Is hiking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park on your bucket list? We did this epic trail (including the infamous cables) in one day. Here’s how we did it and what to expect when you go!
BY Ann Fabrizio
with special thanks to Aron Fabrizio and Justin Galietti
Hiking to the summit of Half Dome is not for the faint of heart.
When I entered Yosemite National Park and saw the massive granite dome rising up like a wall in front of me, I said “Absolutely not. I am not hiking that.”
My husband, on the other hand, was up for an adventure.
He made the hike to Half Dome with our friend Justin while I hiked other trails in Yosemite with the rest of our group.
I wrote this guide after interviewing Aron and Justin about their experience.
WHAT IS HALF DOME?
Half Dome is a massive granite dome at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park, California.
It’s named for its distinct shape. It looks like a dome that’s been cut in half.
WHY HIKE HALF DOME?
Why does anyone want to climb to the peak of a mountain? Or in this case, to the peak of a really big rock.
For the adrenaline.
For the experience, the feeling of accomplishment.
Maybe a little bit for the bragging rights.
And of course, for the views.
At the top of Half Dome, you can see the whole valley down below.
You can simultaneously feel like you’ve conquered something massive, and also realize that you are very, very tiny in the world.
Hiking Half Dome has become the thing to do inside Yosemite National Park, in part because it’s just that– a hike (not a climb) in a park made famous for rock climbing.
You don’t need to be an expert rock climber to go hiking to Half Dome.
All you need is to be in relatively good shape, be comfortable rock scrambling, have a lot of determination, and hope for a gorgeous sunny day.
Oh, and a permit. You need a permit before hiking to Half Dome.
Can I Hike to Half Dome in One Day?
Yes, but start your hike early!!
Aron and Justin arrived at the trailhead parking lot at 5:50am, and were surprised to find the parking lot was almost completely full.
A lot of people start their hikes at midnight or at 3:00am in order to see the sunrise from the top of Half Dome.
Hiking in the dark? You’ll need a headlamp! This Energizer headlamp is awesome because it’s affordable, bright, and has multiple light settings.
IS THIS A HARD HIKE?
The trail to Half Dome is a strenuous 14-to-16 mile-long out-and-back trail with a 4,800-foot elevation change. The length varies depending on which route you take.
The hike itself took us 6 hours to ascend and 3 hours to descend. We spent another hour and a half at the top eating our lunch.
This is a long hike, which is why you definitely will want to wear a headlamp and leave before sunrise.
The hike to Half Dome includes a somewhat difficult vertical rock scramble and Half Dome’s infamous ladder— a series of man-made cables to help you up the steepest part of the rock.
This hike starts at a high elevation, so I recommend spending a day or two in the park before you hike getting used to the elevation in Yosemite.
You’ll need to keep a good pace on this hike, and be realistic about your own physical and mental abilities.
Make sure you’re up for a challenge.
Gear Recommendations for Hiking Half Dome
First of all, make sure to wear quality hiking boots because the terrain is rocky.
Need new boots? Check out our list of the best women’s hiking shoes and boots.
Champagne Tastes’ gear recommendation: These Kelty trekking poles are our favorite because they’re easy to adjust, sturdy, lightweight, and the cork handles are comfortable even at the end of a long hike.
I also recommend a headlamp (like this Energizer headlamp) to light your way in the dark.
Once you reach the cables, you’ll need a pair of work gloves that fit well and have a good grip so that you can hold the cables without rubbing your hands raw. I recommend going to a hardware store and trying on the gloves instead of buying them online.
Some hikers like to bring along a rock climbing harness (along with carabiners and a climbing lanyard) so they can clip off on the cable poles as they ascend Half Dome. If you do this, keep in mind that the poles are not securely attached to the rock, they’re simply sitting in holes, so don’t get a false sense of safety while clipped off.
Food + Water on the Hike to Half Dome
Bring a lot of water. The National Park Service recommends one gallon of water per hiker if you’re headed all the way to the top of Half Dome.
The only potable drinking water on this hike is near the trailhead at the Vernal Falls Footbridge.
After that, there’s unfiltered water from the Merced river until you reach Little Yosemite Valley. You’ll need a water filter to drink the river water.
