Hiking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

Over the weekend, Robin and I traveled with a group of friends (most of whom I know through Krav Maga) to Yosemite National Park here in California to hike Half Dome. I had done some research so I knew it was going to be a tough hike, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. What follows is as much detail as I can remember from the trip, for my information as well as yours. It looks like this guy hiked the exact same route that we took (updated Half Dome guide from EveryTrail!), although he did it while there was still some snow around.

Total distance: Approx 16 miles, Elevation gain: 4,796 feet, Round trip: 13.5 hours

Half Dome, Yosemite

Tony borrowed his girlfriend’s car and came to pick up Robin and I on Friday morning around 8:30. Rick was already in the car so we threw our things in then headed to pick up Courtney. Once we were all in, we rolled over to Safeway to pick up some last minute bits and pieces and then hit the road, headed for Yosemite. Once we found Yosemite View Lodge, we checked in and then went back down the road to Cedar Lodge Restaurant for some lunch. After that we went on a recon mission to the valley floor where we picked up a 7-day pass for the car ($20) and checked out parking etc so that we knew where we’d be going the next morning. The plan was to hit the trail early, so we didn’t want to be driving/walking around looking for it in the dark.

Once we had a decent idea of where things were, we headed back to our room/cabin thing and got our stuff all unpacked and settled, then headed down to the pool for a dip to cool down. That night we grilled up some burgers for dinner and sat around chatting and generally getting excited for the next day. After some discussion we decided to set alarms for 2:45 am (seriously) so that we could get a good start and hopefully beat the crowds to the cables in the morning. With that plan in motion, we got to bed early to try to get some sleep. Wendy and Bo arrived later (after leaving San Francisco once Bo had finished work), so they got themselves settled and sorted out ready to get up with us in the morning.

When 2:45 rolled around, I think I may have slept about 3 hours total. I was too excited and too nervous about missing my alarm to really get any sleep. We jumped up, powered through some breakfast and coffee, loaded up then headed out. Roads were dead at that hour, but “Speeding Kills Bears” so we just got there and went to find parking. We freaked out, thinking there were already hundreds of cars parked and people hiking, but I’m pretty sure we accidentally parked in the parking lot for the camp grounds. So much for our recon mission. From there, we proceeded to get a little lost finding the trail head (good start!) but by 4:45, we’d found the trailhead and started our hike.

Half Dome, Yosemite

Not far in, Tony decided that he didn’t actually need to be carrying 2 full bladders of water, so he stopped to offload one. He was also carrying a water filter, so it was no big deal to get rid of a bladder-full now, since he could fill up again later. We pushed on and made it to the first restroom where we took a quick toilet break, re-configured our bags as needed then headed on up the Mist Trail.

Early in the morning, the Mist Trail was incredibly beautiful. There was a fine mist coming from the waterfall, and in our headlamps it almost looked like snow. The steps were a little slippery, and we definitely worked up a sweat making the ascent, but it was well worth it. Once we topped Vernal Falls, we had an impressive, pre-dawn view back over the valley we’d just climbed out from.

Half Dome, Yosemite

From there, we pushed on up, heading towards Nevada Falls. Somehow, we managed to lose Courtney, Bo and Wendy at the bridge just above Vernal Falls. After waiting around for a while, we got worried so Rick and Tony went back to find them, then eventually it turned out they’d gone the wrong way, but ended up on the trail, right ahead of us anyway. We regrouped and pushed on up the really steep stairs that lead up to Nevada Falls, where we stopped to regroup, snack and get a group picture. This entire section felt like nothing but stone stairs, which is pretty much what it was.

Half Dome, Yosemite

Just after Nevada Falls, we got into Little Yosemite Valley territory and the trail levels out quite a bit and the surroundings changed into a beautiful, lush forest. It becomes a really nice, flat trail that’s easy to cover some distance on (especially with long legs!). After passing the Summer only Ranger’s hut, you hit your next up-hill section, and it basically doesn’t stop from there until the top. It’s a long, steady climb uphill for what feels like forever. By this point Robin, Rick, Tony and I had pushed ahead and left Courtney, Wendy and Bo to make it at their own pace. We left them with a walkie-talkie and checked in from time to time to see where they were up to.

