The Iconic Hike in Yosemite National Park

Half Dome – Yosemite National Park – June 8, 2016

Half Dome is not just a hike, it’s an adventure, and for some a life-changing experience.

It’s not something you just do, it takes planning…  like preparation – e.g. 1. Arranging for a permit from the Yosemite National Park website lottery or daily lottery – you cannot climb the Sub-dome or cables without a permit; 2. Training – you’ll be going about 16 miles round-trip with an elevation gain of over 4800 feet in about 10-12 hours, so you better be in shape; 3.  Packing – snacks for fuel, enough water or a good filter – I recommend at least 4 liters, gloves for grabbing the cables – I recommend nitrite-coated garden gloves, hiking poles for helping you climb up stairs and to slow you down and absorb the pounding going down – note you will want to put these away while climbing the Sub-dome and cables, sunscreen, bug spray – there are mosquitoes that can be relentless, a hat and sunglasses, wool socks and a good pair of hiking boots that grip granite well. Also check the weather.  The first time I climbed Half Dome, we were half way up the Sub-dome when a thunderstorm hit, so had to turn back (If you are curious about thunderstorms on Half Dome with steel cables, read the book by Bob Madgic in 2007 – Shattered Air). Plan on leaving early like just before dawn from the parking lot just before Happy Isles – there is a sign that says “Authorized Vehicles Only” but you can drive just past it to take a right into the hiker’s parking lot.  The trail starts about a quarter mile further down the road, but if you can get someone to drop you off at the trailhead, you’ll save a half mile of walking.

Starting at 5AM

We trained for several weeks in the North Carolina mountains and did an 8-miler to May Lake in the snow the day before.  Some of the things I learned from our first trip and did this next time up included 1. Taking the Mist Trail down from Clark’s Point on the way down – giving us an awesome up top view of Vernal Fall – don’t miss it and the uneventful and stinky (because of horses) John Muir trail is not really any easier on your knees and not as scenic; 2. Leaving at 5AM, we summit-ed around 10AM, so had time to dally at the top and take pictures from the Visor or on the King’s Chair; 3. Do some weight training before you go.  The cables can be tiring on the arms and your behind – the cables are intense and as long as you have good grip gloves, it’s a snap if you keep your wits about you and communicate well with those going up and down – you’ll be surprised how many good conversations you can have on the cables with people from all over the world.  Since the positioning of the cables force you to swing left going up, the best technique is staying inside the cables and using just one cable going up, and using both cables coming down backwards, like rappelling.

The roaring Merced River at the top of Vernal Fall

I separated the hike into stages:  Stage 1:  The first mile to the footbridge (with drinking fountain and bathrooms) is a steady paved uphill climb.  Stage 2: Hiking up the the steps to the top of Vernal Fall; steps will be wet and can be slippery through the misty area.  Take your time and don’t rush it.  Stage 3:  Hike up along the Apron – that long water slide area above Vernal Fall – across the second footbridge and up the steps to the top of Nevada Fall – here after 3.4 miles I recommend you get a snack and some water – this is a good rest stop before you head on to Stage 4:  Little Yosemite Valley. Don’t bother at this point going the 0.2 miles to the top of Nevada Fall – you will see it better in the afternoon when you return when the sunshine is on it.  Little Yosemite Valley is flat and sandy after the initial gradual rocky climb to get there and it’s just under 2 miles.  Just after you see the right hand turn to the ranger station, you’ll start Stage 5:  a gradual climb up through the woods that takes you to the 2 miles to go point and the connection with the trail to Cloud’s Rest.  With two miles to go, you’ll hit the climb up to the Sub-dome Stage 6; then at the top of the Sub-dome, you’ll reach the Saddle and Stage 7: the cables – a 400 foot ascent to the top.

On the way down, reverse the stages until you get to Nevada Fall; go over the footbridge at the top and down the John Muir Trail until it intersects with the connector back to the Mist Trail and cross Clark’s Point and re-visit the top of Vernal Fall before heading back down the steps and back down the trail to the trailhead.  And enjoy the journey!

We saw several people turned back by the ranger due to lack of permits, and saw a couple successfully return by latching onto other parties who still had permit capacity left, so you can chance it and ask at your own risk.  The waterfalls were roaring from the spring snow melt and we had sunshine the whole way. I took 8 half liters of water and a Gatorade for electrolytes, some Clif bars and peanut butter crackers and some nuts.

Nevada Fall

At the Saddle – the low area between the top of the Sub-dome and the cables – I laid my pack down in the middle of everyone – the varmints – marmots, squirrels, chipmunks – won’t get to it if it’s around a lot of traffic.  Hats off to the ranger who we saw help a dehydrated, weak and shaky soul down the cables and made sure they were safe – rangers sometimes go up the cables three or four times in a day and hike up from Little Yosemite Valley every day to check permits and the safety of hikers.

Going back down the rocky parts from Nevada Fall to Vernal Fall were the worst for me – but the trail is still shorter than the John Muir trail – we went over the Nevada Fall footbridge on the John Muir then cut back to the right to the Mist Trail at Clark Point.  If the water’s running, the mist has a nice cooling effect as the day heats up in the afternoon.  At the bottom we were greeted by a small brown bear just before Happy Isles, so our hike was full of events. And yours will be too.

Again, this is an accomplishment you’ll never forget, and not as crowded as it used to be thanks to the permit system.  Take the hike seriously and with some training and planning, it will be a lifetime experience in God’s country.

Enjoy the pictures and also this awesome 28 minute YouTube video from our adventure, shot with a GoPro Hero 3 and produced by Wes Watson:   Half Dome Hike June 2016

Additional Information – Mileages

Vernal Fall Footbridge from Trailhead 0.8 miles

Vernal Fall (top) 1.5 miles – this is a great family hike

Nevada Fall (top via the Mist Trail) 2.7 miles

Nevada Fall (top via the John Muir Trail) 3.5 miles – note this is a great half day hike in itself – going up the Mist trail and crossing the footbridge at the top of Nevada Fall, coming down the John Muir Trail or re-connecting with the Mist Trail via Clark Point.  Also a great family hike for older children.

Half Dome – 7.0 miles via the Mist Trail or 8.2 miles via the John Muir Trail – plan on adding mileage as you wander on top of Half Dome – it’s bigger than a football field!

At 3.4 miles and heading into Little Yosemite Valley
Little Yosemite Valley
Time to climb again
First glimpse of the Sub-dome and Cables
Heading up the Sub-dome
Cloud’s Rest from the Sub-dome
The Sub-dome
The Saddle and the Cables
Let’s Do This!
On top of the World
The King’s Chair
From the Visor Looking up Canyon
Cloud’s Rest is our next adventure!
Long way down!
Headed back down the Cables
The Sub-Dome from the Saddle



Top of Nevada Fall
Headed down the John Muir Trail
Nevada Fall
The Mist Trail
Great view of Vernal Fall from Clark Point
Merced River from top of Vernal Fall
Back on the Footbridge below Vernal Fall
Mission Accomplished!
Classic post-hike sunset shot from Sentinel Bridge



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