If you've ever seen photos of Yosemite National Park, chances are the iconic Half Dome was gleaming in the background.
Tied with El Capitan as the crown jewel of Yosemite, Half Dome is famous for its distinct shape - a smooth, rounded surface on top - quite literally like a dome cut in half! Hiking to the top of this slick, granite mountain is no easy feat, not to mention it cannot be done without a highly sought after permit. The last 400 feet of this climb require using your upper body strength to pull yourself up via cables installed by the National Park Service.
This hike is a lifetime goal for many people and for good reason, but it should not be underestimated. Read more to learn about hiking Half Dome and the Cable Route.
Route: Begin via Mist Trail or John Muir Trail (Mist Trail recommend on ascent, either trail recommended on descent - both trails meet and have the same starting point) then follow to Nevada Fall and Half Dome
Mileage: 14-17 miles RT depending on chosen route, not including the flat walk from the parking lot or shuttle
Duration: 10-12 hours, but can vary
Elevation: 8,846 ft. (4,700 ft. of elevation gain)
Parking: Park at the Yosemite Valley Trailhead lot on Happy Isles Road, across from the campground, about half a mile before the beginning of Mist Trail, or park anywhere in the Valley and take the free shuttle to Happy Isles (Stop #16)
Season: Late May - Early October to hike the Cable Route
What Makes Half Dome So Special?
Half Dome is special because it's so unique. It provides a different level of intensity to your average day-hikers or non-climbers. The last quarter mile of the hike on the sub dome requires a permit and you must climb up 400 feet along the Cable Route to reach the summit.
The Cable Route is what draws many people into hiking Half Dome, but the granite surface has become slick after hundreds of thousands of visitors have trekked to the top. When looking down from the cables, the 45 degree angle feels even more extreme than it sounds.
What Can I Expect Throughout this 16 Mile Hike?
Expect to see beautiful waterfalls, wildlife, and some insanely epic views along the way and at the summit. Half Dome is no easy feat, but it sure is worth it.
Begin this hike on the Mist Trail in Yosemite Valley, then continue on towards Nevada Fall and Half Dome. This trail is well marked, so you shouldn't have a problem finding your way. Both the Mist Trail and the John Muir Trail begin at the Vernal Falls footbridge and meet again at Nevada Fall. You have the option of hiking either one, but I highly recommend hiking up the Mist Trail. It's more scenic and you'll be closer to the waterfalls.
This trail is tough from the very start - you'll get a taste for how steep some sections can be. Miles 1-3 are quite the workout! Once you make it past Vernal and Nevada Falls, you'll have a nice, well deserved break.
Mile 4 was easy, breezy, and flat. (Yay for rest after hiking so many steps along the falls)! Mile 5-6 had a bit of incline, but you'll still be able to move at a quick pace.
Once you reach around mile 6, you'll notice the steady incline becoming even more intense. Your body will be tied, and you may need to take many breaks. Once you come to a clearing with panoramic views of the mountains surrounding you, you'll realize how close you are.
Around mile 7, you'll have made it to the bottom of the sub dome, which is where the ranger will check for your permit. The next section is full of incredibly steep switchbacks, which many deem the most challenging portion of this hike. In all honesty, yes, this quarter mile was tough, but my adrenaline was high from being so close to the cables that I didn't even notice how tired I was anymore!
After the challenge of climbing the sub dome, you'll finally see that beautiful sight of Half Dome right in front of you! There are 400 feet of cables and plenty of room of top of Half Dome to explore. Take your time climbing the cables and celebrate once you make it to the top.
On your hike down, you'll be able to cruise much faster. I was on Cloud 9 after completing one of the biggest items on my bucket list, so I was moving pretty fast. Once you hike a few miles down and make it back to the top of Nevada Fall, it does start to kick in that you've still got a few miles left...
