If you’re thinking about or planning to hike Yosemite’s Half Dome, then hats off to you for embracing this awesome outdoor adventure. The Half Dome day hike is easily considered one of the most epic hikes in California and easily takes a top spot in my top 5 favorite hikes in the USA. So what makes Half Dome so great and widely esteemed by hikers everywhere? Well, not only will you be challenged both physically and mentally during your hike, you will be graced by natural beauty every step you take and everywhere you turn.
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HIKING HALF DOME: WHAT TO EXPECT
Rising 4,800 feet above Yosemite Valley and 8,800 feet above sea level, Half Dome is a Yosemite icon and a highly coveted challenge for many hikers. Of course, as many know, the most iconic part of the hike is the ascent up the cables. The cables allow hikers to climb the last 400 feet to the summit without rock climbing equipment (what a treat for all of us non-climbers).
In my experience, the cables were actually pretty easy. Maybe that’s because I don’t have a fear of heights—so this may not be the case for you. The most difficult part of the hike for me? The first 7-8 miles of elevation gain getting there. And then the 7-8 miles getting back to the trailhead. This hike is no joke, clocking in at 14-16 miles round-trip, and such an incredible feat. If you’re thinking about doing the Half Dome hike, you really should be in good physical condition and be prepared for every part of the trek (so continue reading). Does that mean you’ll need to train for this hike? Maybe, depends on where you currently are. Your body should be conditioned to not only handle hikes with elevation gain, but also hikes that are pretty long in nature.
You’re in? Great! Aside from the physical expectations, here’s what you can visually expect on the hike. You can look forward to a variety of nature’s best work along the way, including towering rock formations, ancient trees, as well as majestic waterfalls. Specifically, you’ll encounter enchanting views of Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, and Liberty Cap. From up top, you’ll get to take in panoramic views of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierras.
Before we get into it, let’s talk about logistics.
- Total Distance: 14-16 miles roundtrip
- Elevation Change: 4,800 ft (1463 m)
- Difficulty: Strenuous
- Duration: 10 to 14 hours
- When To Go: Usually late May to early October. The cables are up (conditions permitting) from Memorial Day through Columbus Day.
- Permits: You must have a permit to climb the subdome and the Half Dome cables.
HOW TO GET HALF DOME CABLE PERMITS
Not only is Half Dome a hard hike, but it is also one of the hardest hikes to get a permit for (probably second to The Wave in Arizona). Because of its extreme popularity and the potential crowd factor if unregulated, permits are a must. A maximum of 300 hikers are allowed beyond the base of Sub Dome each day, broken down into two categories: 225 day hikers / 75 backpackers. Permits are required 24/7 to ascend the sub dome or Half Dome cables. Ascending the sub dome or Half Dome cables without a permit is a violation of the law and is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and/or six months in jail. Let’s not chance that.
Now to be clear, you can actually do a good amount of the Half Dome hike without a permit. You just cannot ascent the sub dome or Half Dome portion. Missed your chance to secure a permit? Check out the pro tips below for a potential workaround.
There are three different ways to get a permit:
1. Preseason Lottery (Recommended Method)
The application period for the preseason lottery runs from March 1-31. Each application allows for up to seven choices of desired hike dates. Once submitted, just sit back and relax. Applicants will receive an email with results in mid-April. This is the best choice if you need to plan far ahead for your trip.
2. Daily Lottery
If you were not able to secure permits during the preseason lottery but you were planning on visiting Yosemite anyway, this is your second chance. This lottery runs daily through the hiking season. There are approximately 50 permits available each day, and I say “approximately”, because these permits are based on the estimated rate of under-use and canceled of permits. The application time is between midnight and 1:00 PM PST two days prior to your hiking date, and the winners are notified by email or text that evening.
Confusing? Totally. Here’s an actual example: Say you want to hike Half Dome on Saturday. What you would do is apply for the daily lottery on Thursday and wait for an email of results late on Thursday night. Results are also available online or by phone the next morning.
3. Backpacker’s Permits
While most people do the Half Dome hike as a daytrip, you can also apply for Half Dome permits while you are making a backpacking wilderness permit reservation. If the permits are available and it fits within your itinerary, you will receive a reservation that includes Half Dome permits and it will be valid for all dates your wilderness permit is valid. Learn more about the process to obtain wilderness permits with Half Dome here.
