In all of our visits to Yosemite National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1984, we somehow never did the hike up iconic, valley-dominating Half Dome. On our most recent visit to the park we remedied that and hit the trail to do one of the most iconic, and challenging, national park hikes in the US.
Hiking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park
After getting a campsite reservation and back country permits (required to climb up Half Dome) we decided to do the 16 mile (25 km) round trip hike from Yosemite Valley to the top of 8,836 foot (2,695 meter) high Half Dome and back in two hard days instead of one insane day. That meant a night of camping in Little Yosemite Valley just below the dome followed by an early morning trip up to the top of the rock, then back down all the way to the valley floor.
We got a later start than we’d hoped as we sat out some morning rain, but soon enough we were heading up a section of the John Muir Trail which climbs pretty steeply before reaching the top of Nevada Falls. Then we continued on to the Little Yosemite Valley back country campground.
It was damp and cold by the time we got our tent pitched but a communal campfire and some tasty freeze-dried Mountain House camp food warmed us up before we climbed into our sleeping bags with one ear cocked for the aggressive female bear that the camp site ranger warned us about when we arrived.
The next morning was clear and sunny and we got fantastic views from the trail during the hike up to the base of the final climb to the top of Half Dome. The last 400 feet (120 meters) of the ascent require walking up a nearly vertical granite rock face using massive steel cables to help pull yourself up—and keep us from falling off.
This is no joke. Hikers die during this final cable section of the Half Dome hike. These accidents often involve water on the rock face which causes climbers to slip and fall off. That’s why the cables are removed every Fall and put back up only when the weather dries out and conditions are safer.
Even in dry conditions this cable section is not for the squeamish and a few hikers seemed to be re-considering their need to get to the top. We, however, hadn’t climbed 5,000 feet (1,520 meters) up from the valley floor just to turn back without reaching the summit so we headed for the cables and started basically walking straight up a rock wall.
We reached the expansive top of Half Dome with sore pecs and triceps. This is one of the few hikes we can think of that works the upper body as well as the lower body thanks to all that hauling up the cables.
After resting a bit we headed back down Half Dome via the cables (it’s no easier on the way down) and back to Little Yosemite Valley campground where we quickly broke down camp, put on our packs (why do they never seem any lighter even after you’ve devoured most of the food that was originally packed into them?), and continued another three hours very steeply down the brutal granite terrain of the Mist Trail toward the valley floor.
Some sections of the so-called trail remind us of ancient Roman roads (only steeper) and the uneven, sole-beating, solid-granite conditions proved, yet again, that hiking downhill is often even harder than hiking uphill.
Then we got lost
Well, not really lost but poor signage at a cross roads sent us up the wrong trail briefly before we realized our mistake and backtracked to the cross roads. This unplanned detour ate up precious time and sunset was fast approaching. This is not the sort of trail that should be navigated in the dark so, despite our fatigue, we hustled.
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