Review: Half Dome Hike

So, today I wanted to recap a recent hike I went on with E. I found myself reading endless reviews of this hike online, so I hope that this helps someone. I also want to have this memory for me when I forget all the details in a month. Ha!

On September 4, 2015 I checked a daunting and challenging item off of my bucket list: hike the elusive Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

**At the end of this post I provide more logistical details, tips and links to my gear and information on where we stayed.**

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

Half Dome is 8,444 feet above sea level, but in reality you climb about 4,737 feet from the Yosemite Valley floor (since you are already well above sea level in Yosemite Valley!).

The day started bright and early with a 4:30am wake up call! We wanted to be on the trail by 5:30am at the latest to avoid crowds. It was cold and dark. We had some cold brew coffee that we chugged in the hotel room as well as a huge 1.5L bottle of water that we drank in the car on the 2-mile drive to the trail head.

4:30am wake up call!

4:30am wake up call!

Big smiles in the dark

Big smiles in the dark

We turned on our headlamp and flashlight (highly advise at least a flashlight if you start in the dark) and started our trek at the Happy Isles Trail Head!

We took the Mist trail up and the John Muir trail down. The Mist trail takes you along 2 waterfalls; both of which were barely falling (thank you, California draught) but still absolutely beautiful and incredibly serene at the early dawn hours.

Steep stairs up to Vernal Falls

Steep stairs up to Vernal Falls

Vernal Falls

Vernal Falls baby waterfall

Within 45 minutes we were at the top of Vernal falls. I think this was one of my favorite moments of the hike. The sunlight was just coming over the other mountains and the air was damp and cool. It was quiet and not full of people.

We took a quick photo break and kept on. Our next “monument” was Nevada Falls. This required climbing a handful of stone step switchbacks. E and I felt like we were on an adult playground climbing up and over rocks alongside this massive waterfall.

Hiking Nevada Falls

Hiking Nevada Falls

This is the point where the Mist trail and John Muir trail meet. There was also a bathroom here (otherwise known as a big hole in the ground with 4 walls around it) that we used. This is the last “real bathroom” on the trail to Half Dome.

The next 1-2 miles were a nice break. They were flat and featured more open land. It was nice to get a bit of a break.


After about 2-2.5 hours into the hike we approached the part of the trail that I like to call “Switchbacks for Days” because it is about 2 miles of very uphill switchbacks that lead to the base of the sub dome. There are many places to rest here and I advise that you do. You will need your legs and strength for the sub dome. This is also where you can more clearly get a glimpse of the cables (eek!).

The sub dome is quite a beast. While it’s only a .25 miles long, it is VERY steep and full of very narrow stair switchbacks. So if you’re afraid of heights this could be scary. If it helps, I was actually less terrified than I thought I would be? There is a point where the stairs just disappear and you start to free climb straight up the rock face. The surface provides a lot of grip, so I just stayed very low to the ground a la ninja-style.

Hiking the Subdome

Hiking the Subdome

Once you reach the top of the sub dome you are faced with 400 feet of cables. Just put your head down and go. Don’t think about it. That’s what I had to do. I started first and E was right behind me. I chose to use the right side of the cables to pull myself up while E used both cables. He said I looked awkward and uncomfortable (I mean, hello, I was climbing a near vertical angle at 8,000+ feet with sheer cliffs on either side of me!) but it worked for me.HD_Pano


There were only 2 people ahead of us and we never caught up to them so there was no backup. I took my time. One wooden plank after another. There was a point about halfway up where the climb became very steep. I did not like this part, but kept my head down and used my “you’ve got this” mantra. E was very encouraging this whole time because he knew I was scared. It took us about 15 – 20 minutes to summit. Finally! At the top!


Yosemite Valley all the way down there!

Yosemite Valley all the way down there!

At the top it was truly a beautiful site. It didn’t even feel real. The top is much bigger than you might have expected and you can look out in all directions and see over the valley. At one point we were actually standing on the infamous diving board, but didn’t even know it until afterwards. We spent about 15 minutes admiring the view and our accomplishment, but truthfully I was dreading the descent down the cables.


The descent was hard. Not harder than the ascent, but not easier. Just different. This is where you want good shoes with a solid grip.


We did it! After this, we were on a high and had fun hiking all the way back down to the valley.