Apply for Half Dome Permits at Recreation.gov here.
The Permit Application Process
- Preseason lottery dates: March 1-31
- Permit lottery winners are notified April 10
- Application fee: $10 (per application, not per person)
- Permit costs: $10 per person. This only needs to be paid if you won the lottery. This is refundable if canceled more than two days before the permit date.
- Once you are notified by email, you then have to two weeks (April 24) to pay the permit fee.
- The maximum group size per permit is 6 people.
- An applicant may only submit one application. IMPORTANT: If a person’s name appears on more than one application, as either a permit holder or alternate, they will be disqualified for multiple applications. Make sure everyone’s name only appears once in the system, even if you have other members of your group apply for permits as well.
- You can choose up to 7 desired dates on each application.
- The group leader or alternate MUST be present with a photo ID on the day of the hike.
- Once you print your permit, it can’t be canceled.
- If your dates are flexible, check out the lottery permit success rates here to determine which dates will result in the best chances of winning.
- When you’re ready, apply online here or call 877-444-6777.
If you missed your opportunity to get permits, you can still do a good majority of the hike along with other hikers who have permits—you’ll just have to stop and turn back around once you hit the base of sub dome.
Pro tip: Upon seeing the cables leading up to Half Dome, a handful of hikers will have second thoughts due to fear of heights or pure exhaustion. If you really want to ascend Half Dome, try your luck by asking if you’re able to join other hiking groups. Ask and see if they have an opening; either a few of their members dropped out at sub dome, or they might have reserved the permit for more people than they actually have in their group.
PLANNING YOUR HALF DOME HIKE
Picking a Route
There are a few different ways you can attack Half Dome. Most people take the Happy Isles via the Mist Trail route from the valley floor to the top. This common route takes most hikers 10 to 14 hours to complete. This accounts for rest stops, lunch breaks, many photo ops, and maybe even a quick nap at the top of Half Dome.
The possible routes are as follows:
- Happy Isles via Mist Trail | 14.2 miles / 22.85 km round trip (Most common)
- Happy Isles up vis Mist Trail, down John Muir Trail | 15.4 miles / 24.7 km (Most common)
- Happy Isles via John Muir Trail | 16.5 miles / 26.6 km
- Glacier Point | 20 miles / 32 km
- Tenaya Lake | 23 miles / 37 km
- Sunrise Lakes | 19-22 miles / 30-35km
- Mono Meadow | 21-23 miles / 34-37 km
- Cathedral Lakes | 20+miles / 32+ km
Between the three Happy Isles options, what is best for you?
Well, that depends on how you are feeling on your way down. While the Mist trail looks shorter and more direct on paper, it is a lot steeper than the John Muir Trail. The stretch of the JMT is longer and less scenic, but also less steep and worth considering on the return trip if your knees are really hurting. This accounts for 1 extra mile (while the Mist Trail route is 2.6 miles, the JMT detour is roughly 3.7 miles long), but it will be much gentler on your legs. In the map below, the red signifies the Mist Trail, while the green shows the detour you can take to skip the steep portion of the Mist Trail down.
Trailhead and Parking Information for the Half Dome Hike
Most people begin the hike from Happy Isles (shuttle stop #16), which is about 0.5 miles from the trailhead parking lot. Happy Isles is 0.75 miles from Curry Village, a common “starting spot” where parking is available.
Please note, the shuttle service doesn’t begin until 7am, so if you’re arriving prior to then, you’ll have to walk on the road (which will be empty of cars and open to hikers) from either parking area to the trailhead.
Above, I noted that the Happy Isles via Mist Trail equates to 14.2 miles. In practice, depending on where you’re coming from, your mileage will actually be longer due to the extra distance to get to the trailhead. Since Curry Village was my starting/ending point, my total walk distance for the day clocked in at around 18-19 miles.
