Towering over Yosemite Valley at 5,000 feet, Half Dome is one of the most iconic spots in all of Yosemite National Park. Hikers and climbers travel from all lover to get to the top of this magnificent mountain. With a sheer face on one side and three rounded faces on the others, it’s truly a remarkable rock formation. Hiking Half Dome is one of the most challenging and rewarding treks that you will ever do!
Despite going on hundreds of hikes throughout the country, none have compared to this trek. It is by far my favorite trek that I have ever been on, but I’ve also never been more exhausted or sore in my life. Read below my comprehensive guide to hiking Half Dome. It includes what paths to take to the summit, how to get reservations, what to bring, and how to prepare.
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Table of Contents
Hiking Half Dome Details
Hike Quick Facts
- Length: 15-17 miles
- Difficulty: Extremely challenging
- Elevation: 5,012 feet
- Type: Out and Back
- Permit Required for this hike!
Half Dome Trail Description
There are multiple ways to reach the top of Half Dome, but I’m going to tell you about the route that I suggest taking. If you take this route, you will start on the Mist Trail, continue up towards Half Dome, and then you will take the John Muir Trail on the way down. In total this route is about 17.2 ish miles, which is longer but easier on your knees.
In order to reach the trailhead, you’ll need to park near the Happy Isles Trailhead area or at Curry Village, which is a mile from the trailhead. From there, you will walk a short distance on the road before getting to the Mist Trail starting point. This hike alone is considered challenging, but this is just one portion of your climb up to the top of Half Dome.
Often considered one of the very best hikes in the park, this path is incredibly scenic as it climbs 2,000 feet up and passes multiple water features. You’ll start climbing up on a paved route until you make your way to stone steps and a footbridge that has a great view of Vernal Falls. You can stop for a restroom or a drink of water at the water fountain. From there, you’ll continue walking on steps next to the falls.
Note: Vernal Falls can be voluminous at various parts of the year and you may get soaked by the mist as you ascend the steep stairwell. So, put your camera away!
From there, you will make your way over the falls and you’ll pass by Emerald pool, with a great vista of the valley behind it. Stop for a photo and then continue making your way up towards Nevada Falls. The path continues up and up until you finally reach the spot above the falls, this is where the John Muir Trail and the Mist Trail meet up. Past the falls you will find another restroom and a bench to sit on for a respite.
Little Yosemite Valley Campground
Continue on past the Falls and along the river for about a mile through a clearing before you reach the Little Yosemite Valley Campground. This is where some hikers manage to stay the night and shorten their day hike. After the campground, you will enter the woods where you have to climb for a mile along steep switchbacks. Once you’ve reached the 7 mile point, you will finally get to a clearing that has views of Half Dome and the valley behind. This means that you are getting very close to the top!
Continue on the steep trail until you see another clearing with some trees around you. Here, you should see a ranger waiting to greet hikers and check their permits. The ranger will let you know important things about the half dome hike and they will also warn you that it’s the last chance to use the restroom where there is coverage on the trail.
Once you have checked in with the ranger, continue past them onto the steep steps of Sub Dome. Sub Dome is a series of steep stone steps that wind their way along the mountainside to make switchbacks. There are no railings and the steps are not always even. It can be a bit scary for people who do not like heights, so take your time and progress slowly. If you can, try to look up at the beautiful views that surround you on all sides of the Valley and the mountains.
Once you get to the base of Half Dome you are almost at the top! You should already feel very accomplished, so take a minute to take it all in. From this point, you can see the path of the chains up the mountain and you will probably see people climbing up or down them. If you plan on climbing up the chains then this is a good point to put away all of your loose belongings and put on a pair of grippy gloves. After everything is away, you can start climbing up.
Half Dome Chains
The chain section of Half Dome is very steep, but the chains are there to help guide you up the last 400 feet. Make sure as you are climbing that you have a good grip on the chains and that you always have one hand on them. Every 50 feet or so you will see a wooden slat, which are there to help your footing. These are the best areas to take a quick breather before moving further up the chains or to let someone pass you as they are coming down.
At the top of the chains, you will probably feel as if you don’t need to hold on as tightly, because it begins to flatten out. Walk past the chained section and you will just need to climb up a few more feet to reach the summit of Half Dome. At the top, you will be greeted with 360 degree views over Yosemite National Park with views of the Valley and Glacier Point. It’s one of the most incredible panoramas and there is no better feeling than reaching this point! You have come so far!
Summit Of Half Dome
At the top of Half Dome, there is plenty of space to find a rock and eat lunch or take amazing photos. You can even take photos at “the diving board,” which is a rocky ledge that protrudes off of the mountain. It is a little wider than it looks in photos, but if you are scared of heights you may want to stick to solid ground! Make sure to take time to soak it all in and take a break. You still have to make it back to the bottom, which is about 8 or 9 miles away.
On the way down the cables I recommend climbing down it like a ladder. So, you want to face the mountain and walk backwards down the chains. This provides a lot more sturdiness than if you walked facing outwards. Going backwards down the chains should make the journey down go a lot quicker than the journey up did, unless there’s a lot of traffic! Once you’ve reached the bottom of half dome, it’s time to continue your descent.
John Muir Trail
Head back down the way you came until you get to the top of Nevada Falls. From this point, you can choose to either take the shorter, steeper Mist Trail or take the longer John Muir Trail to the bottom. The John Muir Trail is much easier on your legs and you will see new vistas.
The journey back goes a lot quicker than the journey to the top and you will have the chance to stop and admire the views. Try to take it all in and congratulate yourself on a very hard hike. Your feet may start hurting as you get towards the end of the trail. However, you will be back at your car soon and you can reward yourself with an ice cream cone and rest.