When we thought we were getting close, we hit (what we thought was) a steep section, and pushed up to some amazing views back out over what I guess would have been Little Yosemite Valley. From there you take a relatively flat trail over the spine, heading towards the base of quarter dome. The terrain changes to very rocky and dusty again, and then you hit the actual base of quarter dome which, as I said at the time, is where “shit gets real”.

Half Dome, Yosemite Half Dome, Yosemite

We stopped here and radioed back to find out that Courtney had pushed ahead and was catching up, so we snacked, rested and waited for her to catch up. She met us at the bottom of quarter dome and we all got ready to ascend the brutal stone steps that awaited us. Somewhere between the bottom and top of quarter dome, I tweaked my knee and it started getting a little sore. I’ve never had any trouble with my knees, so I guess it didn’t sink in how serious that might be, so I just pushed on and made it to the top of quarter dome. This section was probably the hardest of all — switchback after switchback of brutally steep, carved-into-the-granite-rockface stairs in the full morning sun (around 9:30 – 10 am) with no cover except the occasional tree here and there.

Half Dome, Yosemite

Once we made it to the base of Half Dome itself, we rested again, snacked, then prepped ourselves for the real deal – ascending the cables. This is where Tony made the comment “I must admit, I’m a little apprehensive”. Understatement of the day, and I think everyone was feeling something similar. A little way up, I spotted a yellow rubber chicken out on the face of the dome to the left. It gave us a bit of a laugh and lightened the otherwise tense and serious mood. After getting off to a slow start on the ascent, Rick started getting some severe cramps. He didn’t have a water bladder in his bag (only water bottles) and hadn’t been drinking as we were climbing, and I think that was getting to him. He was right ahead of Robin, so she climbed up and gave him some water, then she went ahead and I came up and gave him some as well, since I had more left. Slowly but surely, we made it to the top and the glorious views that awaited us.

Half Dome, Yosemite Half Dome, Yosemite

At the top we lounged around, ate, drank more water, took our shoes off for a while and changed our socks. We were up there for so long that Wendy and Bo even made it up and we got to say hi to them again before we left. Tony cooked up a complete (dehydrated) meal using a JetBoil, which I was very impressed with. It boiled 2 cups of water in literally about 90 seconds. Once we were rested and had chilled out for a while, we took some photos over at the “lip” and then grabbed our gear to make the long haul home again.

Half Dome, Yosemite Half Dome, Yosemite

As soon as we hit the top of the cables, everyone stopped. According to the very slow trickle of people making it up, there was a group of people going down who were clipped in on both sides of the cables. That meant no one could go up or down until they unclipped to get over a post (or to let someone pass). We sat at the top of the cables for around 30 minutes until things started really moving, and then we got off to a decent pace towards the bottom. At the bottom we re-grouped, snacked, hydrated then started the descent down quarter dome. My knee was really starting to feel horrible at this point and hurt every time I had to bend it. I knew it wasn’t going to be fun on all the stone stairs to come, so I taped it up with some athletic tape and gritted my teeth.

For me, the return trip was going to be one, long, painful hobble. My knee got worse, to the point that I tried to avoid bending it wherever possible. I was literally hopping at some points, or swinging my leg out to the side rather than bending it in a normal walk. Down at the natural spring, we stopped and used Tony’s (MSR MiniWorks EX) water filter to fill up some of our water bottles then pushed on. I dosed up a couple of times on Tylenol to keep the pain down, but avoided Ibuprofen due to a previous bad experience where it made me vomit during strenuous activity (on an empty stomach).

When the trail went back near the Merced River, Rick and I dipped our hats and dumped it on our heads to cool off, then proceeded back down to the top of Nevada Falls. There we decided that we were going to take the longer, but less difficult John Muir Trail, rather than the Mist Trail we’d taken on the way up. In hindsight, I really don’t know if I’d have made it down the Mist Trail with my knee in the shape it was in, those stairs would have been the end of me.