At this point, my feet were killing, I had a few blisters, and I was out of water. I just wanted to be back at the lodge! Zach and I went down the John Muir Trail, which is at least a mile longer than the Mist Trail. During 2020, the Mist Trail is only one-way, meaning you're only allowed to hike up, so we had no choice but to take the longer route.
Overall, I was happy to hike down the John Muir Trail. The steps on the Mist Trail would have killed my knees, and it was nice to have a change of scenery (with incredible views of Nevada Fall, might I add). Unfortunately, this did add some mileage to the overall hike, so the last two miles felt like they went on forever. If by mile 14 you're just thinking about a nice shower and dinner, you are not alone my friend.
Nothing beats the feeling of accomplishing a hike as great as Half Dome. Through all of the elevation, steep inclines and endless switchbacks, it's absolutely worth it!
Scroll to the bottom for more photos along the hike.
Can I Hike the Cable Route on Half Dome Without a Permit?
No, unfortunately you must have a permit to hike past the sub dome and on the Cables. And yes - the rangers really do check! Make sure you bring your permit with you, either printed or on your phone, as well as a government issued ID.
For more detailed information on my experience with the permit system, check out my Half Dome Permit blog.
Where Can I Learn More About the Permit Process and my Chances of Winning the Permit Lottery?
Learn more about obtaining a permit here. You can apply for the preseason lottery in March, the daily lottery, or through your Wilderness Permit (for backpackers).
I'll be honest, the chances of winning the lottery are SLIM. I tried multiple times to get a permit in both the preseason and daily lotteries, and I have never won. Luckily, there are some other tips for ranger-approved ways of being able to hike the cables without a permit of your own!
Many people reserve 6 permits, the max allowed per group, yet only 3 or 4 people in their group end up making it to the top. The rangers allow people without permits to join reservations that have openings, assuming the group lets you join! It's risky, and you may have a wait for a while, but it was worth it for me to be able to hike to the summit after losing the permit lottery so many times in a row.
You can read more about my experience in my Half Dome Permit blog here.
How Far Can I Hike on Half Dome Without a Permit?
You can hike up until the sub dome, which is around 7 miles from the start of the trail. The sub dome (aka the quarter dome) is a mini dome connected to the back of Half Dome, less than half-mile long. From the sub dome, you'll reach the cables on Half Dome.
Prior to hiking Half Dome, I was under the impression that I'd be able to hike all the way until I saw the cables, but I was wrong. The ranger will check for your permit before you can begin hiking the steep steps of the sub dome.
Keep this in mind if you have anyone in your group that wants to complete the hike, but does not wish to climb the cables. If they want to watch others climb the cables, I recommend making sure they have a permit, too, as there are plenty of places to sit and have lunch after completing the sub dome, just before the cables.
Do You Have Any Tips for Climbing the Cables?
Bring Gloves! I don't think I could have made it to the top without gloves. It will help with your grip, and it makes holding on while going down a lot easier. I recommend nitrile coated gloves - I found a cheap pair at home depot! Linking them here.
Wear your best hiking shoes with good traction. As mentioned before, some steep areas are slick from so many visitors each day - you'll want a shoe that has a nice grip so you feel secure.
Take your time. You'll be gaining 400 feet of elevation in a short amount of time, so it's normal to feel fatigued. Take breaks along the way, and let others pass you if need be.
Do not climb if there is a chance of rain. Almost every accident on Half Dome is partially due to poor weather conditions and hiking during rain or light rain. If there is even a sprinkling, do not attempt this hike as it gets incredibly slippery.
Going down is easier than up! On the way up, so many people were worried about coming down. Should you do it face forward? Sideways? Backwards? I recommend going face forward so you can see where you're putting your feet. Going down was easier because you can let you gloves guide you along the cables and it takes no effort. Yes, it can be scary looking down, but it was definitely easier. (I pretty much glided on the way down using the gloves to slow me down - by the end, my gloves had ripped through the nitrile on both sides. Oops! Definitely got a great use out of them)!
Be Honest - Are the Cables Scary?
