Day 4: October 1, 2016
One of the most iconic landscapes in Yosemite is, without a doubt, Half Dome. I knew that there was NO way we would be going to Yosemite without trying to snag a permit to climb those panic-and-sweaty-palm inducing cables. Anyone can hike out to half dome; continuing the party up to the top on the cables requires a permit. No permit = no climb (or a big ol’ fine if you manage to get on the cables without a permit check only to be caught later by a friendly ranger. don’t do it.). I threw our name in on Thursday and woke Friday morning to the news that we were LOTTERY WINNERS! Our timing certainly helped us I think, as it is much busier during the Summer months. The cables are taken down right after Columbus Day so we just made it.
The Half Dome hike is about 16ish miles round trip. We hit the trail sometime between 8-9 AM, and reached the base of the cables (8 miles in) in around 2 1/2-3 hours. We went up the Mist Trail on the way out – 2 miles of stair climbing to start the day!
The trail wound its way gradually up for a while, through miles terrain varying from rocky ledges to wooded trails to a lot of dry, dusty trails. I HIGHLY recommend wearing a set of lightweight gaiters to help keep some of the dirt out of your shoes. I didn’t bring mine along on the trip unfortunately, so I had a few shoe-emptying pit stops to avoid giant blisters.
After a few miles of gradual climbing through the woods, we hit the exposed granite trail leading up to the base of the cables. This was basically a windy staircase of a trail switchbacking up the rock (and then finally just climbing straight up the rock face) eventually leading to a stunning view of Half Dome and the cable route to the top.
The exertion of the hike to get to this point did a decent job of taking my mind off of what was about to come. I have a bit of a “thing” when it comes to hikes with any type of cliff-like feeling. Like, I hate them and they give me little bitty panic attacks. I barely made it through the beehive in Acadia… so I had no clue how I was going to make it up this shit. Hike Half Dome, they said. It’ll be great, they said. “If I can do it, you can do it”. Thankfully, the only thing stronger than my intense dislike of sketchy ass edge-teetering hiking is my innate stubbornness and refusal to let some Goddamn ROCK defeat me.
I had forgotten to pack gloves for the cables but luckily there is a stash at the bottom to borrow. PHEW. I wouldn’t recommend climbing without them, so if you are a little skeeved about wearing someone’s discarded/sweaty/ill fitting gloves be sure to pack a pair of your own. I skittered up to the base of the cables, put on my gloves, took 17 deep breaths, and up we went.
This was STUPID steep at times. Initially I had a moment of panic, hanging on for dear life to the cables, utterly convinced that I wasn’t going to be able to hang on and make it to the top. I took 24 more deep breaths and GOT MY SHIT TOGETHER. The key to this is remembering that you have legs. Seriously. Sounds completely dumb but use those stems. I got myself into a rhythm, pushing off with my legs, using my arms for stability and leverage (don’t get me wrong…. if you let go of the cables you are in TROUBLE. Use your arms too. For reals.). I concentrated on stepping from board to board (each support pole for the cables has a board across them, which gives you something to stand on besides a slab of near-vertical granite). Lunge-Lunge-Lunge-Board. Repeat, repeat, repeat. And suddenly, it wasn’t so bad. And suddenly, I was a bad-ass rock climber who was climbing Half Dome. (Ok. That last part wasn’t the least bit true. But it really wasn’t so bad).
The climb up took about 15-20 minutes. Beware, you are climbing and descending the same set of cables, so you will have hikers coming down toward you while you are climing…. and you will be descending into a mass of climbers as well. This hike requires a massive amount of trust in your fellow hikers – something I really didn’t consider until it was too late to worry about it, thank GOD.
The views at the top were STUNNING. SO worth the panic and effort. Plus, I get to proudly say, I CLIMBED HALF DOME! (well… not like the *real* rock climbers, but whatever. good enough for me. I’ll NEVER be doing that shit. EVER.)
After lunch and thoroughly enjoying the view, it was time to descend. I came down the cables backward. I was super worried about coming back down but actually found it to be pretty easy. There were a LOT more people arriving and climbing as we were descending so there was a lot of maneuvering around people and waiting for people to come up to create safe space to pass each other. The descent felt like it took FOREVER because of this. But finally, we made it down and were on our way back down the trail to Yosemite Valley.
The trail is an out and back, but we opted to descend into the Valley via the John Muir trail. This adds a bit of distance but is more gradual footing than the Mist trail. I don’t think my knees could have taken that stairway back down two days in a row. We stopped at the water along the way before the top of the falls to rinse off our feet and refill water (using our Sawyer Squeeze filtration system, which was easy to use and perfect for this.)
This was a truly epic day and we loved every minute of it. We couldn’t have asked for better weather! If you are a serious hiker and are headed to Yosemite, you have to enter the Half Dome lottery!
Check out Yosemite Hikes for TONS of detailed information about this hike (as well as a multitude of other Yosemite hikes.). There is a wealth of information here, way more than I could adequately give. These resources were key for our planning.
- Rating: The hike up to the base – moderate-strenuous for someone in shape and used to logging long trail miles. For anyone else? Very strenuous. It’s long mileage and a lot of climbing and descending. Add in the cables and strenuous all around.
- Weather: Couldn’t have been better. High 60s-70s and sunny.
- Mileage: Around 16-17 miles total. Started at Happy Isles trailhead, ascending up the Mist Trail along Vernal/Nevada Falls and descending along the John Muir Trail.
- Elevation Gain: 4800 feet from Yosemite Valley, reaching an elevation of 8,842 feet at the summit.
- Trail time: Around 2.5-3 hours to the base of Half Dome. We spent quite a bit of time there, between the cable climb and descent as well as lunch and taking in the views. We made it back to the valley by dark. Not sure of our total time.
- Gear: Pearl Izumi M2 trail running shoes – I love these and found them to be perfectly adequate for this terrain. They are sticky and grippy enough to maintain good footing on the granite and I never slipped, even climbing the cables. Wear what you are comfortable in and test them out on rock first. This is NOT the time to find out that your shoes are complete slippery shit on a rock face. For a pack I used the Ultimate Direction Jenny Adventure Vesta, with a 1.5 L hydration bladder as well as two 500 mL soft flasks in the front pockets. I ran out on our descent but we were able to refill using our filter. Make sure to carry adequate food and water, especially if it is a hot sunny day. This may not be enough for you if you sweat a lot (I don’t) or if you are a slower hiker and are going to be out there longer. At minimum I would carry 2-3 liters of water with a method to filter and refill.
- Don’t forget: Your camera, a trail map, plenty of snacks and lunch, layers of clothing (the elevation of the summit is 8800 feet and it’s going to be significantly cooler up there), water treatment (we carry a sawyer squeeze filter on long days in the woods just in case), sunglasses, hat, gloves for the cables, a headlamp just in case, YOUR PERMIT!