Hiking Half Dome – All You Need to Know for This Incredible Adventure

The elusive Half Dome. When you think of Yosemite, you think of the scenic Tunnel View photo that has Half Dome tucked away in the distance. The sheer size of it and its unique shape make it hard to miss. Now imagine yourself on top of it. Yosemite Valley (where the trail head to Half Dome is located) is located about 4 hours from San Francisco and 5 hours from Reno. If you’ve ever thought about hiking Half Dome keep reading for all my exclusive tips.

The Lottery

To regulate the amount of traffic going up the Half Dome Cables, the National Park requires a permit and have imposed a “lottery” system. Basically, you give the park a time frame you would like to hike and how many people will be in your party – up to 6 people. They will then randomly select names to hike on the dates requested. If you give the park a broad window, like any time after June 10th, your chances of being selected will be greater than if your window is say only weekends in June. Lottery winners are contacted around late March. If you didn’t get the date you were hoping for in the pre-season lottery, you can apply for the daily lottery. The park reserves about 50 permits that people can apply for 48-hours before the day they would like to hike. Note: These permits allow you to hike to Half Dome in one day. If you would like to spend the night on the John Muir Trail, that is a different permit system and information can be found here.

Where to Stay

Reservations for Yosemite open up 6-months in advance. Permits are announced in late March, so unless you plan on going sometime in late September, chances are a lot of the sites have already filled up. The park does offer some first comes first serve sites, but make sure you get there early! Especially if hiking on a weekend. The campgrounds in the Valley will fill up the quickest, but there are other options nearby like Hodgdon Meadows or Crane Flat. I stayed at Hodgdon Meadows, and it was about a 45-min drive to the Valley. You can also stay in the town of Mariposa, or at campgrounds just outside the park. Keep checking Yosemite’s reservation system for any cancellations you might be able to swoop in on. We were there three nights, and because of a cancellation, I was able to get us one night in the Valley.

Hammock Hangs
How to Prep

Go on long walks. And walk a lot of stairs. According to my Fit-bit, we walked 23 miles in 13 hours. The elevation gain for Half Dome is about 5,000 feet. I think any sort of long endurance exercise will help you with this hike whether it’s running, biking, walking or hiking. I hiked a lot around Lake Tahoe to prep for Half Dome.

What to Expect the Day Of

Get an early start! I suggest starting before 6 am, if the hike takes you 12 hours, you won’t be finished until 6 pm! And you don’t want to get caught on that trail after dark. At the trail head, and even during the start of the hike, you will see a lot of “warning” signs about how much water is necessary for this hike. Please heed these warnings! The parks suggest a gallon of water for Half Dome. While there is no potable water along the trail, there are creeks and rivers. My group did not heed the water warning and a few of us were nearly out of water by the time we reached the top of Nevada Falls (one of the boys did have a loose valve on his bladder). Luckily for them, I brought my water filter, so we were able to resupply.

Bring lots of food and snacks. Protein and a little bit of sugar will help your body tremendously. Remember, you’ll be on the trail for about 12 hours! After the hike, head into Half Dome Village for some much-earned pizza! A lot of the hike is protected in the trees, but once you get out onto the granite and near the cables, you are fully exposed to the brutal sun. Bring appropriate head-wear, sunglasses and sunscreen. You’ll need a good pair of sturdy and well-broken-in shoes for this hike. I recommend a pair of good hiking boots or at the least a pair of good trail runners. When you are climbing up the cables, you’ll be thankful for shoes with a little extra traction on the bottom. Also, bring a pair of gloves for the cables. There were some gloves that had been left behind up there, but I’m not sure how often Yosemite cleans them up.

Nevada Falls
The Cables

The infamous Half Dome Cables. After bouldering up Sub Dome, you’ll walk on a large granite flat surface to what looks like a rock bridge, and on the other side of that bridge is the cables. I’ll be honest, I was a little freaked. One of the group members decided not to ascend up the cables and waited for us at the bottom. I think that is important to point out. Please only ascend up the cables if you feel comfortable. People are going up and down the cables at the same time. They are anchored into the rock along with wooden planks that you can use as “steps.” I use that term loosely because they are spaced over 5 feet apart. You’ll see the different tactics that people use to get up the cables, try a few and find one that fits you. The cables are about 400 feet long and everyone you meet is super encouraging. I do want to note, that if it is raining or you see lightening, do not go up the cables. The granite becomes slick in the rain, and Half Dome is a magnet for lightning strikes.

You’ll be so pumped and full of adrenaline when you get to the top. The view is absolutely incredible and you really feel like you’re on top of the world. Take lots of pictures, relax a little and soak it all in because hiking Half Dome is no easy feat!

I felt extremely lucky that we were even able to hike Half Dome because the Valley had been closed due to the Ferguson Fire until the day before our hike! So to honor all the brave fire fighters who made our hike possible we took a shot – once we had descended down the cables and Sub Dome. So that is what I’d like you to do, take a shot, take a drink and cheers to the fearless firefighters who are out there risking their lives to protect our National Parks.  Until next time….