Well, Half Dome in no way disappointed. It exceeded all of my expectations. It was hard, it was full of adventure, it was a little scary-fun at the end and I will never forget the experience. And oh, yes. This is something I want to do again and again and again!
Picking up the permit
We picked up our permits at the Wilderness Center in Yosemite Village a couple of days before the hike.
If you have a wilderness permit along with the Half Dome permit, you’ll pay the $8 per person fee when you pick them up.
The permit is a single pass the trip leader holds (me, in this case), so your group needs to stay together at least for the ascent and the descent of Half Dome and Subdome, a smaller dome just before the main event. You should bring your ID, since a ranger is almost sure to check your pass and may want to see your ID (our pass was checked, but not my ID).
As trip leader, you are also responsible for the behavior of your group, so make sure you’re not traveling with any “wilderness artists” or jerks in general.
When you pick up your permit, a ranger will go over the details and rules governing proper wilderness behavior. You sign, they sign and you’re on your way.
Come on, rain
Our story begins a week before we started. Rain was in the forecast. Thunderstorms, in fact. Frustratingly, the forecast kept changing: First, thunderstorms on Sunday only. Then Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Then rain Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday (ascent day).
I kept myself together pretty well, though I wanted to fall apart a couple of times. Wouldn’t you after planning something for more than a year just to have it go to hell because a state that is in an epic drought happens to get rain during the exact week you’ve been planning for? My inner five year old was squawking, “This isn’t fair!”
But I just hoped for the best and prepared for the worst, and we formed a Plan B: We’d hike to the base of the Subdome, and if the weather was miserable, we’d turn back.
We did everything as planned: We ate a big carby meal of mac and cheese with bacon, then we started packing up and organizing our gear around 6 p.m. and we were snuggled in our bed by 8.
Long story short, the weather worked out perfectly. It rained all day Wednesday, but when we woke Thursday morning, it was clear and starry. We had sunny, blue skies the entire hike.
But by the time we returned to camp after the hike? It was pouring.
Starting the hike
We rose at 2:30 a.m. with the goal of leaving no later than 3:20 a.m. to be in the Curry Village parking lot by 3:30 a.m. We had Ahwhanee reservations at 2 p.m. and it sounds ridiculous, but we really, really wanted to celebrate this one. And not with Curry Village pizza.
About the parking situation: The unfortunate thing is that you cannot park at the trail head (unless you’re disabled, but then I don’t think you’d be doing this hike anyway, although if you are I’m very impressed with you). The parking is at Curry Village, a mile away. Yeah, it sucks.
In advance of the hike, I photocopied the trail pages of “One Best Hike: Climbing Yosemite’s Half Dome.” They were incredibly helpful from beginning to end, and I cannot recommend this book enough in general. The tips were spot on. Author Rick Deutsch breaks the hike into 16 sections, and as we ticked them off, it really felt like we were making progress. Just get the book and do what the man says.
We did the route he suggests, which is up via the Mist Trail and down via the John Muir Trail (JMT). I completely agree with him. No way would I go down the Mist Trail, especially not in the middle of the day. The stone steps were steep and slippery and would require twice as much time to carefully navigate on the way down and we’d be sharing them with the inevitable post-sunrise masses making their way up.
When you arrive at the Mist Trail trail head, there’s a bathroom and water station. Use both if you need them.
After the restrooms/water, we continued on up the paved trail in the dark. The incline is pretty gentle at this point. It was disorienting and intimidating to hear the falls and the river roar, yet not be able to see much of anything.
Eventually, we came to the start of the stairs. Aside from reaching Half Dome, this was my favorite part of the hike! We climbed up 700 very wet stone steps with virtually no railing, a raging river blowing mist into our faces and we had only our headlamps to light the way. It felt like we were starring in our own adventure movie.
By the time we got to the top, the sky was beginning to lighten.
About those stairs
I’ve read a ton about the hike to Half Dome. Books, blog posts, articles, forums. Not one of them mentioned the thousands of stairs you will be climbing during this hike.
Yes, they all mention the 700 stairs of the Mist Trail. Many mention the stairs on Subdome, which some count as being 900 steps. More on that later.
But none of them mention all of the other stairs in between. After the Mist Trail splits with the JMT, you still have more stairs.
So, as we climbed the Mist Trail stairs, I counted them off as we went in increments of 100. It made things go faster and gave my mind a thing to focus on that didn’t involve my burning quads.
At the top of the stairs, we crossed Vernal Falls Bridge and stopped to take some video and pictures.
And then I saw more stairs and was like, “What?!” These stairs take you up to Nevada Falls and go on for just as long as the first set, if you ask me.
On our way up, we passed a friendly couple coming down. As we chatted, what we thought was a wolf – but we later learned was a coyote – started coming up the trail behind us. And fast! We all yelled and it turned away, then turned back. The guy blew his whistle and the coyote took off.
We continued on, but a few minutes later Darren said, “Heather, get the whistle.” It was that damn non-wolf coyote again! I blew the whistle and he took off for good. This story is now entitled “That Time a Coyote Stalked Us Throughout Yosemite.” Way more dramatic, don’t you think?
Mist Trail to Little Yosemite Valley
After you pass the stairs, there’s a long, merciful break and the trail gets more level. But don’t get too comfortable there, buddy. More stairs await.
You’re going to see your first real glimpses of Half Dome from this point, too:
First impressions? It looks like an igloo. Where the “entrance” would be is Subdome, and the larger dome is Half Dome.
It was so strange to see something so iconic from a completely different angle, one that most of the people visiting Yosemite will never see.
As you walk past the backpackers’ campground, the last bathroom on the trail will be on your right. You’ll see a log cabin-type building, and there are four solar toilets up at the top.
