyone in your party.
Switching now from hot to cold, early mornings along The Mist Trail can be extremely frigid. Even on warm days The Mist Trails ice-cold namesake is impossible to avoid during peak runoff. Bring a jacket and waterproof layer or take the detour along the John Muir Trail to keep dry.
If you feel your core temperature drop and you can’t warm up in the sun, keep moving. Without external warmth, you’ll need to generate your own. As always, your best option is to be prepared.
Finally (as far as weather is concerned), remain aware of potential storm systems – especially when near the subdome, cables or summit. Lightning has claimed the lives of numerous individuals and injured many others on Half Dome’s subdome and summit. If stormy conditions are likely, turn back and get to lower elevations quickly. If you see dark clouds or hear thunder, do not take shelter on the summit or the subdome. Start your descent immediately and get to a lower elevation as quickly and safely as possible.
Should you find yourself in a dangerous situation, stay calm but move deliberately while remaining aware of changing conditions and potential dangers such as rainfall, which can make granite extremely slippery and result in traffic jams and hazards on the cables and elsewhere along the trail.
Guaranteed to be the best video you've ever seen of the Half Dome Cables. Enjoy!
Drop-offs: The trail to the summit of Half Dome brings you into close proximity to some breathtaking drops. If you are extremely averse to heights, you may want to reconsider attempting to summit Half Dome. Exercise caution near ledges or cliffs. Falls from these dizzying heights are nearly always fatal.
For your safety, stay on the trail and help prevent erosion, as well as trail and vegetation damage.
Black Bears: Bears are the animal most people think of when it comes to wildlife safety and with good reason. Yosemite National Park has made great strides over the past decades to counter years of poor bear policy and practices. That being said bears represent minimal risk to responsible hikers. Stay aware of your surroundings, store your food properly and hike in groups.
If you encounter a bear, do not let it obtain human food and DO NOT RUN. Stand your ground, make noise and group together until the bear leaves. In the extremely unlikely event that a bear does attack, fight back and stay on your feet. Do not play dead. Playing dead is the last resort if attacked by a grizzly bear. Grizzly bears were driven to extinction in California nearly 100 years ago when the last know California Grizzly was shot outside the park in the 1920s.
Any bear encounters should be reported to park rangers.
(Important note on bear deterrents) Bear spray is not permitted in Yosemite National Park. Firearms are permitted as long as the carrier complies with all federal, state and local laws. “Discharging a firearm for any reason is illegal” within the National Park.
One of three rattlesnakes we encountered near Little Yosemite Valley during our hike up Half Dome in 2017.
Rattlesnakes: Yosemite National Park is home to the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake. Although unlikely, it is quite possible to encounter one of these venomous snakes along the trail. If you do encounter a rattlesnake, give it plenty of space. Snakes only strike if they feel threatened. Given space and time, they will move out of the way. Inform any nearby hikers if you spot a rattlesnake near the trail.
If you or someone in your party does receive a bite, remain calm. Here’s what to do— and not do:
-Call 911 inform the dispatcher of the injury and your location.
-Remove any rings, watches or tight clothing near the bite site as swelling will occur.
-Gently wash bite and mark with a pen or marker if available and note the time.
-Limit motion. Either wait for emergency personnel or carry bite recipient down trail.
-If you are by yourself and/or unable to contact emergency personnel, continue at a steady pace to the trailhead.
-Do not try to catch the snake.
-Do not cut or suck on the bite site.
-Do not wrap with a bandage or tourniquet.
What’s important is reaching medical help as soon as possible.
(Note) Roughly 25% of rattlesnake bites are "dry bites", meaning no venom is injected. Symptoms of envenomation include pain, burning, nausea, muscle twitches, swelling, and damaged tissue. Even if you don't immediately experience these symptoms you should still seek medical attention.
Squirrels, marmots, chipmunks, etc: As strange as it may sound, of all the animals in Yosemite, the creatures most likely to do harm to people are generally seen as the least threatening. Squirrels, chipmunks and other rodents inflict the park’s most recurrent injuries, mostly in the form of bites. But they have also on occasion transmitted diseases such as the plague.
It should go without saying, but do not feed, approach or harm any animal within the park. Beyond placing yourself and the animal in danger, you can also be slapped with a hefty fine. When it comes to wildlife, admire them from a distance.
Safety is ultimately about situational awareness and appropriate preparation. Hike responsibly and stay safe.
View of Half Dome from Glacier Point. Yosemite Valley to the left. Vernal and Nevada Falls (path of The Mist Trail) visible to the right.
Routes and Trailheads
Yosemite Valley - Happy Isles Trailhead (Videos)
This is by far the most popular route for day hikers and backpackers. Beginning with The Mist Trail, the path follows the Merced River as it tumbles over Vernal and Nevada Falls. This route can also include a detour along a portion of the John Muir Trail, which bypasses the wetter portions of The Mist Trail.
The trailhead is located near the Happy Isles shuttle stop in Yosemite Valley. The JMT and Mist Trail converge again above Vernal Fall then follow the Merced to the top of Nevada Fall before passing through Little Yosemite Valley toward the backside of Half Dome.
Distance: 14.5 miles round trip for day hikers, 16 miles for backpackers staying in Little Yosemite Valley.
