HIKE-U: Day Hiking Half Dome

June 18, 2013 | Adventures, Hike-U

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By Deek Speredelozzi • Photos by Deek Speredelozzi and Shane McCarthy

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It’s no secret, and no surprise, that the summit of Half Dome is one of the most sought-after day-hiking destinations in North America. It can be reached, and returned from, all in a single day’s hike. But make no mistake—a trip to the top of Half Dome ain’t no cake-walk. To reach the pinnacle of this magnificent granite promontory demands of its pursuer considerable strength, endurance, and determination. Yet, every summer day, hundreds of so-motivated people manage to find it within themselves to muster the energy, will, and fortitude to complete the nearly 18-mile round-trip hike to the top of Half Dome, climbing 4,800 vertical feet from the floor of Yosemite Valley to the towering apex of the dome, and all the way back down to the valley floor. On any given summer night in Yosemite Valley, countless flickering campfires illuminate the tired faces of Half Dome’s most recent conquerors, relaxing with aching bones and legs of jelly, but with a sense of satisfaction and personal accomplishment that precious few high-country days can match.

LENGTH: 14 to 16 miles round-trip

ELEVATION GAIN: 4,800 feet

APPROX. TIME: 10 to 12 hours for the average hiker

DIFFICULTY: Difficult

ESSENTIALS: Make sure you’re carrying ample food and water for an ass-kicker of a hike. If you’ve got a water purification system (water bag, pump, iodine tablets), then you can get away with carrying less water; as the trail to Half Dome, for much of its length, is closely paralleled by the thundering Merced River; and although it is unsafe to venture down to the waterline in most places along the route, there are a handful of spots where the water can be safely accessed.

Other items that well-prepared hikers will have in their packs include:

  • Food: 1-2 meals + snacks per adult
  • Water: 1 gallon per adult (if not filtering your own)
  • Sturdy footwear
  • Topo maps of the area
  • Headlamps (one per person)
  • Fresh batteries
  • Waterproof and warm clothing (a rainshell and a fleece or mid-layer)
  • A camera 
IMPORTANT: Over the past few years, Yosemite Park officials have been experimenting with various approaches to the Half Dome permitting system, in an effort to find the optimal permitting parameters for the future. As a result, the policy governing Half Dome permits is still-evolving, and as such, ever-changing.

Please check the NPS website at www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/hdpermits.htm for changes in the permitting policy before attempting to get your permits.

FEES & RESERVATIONS

This is the most recent information picked up directly from the NPS website at http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/feesandreservations.htm. Please check back often for any changes.

You don’t need reservations to visit or enter Yosemite National Park, but reservations for lodging or camping are essential if you plan to spend the night in the park.

The park entrance fee applies to all visitors. If you arrive in your private car, van, pickup truck, or RV, the entrance fee is $20 per car.This is valid for unlimited entries to Yosemite for seven days, and includes all occupants of the car.

Otherwise, entrance fees are as follows:

$10 per person if arriving on foot, horseback, bicycle, motorcycle, or on a non-commercial bus (free for those 15 years old and younger).

Commercial tours pay the following rates (a special permit is required):

  • Commercial sedan (up to six seats): $25 (plus $10 per person)
  • Commercial van (7-15 seats): $125
  • Commercial mini bus (16-25 seats): $200
  • Commercial motor coach (more than 26 seats): $300

(Note that fees are based on capacity, not on occupancy.)

Cash, checks, traveler’s checks, and credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover) are accepted.

In 2013, entrance fees will be waived on:

  • January 21 (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)
  • April 22-26 (National Park Week)
  • August 25 (National Park Service Founders Day)
  • September 28 (National Public Lands Day)
  • November 9-11 (Veterans Day weekend)
OTHER PASSES

These passes admit the pass owner and any accompanying passengers in a private car. Purchase these passes at any park entrance station.

Yosemite Pass (annual pass): $40

America the Beautiful—National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass: $80.

This is an annual admission pass covering admission and standard amenity fees. This replaces the National Parks Pass and Golden Eagle Pass.

Annual Pass—Military: Free

This is an annual admission pass covering admission and standard amenity fees for all active military personnel and their dependents. (For active duty military personnel and dependents with proper identification (CAC Card or DD Form 1173).)

Access Pass: Free

This is a lifetime admission and discount pass for US citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities. (You can also get this pass by mail for $10.)

Senior Pass: $10

This is a lifetime admission and discount pass for US citizens or permanent residents who are age 62 or older. (You can also get this pass by mail for an additional $10.)