A long, slow, painful descent down the John Muir Trail was punctuated by some amazing views back over the valley at Liberty Peak, Half Dome itself and Nevada Falls once we were around far enough. About a mile into that section of the trail Tony and Courtney got a second wind and took off ahead of us at an impressive clip which I definitely wasn’t able to keep up with. Rick, Robin and I trudged along at our own pace, stopping regularly (mostly for my benefit, although Robin’s knees started playing up towards the bottom as well). Right near the end of the trail, after swearing multiple times that we must be right at the end already, Rick forged ahead of us and got down to the trailhead in time to sit and rest before we got there.

Half Dome, Yosemite

Finally, 13.5 hours after we’d started our hike, we made it back to the trailhead and turned to locate the car. At that moment an angel in the form of Tony and Courtney in the CRV descended right to us and picked us up a few yards from the trailhead, which was lucky, because I was struggling to walk! We braved the traffic to get back to the cabin, with Robin and Courtney both falling asleep during the 40 minute drive home. As soon as we got there, Tony, Rick and I headed to the hot tub and pool to relax and soothe our sore muscles. A few hours later, just before dark and after we’d considered actually going back to the trail to make sure they were OK, Wendy and Bo rolled back to the cabin and were all cheery and absolutely fine. It was a long, long day, but we are all now proud to say that we’ve hiked and summited Half Dome!

My Gear List

Beau’s Tips for Half Dome

  • Start early, the cables are mayhem by around 10:30am, so you want to get there before that.
  • Take LOTS of water. You’re likely to need 4+ litres for the round trip.
  • Carry a filter or purification tablets, fill up at the natural spring, which if you’re coming downhill is right behind a big fallen tree, on your right, a couple miles down from Half Dome.
  • Cut your toenails to avoid them bashing in your boots.
  • Take some Ibuprofen or something in case you get sore knees/legs/feet/head/whatever.
  • Wear appropriate shoes/boots. I saw people in everything from loafers to flip-flops, and wanted to shake some sense into most of them.
  • If there’s a remote chance that you might have knee troubles, take a knee brace, and maybe hiking poles as well.
  • Take food. Seriously, I saw people who clearly weren’t carrying anything. Even if it’s just some Cliff Bars, take SOMETHING.
  • Wear good, thick socks, and take at least one spare pair. You won’t believe how amazingly good it feels to change socks at the top before making the return hike.

You can also view the rest of my (good) photos from the trip.

  1. Hank said:

    Thanks for the great information, I am considering this hike next summer while I still maybe able to do it, at 52 years of age.

    • Beau Lebens said:

      If you're in decent shape, I say absolutely go for it. Take plenty of
      water (and preferably a filter), start as early as possible and just
      do it. Take it easy, don't try to go too fast, and remember that you
      can always turn back if you're at all concerned about time/fitness
      etc. If nothing else, it's a beautiful hike, so make sure you enjoy
      it, regardless of whether you get to the top or not!

  2. Hannah said:

    Thanks for such a detailed description and list of what to bring of ur trip! i was searching around trying to get some good advice and what to prepare for this August trip to HD. I also own a pair of keen targhee boots and is wondering how good the traction of the sole for the 400 ft ascent/descent of the dome's cables enough?. Did you slip? I'm a klutz and have a fear of heights. I want to conquer the dome w/o worrying about the traction. Any feedback will be appreciated. thanks in advance.

    • Beau Lebens said:

      They were fine, but to be honest everyone slipped at least a little bit, regardless of what shoes they were wearing. That's what the cables are for ๐Ÿ˜‰ Once you get there you're realize that there's no way on earth you'd be getting up there without the cables, and they're super-strong. You basically drag yourself up by the cables ๐Ÿ™‚ Have a great time, it really a wonderful experience!

Comments are closed.