What It’s Like to Do the Half Dome Hike in Yosemite
Ca-bles. Ca-bles. I chew the word over and over, matching the cadence of my footfall. On a clear Sunday morning in May, I’m trekking 8 miles through California’s Yosemite National Park toward Half Dome. All I can think about is the danger that waits ahead.
The sloping granite monolith known as Half Dome was described in 1865 by a park surveyor as “perfectly inaccessible … and never will be trodden by human foot.” Ten years later, mountaineer George Anderson reached the summit barefoot. Since then, thousands have literally followed in Anderson’s footsteps. Including me.
It’s not just the distance and the altitude I was worried about. I’ve skydived in Chicago, bungee-jumped in New Zealand, canyoneered in the Swiss Alps—but to dance victoriously atop the crown of Half Dome, hikers must hoist themselves up the final 400 vertical feet, clinging to a series of steel cables needling the granite spine of Half Dome. Those cables? They nearly bested me. I almost backed out.
The Half Dome hike was my boyfriend’s idea, and when he first floated it, I openly scoffed. Then I Googled it, landing on one YouTube video that described the descent as a “controlled fall.” Dream on, buddy. It seemed like an incredibly dangerous endeavor.
|It turns out it is. In 2008, Backpacker magazine named Half Dome one of the Top 10 Most Dangerous Hikes in America. Yosemite’s search-and-rescue team responds to dozens of accidents along the trail each year, and the Half Dome cables have been responsible for the deaths of six hikers since 1919. Most incidents occur during foul weather when the cables are down; some hikers still attempt to summit, disregarding park rangers’ warnings to stay off the Dome. With just a bit of rain, the granite turns into a slip ‘n’ slide.|
Despite the danger, the hike is so popular that Yosemite had to institute a permit system back in 2010 to limit the amount of trekkers taking to the trail each day. We applied for permits to do the Half Dome hike in the March lottery, and I expressed—loudly and frequently—my hope that we’d be denied. Yet somehow, we were part of the lucky 35% (of thousands) to be granted a permit.
The Half Dome Hike
We began the trek at 6 a.m., when the sun’s rays had yet to trickle down to the valley floor. Shortly after the trailhead—about a mile into the hike—Half Dome issues its first challenge: Mist Trail (shorter but steeper) versus John Muir Trail (longer but flatter). We chose Mist Trail, and scrambled up a set of granite stairs next to Vernal Falls. By the time we reached the top, we were soaked from the mist.
Up, up, up, past another waterfall and through a towering forest, I felt the oxygen thinning. Finally, we reached the base of the sub-dome—one last test before the final exam. A pair of friendly rangers checked my hiking permit before I depleted my last reserves of energy climbing 600 feet in a quarter mile, with steep switchbacks. Just before noon, I found myself face-to-face with the Half Dome cables.
|The route up the cables is much steeper in person than it appears in photos; it looked like something no reasonable person should try. “Is it doable?” I asked at least three hikers who had just come down from the summit, searching their faces for any signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Tough, but you can do it!” each person cheerfully beamed back at me. Damn them.|
My friends were eager to get started, but I waffled. One pal struck a bargain: “Do the first 10 cables. If you don’t like it, you can turn around.”
In my altitude-induced, oxygen-deprived mental state, her negotiation sounded reasonable, so I donned protective gloves and reluctantly set foot on the first cable. From there, I got into a groove of sorts: grab the cables on either side, pull myself up with baby steps, then rest on the wooden planks spaced out about 10 feet apart. Occasionally, I’d have to cling to one side and suck in my breath to let hikers coming down the cables squeeze past in the 36-inch corridor. Adrenaline rush—I couldn’t quit now.
|From there, I got into a groove of sorts: grab the cables on either side, pull myself up with baby steps, then rest on the wooden planks spaced out about 10 feet apart. Occasionally, I’d have to cling to one side and suck in my breath to let hikers coming down the cables squeeze past in the 36-inch corridor. Adrenaline rush—I couldn’t quit now.|
It took us about 30 minutes to reach the top—legs and lungs burning—due to some mild congestion on the cables. Once there, I dragged my body to the center of the dome and lay down, completely spent. “Take a photo of the view and show it to me on your camera,” I instructed my boyfriend, with my eyes closed. “I’m not moving.”