OPERATING HOURS & SEASONS

Yosemite National Park is open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, and no reservations are required to visit. However, the Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station is open only during daylight hours (approximately) and some roads are closed due to snow from around November through May or June. (Check road conditions and Hetch Hetchy hours.)

Is there a best time to visit Yosemite? It depends what you’re looking for, and each season has its advantages. Learn more about Yosemite in summerfallwinter, or spring, and find out what kind of weather to expect.

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GPS COORDINATES: (37.732686,-119.558181)

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Here’s How it’s Done

As of 2011, a quota system has been in place which limits the number of hikers permitted each day on the upper reaches of Half Dome to 300 (roughly 225 day-hikers and 75 backpackers). This system was put in place partly in response to growing concerns, among park staff and visitors alike, that the wilderness experience was being threatened by the ever increasing amounts of hikers. Even more so, hiker injuries and deaths—often the result of impatient climbers attempting to pass the slow-moving crowds—are becoming more and more frequent. The cardinal no no of this, is moving outside the cables. DO NOT DO THIS.  The traction on the steeply-angled granite is deceptive and countless years of use have polished the granite to a smooth and slippery surface on and outside the cables. Slipping outside the cables pretty much guarantees a trip home in a body bag.

Starting in 2012, a lottery system was implemented for Half Dome permits. Go to the NPS web site at www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/hdpermits.htm for details.

Before the permits where put in place, and witnessing the throngs of humanity clinging to Half Dome,  I have likened the spectacle to that of a fire escape on a burning high-rise. People are in a rush to pass others panicking and freezing up, and exhibiting dangerous and risky climbing techniques. Keep this in mind when you get to this point, or better yet, time your trip so you get to the cables either before noon or after 4 PM. This will greatly increase your likelihood of having the top of Half Dome all to yourself. In a nutshell, leave before 8 AM.

Half Dome season is in effect as long as the cables are up, which is typically between Memorial Day and Columbus Day. In the winter, the dome is far too dangerous to be recommended as a hiking destination, and when the cables are down, accessing the summit is infinitely more complicated.

Plan for a four drive from San Francisco to Yosemite Valley (when traffic is light). If you’re coming from Los Angeles, expect a drive of more like 6 hours (again, not accounting for traffic). At the far eastern end of Yosemite Valley, just east of Curry Village, find the Happy Isles Trailhead Parking Area.

At the eastern end of the Happy Isles Parking Area, find an unmarked, but very well maintained, trail paralleling the Happy Isles Loop Road on its south side. Follow this trail east for approximately a half a mile, cross the Happy Isles Bridge over the Merced River, and turn right onto a sandy trail. This is also the location of stop #16 on Yosemite Valley’s free shuttle system; so get off here if you’re coming in on the shuttle. Follow the sandy trail along the north bank of the Merced River for another half a mile, until you reach the trailhead for the John Muir Trail. From here it is 8.2 miles to the top of Half Dome, via the shortest route (the Mist Trail).

The John Muir Trail is paved for its first half mile, over which it climbs almost 300 feet, contouring up along the southernmost foot of Half Dome. Take care on this stretch, as sand on the pavement can make for some traction issues for those overly fleet of foot. After a little over a half a mile, the John Muir Trail crosses the Merced River on a wide, sturdy, wooden footbridge. From the bridge, hikers get their first look at Vernal Fall, one of Yosemite’s most picturesque cascades. The fast-flowing Merced River spills over the lip of Vernal Fall in a wide curtain of falling water, plunging 317 feet in a straight drop.

A quarter mile beyond the bridge, the junction with the Mist Trail is reached. From here, the Mist Trail offers the shortest distance to Half Dome; but the John Muir Trail will also get you there, via a slightly-longer, but less steep route. Though both trails offer a plethora of staggering views down the canyon of the Merced, the Mist Trail is easily the more dramatic of the two, yet also the more perilous.

Check out this vid from the Park’s Department…

Top of Nevada Fall via the Mist Trail

Snaking its way up along the tumbling waters of the Merced for 1.4 miles (from its lower junction with the JMT), the Mist Trail, during peak-water, in the late spring, cannot promise a dry passage for the hiker. Curtains of blowing mist, and rivulets of runoff, often render the route profoundly wet between the lower Mist Trail/JMT junction and the top of Vernal Fall.

Once atop Vernal Fall, the trail winds along the south bank of the Merced, passing the picturesque Emerald Pool (see “Deek’s words of wisdom” below), before crossing the Merced via the Silver Apron Bridge. The Mist Trail then follows the north bank of the Merced, winding steeply up a run of switchbacks before rejoining the John Muir Trail near the top of Nevada Fall.