As mentioned above, on our descent we took the John Muir trail back down because we wanted to save our knees on the steep decline. There is also a lot more foot traffic on the Mist trail in the afternoon as Vernal and Nevada Falls are very popular day hikes. The John Muir trail was definitely longer. It felt like it went on, but we had some beautiful scenery to distract us.

At the top of Nevada Falls

At the top of Nevada Falls

We eventually made it down to the trail head. All-in-all it took us about 8.5-9 hours. We were exhausted and tired by the end of it all, but on such an adrenaline high. We climbed Half Dome!

We did it! Please excuse my "tough" face that came out very duck-like

We did it! Please excuse my “tough” face that came out very duck-like


In case you are interested in doing this for yourself, here are some details that I hope you find helpful:

Permits and the Lottery System: Due to increased traffic and dangerous conditions, permits to climb the cables were mandated in 2010. There is a lottery system that you must enter in order to obtain a permit to climb the cables (more on the cables below). The lottery opens at the beginning of March and closes at the end of April. You are notified by mid-April before the cables are put up right before memorial day. You are able to pre-select 7 different days from May – October that you would like to climb Half Dome. They only grant about 225 permits total per day. Both E and I entered the lottery and I was not selected for any of my dates, but luckily E was selected for one day – his 4th choice. There is also a daily lottery with 50 spots. These permits will be available based on the estimated rate of under-use and cancellation of permits. You can read more here.

 What are the cables? The cables are 400 feet of thick, steel braided cables that were originally constructed in 1919 (obviously repaired and renewed since then!). They are installed by the National Park Service in late May and can be used through early October when they are taken down.

Distance: There are a couple of trail routes on the way up and down to the Half Dome, but our journey took us about 17-18 miles. We took the Mist trail up part of the way (2.6 miles) before it joined the John Muir trail and instead of taking the Mist trail back down, we took the longer and less hill-y John Muir trail down (3.7 miles).

Should you do it? YES! If you have the opportunity and love nature, beauty, hiking and getting a huge sense of accomplishment I cannot recommend it more.

 Tips for Hiking:

  • Obtain a permit!
  • Train if you can. We live in the Bay Area so we hiked the North Peak of Mt. Diablo a few times as well as Mission Peak. We are both fairly active otherwise, so as long as you are physically and mentally prepared for hills, hills and more hills followed by steep, narrow stairs and an epic climb using a lot of upper body strength you have nothing to worry about 😉
  • Start early. We started at 5:30am while it was dark, but by the time we reached the summit there were only 2 other people on the cables (vs. when we descended a half hour later there were about 15 people ascending).
  • Fuel your body and bring enough water! We took about 3L each.
  • Bring layers. Depending on what time of year you hike you will experience temperature changes – especially ascending over 4,000 feet. I brought a jacket (which I quickly removed) and had a long-sleeved shirt over a tank top. On our way down I removed the long-sleeved shirt. I was happy I had enough layers. I am a wimp with temperatures.
  • Have proper hiking shoes. I cannot stress this enough! Half Dome is a big slab of smooth granite. The cable portion has been hiked for almost 100 years so the surface is smooth and slick. I bought these Merrell shoes and I loved them. I felt safe, secure and supported in these shoes.
  • Use a backpack with hydration pack. This is not essential, but I personally loved having it.
  • Bring gloves with neoprene grips for the cables. You simply cannot do this without gloves (IMHO). There is also a pile of gloves at the base of the cables where people recycle them after they are done with the cables. So you could rely on using those, but I recommend spending a few dollars and bringing your own. Simple garden gloves will do! Ours were about $5 from ACE hardware.
  • HAVE FUN! Take lots of pictures. We wore a GoPro camera going up the cables and it is so great to have that as a souvenir of our journey.
  • You can camp overnight in Little Yosemite Valley (about halfway between the valley floor and Half Dome) if you want to break up the hike. We did not do that as we wanted to get it covered in one day.

Where we stayed:

Yosemite Lodge at the Falls – This was perfect. It was right in the Valley so we were only about 2 miles from the trail head. We wanted to cut down on driving time in the morning, so this was a perfect option for us. I recommend staying in the Valley if you can. There are only a few hotels but a handful of places to camp.

The view from our room on our patio. Beautiful!

The view from our room on our patio. Beautiful!

Where we ate:

Curry Village Pizza Deck – Pretty decent pizza and a full bar! Good for a post-hike reward.

What I wore:


Gear I used:



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