Ten useful tips for hiking Half Dome

Sticking with the recurring hiking theme of my blog, Half Dome season is just around the corner. I thought I would share what I’ve learned from my two trips to help people that are thinking about doing tackling this hike in 2017.

For those of you who don’t know what Half Dome is, it’s the most iconic granite dome in California’s most frequented national park, Yosemite. Half Dome is great to look at from the valley below, but it provides an even better view of the national park if you are perched on its peak 5,000 feet above the valley floor.

Half Dome is a must for any avid hiker. However, it can also be summited by those who may have less experience but loads of motivation. If you are lacking the experience and motivation, you might want to try an easier hike.

My second time around at Half Dome I was much better prepared from what I had learned on the first hike. Here are ten helpful tips for those of you who are looking to give Half Dome a shot this season*.

1. Bring Gloves

This is a must. The final stretch of the hike involves ascending 400+ feet on cables. While people falling off the cables is very rare at Half Dome, you’ll be glad you have a good grip on those cables when you are staring down into Yosemite Valley 5,000 feet below.

It seems obvious, but bring gloves with grip on them, not gloves that are just meant to keep your hands warm. There are a pile of used gloves at the bottom, but who knows where those gloves have been or how good they are. Bring your own.

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At the base of the cables looking up.
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Top of the cables looking down.
2. Bring good shoes

For the same reason that you should bring gloves with grip, make sure you have good shoes with grip. I’ve done the cables with worn shoes and new shoes, and it makes all the difference.

Walking on granite typically provides some natural traction due to it’s rough surface, but this trail has been worn from the millions of times it has been walked on. The granite is smooth like marble and even with good tread you will find it hard to get a grip at times.

3. Less water is more

The first time I did this hike I packed all my water for the whole day (4 liters) and realized that it wasn’t necessary. At about the half way point in Little Yosemite Valley you have an opportunity to fill up in the river before you ascend towards half dome. My advice is to bring a water filter and half the amount of water that you estimate you would need for the entire trip. You can refill in Little Yosemite Valley on your way up and your way down. Your back and shoulders will thank you.

I indicated on the map where the last water source is.

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4. Start early

This should go without saying, but plan accordingly so you can make it back to your car before the sun sets. The hike will take you 10-14 hours depending on your group’s speed and crowds on the trail/cables. The last thing you want to do is hike the steep stairs of the Mist Trail in the dark. That said, bring a flashlight in case you do wind up in that situation.

5. Apply for your permit

In 2012 Yosemite switched over to a lottery system in order to get a permit to hike the cables. In the past no permit was needed which caused extreme delays on the cables. You can enter the lottery here and you must apply before April 1. It only costs $4.50 to enter the lottery, so hell, enter it for fun. If you win the lottery and don’t end up going you will have no problem finding someone else who wants to go. Supposedly the chances of getting the permit are better if you request a small group on week days. Then again, I won the lottery requesting a Saturday with a group of 6, so do whatever your heart desires. If you like statistics, see this page dedicated to the Half Dome lottery.

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This graph shows the days that people applied for in 2015. Week days are your best chance. 

There will be a park ranger with a little computer-thingy at the sub dome (we’ll get there) checking your permits. You are supposed to have a photo ID to match the name on the permit, but the second time I went it was with a friend’s permit who wasn’t there and they luckily didn’t ask for ID. Bring it anyway.

6. Be prepared for the sub dome

Hardest part of the hike? Forget the cables, be ready for the sub dome. Before you get to the cables you have to scale the sub dome which is a larger ascent than the cables and nearly as steep with zero shade. It gets you nice and winded right before you start the cables. Nothing to do really, just be prepared mentally and physically. The sub dome has stairs, so there is no cable climbing.

See the map under point 3 to see the location of the sub dome.

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Looking straight on at the sub dome. From this angle it looks like a seamless part of Half Dome but it protrudes from the side of it.
7. For those of you that are afraid of heights, bring a harness

If you are afraid of heights, bring a harness and carabiners. While it may slow you down a bit, being secured to the cables will give you a sense of safety. I saw a few people utilizing this technique and some quite efficiently. 99% of people don’t use a harness and are fine, so if you are not afraid of heights I wouldn’t recommend the extra weight in your pack.

8. Bring a poncho for the Mist Trail

Bring a poncho, not a rain jacket. Why not a rain jacket? Because it is heavier and bulkier and you are only going to want it for 5-10 minutes of the hike. If you are hiking in early summer (especially with the snow pack we got this year) you will discover how the Mist Trail got its name. It’s going to be misting on you very hard. While getting wet may not seem like a big deal, don’t forget that you still have 16ish miles ahead of you and walking with wet clothes can cause rashes and chafing.

If you are hiking later in the summer the Mist Trail probably won’t be very wet if at all.

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Mist Trail in June.
9. Scenic Detour – JMT

Assuming that you are taking the most traveled route to Half Dome via the Mist Trail, there is a nice detour that you can take on the way down to give you a change of scenery. When you get to Nevada Fall, instead of continuing down on the Mist Trail like when you hiked up, cross the river and take the John Muir Trail (JMT) back down. This will add a mile or two onto the hike, but it is also easier on your knees since it is a trail with switchbacks as opposed to the staircase of the Mist Trail. I labeled it on the map under point 3.

You get these awesome views of Nevada and Vernal falls that you wouldn’t get otherwise.

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Nevada Fall on the right and the back of Half Dome on the left.
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Vernal Fall.
10. For last minute camping: Camp 4

If you are only planning to go to Yosemite to hike Half Dome, by the time you know that you got the permit it’s probably too late to book any camping in Yosemite Valley. At this point you will probably have to book something further outside of the valley and even that fills up fast. If you get lucky and find an opening, snag it, but if you don’t, look into Camp 4.

Camp 4 is a no reservation, day of only camp site located in Yosemite Valley just below El Capitan. Its location is ideal, only a 10-15 minute drive to the Half Dome parking lot and it’s within walking distance of key park attractions such as Yosemite Falls. The catch is that it’s crowded and noisy.

At Camp 4, only the early birds catch the worm, and there are a lot of early birds, so I would recommend getting there no later than 6am. Bring a camping chair and a book because you will be waiting in line until 8:30am when they assign people to the open camp sites on a first come first serve basis. Camping is $6 per person per night. Not too shabby.

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They call this spot the diving board, as it precariously hangs over the sheer face of Half Dome.
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One of the views you will be rewarded with upon reaching the top.

I hope this helps get those of you get prepared that want to hike Half Dome this year. Don’t hesitate to ask more questions in the comments!

*Cables are on Half Dome year long, but they are raised with incremental supports (as seen in my photos) from May 26, 2017 through October 10, 2017, depending on conditions.

All photos belong to Evan Quarnstrom.

One thought on “Ten useful tips for hiking Half Dome

  1. And, the most-important tip, Number 11: DON’T CLIMB DURING A ELEC TRICAL STORM and ESPECIALLY DON’T GRAB THOSE CABLES WHEN THERE’S LIGHTNING STRIKING AROUND YOU! (from someone who loves Yosemite but has never climbed Half Dome, preferring instead to getting a room at the Ahwahnee Hotel!

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