Top of Nevada Fall Via the John Muir Trail

Switchbacking steeply through the woods, up and away from the Merced River, the JMT finds its way eventually to the high cliffs overlooking the Merced River Canyon from along its southern wall. Contouring along the cliff face eastward, parts of the trail along this stretch can be very wet and slippery with cross-cutting runoff streams during spring’s peak-water, though you will be well above the blowing mists that soak hikers on the Mist Trail. Step with caution—and mind those drop-offs.Two miles after the lower junction with the Mist Trail, the John Muir Trail crosses the Merced River via the Nevada Fall Bridge, at the top of Nevada Fall, and reaches the upper junction with the Mist Trail a short distance beyond.

From the Top of Nevada Fall

The route to Half Dome continues as the John Muir Trail, following along the north side of the Merced River, passing through Little Yosemite Valley before switchbacking uphill through thick forest, and reaching the junction with the Half Dome Trail, just over 3 miles from the top of Nevada Fall.

Follow the Half Dome Trail gently uphill through the thinning forest lands east of Half Dome. After about a mile, the trail will leave the forest and switchback steeply up a granite staircase, on the eastern flank of Half Dome. Once atop the steps, follow the trail across a mostly-flat saddle, with sweeping views down into Tenaya Canyon to your right (north), and views out across Little Yosemite Valley, towards Liberty Cap and the peaks beyond, to your left (south). Straight ahead looms the bulk of Half Dome, with its terrible ladder to the sky calling to you from dead ahead.

Two miles from the junction with the John Muir Trail, the Half Dome Trail will reach the foot of the nearly-vertical cable-route to the top of Half Dome. Many people take one look at this and turn tail; but to those that persevere, the payoff is close at hand, and well worth the summoning of that final burst of energy.

Historically, there has always been a pile of cloth work-gloves at the base of the cables—left there by park staff to aid hikers in more capably gripping the cables. If you haven’t brought your own pair of sturdy gloves, borrow a pair from this pile (but please don’t forget to leave them here on your way down).

The Ascend Half Dome Cables

The Half Dome cables consist of two parallel steel cables, each approximately two and a half inches thick, and held about three feet out from the rock by perpendicular steel pegs drilled into the rock, roughly at ten foot intervals. Wooden cross-planks, running perpendicular to the main cables, and held in place by the steel pegs securing them, provide climbers with the opportunity to rest periodically, with relatively secure footing.

The safest way to ascend the Half Dome cables is to grasp a cable in each hand, and use them for support as you walk your way up in between them. If you have issues with heights, don’t look down while ascending the cables. Do rest periodically, to conserve energy; but don’t linger overly-long, if other climbers are held up by your stopping.

Attention! Always stay in between the two main cables. Traveling outside the main cables is a recipe for disaster, as losing your grip for even a moment can easily become the last mistake you ever make. Also, be sure to ALWAYS be tightly gripping the cables with both hands.

The higher you get on the cables, the more the curvature of the rock will taper toward the horizontal, until at last the cables end, depositing you safely on top of Half Dome. Take care while exploring the top of Half Dome, as unexpected winds can suddenly blow you off the lip, if you let your guard down.

To Descend the Cables

Position yourself in between the two main cables, face the rock, and step carefully backwards down the face of the rock, until you reach the base of the cables. Leave your gloves, if you borrowed a pair on the way up. (See “Deek’s words of wisdom” below).

Deek’s Words of Wisdom

BEFORE YOU GO

Check trail conditions with the ranger’s station before setting off to climb Half Dome; and do not proceed unless the forecast calls for clear skies. The curving granite of Half Dome is lethally slick when wet; and the rock steps along the Mist Trail are also exceedingly treacherous when it’s raining.

BEWARE

Swimming in Emerald Pool, though extremely tempting, especially after a climb on a hot summer day, can be exceedingly dangerous. Many people have plunged into Emerald Pool for a quick cool-off, and been swept over the falls by the deceptive currents, which run stronger just below the surface than at the surface. So remember that even when Emerald Pool looks placid, its waters often hide deadly sub-currents. Also, swimming in Emerald Pool is strictly prohibited; and rangers frequent the area on spring and summer weekends, and will issue citations for violations.

REMEMBER

Bragging rights don’t kick in until you’ve returned safely to the valley floor. Most accidents occur on the descent, when hikers are more likely to let down their guard, and muscles are tired.

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