How to hike Half Dome

In the spirit of half dome lottery season, I thought I would do a quick recap of how to plan an epic adventure hiking this monumental icon, bucket list spot in Yosemite Valley.

Half dome on the left, with the trail up to it visible in the middle of the image, Nevada falls on the right. This photo was taken on a clear winter day from the Panoramic trail a few years after the initial summit.

What is Half Dome, you might ask?

Well, Half Dome is a granite fixture of the skyline in Yosemite National Park, located in the heart of California’s Sierra mountain range. It’s called Half Dome because, well, it looks like someone took a knife and sheered it down one side. Standing at over eight thousand feet above sea level, it’s an incredibly beautiful mountain to view and even more exciting to hike. In popular culture, you can see the iconic mountain on The North Face logo and on the default background for many Apple computers.

Views of the entire valley can be enjoyed from the top of Half Dome as seen in this photo. I summited this on a very smokey day during the summer of the Rim Fire (2014) which destroyed a lot of the park.

And why would I want to climb it??

Well, if you are the kind of person looking for an epic adventure when visiting Yosemite National Park, this would be a good place to start. The hike from the Valley floor to the top is 8.2 miles each way and 4800 feet of elevation gain. It’s not an easy hike, but many people of all skill levels do it and enjoy the incredible views along the way. Of course, the pinnacle of the hike includes the last 400 feet which has to be climbed using a steel cable ‘ladder’ to the top of the dome.

The beginning of the sub dome, and start of the cables. Can you see the tiny people above?

Cool, sign me up!

Well, not so fast. Due to popular demand, the National Park Service has instituted a permit system to control the crowds going up the mountain. You can technically get to the base of the ‘Sub Dome’ without a permit, but there you will find a park ranger checking for permits before letting you through. I’m in full support of the permitting system as it helps preserve the trail for many years to come and makes the ladder climb safer.

Ways to get your butt up the dome:

  1. Pre-season permits are given out randomly in a lottery, which opens typically March 1st and closes on March 31st. Results from the lottery are released in April. There are a few other rules and conditions to check into and all information can be found on the NPS site. 225 permits are given out this way per day in the season (approximately May through October, weather permitting). Editor’s Note: We had a group of 4 people who each put in a lottery request for 6 permits. Of the 4 of us, only 1 of us won the lottery that allowed us all to go.

  2. 50 permits are given out daily if you apply 2 days in advance of when you want to hike. Editor’s Note: I tried this with a friend a year before we won the pre-season lottery, and we were NOT successful.

  3. You can apply for a wilderness permit which grants you a half dome lottery ticket in addition to your wilderness permit that has you camping at Little Yosemite Valley (or somewhere else in the back-country, if you so wish).

  4. Some people opt to hike the trail when the ranger is not around, starting at midnight and summiting at dawn. This avoids all the crowds and the permitting process, but you will be hiking in the dark and may risk getting turned away if there is a ranger on guard when you arrive.

Permits required, 7 days a week!

So cool! But is it dangerous?

Depends who you ask. In the last century of people climbing up half dome, a handful of people have fallen and died on the cables. It’s important to be well prepared for the climb by staying hydrated, packing appropriate layers, paying attention to your surroundings and not being overly aggressive on the cables, for your safety and the safety of those around you. Additionally, never climb the cables when it has recently rained or if there is threat of lightning.

Okay I’m convinced. And I won the lottery! Now what?

First things first, you need to figure out where you are sleeping the night before the hike (and probably the night after). Reservations for campsites go up 5 months in advance for 1 month chunks of time starting at 7am (so for example, you would want to reserve a campsite for July 1 on Feb 1 at 7am). Campsites in the summer fill up almost immediately especially for weekends. Unfortunately, you might not know when you get your lottery date, so either only choose dates that you already have a campsite, or wait to see what date you get and rush to book something ASAP. Normally at this point however, you will have to book something outside of the park, like a KOA campground, hotel or airBnB. The campgrounds in Yosemite Valley that are closest to the trailhead are:

  • Upper Pines

  • Lower Pines

  • North Pines

  • Other popular valley campgrounds include Housekeeping Camp, Camp 4 (first come first serve), and the tent cabins in Yosemite Village (formally Curry Village).

After you book your accommodation and square away how you are getting to the trailhead, it’s time to train!

What’s the trail like?

For the most part, the hike is uphill one way and downhill on the return, with some even terrain in the middle (but not much).

  • First you climb the beautiful Mist Trail for 5.4 miles up stone cut stairs, past the famous Vernal and Nevada waterfalls. You can fill up your water from streams here (but must filter it with iodine or a filtration system). At the top of Nevada Falls, there is also an outhouse.

Vernal falls, about halfway up the Mist Trail (can you guess why they call it that?).

  • You will follow the Merced River for a little longer, then hike for a few miles in the redwoods as you circle around, taking some switchbacks, to the backside of the dome. There is an outhouse at Little Yosemite Valley Campground, but no water. This part of the hike is essentially a gradual uphill climb, a bit more relaxed than the stairs. At the end of this part of the trail, a ranger will be checking permits.

  • After your permit is checked, you climb the Sub Dome, which is a series of narrow, rocky stairs. Be careful not to slip! I personally felt this was the hardest part of the hike, because it was steep and I had already been hiking for hours.

  • Finally you have arrived at the foot of Half Dome. All that’s between you and the top is climbing a 400 foot cable ladder!

  • After you make it to the top, enjoy the amazing views and then return the way you came.

Views along the hike, about 3/4 of the way to the top!

What should I bring with me?

  • Your permit!

  • A way to carry at least 3 liters of water

  • A filtration system or iodine for generating more drinkable water

  • Snacks

  • A headlamp/flashlight in case you get stuck in the dark

  • A first aid kit with Advil for altitude sickness

  • Layers

  • A camera!

  • Hiking poles

  • Gardening gloves (to help with grip and rope burn on the ladder) - there is usually a pile of used gloves at the bottom of the cables, but if you want a pair that fits, bring it!

My husband and I, just tiny specs on the edge of the earth.

Hiking half dome was, and probably will always be, one of the most memorable hikes I have ever done. It has amazing views, challenging trail, and an adventurous finish. It took us about 13 hours to hike nearly 17 miles, including a relaxing lunch at the top. 10/10, would definitely recommend!

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