I don't consider myself afraid of heights, but I definitely underestimated the intensity of Half Dome. Would I call the Cable section scary? At some points, a little, but overall, not really. The scariest part for me was that in some areas, the granite was so worn that my boots didn't have great traction - I really had to rely on my arm strength (and gloves!) to pull myself up. Luckily, there are wooden planks along the route in the steepest sections that make it easier to step on and rest.
Keep in mind that the word "scary" is subjective. I'd say at least 1/4 of the people who had secured permits and made it to the cables ended up turning back right there, and I even saw a few people start the climb then turn right back.
If you make it to the cables and you have a good support group with you, try to keep going! However, you should always know your limits. If you are afraid of heights, I don't recommend climbing the cables.
Should I Clip Into a Harness?
It's your call, but many people find this unnecessary as the poles and cables installed are not meant to support the weight of a fall. For the few people I saw clipping in to a harness, it seemed to be more of a hindrance than help. You have to hook and unhook between each set of poles, which could be a little more nerve wracking to some, and it absolutely slows you down.
For some people, the only way they feel comfortable doing this climb is by clipping in, so if that's your situation, go for it! Do what makes you feel comfortable.
How Does this Hike Compare to Angel's Landing?
Angel's landing was, in my humble opinion, a cake walk compared to the Cables on Half Dome. If you were remotely nervous hiking Angel's Landing, then I do not recommend Half Dome. Although you're not on the edge of a mountain or cliff on the Half Dome Cables, it is so steep that people have fallen and tumbled off the side off the mountain. I felt more secure hiking Angel's Landing.
Has Anyone Ever Died While Climbing the Cables?
Yes - accidents do happen and there have been a few fatalities on the Cable Route. Don't let this discourage you.
The accidents that occurred were more often than not related to inclimate weather. Do NOT attempt to climb the cables if there is any rain or chance of thunderstorm! Even just a light sprinkling can cause you to slip on the already slick granite.
How Crowded is the Cable Route Section?
The upside to hiking Half Dome during COVID is that the Cable Route has been significantly less congested compared to prior years. Groups of people came in spurts, but overall I felt like it was not too crowded at all.
In earlier years, the entire cable route could be completely filled with people. It totally depends on the day of week, too. If you want to avoid crowds, come on a weekday or start your hike early. The cables get increasingly busier towards Noon - another reason to start your hike early!
Is this Hike Still Worth It if I Don't Want to do the Cable Route?
Absolutely! Zach had no interest in climbing the cables, but he still loved doing the Half Dome hike up until the ranger checkpoint. He actually waited for me at bottom of the subdome while I completed the rest of the hike alone. The views at the bottom of the sub dome are still incredible.
Regardless of if you climb the cable route, this hike is still a major accomplishment.
If you're not interested in a long hike and you don't care about reaching the summit, I recommend hiking the Mist Trail to the top of Nevada Fall - in my opinion, this is the most scenic part of the hike anyway.
What Was the Most Challenging Section of this Hike?
After I made it past Vernal and Nevada Falls, I remember thinking, "Yay! Hard part over!" but that wasn't exactly the case. The toughest part of this hike was climbing the cables. I was surprised by how much energy this took out of me.
Toughest Parts of Hiking Half Dome in Order:
Climbing the cables
Miles 6-8 (including hiking the sub dome)
Mist Trail steps up to Vernal and Nevada Falls
Am I Fit Enough?
Good question. I saw people of all ages and sizes on this trail. You can go at your own pace, as long as you have enough daylight!
With that being said, this is still an incredibly strenuous hike for the average person. You should have a few other day hikes of 12+ miles under your belt before you attempt Half Dome, including hikes that have a decent amount of elevation gain.
When is the Best Month to Hike Half Dome?
No wrong or right answer here! If you plan on climbing the cables, they are typically up from the Friday before Memorial Day in May until the Tuesday after Columbus Day in October. After that, they are closed for the Winter season.
