Climbing Half Dome

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From Half Dome, one can see the entire Yosemite Valley

I have been to Yosemite some 30 times and climbed Half Dome a dozen times since 1994. I have mountaineering experience and the information in this post is correct to my knowledge, but it is for you to use at your own risk. If you are planning to go there and have questions, feel free to contact me by leaving a comment below.

While in Yosemite, please:

  • Do not feed animals (including cute ones)
  • Be respectful to nature and others (don’t walk in loud large groups)
  • Stay on marked trails unless you know what you are doing
  • Leave it cleaner than you found it

Climbing Half Dome in one day is a very challenging and rewarding experience. There are amazing waterfalls along the way, the thrill of climbing the Half Dome boulder, and magnificent view of the entire Yosemite Valley from the top. For most people, it is the biggest hiking/climbing accomplishment to experience and there is some pain and suffering involved.

It is not technical at all and doesn’t require previous experience or specialized equipment. Don’t “just decide” to climb Half Dome after arriving to Yosemite. Without basic preparation and good physical conditioning, a climb of Half Dome is more painful than rewarding.

When to go?

For most people, a Half Dome climb will happen from late Spring to early Fall. You want to check if the route is snow free and that the cables are up (they are usually installed after snow melts in May and removed in early in Oct). In the 2010 season, the park service implemented a requirement for an advance climbing permit.

The gateway for information about park closures, permits, and official information can be found at the National Park Service website.

Planning the climb

Unless you are in reasonable physical condition, don’t plan to climb Half Dome all the way to the top. If you have never been to Yosemite before, I also do not recommend it (you will have to rush through some of the most amazing places in the planet). It is a long and strenuous hike and there are several more reasonable goals along the way (Top of Nevada or Vernal Falls, for example).

The ideal group size for hiking/climbing is 3-6 people. Unless you know what you are doing, don’t do this alone. If you have a larger group, consider breaking it in smaller groups. Once you start, stay always in contact with your group.

Half Dome is usually done in one long day. The total round-trip distance is 14-16 miles (depending on whether you take Mist or John Muir trail). The top of Half Dome sits at 8,842 ft with total elevation gain of 4,800 ft from the Yosemite Valley floor.

To get to the trail head, you need to walk from the Curry Village day parking lot or take the shuttle. I recommend staying at Camp Curry and either walking or taking the very first shuttle of the day. You want to start from the trail head (Happy Isles) preferably before 7AM and never after 8:30AM or so.

For an average well prepared small group doing it for the first time, it will be a 12-hour journey (my personal range has been 8-12 hours). You will be sore, tired and your knees will hurt at the end of the day.

Dress up and load the Backpack

This is not a casual hike. So do not ignore the recommendation in this section.

– Start with good hiking shoes. Make sure they are sturdy enough, have been broken in. . It is possible to do it with good cross-training shoes, but tennis shoes or sandals are just not appropriate.

– You will need at the very least a full gallon of water and there is no potable water available for most of the way. My recommendation is to bring 4 1-litter bottles and reload them at the bottom of Vernal Falls both ways. I carry 6 liters.

– It is usually very hot during the day. Dress in layers and bring lightweight fleece or wind breaker tops and bottoms in your pack. Wear a hat and plenty of sunblock. The sun will be on your back most of the time.

– Bring food for the day. Don’t carry more weight than necessary. Nuts, bars, fruits, cheese, jerky are common choices.

– Carry a flashlight, you might be hiking in the dark at the end of the day. If you don’t like to get wet, make sure your wind breaker has a hood and is water-resistant (for Misty Trail).

– Bring a pair of gloves for the cables. Gardening gloves will work.

– If you are in a group with me, I will be carrying extra water, a trail map, a first-aid kit, space blanket, emergency water purification tablets.

The Climb – Happy Isles to Top of Nevada

Start from the Happy Isles trail head as early as reasonable (preferably before 7AM). Take group pictures in front of the sign with the distances to several destinations. We will be starting on the John Muir trail, which extends over Sierra Nevada all the way to Mt. Whitney.

As you start the long hike, make sure your boots are comfortable. The right time to make adjustments is before, not after, you develop blisters.

After about half hour, you will arrive at a footbridge. It is your first glimpse of Vernal Falls. Drink some water from the fountain and reload your bottles. This is also the last full-service bathroom.

Vernal Falls from footbridge

Continue on the trail and you will hit a fork. John Muir Trail continues to the right and Misty trail breaks to the left. You could reach Half Dome either way, but we will turn left and take Misty Trail (it is faster, shorter, more scenic). You will be climbing rocky steps next to the falls (if it is early summer, you will get wet).

Vernal Falls (early summer)

About 1 hour from start, you will be arriving at the top of Vernal Falls (the little dots on the photo above). Take a short break and appreciate the view. There is a composting bathroom at the Top of Vernal.