When to Start Hiking Half Dome
If you’re planning to do Half Dome as a day hike, plan to begin the trek at or before sunrise. Because we had to wait for a friend to arrive at Yosemite the morning of our hike, my group started after 6:30 am, which was not ideal. I would recommend starting at 6am at the latest so you have a comfortable window of time to complete the hike. That way, you won’t feel rushed during your hike. You should also establish a non-negotiable turnaround time to avoid getting stuck on the trail after dark.
Another reason to start early? Afternoon thunderstorms are common in Yosemite. If you start around 5-6am, you can be finished and off the cables by noon, thereby avoiding that whole situation.
THE ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST FOR HALF DOME
- Hiking Boots | Bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Gloves with grip | A must-have if you plan on ascending the cables. Make sure your gloves provide enough grip to ascend the Half Dome cables. This 6-pack of gloves on Amazon will be enough for you and your entire group.
- Trekking Poles | Trekking poles are essential for the Half Dome hike, especially if you don’t have the best knees. Walking sticks and trekking poles contribute to your stability and will greatly reduce the impact/stress on your lower body (especially helpful for the knees while hiking downhill). I like the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking Poles.
- Light jacket | The top of Half Dome is typically 15-20 degrees F cooler than the valley and is often windy. A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical and because these weight virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you bring one on your hike. Personal favorites: Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women)
- Extra shirt | When you get to the top, you’ll surely be super gross and sweaty. Having an extra shirt to change into means feeling a little bit fresher.
- Extra socks | You can bring an extra pair of socks to change into at the top. It’ll feel so much nicer on the way down (especially a fresh pair of socks)!
- Water | Having enough water for this hike is so crucial. Aim for the following amounts: 1 gallon (4 liters) total if hiking to the top of Half Dome. 2 liters if hiking only to the top of Nevada Falls. A 3L water reservoir + 2 extra bottles of water = ideal.
- IMPORTANT: The only treated water on the trail is available at a drinking fountain at the Vernal Falls Footbridge (less than a mile from the trailhead). This is most people’s last chance to fill up.
- Your other option is to treat the water from the Merced River. The Merced River is located further up into the hike, however, you should treat this water by boiling, using iodine, or using a giardia-rated water filter. If you want to bring an extra bottle, the LifeStraw Go Water Filter Bottle will get the job done.
- Snacks | Since this is a long hike, you’ll need a lot of snacks. Some of my favorites: Stinger Waffles and KIND Nut Bars. They’re so easy to pack and even easier to eat! Consider packing a lunch to enjoy at the top while soaking up the incredible views of Yosemite Valley.
- Sun Protection | Includes sunglasses, sun-protective (UPF) clothing and sunscreen.
- Bug Spray | Summertime in Yosemite means the bugs come out to play. Sawyer carries the best insect repellent out there.
- Headlamp / Flashlight | Being able to find your way through the wilderness in darkness is essential, so you should always carry a light source with you, even if you don’t plan on staying out past sunset. An LED headlamp allows you to hike hands-free and is my preferred source of light. An iPhone will do, but that’s just not convenient (besides, you be saving that battery life in the case of an emergency).
PRO TIPS FOR HIKING HALF DOME
- Your lottery odds are three times lower on weekends. For the best odds when entering the Half Dome Preseason Lottery, apply for a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday.
- Start early! Most people start at 5-6 am before the sun rises to make it back before sunset.
- Establish a non-negotiable turn-around time. Check sunrise and sunset times before you begin the hike. Even if you don’t plan on hiking during the dark, always bring a flashlight or headlamp with fresh batteries for each person.
- Hiking boots are highly, highly recommended. Sneakers or tennis shoes won’t cut it. You’re going to be treading on hard granite rock all day, and the soles of your feet will never forgive you if you don’t protect them from the get-go. You’ll also be walking on an incline for a good amount of the hike (not to mention the Mist Trail could very well be wet and slick), so the grip from hiking boots will also be essential. My top recommended hiking boots: Lowa Renegade GTX Hiking Boots.
- Bring gloves with grip for the cables. The point of having gloves is two-fold. Not only will they prevent your hands from getting blisters when ascending the cables and the nearly vertical rock face, but they will greatly assist you with grip and sturdiness. These gloves are nothing special; you can get a cheap, disposable pair from your local hardware store, or these textured gloves on Amazon. Cheap gardening gloves will also do the trick. Don’t bring slick or worn-out gloves, because the last thing you want on the cables is a slippy grip.
