Yosemite is home to some of the best hiking and climbing in the United States. While there are many options, Half Dome stands out as the most popular day hike due to the infamous cables.

Half Dome

Half Dome has become so popular in recent years that the park service has had to cap the amount of hikers at 300 per day. In order to hike, you must first get a permit. Visit www.recreation.gov in March for the preseason lottery, and you’ll hopefully receive a permit in mid-April.

As I wasn’t lucky, I arrived in Yosemite without one. Happily, there are around 50 permits every day for the daily lottery. Apply for a permit before the 1:00pm cutoff two days before your hiking date, and you’ll be told if you won the same night. The National Park Service states that the average success rate on weekdays is 56% and 31% on weekends, so it’s preferable to get your permit preseason, or allow for multiple weekday chances.

Photo by Cliff Stone Flickr.com
Photo by Cliff Stone Flickr.com

If you are very courageous and unlucky with permits, you might do the seven to eight mile hike in and take a chance – the ranger at the cable trailhead checking permits let a family use one of my party’s unused permits.

To get to the trailhead, either drive to the trailhead parking lot (past the “Closed to all but authorized vehicles” sign) or walk from Upper, Lower, or North Pines Campgrounds.

Seeking to avoid crowds and the possible afternoon thunderstorms, we started hiking at 3am (try and leave by 7am at the latest), taking the shorter Mist Trail. The first two and a half hours were shrouded in the dark of the Yosemite night, with nothing but the bounce of our cheerful headlights to lead us on.

It begins quite strenuously, up winding rock stairways that must have been placed with a Herculean effort. As you hike, be sure to note the last fountain, only 0.8 miles into the trail.

After climbing towers of stairs, the trail evens out – allowing a few miles to catch your breath and wonder at the brush and scruffy, then larger, trees. At the end of the flat section lies Little Yosemite Valley Campground. To beat crowds and shorten your day hike, you could camp here. It’s also noteworthy as it is the last toilet along the way.

Yosemite ValleyFrom this landmark, the trail weaves and wanders toward the backside of Half Dome, up a steadily-gaining trail until finally you reach open views. Climb the last moderate grade to reach the foot of Half Dome. Here, a ranger greeted my party and entered our name into a device to check us in (making permits necessary).

From this point the hike becomes extreme. Stone stairs are haphazardly cut into the rock to give you purchase on the steep, exposed face. As we zigged and zagged up the dizzying heights, we stopped frequently to take in the gorgeous valley views (and huff!). Near the end of the rock the trail becomes less of a groomed stairway and more of a scramble until it peters out completely. Head upward, and you’ll find the trail again.

At the top of the stairs, you are greeted with your first view of the cable. It was much steeper and higher than I anticipated – and thrilling! The rock, smooth and slick, seems to want to take you off its face. The cables are thick steel, but a single slip can easily take a hiker’s life. Bring your own gloves that grip on metal, and pack them out. My nerves nearly got the best of me when my gloves began to slip in the middle of the long, arduous climb.

The SummitThe top is an enormous flat surface. There is an outcropping of rock that is ideal for taking epic pictures, so be sure to take your own! And remember, at the slightest sign of lightening or rain, hightail it out of there.

Photo by Sathish J Flickr.com
Photo by Sathish J Flickr.com

We came back down the cable path, past the ranger, and made our way down to the Little Yosemite Valley Campground. Past the campground lies the Merced River, which is an ideal stopping place for sore feet. 

Branching left toward the John Muir Trail, instead of right toward the Mist Trail that we climbed up, we tacked on a mile to our hike, but lost elevation at a rate that our knees could handle. If you have great knees, I’d suggest taking on the steep and shorter Mist Trail — you’ll be rewarded with stunning waterfalls throughout.

The seemingly endless switchbacks of the John Muir Trail finally met up with the Mist Trail at Vernal Fall.

When we arrived at camp, we were tired, but happy. It is certainly a hike worth taking.

Difficulty: Strenuous

Length: 14 to 16 miles, roundtrip

Elevation Gain: 4,800 feet

Highest Point: 8,836 feet

Permit Information: National Park Service

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