Half Dome is an icon in the most iconic of national parks: Yosemite. It’s no wonder why it reserves a spot at the top of many traveler's bucket list.
Here’s a little overview to help you plan when hiking Half Dome in a day.
HIKING HALF DOME IN ONE DAY
On average hikers take 10-12 hours round trip to hike Half Dome. Leave at sunrise or earlier. I like to get an earlier start heading out from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley with headlamps around 4am. This will land you at the cables before other groups, allowing for a smoother ascent and descent.
Set a non-negotiable turn-around time. For example, if you have not reached the summit by 3:30pm, you should turn around.
The trek to Half Dome packs in one breathtaking view after the next. To start you’ll wind your way around Vernal Falls then up past Nevada Falls. Your legs should feel a nice burn after all the stone staircases you will have climbed. After Nevada Falls the trail turns to soft dirt and will mellow out a bit as you head into Little Yosemite Valley. Here you’ll enjoy a beautiful wooded trail before making your way up to the next section. I like to stop for a snack about 2 miles from the summit. You’ll see a sign marking the distance here. Get a nice energy boost in, as the next section is considered the most strenuous section of the hike. Back on the trail you’ll tackle more winding staircases up to the subdome and then the 400 foot cable section to crest Half Dome itself. Once on top relax a bit and explore the 13-acre plateau of Half Dome 4,800 feet above the valley floor. Enjoy your time on top of the world, but be sure to allow yourself plenty of time for the hike back.
Elevation Gain: 4,800 feet (1,600 meters)
Elevation at Summit: 8,800 feet (2,695 meters)
Distance: 14-16 miles (22-26 kilometers) round trip
Time: 10-14 hours on average
Two metal cables allow hikers to ascend the last 400 feet of Half Dome. I have found the best way to get up and down the cables while allowing other hikers to do the same is to stay to the right allowing others to pass on the left. You can of course grab both cables when there is no traffic. You’ll want to bust out the gloves for this section. (details in what to bring).
WHAT TO WEAR
Layers! Temperatures will vary from dusk till dawn. Be sure to dress accordingly. I like to wear multiple layers and peel them off as I hike. Choose lightweight options to avoid carrying extra weight. I like to wear my Nike stretch pants with a light pair of water resistant pants over top. Next I start with a tank top, then a long sleeved base layer and a down jacket. Sometimes I’ll bring an additional outer layer or base layer for colder days. You can find a great selection at REI. I also love shopping on The Clymb. Start at the sales rack. You don’t have to drop tons of money to get great gear.
WHAT TO BRING
Headlamp with extra batteries.
Gloves – You'll want these for going up the cables. I prefer a lighter glove with a sticky palm. I wore my ironclad grip gloves last trip. I think bike riding gloves would work great if you have them. If not, try a pair of garden gloves with the rubber grips. This will allow you to grip the cables easily and firmly. You will see a pile of gloves near the base of the dome, please don't add to the trash and pack your gloves out. Each year during the Yosemite Facelift volunteers hike Half Dome to haul loads of these gloves out of the park.
Shoes - Comfy seasoned hiking shoes. This is not the time to bust out your new kicks. Avoid painful feet and wear a trusty pair.
Water – Yosemite NPS recommends 4 liters (1 gallon) when hiking to the top of Half Dome. I have found this amount to be sufficient; however I have seen some people drink all their water on the way up. Pace yourself during the hike and be conscious of your water supply level. If you know you drink a lot of water, consider keeping your weight down and carrying a water filter. There are several places you can top of your water supply along the way.
Food – For a one day trek to Half Dome and back, I pack a granola bar and a banana for breakfast. For lunch a hearty PB&J sandwich with another piece of fresh fruit. I like to bring cheese and crackers along, a package of dried fruit, some trail mix or mixed nuts and a few extra granola bars. I HATE being hungry, so I tend to pack on the heavy side when it comes to food.
Celebratory Snack –Summit treats must not be overlooked! I suggest dark chocolate and if you can stand the extra weight, share a pint of your favorite ale with a friend. Give the folks at Glacier Point a wave and sip your craft brew as you relax 5,000 feet above the valley floor. But not too much beer, a drunken cable decent is a recipe for disaster.
Apply for a permit: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/hdpermits.htm
Permits are required to summit Half Dome when cables are up. Follow the link above for permitting details. If, you did not get a permit in the lottery and have already planned your trip to Yosemite, you can try for the Daily Lottery. The National Park Service holds approximately 50 permits each day. These lotteries have an application period of two days before your planned hiking date.
Start your trek at the Happy Isles trailhead. You’ll be making your way along the Mist Trail towards Vernal Falls. You should park your car at Curry Village aka Half Dome Village or slightly closer at the Trailhead Parking lot (marked on the shuttle map between stops 15 and 16). If you are thinking about the shuttle, keep in mind it runs from 7am-10pm. That is very late start. Unless you are a speed hiker I would recommend a much earlier start.
Nearest campgrounds are Upper, Lower and North Pines Campgrounds, but it may be difficult getting reservations in summer. You may also consider outside the valley at Bridalveil Creek or Tamarack Flat Campgrounds. You will have to drive to the trailhead very early in the morning.
WHEN TO CONSIDER A GUIDE
If you are unable to acquire a permit to scale the cables and don’t want to chance the daily lottery during your visit, you don’t have to give up on your dream to summit Half Dome. Also, if you are an in-experienced hiker, I would recommend a guide for this trek. The Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides and YExplore are my two favorite guide companies in the Yosemite area. Both offer guided treks to the top of Half Dome among many other offerings.
If you are traveling halfway across the world and summiting Half Dome is on your bucket list, a guide company is a reliable fall back to hiking it on your own. I have summited Half Dome twice on my own and once with YExplore guide company. All three experiences were equally as enjoyable.
WHAT ARE THE PERKS OF TRAVELING WITH A GUIDE?
They do all the planning. You just show up! With a guide you’ll receive extra details and history of the park. I usually carry a book with me to identify native birds and fauna. Having a guide is like exploring with a walking book.What I enjoyed most about going with a guide was their ability to name each peak around me and suggest the best trail to reach it. In addition, I learned a few more plant species along the way.
SAFETY, WEATHER & ADDITIONAL DETAILS
Do not attempt to summit Half Dome if there are storm clouds forming. Weather changes quickly and often unexpectedly in the high country. For safety details visit the experts at Yosemite National Park Service.