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How to Get a Permit
Getting a permit to hike Half Dome is like winning the lottery. You will need to obtain a permit to hike this when the chains are up. This is typically from Memorial Day Weekend to the end of Indigenous Peoples Day. Chances are very slim as thousands of people apply for only 300 slots a day! You have a couple of attempts to win the permits and the more flexible you are the better chances you have.
Advance Lottery System
In order to get the permits, you will need to go to recreation.gov and pay the $2 fee. There are two opportunities to win the permits, one during the pre-season lottery and on a couple days before. The pre-season lottery is open during the month of March and results are announced in April. You can apply for up to four different date ranges and up to six people in your group. Permits are $10 per person.
TIP: Apply for week days or in the late Fall for better chances of winning a permit!
Last Minute Lottery System
Then, if you don’t win a pre-season lottery permit, you can apply for the permits two days in advance. Permit applications open at midnight two days in advance and they close at 4 pm Pacific Time. Again, you can apply for up to six people in your group. Results are announced late on the same day that you apply. My group was one of the lucky few to have lost the pre-season lottery, but win the last minute one! Although, this meant we had a lot less time to mentally and physically prepare for the hike.
If you are determined to do the hike, but you don’t win a permit, you have one more chance! You can try and just take the odds of people having extra permits at the top of the hike. The ranger who checks permits will take donations from hikers were extra permits. Then, they will then give them to people that do not have them. When we went, everyone who waited for one ended up getting one, but one person waited over an hour and a half. On crowded weekend days, you may not be as lucky, but you can always try!
Gear That You Need to Bring
Even though I have been on many hikes, prepping for Half Dome seemed more challenging. Hiking Half Dome in a day is an arduous journey and you need to prepare. You can find a comprehensive list of all the things you will need for this trek up the mountain.
🥾 Good hiking boots or trail runners – You will need shoes that you have already broken in, because this hike takes a toll on your feet!
🧦 Hiking socks – Again, you will need good merino wool socks to protect your feet from blisters during your trek.
🧥 Light jacket – Make sure to pack a light waterproof jacket so that you are prepared for all weather and rain.
👚 Base Layer– I always recommend bringing a base layer for any type of hiking. It is great at keeping in the heat and keeping out the cold.
🩳 Hiking pants, leggings, or shorts– Depending on the weather, you can choose the layer that is right for you. I chose to bring hiking pants that have the ability to zip off and become shorts in case it got hot.
🕶 Sunglasses – You will need eye protection for a long time outside in the sun.
🧢 Hat– Similarly, you will want to protect both your eyes and your skin. Get a hat with a lot of coverage for the hike.
Tip: Bring plenty of layers, the weather changes as time passes!
🧴 Sunscreen – Wear plenty of sun protection! The sun gets really strong on the mountain and I recommend putting on sunscreen multiple times.
🦟 Bug Spray– The woods get very buggy, so you will want to bring some bug spray to put on.
🔦 Headlamp– This hike can take 12 hours and you will often either start or end in the dark. Bring a headlamp so you can light your way.
🧤 Grippy Gloves – If you have climbing gloves, then that’s great. However, you can just bring a pair of gardening or mechanics gloves. They will get you to the top of Half Dome with no problem.
🏃♀️ Hiking Poles– It’s a very steep hike, so hiking poles will help save your knees as you climb.
🤕 First-Aid Kit – Never go on a hike without taking a first aid kit! You will never know when you’re going to need it.
Food & Water
🥪Protein filled food– I recommend bringing at least two sandwiches for this hike with protein in them. You will need plenty of fuel as you’re burning lots of calories.
🥜 Snacks– Again, you will need salty and sweet snacks to propel you up the mountain. Some of my favorite trail snacks include trail mix, protein bars, dried fruit, go go squeezes, and beef jerky.
🚰 4 Liters of Water – Park rangers recommend bringing 4 liters of water per person. I actually only ended up drinking 3 or so liters, but it’s better to have more than less. We also packed electrolyte packets to have just in case we needed them.
💦 Water filtration system – If you don’t have enough room in your pack for 4 liters of water, then will need to filter water. Use one of these systems to fill up your water at the river before continuing on.
How to Prepare for the Half Dome Hike
Hiking Half Dome is a very challenging hike and one that should not be taken lightly. If you win permits months in advance, then you can start preparing early. Below are some exercises and tips for you to get ready to complete the trek.
How to Prepare for the Half Dome Hike:
- Go on the stair master for extended periods of time. Continue to increase your time as you get closer to the hike.
- Get to the valley a couple days before your hike to acclimate to the elevation.
- Complete arm exercises to increase arm strength, because you will need to pull yourself up on the cables.
- Get in general fit shape so that you will be ready to walk for a long period of time!
Things to Know Before You Go
💵 Yosemite National Park has a $30 fee per vehicle to enter. You can use one of the park passes like the America the Beautiful Pass to get in.
🚗 Yosemite requires reservations to drive through the park in the peak season from 6 am to 4 pm. If you have a reservation for a campground or for Half Dome you do not need a car ticket.
☀️ Weather can change rapidly at the Half Dome summit and you should not hike the cables in rainy weather. The surface gets very slippery and hard to grip onto. Make sure that you stay updated and that you take the proper precautions.
⛺️ You can camp overnight at the Little Yosemite Valley Campground to split your hike up. Although you will also need to get a reservation and permit ahead of time.
🍃 Remember to follow the Leave No Trace Principles. As always, you want to leave nature looking better than you found it.
Hiking Half Dome is one of the most challenging and rewarding hikes that you can complete. There’s nothing like standing on the top of the Dome with 360 degree views of Yosemite all around you. I wish you the best of luck on this amazing trek!
Let me know in the comments if you found this guide to Half Dome helpful!
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