After a half hour, I was feeling okay—if a little woozy from the altitude. And then I remembered I had to climb back down the cables, and I set off an explosion of curse words in my head.
Despite my repeated wish that there were a slide to whisk us back to the valley floor, we still had to make the 8-mile return trip. It took us about 4.5 hours. A mile from the trailhead, my quadriceps and knees decided to call it quits, so I finished my day by walking backwards down the trail, dehydrated, staring blankly off into the middle distance, and looking like Tom Hanks in Castaway.
On the drive out of the park, I could see the reflection of Half Dome in the side mirror, retreating into the distance, shrinking in stature. It looked puny, even. Yep. Totally doable.
Tips for Planning Your Own Half Dome Hike
1. Choose a Goal
You’ll need the motivation when you’re too tired to take another step.
When the going gets tough on the hike, you’ll have to look inward and find motivation to keep moving. Luckily, this is your hike, and you can inspire yourself however you like. Whether you want to use the hike as the culmination of a longer-term fitness goal or simply reconnect with nature, it’s important to consider the emotional side of your journey before starting.
2. Plan, Plan, and Plan Some More
You don’t want to realize you forgot toilet paper midway through the hike.
Hiking Half Dome involves a lot of moving parts (and we don’t just mean the bones in your body). Plan ahead to make sure you don’t forget:
- Your permit. You can apply for up to six summer hiking permits at Recreation.gov in the March preseason lottery: 300 permits are granted per day (225 to day hikers, 75 to backpackers). You’ll be notified of the outcome via email by mid-April.
- Hiking boots and gloves. Hiking boots with a good tread are an absolute must for gripping Half Dome’s granite surface, or else you may risk slipping. Bring a pair of gardening gloves, too, to protect your hands on the steel cables.
- Your alarm clock. To make it the summit and back, the National Park Service advises beginning no later than 5 a.m. Fit hikers can get away with starting a bit later, but you don’t want to be caught hiking in darkness on the way down.
- Food and water. The National Park Service recommends one gallon per person if hiking all the way to the top. There’s only one drinking fountain, about a mile from the trailhead. Another option: carry a water filtration system and fill up with treated water from Merced River.
- Toilet Paper. There are two bathrooms along the trail—one a mile from the trailhead, and the other at the top of Nevada Falls, about 4 miles in. You will have to go in the woods at some point.
3. Have a Backup Plan
Weather is unpredictable, but a fun trip should be a given.
Beyond closing down on rainy days, when the rocks become dangerously slick, Half Dome has an off-season all its own: the National Park Service brings the cables down in mid-October, and they don’t return until mid-May. If timing or weather keep you from Half Dome, there’s still plenty to do nearby.
- Admire Half Dome from Afar. The view is still spectacular if you stick to the John Muir Trail, where you can gaze at Half Dome as the Nevada Falls pound beneath it. Don’t forget your camera.
- Choose a different (but still challenging) hike. It may not be the same as scuttling up a rock face, but you’ll still feel the burn on the Mist Trail. You can traverse switchbacks and power through waterfall sprays, all while reaching an elevation of 6,000 feet over the course of just three miles.
- Soak In Yosemite’s History. The Yosemite Trail was built in the 1870s, making it one of the park’s oldest paths. Follow the 1.5-mile stretch to the top of Upper Yosemite Fall, which just so happens to be the tallest waterfall in North America. You can admire Yosemite Valley, Sentinel Rock, and, yes, Half Dome along the way.
Photos (except hero): Jorie Larsen, Groupon
Jorie would love to bend your ear about historic cities, national parks, and wildlife encounters. She's determined to visit Louisiana soon—her 50th state.