Elevation gain: 4800 feet
The Panorama Trail - Glacier Point
Beginning at Glacier Point and following The Panorama Trail, this route swaps out the Mist Trail’s waterfalls for vast panoramas of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and the Sierra backcountry. The trail descends roughly 1400 feet to the top of Nevada Fall where it meets up with the Yosemite Valley route.
(Note) As an alternative to an out and back hike, you can opt to exit via the Mist Trail. While somewhat more logistically complicated (due to transportation necessities) this approach offers the best of both worlds.
Distance: 20 miles round trip
Elevation gain: 3000 feet
Tenaya Lake – Sunrise Lakes Trailhead
Beginning at Sunrise trailhead just west of Lake Tenaya, this is the most demanding trail of all. This trail’s appeal lies in the challenge and taking in some of the very best views of Yosemite Valley and the high country, including a 360-degree panorama from atop Clouds Rest (The triangular peak immediately behind Half Dome when viewed from Glacier Point). Upon summiting Clouds Rest you’ll descend west toward Little Yosemite Valley.
Though technically possible (if you’re a demigod), summiting both Clouds Rest and Half Dome in one day is not advisable. If you plan to take this route, make sure to acquire a Half Dome backpacking/wilderness permit so you can camp for a night in Yosemite Valley and ascend Half Dome after a night’s rest.
Distance: 23 miles +
Elevation Gain: 4800 feet
(Suggestion) It will take some additional effort, but if you are interested in an overnight trip, consider mixing and matching trails. Example: Enter at Glacier Point and exit at Tenaya Lake.
Looking East from the summit of Half Dome toward the High Sierras and Yosemite's high country.
Until 1875 when George G. Anderson became the first known climber to reach the summit, Half Dome was believed to be “perfectly inaccessible”. — No more.
Though the cables arguably remain the trail’s most technical and challenging section and should not be taken lightly. Ascending the final 400 vertical feet at a 50-degree angle along the cables is a full body workout and an experience like few others. Make sure to savor the experience, but don’t become complacent in the process.
Given the limited space on the cables and the fact that worn granite and perilous drop-offs are constant companions, it is essential to remain courteous, patient and cautious. Avoid pulling the cables away from the mountain as the steel posts propping them up are not anchored to the mountainside.
Gloves are a must, just make sure to bring your own; your hands will thank you. There are gloves generally piled at the base of the cables, but they’re unappealing or unreliable at best. Since they spend a great deal of time in the elements they can be wet, frosted, or contain mildew and/or mold. Lovely, right?
Beyond the above-mentioned issues, you are likely to have trouble locating a properly fitted or even available pair if you reach the cables at about the same time or shortly after lots of other hikers. Do yourself a favor and bring your own well-fitted gloves with good grip. After descending the cables take your gloves with you. Do not leave them at the base of the cables.
Give serious consideration to using is a safety line. Safety lines aren’t required but being able to anchor yourself to the cables when climbing will offer some peace of mind and a contingency plan should the worst happen. You don't need anything fancy. A bowline knot around your waist, coupled with an overhand knot on a bite combined with one or two climbing grade carabineers are all that’s needed (seen in videos).
Panorama from Summit of Half. North Dome to the left, Clouds rest left-center and Little Yosemite Valley to the right.
Other Important Information
Bathrooms and Water (Yosemite Valley Route):
Happy Isle Trailhead (flush toilets, tap water, and plumbing)
Vernal Fall Footbridge (pit toilet, last available tap water, and plumbing)
Emerald Pool Just above Vernal Fall (pit toilet)
Above Nevada Fall (pit toilet)
Little Yosemite Valley Backpackers Camp (composting toilets)
Bathrooms also available at Glacier Point (Panorama Trail) and Tenaya Lake (Sunrise Trail).
If you are unable to reach one of these toilets before (cough)— zero hour, “deposit solid human waste in catholes dug six inches deep at least 100 feet from water, camp, and trails”, and “cover and disguise the cathole when finished. Pack out all toilet paper (even used), garbage and hygiene products.
As stated above: This is an extremely popular trail in one of the world’s most popular parks. Thousands of people from all over the world use these routes every day and any waste or garbage, if not disposed of properly will quickly accumulate and degrade the experience and the landscape for others. Be responsible and preserve the landscape and experience for others.
“Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” More than a catchy saying, it’s the law. Removing anything besides lawfully obtained souvenirs from a gift shop, whether rock, plant, animal, artifact, etc… is illegal and carries hefty fines and even jail time.
With the exception of garbage, leave everything exactly as you found it.
Obtaining any permit for Half Dome is a sweet, sweet deal. However, in our opinion — You simply can't do better than a wilderness permit.
Too often people treat hiking like a trip through a fast food drive-through. In and out and on their way. Yosemite's backcountry is a banquet for the spirit and the senses — Don't rush it any more than you have to— Savor it.
There you have it! You should have all the essential information you need to successfully reach the summit of Half Dome.
Did we miss anything? Make sure to come back and share your experience in the comments below along with any tips on how to prepare for Half Dome.
3/21/2018 02:27:54 pm
As the author of the only hiking guide to Half Dome: "One Best Hike: Yosemite's Half Dome." 42 times to date....I comment you for your article on making it a safe hike.
At Home in Wild Spaces
3/21/2018 03:11:50 pm
Thank you Rick for your comments and tips. Hiking polls are awesome and keeping bags within arms reach is a must.
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