Leaving Top of Vernal Falls, cross the foot bridge and take the trail towards Nevada Falls. 15 minutes later, you get a good view of Nevada Falls to the right of the trail.

About 2 hours from start, you will be arriving at the top of Nevada Falls. Take a break. There is a composting bathroom (there are no other easy bathrooms above this one). We will save a visit to the waterfalls (quarter-mile to the right) for the way back.

If it took much more than 2 hours or you feel tired, make the Top of Nevada Falls your destination for the day. This is about 2/5 of the total climb. Turn left towards Half Dome.

The Climb – Top of Nevada to the Treeline

Shortly above Nevada Falls, you will be walking in mostly flat terrain for a while. That is Little Yosemite Valley (there is a campground, which allows for a two-day climb of Half Dome).

The trail starts to climb again through the forest. Enjoy the shade, as most of the last part of the climb will be exposed to the sun. This section of the climb is less visually dramatic, there are no waterfalls and big boulders.

About 4 hours after the start, you will reach the treeline and have the first dramatic view of Half Dome. Notice the dark line going up the boulder, you will be shortly climbing that line.

If it took much more than 4 hours to get here, it is already mid-afternoon, or you feel extremely tired, consider making this you return point.

The Climb – Final stretch: Quarter Dome and the Cables

Shortly after crossing the tree line, you will reach what some call the “quarter dome”. It is a long section of steep rock steps. It might be useful to wear gloves so you can use your hands for balance.

Over and above the steps, you will get a closer view of Half Dome and reach the beginning of the cables. Take a break. If it is late or you are afraid of heights, consider making this your point of return.

The last section of the climb is done walking on the granite boulder slope with the help of a pair of cables working as hand rails. Do not climb if there are storm clouds around you and there is risk of lightning strikes.

This may be psychologically challenging (specially on the way down), but it is not particularly difficult or dangerous. I enjoy the view, but if you are not comfortable with heights, just focus your attention to the cables and your steps.

The biggest problem you may find is traffic congestion. It is not uncommon for hikers to get stuck along the way. Be prepared to hang to the cables for up to 45 minutes waiting for the line of climbers to move.

Ok, you’ve made it. Now is time to descend back.

From the top of Half Dome you get amazing views of the Valley and dramatic vertical drops. Enjoy your accomplishment and rest for a while before starting the descend.

Most climbing injuries happen on the way down, so use caution. Adjust your boots (you want them to be snug to keep your toes from jamming). If it took you about 6 hours to reach the top, it will probably take about 4 hours down.

When you reach the bathrooms at the top of Nevada Falls, if you have time and energy, the waterfalls (1/4 mile) are well worth a visit.

From top of Nevada, there are two alternative routes. The first alternative is to return the same way up (down from the bathrooms to Vernal Falls and Misty Trail). This is my strong preference and recommendation.

The alternative is to cross the bridge at the top of Nevada Falls and go down through John Muir trail. This adds about one mile to the journey, but the descend is more gradual. The reason why some people will recommend that is that by them your knees will be hurting and the gradual slope would be gentler. I think it is just extending the pain and suffering.

Your choice.

Congratulations! You have climbed Half Dome. Hopefully, you made it to Happy Isles before sunset and before the last shuttle bus. If not, you have another mile to walk in the dark and restaurants will be closed by the time to get back to camp.

2 thoughts on “Climbing Half Dome

  1. I am a senior citizen and spent last week in South Lake Tahoe. Going up to over 6,000 ft then descending, I began to suffer from altitude sickness. (I have a heart condition.)
    In September will be going to Yosemite and would like to hike the John Muir Trail from Glacier Point to the Valley. Years ago I use to hike it. But, the last time, a couple of years ago, I had trouble at the beginning, so did not descend. Here is the question:
    How far down, or how long would it take – walking at a medium pace – 0n the John Muir Trail to reach below 6,000 feet? Thank you

    1. First, let me say I am not a doctor, so I cannot medically advise on AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).

      Directly answering to your question: Glacier Point is at about 7200ft and the Valley floor is at 4,000ft. So 6,000ft is not far (relatively) from Glacier Point.

      The most direct connection between Glacier Point and the Valley is Panorama/4-mile trail and only the first mile or so above it will be above 6,000ft.

      I have not hiked JMT from Glacier Point (which is a much longer hike), and I do not have the altitude profile to answer.

      Now, do not rely on the absolute altitude of 6,000ft as being your trigger. AMS depends on a series of factors (physical conditioning, hydration, level of exertion, temperature, etc). I’ve seen the same person getting sick at 8,000ft and on another day be able to climb to the summit of Mt. Shasta (14,200ft) without a problem.

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