half dome permit

Tips for Hiking Half Dome

By Heather

Now that I’ve stood on top of Half Dome, I in no way fancy myself an expert. But I did learn a lot while preparing for and actually doing the hike, thanks to the many others who have gone before me and written about their experiences.

I hope my addition to the canon will be helpful!

Getting permits

  • I’ve gone over the permit process before. Your best bet for a pass is a weekday later in the season. But later in the season, there tend to be more storms.
  • Pick up your permit at the Valley Wilderness Center as soon as you can after you get to Yosemite. You have until 10 a.m. the day of your permit to pick it up. I don’t recommend waiting until then because that’s just way too late to be starting your hike.
  • Your whole group doesn’t have to be together to pick up the permit, but you will be asked to go over the rules with your group when you’re all together. As trip leader, you are responsible for everyone’s behavior, so make sure your companions aren’t a bunch of wilderness artists.
  • Bring your ID with you in case the ranger wants to check it.

mac and cheese carb loading half dome

Nutrition & fluid

  • Have a good, carby meal the night before. We made a giant pot of shells and cheese with crumbled bacon and went to town. Mmmm, mac and cheese.
  • On the trail, energy bars (we ate Clif Bars), beef jerky and hard candies gave us tons of energy and kept us satisfied enough that we didn’t need to take too many breaks.
  • Hard candies were suggested by several sources, and they were so right. Jolly Ranchers really kept my mind off what I was doing, kept my mouth from getting dry and brought back some junior high memories. Watermelon, am I right?
  • For fluid, I had 2 liters of water, plus two 32 oz. bottles of PowerAde Zero. No muscle cramping, thanks to the PowerAde, and I came back with a liter of water left. If you go later in the day, it will be hotter, so plan accordingly.
  • Our trip was the first week of June, so there was plenty of water on the trails if you’re inclined to fill up. Just bring your filter and don’t drink directly from the streams! It’s full of giardia, which comes from animal poop. This is my water filter.

half dome behind subdomeHike details

  • Start your hike early as humanly possible. We started at 3:30 a.m. and we wished we had started closer to 3 or 2:30 a.m. The later you start, the more crowded the trail will get and the hotter and more uncomfortable your climbs up Subdome and Half Dome will be.
  • There are more stairs on this hike than anyone is letting on. Yes, there are the stairs on the Mist Trail and Subdome, but in between? Stairs, stairs and more stairs. I’m going to conservatively guess that there are at least 2,000 sets of stairs on the entire hike.
  • Thinking of hiking in the dark the whole way to be on top by sunrise? That was our initial plan. We were dissuaded from it after learning that you can get lost at several points along the trail if you’re a first timer and you can come across more bears than you’d like. Mountain lions also abound near a section of the trail where mule deer love to hang out.
  • I can see how it would be really easy to miss the brown stenciled trail markers in the dark. So, no, I  don’t recommend doing this trail in the dark if it’s your first time. If you’re with someone who knows it, go for it! Next time, I want to do it because it would be so amazing.
  • Aim to be on Half Dome no later than 9 a.m. – crowds are still pretty light and you’ll practically have it to yourself, as you can see in the photo below. Solitude on Half Dome is a rare thing! Some sources say by 11, but I think that’s a bit late. After about 10 minutes up there, I began to descend and get a look below. A massive group was on its way up over the Subdome, with more behind them.
  • The Smug Ranger did say something moderately more useful than smug. That was, “When you get up there, plan to stay for 15 minutes or until after 3.” Meaning, crowds are coming. However, I don’t agree with her, since the cables go two ways. I don’t think you’re trapped up there once other people start coming up. Hell, they were starting to come up as I was heading down, and it was truly no problem. That said, the fewer people you have to work your way around, the better.

half dome cables

The cables

  • The cables are two ways. There is no separate set of cables for you to descend. It’s not as hard as it looks to pass people, just go slow and try not to knock into anyone. Don’t go outside of the cables, either.
  • Going up the cables is hard work, but don’t be intimidated. Just keep a firm grip on them, take lots of breaks and take your time. Let people who are going faster pass you instead of trying to keep up with them, since that’s a good way to hurt yourself.
  • There are wooden boards at each set of poles where you are able to stop and rest without worrying about sliding off.
  • My trick to keep momentum going up Half Dome was two boards, rest 30 seconds, two boards, rest 30 seconds. I didn’t time myself (should have!) but it felt like it took me about 10 minutes to reach the top.
  • Don’t let summit fever grip you and lead you to take risks you’re not comfortable with. Darren listened to his gut on the cables and I’m glad he did.
  • If you have the stomach for it, look at the view around you as you go higher and higher on the cables. It’s really incredible!
  • Going back down the cables is a lot easier, in my opinion. We saw people going both ways: Some face forward the whole time, others rappel down and let gravity pull them. I chose the latter and felt much more comfortable doing it that way. Coming down took about five minutes, and my forearms got really sore from keeping a tight grip on the cables.
  • Don’t drop your gloves at the base of the cables. There is a pile there, but it’s trash. Take yours down with you. You may run into people who have no gloves and you can give them yours, which is what we did with ours!

 Gear & apparel

  • I’ve always loved my hiking poles, but I really appreciated them on this hike given all the stairs and how treacherous some of them were. They kept me steady on the Mist Trail, and they kept my knees from getting blown out while descending Subdome. Get hiking poles! They look silly when you’re not familiar with them, but they’re the best hiking gear I have. Darren was an instant fan, too.
  • Get collapsible poles so you can store them in your pack for the climb up the cables.
  • As with any hike, layers are key. You’ll probably be experiencing lots of temperature changes, so be prepared for hot, cold and in between.
  • Get some grippy, grippy shoes. If it’s been a while since you’ve replaced your hiking shoes, they may not have the grip you need. I wore some Keen boots for this hike, the fourth one I’ve done in them, so they had a bunch of grip. You’ll feel so much more secure on the cables when your shoes are firmly planted on it and not sliding around. The granite is pretty smooth where the cables are.
  • Also get some nice insoles. I dumped the ones my Keens came with and got Sofsole insoles. If you don’t know what kind of arch you have, Sports Authority has a thing you can stand on that will tell you.
  • And lastly, get good, thick socks – my favorite is Thorlo. They’ll keep blisters away and give your feet some extra cushion. Between my boots, the insoles and the thick socks, we hiked nearly 21 miles and my feet were just a little sore and I didn’t have a single blister!

Any questions?