Early-mid June would be my first choice as the weather isn't too hot, and the waterfalls will be in full force. Even by July 4th weekend, the waterfalls still looked pretty good!
If you can secure a permit, then my thoughts are, who cares when you hike it? Keep in mind of fire season in September and October, though. I hiked in early September, and while the morning started off great, the winds had shifted in the afternoon from a nearby fire and smoke rolled in across the valley, turning the sky orange. (Lucky that didn't happen early in the day, otherwise it wouldn't have been safe to hike in those conditions)!
How Early Should I Start?
Start this hike at sunrise or earlier! Zach and I started around 7am, and everyone we spoke to at the top had started at 6am, and many people start at 5am.
Aside from making sure you have enough daylight, starting early helps ensure you'll find a parking spot in the lot closest to the trail. You can find the parking lot by typing in Yosemite Valley Trailhead Parking on google maps.
What Should I Pack?
Check out my Day Hiking Packing Checklist here!
The most important things for Half Dome are listed below:
Water (at least 3.5 liters)
Nitrile coated gloves
Plenty of energizing snacks and food
Bandaids (in case of blisters!)
Half Dome Permit & ID
You may also want to bring sunscreen, since you'll be exposed for a good portion of the hike, and a headlamp if you are beginning before sunrise.
For me, water was the most important (and what I packed least of). There is only 1 place to fill up your water on this trail without a filter, and the place to fill up is at the bottom of the trail, so it's not super helpful! I ran out of water when I got to the top of Half Dome, so the entire way down was a little rough.
Are There Bathrooms Along the Trail?
Yes - there are bathrooms just before the trailhead before you cross the river, at the bridge before Vernal Fall, and just after Nevada Fall.
Will I Run Into Any Wildlife?
There's a good chance you will! Zach and I saw a bobcat and a bear on this hike. The bobcat was at mile 7, in the woods just before the sub dome.
The bear was on our way down on the John Muir Trail in a tree, right above the trail. Yikes! If you see bears, be sure to make a lot of noise, make yourself look bigger and wave your arms, but don't try to run. (Luckily this baby bear was minding his own business, but who knows where Mama was)!
How Long Did this Hike Take for You & Zach? What Route Did You Choose?
Zach and I hiked up the Mist Trail to Half Dome, and then came down the John Muir Trail. I began my Apple Watch once I reached the Mist Trail, although some people like to start at the parking lot, which is half a mile away.
Excluding the time spent waiting at the sub dome for an extra permit or time spent on top of Half Dome, this hike took us 7 hours and 15 minutes. Total time on the trail from start to finish clocked in at 9 hours. Keep in mind that hike times vary greatly by group. It can take anywhere from 8-14 hours to complete this trail, with the average being around 10-12 hours.
Zach and I hike at a pretty quick pace - we don't take many breaks, but when we do, they're relatively short. For reference, we made it to the subdome at the same time as a few other groups, and each person we spoke with mentioned they started at 5 or 6am, whereas Zach and I started at 7am. If this sounds like you too, you can plan on around 9 hours as well!
I do recommend starting at 6am rather than 7am - I just prefer a sunrise start!
Here's an overview of what our hike looked like:
7am: Began hike on the Mist Trail
10am: Reached the sub dome/ranger permit station
10:40am: Found a group with an extra permit and began hiking the sub dome
11:00am: Arrived at the infamous Cable Route
11:10am: Began climbing the cables
11:35am: Reached the summit of Half Dome! Explored and rested at the top for about an hour
12:25pm: Descended from Half Dome summit, down the subdome
1:00pm: Made it back to the permit checkpoint and continued hiking down the trail
3:50pm: After taking the JMT down, reached Yosemite Valley at 3:50
7 hours and 15 minutes of hiking, 9 hours spent on the trail 16.3 miles, 3,000+ calories, and 4,700 ft. of elevation. Thanks, Half Dome!
Half Dome Hike Through Photos
From the JMT, there's just a few miles left until you make it back to your starting point!