Once we got through Little Yosemite Valley (called that for its resemblance to Yosemite Valley, which honestly, we didn’t really see), we took a break and had some snacks.
The forest to the Half Dome/Clouds Rest split
The trail printouts said that in this next section of the trail, we might be lucky enough to see mule deer, and we did! Two of them, in fact. Sadly, I did not get a picture.
This section of the trail slowly winds through the forest until you come to a section where the trail splits in two: One direction takes you to Half Dome, the other takes you to Clouds Rest. Go left to Half Dome. You’ll know you’re on the right track when you see a sign saying you’d better have a permit.
Up to Subdome
The trail from here continues on up to Subdome, where there are more stairs. Nothing like Mist Trail, at least.
When we finally made it to the base of the Subdome, we stopped and took a break. That’s when someone we’ve been calling The Smug Ranger came up with an intern. We’re not sure if she was performing for the intern or what, but I’ve never seen a ranger so full of herself! I’ve met Shelton Johnson and he wasn’t a fraction as impressed with himself as this woman was.
She mentioned that she had been on this beat for 10 years. Darren tried to make conversation with her by asking how many times she had climbed Half Dome. “Ugh. Really?” she replied as though she had just worked eight hours and was being asked to work eight more.
Uh, okay. Forget we asked! Thought it would just be an impressive number, that’s all!
The Smug Ranger also knocked over some cairn that someone had built at the starting point of Subdome, tossing the rocks aside. “Landscaping the landscape…” she said sarcastically, while standing next to a set of stairs hacked into a rock by humans (I did agree that the cairn in this instance was useless, but the irony of it all was just too much).
Smuggy Smuggerson did ask to see our permit, both on the way up and down (she didn’t remember us from before, not even as the askers of the dumbest question she has apparently ever heard).
“She must be wonderful to work with,” I said on our way back to the village.
The slog up Subdome
Subdome is rumored to be really, really hard. Harder than the cables. The switchbacking stairs go on seemingly forever with a purported 900 stairs to climb. I don’t mean to sound braggy, but I thought way too much has been made of this section. I used my counting trick, and was surprised to see the stairs come to an end after just 450 steps. What happened? I kept my head down as we went up we kept a good, steady pace and it went by pretty quickly.
Although, I can see how it would be absolutely miserable in the middle of the day once the heat and the crowds arrive. This is why you should always start your hikes as early as you can. Everything will be easier for you.
The last stretch up Subdome is just a slope. Head up toward the highest part and you’ll eventually come over the hump and the cables will be within view. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to finally get a look at them in person!
Up the cables
Around 8:45 or so, we dropped our poles at the base of the cables, put on our grippy gloves and headed on up.
Once again, I took the advice of Deutsch’s book and mostly stuck to pulling myself up with a one hand over the other approach. It worked: My arms stayed strong the whole way up, but they were definitely feeling the burn.
And don’t think you can do this without the gloves. You will never get the kind of grip you need, and the cables will shred your hands. Oh, and my fishing gloves worked great! Really cheap, really effective and I was able to pass them on to a fellow hiker on the way down who hadn’t brought any.
The cables are held up by poles that are resting in the rock (they’re not secured into it, so don’t pull up on them). Each set of poles has a wooden ledge between them so you can rest for a second. I tried to do two at a time, rest, do two more, rest and so on.
Eventually, I was on top. And then I waited for Darren.
Unfortunately, he was already really tired by the time we got to the cables, and he didn’t feel safe or strong going up them, so he decided to turn back. He writes about his experience here.
I really think it’s harder to recognize and pay attention to your own limits and knowing when to quit than it is to get to the top of Half Dome, so I totally commend him for that. He was really disappointed, naturally. But Half Dome will always be there and we’ll do this again! Right, honey?
The top of Half Dome
Half Dome is surprisingly huge up top. It goes on forever. The surface looks like the moon. Rocky, gray.
My time at the top was too brief: Probably 10 minutes total. I shot a few selfies, some panoramas of Yosemite Valley and the Sierra, then descended.
On the way back down, I faced forward for the first part of the cables, since it isn’t too steep.
Once it did become too steep, I did a combination sideway/back maneuver and let gravity pull as much as possible. However you choose to do it, it’s definitely easier coming down.
Darren was heartbroken to get so far and not get to the top, and I was heartbroken for him.
We were done on Half Dome around 9:30, and it was time to make the long trek back to the Valley. The first half of the hike to the JMT/Mist Trail split is the same: Subdome, forest, Little Yosemite Valley.
At the split, just continue on the JMT. On your way back, you’ll get several impressive views of Nevada Falls up close and from a distance. After that, you’ll wind your way down switchbacks that go on forever and ever until, finally, you are at the start of the Mist Trail.
Take a photo at the mileage marker. Even if you’re as tired and hungry as we were.
A note for the gift shops
The sad thing about accomplishing something like Half Dome is that the gift shop has surprisingly little to commemorate it: A patch, a magnet and a mug or two. Come on, gift shop. What about tote bags, T-shirts, hats?
There’s lots with the Half Dome image on it, but little that says you’ve stood on top. It’s a missed opportunity in my book.
But I did nab that patch and am considering purchasing a daypack to put it on, since patches would be a fun thing to collect. We got a magnet that says “Go Climb a Rock” and Darren gifted me a wooden block magnet with the image of Half Dome on it that says “I made it to the top.” So, not bad despite the paltry offering!
Coming soon: more details
We’re not done blathering about the hike. Darren has written about his experience as a non-hiker, and I’ll also have reviews of some of the gear we used on the trail, tips about the hike and how to train for it (or at least what worked for me as I trained to do it).