Champagne Tastes’ gear recommendation: We love this Sawyer Squeeze water filter, and have used it over and over again while hiking and backpacking.
Make sure to pack lots of food for your hike, because you’ll need the calories and energy!
We like Clif bars, trail mix, and nuts. We also brought sandwiches to eat at the top of Half Dome.
Should I worry About Animals?
People are always talking about bears stealing your food in Yosemite.
Well yes, watch for bears.
But on this extra-popular trail, the animals you should be alert to are the squirrels.
Bears tend to hide when an area is crowded. The squirrels aren’t scared of you, and they want your food.
Yes, there are even animals at the very top of Half Dome, so guard your lunch bags.
We saw a raven swoop down and steal a sandwich out of a guy’s backpack. They know how to open bags.
HIKING TO HALF DOME
Start your hike at the Happy Isles trailhead on the John Muir Trail (JMT).
Cross the Vernal Falls Footbridge, fill up your water if you need to (it’s your last chance if you don’t have a filter!), and hit the trail!
When you reach the Mist Trail, you can go one of two ways.
Option 1: Stay on the John Muir Trail.
If you stay on the JMT, you’re taking the longer route, but there are fewer stairs and less water on the rocky path.
This route also takes you right past Nevada Falls.
Option 2: Take the Mist Trail.
The Mist Trail will cut about one mile each way off your hike (compared to taking the JMT), but in the springtime, the steps on this trail get extremely slippery because of the waterfalls spraying water onto the granite steps.
Since we visited Yosemite in the fall, the falls weren’t flowing strongly, and the Mist Trail was quite dry. However, it was still an intense cardio workout.
The man-made carved stairs at the falls tend to be over-crowded with people resting or taking pictures during the day.
If you take this route, continue following the signs for Half Dome and you’ll eventually rejoin the John Muir Trail.
Half Dome Tip: A popular route to Half Dome is to take the shorter Mist Trail on the way up and then stay on the JMT on the way down.
This route option can be a little easier on your knees since there’s fewer downhill stairs, and lets you see Nevada Falls when you’re in less of a hurry.
GOING UP THE LADDER: Half Dome’s Infamous Cables
Finally, you’ll reach Half Dome’s notorious cable ladder.
Are the cables really as steep as they look in photos?
Aron said that when he arrived at the ladder, the cables seemed even steeper than they look in the photos. It is a lot more intimidating in person.
At this point, you’ll probably see a park ranger checking for permits.
You’ll also see piles of used gloves on the ground. If you forgot your gloves, grab a pair.
If the thought of sticking your hands into someone else’s sweaty glove makes you squeamish, don’t forget to pack your own gloves! And actually, pack your own gloves even if you don’t mind stranger sweat, because you might not find free gloves that fit well.
And then, it’s time to start the hardest part of the trail– climbing the cables.
Every eight to ten feet there are 2×4 wooden planks to stand on. The planks let you take a break, and also allow you to move over so that hikers going down can move past you.
Stay to the right to ascend up. People pass on the left while descending.
Aron and Justin felt the most stable with hands on both wire cables, going up the center of the pathway except when they needed to move to let someone pass.
Some hikers prefer to stick to one cable the entire time so that they don’t need to move back and forth when others pass. Try both methods and see what works for you.
Use your arm and back muscles to pull yourself up and your legs to propel you forward and upward.
The climb gets progressively steeper as you reach the top.
During their hike, Aron and Justin saw parents hiking with children. One child was 6 years old.
The parents would simply tether onto their child. The kids were confident and capable, more so than some of the adults.
There will literally be a person in front and behind you on the cable climb. Your actions affect the person behind you.
Meanwhile, people are descending past you on the same cables. Communicate with others in front and behind. Encourage each other from plank to plank to achieve something incredible.
The last 100 feet of the climb became easier because the rock starts to level off.
The top of Half Dome is wide open. You can walk around and have a lunch picnic.
There are also rocks placed along the edge so people won’t fall off.
The view is like no other, and is as if you are on top of the world.
WAS IT WORTH IT?
In fact, Aron wants to do it again.
Next time, instead of hiking in the fall, he would do this hike in the spring or summer for a different perspective.
Hiking Half Dome is a unique experience. It that combines views of land with a community of hikers, and deepens your respect for the valley. And maybe also for planet Earth.