Hiking Half Dome is an incredible experience that any hiker who climbs to the top will never forget. Whether it’s the challenging climb up the cables, the uncertainty of the weather, the pure satisfaction of covering so many miles in one day, or the sheer beauty of Yosemite National Park, the epic hike will undoubtedly remain a highlight of your summer for years to come.
I hiked it four years ago with my dad and twin sister and we still talk about how amazing the experience was. I had come home to California after a couple of years living abroad and was nearly brought to tears as I stood atop Half Dome realizing that the beauty in front me existed in my own backyard.
As Shoestring Adventures gears up for the Yosemite Half Dome Backpacking Adventure, here are some tips on how to hike Half Dome.
Get Your Permit
In an effort to protect the wilderness, limit crowding, improve safety, and protect natural resources the National Park Service has implemented a permit system for Half Dome. The application period for the preseason lottery for day use permits (approximately 225 per day) is in March and one person can request a max of six permits. There are daily lotteries (approximately 50 permits per day) throughout the summer but you must have a flexible schedule since the permit date you apply for is only two days later. If you end up winning the lottery, don’t forget your permit on the day of the hike! There’s usually a ranger standing at the base of the cable section checking permits and IDs. Note that if you sign up for the Shoestring Adventures Half Dome trip, the permit is included.
I still remember the day my sister messaged my father and me to say we had won the Half Dome lottery. We had been trying for two years and were ecstatic to be part of an exclusive group of people lucky enough to have the opportunity to climb a famous California icon. At that point, we began planning our hike.
Plan Your Route
This epic day hike in Yosemite National Park isn’t simply a “walk in the park.” It’s not every day that you gain 4,800 feet in elevation or scale a granite surface to reach a peak. The route is between 14-16 miles round-trip, depending on which trail you take. The most popular Half Dome hike is via the Mist Trail which is approximately 14.2 miles. Another popular trail is the John Muir Trail. Take a map, you don’t want to take the wrong route on an already long day hike.
Time It Out
On average, people take 10-12 hours to complete the hike. To account for the possibility of weather changes, start out early. Many hikers hit the trail around sunrise or even earlier. It’s always a good idea to set a non-negotiable turnaround time sometime in the afternoon, regardless of whether or not you’ve reached the top. Swift weather changes are common and an epic hike can quickly become treacherous if a thunderstorm rolls in.
When the ranger checked our permit at the base of the dome, he looked at the sky and said we better hurry because it looked like the clouds were moving quickly and a storm might be coming. He wisely told us that if the temperature begins dropping or the wind picks up or changes direction we had to get off the rock. We had about 10 unforgettable minutes at the top before the wind changed and the temperature dropped; our signal to head down. We did the Mist Trail in less than 10 hours. Partly to stay ahead of the storm and partly because we like to trail run. Our regimented schedule of taking Gu Energy gel and drinking water helped.
Prepare physically by doing whatever you need to do to be able to hike 14-16 miles in one day with an elevation gain of 4,800 feet. You know your fitness level. Do some preparatory hikes to get in shape. Be sure to break in your hiking shoes by covering quite a bit of ground before attempting Half Dome.
Suggested Items to Bring
- Gloves – Bike gloves or full-cover gloves will help you grip the cables as you ascend and descend the rock face
- Hydration Pack – A hands-free hydration pack will be really handy but keep in mind that there’s only a water fountain at Vernal Fall Footbridge (about 1 mile from the trailhead) and the National Park Service suggests that you hike with 1 gallon of water
- Food – Pack plenty of snacks and a meal or two to eat on the trail
- Camera – Believe me, you’ll see some otherworldly sites and will want to capture the view
- Headlamp – Most likely you’ll be heading out just as the sunrises so you’ll need something to light the trail
- General Hiking Items – First aid kit and other items you always take with you on any hiking trip
- Check out this Recreation.gov site with more information about Half Dome permits
- The National Park Service’s Half Dome Day Hike page has practical information about the hike
- The Outbound Collective has published suggestions for physically preparing for Half Dome
- Select REI locations offer free Preparing for Half Dome classes
Grab your permit or join a group trip that already has a permit secured and hit the trail for a hike you’ll never forget!
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