- Going up the cables is not as scary as it looks. The wall might look vertical, but it’s sloped enough to where you’re able to stand without gravity pulling you straight down. It might feel scary at first, but for most, it is easier than it looks. On another reassuring note, there are plenty of crevices as well as wooden planks jutting out of the rock that make good footholds.
- Staying in the park the night before is ideal. If you want to stay as close as possible to the trailhead, stay at Curry Village. It’s only a 0.75-mile walk, so you can roll out of bed and begin your hike without transportation by car. If you camp here, make sure to bring your own lock for the bear locker.
- No permit? Try cozying up with other hikers. If you weren’t able to secure a permit beforehand, try your luck at the permit checkpoint to see if you can join a group with open permit slots. This is a gamble, but since the hike is so enjoyable along the way, you can’t really be too mad if this doesn’t work.
- Don’t forget to carry sunscreen and bug spray. Yosemite can be quite sunny and quite buggy in the summer so you’ll definitely want to carry these essentials with you on your hike.
- Bring a lot of water. You can never have too much, but you can very easily run out. On my first Half Dome hike, on our way down from the top, our entire group of 6 ran out of water a few miles before Vernal Falls Bridge (the first stop to get filtered water on your way down). This was extremely miserable for all of us, so heed my warning—bring more water than you think you need. Or, bring a water filter so you can fill up at the Merced River.
- Before ascending the cables, secure everything inside your backpack. Take everything out of your backpack’s external pockets and secure them inside the pack before you start up the cables. The last time I did Half Dome, while on the cables, I saw a GoPro of some hiker way above me bouncing down the sheet of the rock toward its demise. Don’t be that guy.
- Be prepared for delays once you’re at the cables. If you reach the cables at prime time, you might experience a line to get on the cables. Once you’re on the cables, you’ll find that there is a lot of pausing. Often times, there will be someone frozen from fear, someone with muscle cramps or someone whose upper body is entirely fatigued. Do NOT try to get around the traffic jams by going outside the cables. Not only is this extremely dangerous for yourself, but it’s extremely dangerous unnerving for other hikers around you. Be patient and look out for your fellow hikers.
- Plan your pees wisely. Flush toilets are available at the Vernal Falls Footbridge (below Vernal Falls). Outhouse-style toilets are available near Emerald Pool (above Vernal Falls), near the top of Nevada Falls, and in Little Yosemite Valley at Backpacker’s Campground. At any other location on the hike, do your business and pack out your toilet paper.
- There is no bathroom once you begin ascending the cables, so be careful of how much water you drink. Waiting in line to fully ascend the cables could take about an hour depending on what time you arrive at the sub dome, so be wary of how full your bladder gets before this point! There are no bathrooms at the top of Half Dome, so be ready to hold it for a few hours.
- Bring a small plastic bag for your trash. There is no trash service on the trail so be prepared to pack out anything you pack in (snack wrappers, toilet paper, body wipes, etc.).
- Half Dome is extremely dangerous in stormy/rainy conditions. The granite dome is essentially a massive lighting rod. Keep a close eye on the forecast and don’t even attempt to ascend if you see storm clouds rolling in.
- Don’t forget your permit. A ranger will be stationed at the base of the sub dome and no one without a permit will be allowed past. If you have trouble printing out your permit, no worries. As long as you have your ID, proof of purchase and/or application number, you should be good! FYI, the base of the sub dome, is not the actual start of the cables, but about a quarter-mile prior. So don’t think about pulling a fast one on the ranger.
- Take care of your legs after your hike. Sleep with compression socks after hiking to help reduce soreness. Better yet, use a foam roller and give those babies some love.
Last but not least, embrace every minute of this incredible experience. You will likely go through the full range of human emotions in this one epic day. I’m not going to lie, there will be times where you’ll feel like you’re dying (I sure did during my first Half Dome hike… my thighs were next-level sore during the ascent of the sub dome and I was so thirsty towards the end… granted, some of this could have been avoided by better planning). But don’t fret, those negative feelings are temporary. In the end, you’ll look back on your experience and be so thankful you did it.
Now go on and have the time of your life hiking Half Dome!