Hiking the majestic Half Dome is unlike anything else at Yosemite National Park. What makes this 16 mile trail unique is the last 400 feet, which require climbing up a slick, granite surface at a 45 degree angle, challenging hikers both physically and mentally.
If you've ever dreamed about completing this hike, you may already know that to make it to the summit and climb the Cable Route, you must have secured a permit that are few and far between. Luckily, it is possible to get by without winning a permit, just as long as you have a little patience (and are willing to take a risk!) on the day you choose to hike.
Keep reading to find out how you can get a permit and what to do if you don't win the lottery! Want to know more about the Half Dome hike in general? Check out my detailed guide here.
Half Dome Hike Overview:
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. (4,800 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
Make sure you read Everything You Need to Know About Hiking Half Dome!
Half Dome Cable Route
Rising 8,800 ft. above sea level, the 400 foot Cable Route allows hikers to summit Half Dome without special climbing gear, allowing for a unique and intense day-hike. The cables were installed in 1919 and have seen hundreds of thousands of hikers along the way. From late May to early October, you too can climb this route and celebrate on top of Half Dome!
Unfortunately, it's not as easy as grabbing your boots and hitting the trail. In addition to the 400 ft. climb on the back of Half Dome, this trek requires a fit hiker that can complete anywhere from 14-17 miles round trip, with an elevation gain of 4,800 feet.
What many people believe to be the hardest part, however, is obtaining one of the coveted permits from recreation.gov.
Where Permits Are Required
Permits are required once you reach the sub dome of the hike, around 7 miles in. At this point, a ranger will check your permit, your government issued ID, and match it to their list for the day. Once you check in with the ranger, you have less than half a mile until you reach the summit.
Before hiking Half Dome, I was under the impression that I would be able to hike the entire trail up until the Cable Route, but that is not the case.
When Permits Are Required
Permits to hike the Cable Route are required whenever the cables are up for the season, which is typically from the Friday before Memorial Day in May to the Tuesday after Columbus Day in October. This means 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you need a permit to access this last section of the hike.
I'll be honest, I've had my questions about the rangers checking permits. When do they arrive? What if I come before or after they check permits? Unless you plan on completing some or all of your hike in the dark, you won't be able to escape the rangers.
The rangers arrive at different times every day, so you can never really plan. Sometimes they arrive at 7am, some days at 10am. They leave anywhere from once it gets dark, to some days in the early afternoon. If you try to hike this without a permit and you are caught without one, you will get fined.
If you're still wondering what happens if you hike the Cable Route on Half Dome before the ranger arrives in the morning, I'll tell you!
When Zach and I reached the ranger checkpoint, 2 girls were coming down the sub dome after having completed the cables early in the morning before the ranger arrived. Turns out, the ranger still checks people in on their way down in the morning in case they arrived before he did. Since they had no permit, we watched him issue them a $280 fine.
I briefly spoke with the girls after they received their citation. They started their hike at 2am to make it to the cables by sunrise - talk about commitment! No matter when you hike this, there's a good chance you'll run into a ranger at some point.
Whatever your plan is, just be aware of the consequences and know that permits are always required when the cables are up.
How to Secure a Permit
The process of landing a permit is through a random lottery on recreation.gov. If you don't already have an account, I recommend you make one!
225 day hikers (and 75 backpackers) are allowed each day on the Half Dome Trail beyond the base of the sub dome, yet thousands and thousands of people apply. You have three lottery options of securing a permit for the Half Dome Cables.
1. Pre-Season Lottery: The application runs throughout the month of March and you'll receive results by mid-April. You can apply for 6 permits of up to 6 people each on specific dates throughout the season, ranking each date from most desired to least.
2. Daily Lottery: Two days before your desired hike, you are able to apply for the daily lottery. Around 50 permits are available each day based on cancellations. To hike on a Saturday, you'd apply Thursday morning and receive results usually in the afternoon.
3. Backpacker Lottery: Backpackers—including those who wish to camp at Little Yosemite Valley—can apply to hike Half Dome with their wilderness permit.
For an example of important dates throughout the 2020 season, please reference the below:
For more detailed information on obtaining a permit, check out the NPS guidelines.
Chances of Winning a Permit
Slim. Very slim. Like I mentioned before, the hardest part of this hike is obtaining a permit!
The most requested day in the preseason lottery is Saturday, followed by Sunday, then Friday. The least requested day is Wednesday. This means you have better odds applying for a permit in the middle of the week than on the weekends - I mean, I guess that's common sense!
In 2019, there were almost 35,000 applications in the Preseason Lottery with a 29% total success rate, but even lower when looking at the weekends. The Daily Lottery had a success rate of 27% on weekdays and 16% on weekends.
It's not easy to get a permit, but it's not impossible. Find more statistics here to help you choose the best days to apply!
There are 2 fees. One when you apply, and another if your permit is successful.
It costs $10 to apply for a permit on recreation.gov. This is a non-refundable processing fee. Keep in mind that if you and a friend want to apply for the daily lottery using both of your respective emails for a few days in a row, it's $10 every time you apply! Luckily, this fee is per application, not per person or amount of people requested on the permit.
If your permit is successful, it costs $10 per person on your permit, which is fully refundable if you cancel your permit by 9 pm Pacific time the day before your hiking date or if the cables are not up on the date for which your permit is valid.
3 Things I Wish I'd Known Sooner
Trying to get a permit can be SO expensive! I was under the impression that if I applied to the daily lottery I'd get my money back on each application if it was unsuccessful. That is not the case! If you want to apply 7 days in a row in hopes of getting a permit, that's $70.
Most of the groups I ran into had reserved a permit for 6 people. I thought I'd have the best luck only trying to reserve 1 spot for myself, but I have a theory now that it's easier to win the daily lottery (or preseason lottery?) if you request a larger group size. This could be so wrong, but I'm going to test my theory out next season!
There is still another way to hike the cables without winning your own permit! Keep reading...
Help! I Didn't Get a Permit. What Else Can I Do?
Fun fact: I have never been able to secure a permit! That's right - dozens of lotteries and money thrown at Recreation.gov, and I never won. Don't worry, you still have a chance to hike to the top of Half Dome, just as long as you're patient!
If I have a goal or something on my bucket list that I want to accomplish, I rely on no one but myself to make it happen. That's just the way I am. One of the main reasons I was excited about moving to the Bay Area was due to the proximity to Yosemite - the first National Park I ever visited (way back in the day)! Half Dome was my 2020 goal that I would not give up on - I finally moved to California so I was not going to wait another year to cross this off my list!
Once the preseason lottery opened in March, I filled out my 6 different desired dates the day it became available. I was unsuccessful for every single date I chose. Throughout the 2020 Half Dome Cable season, both Zach and I attempted the Daily Lottery 18 times (between our emails on recreation.gov - more chances to win, y'all) and we have never won. Almost $200 spent on trying to secure a daily lottery for Half Dome. I mean, that's criminal...
I finally decided that's it - I will not spend another $10 for a rejection email. We had plans to visit the park again in September and after losing those daily lotteries too, I decided to try a different method. I had heard that many people reserve a permit in advance for an entire group of 6 in the preseason lottery, but not everyone in their party ends up making it to the top, or even on the hike at all.
If you don't have a permit, there's a good chance you can find another group on the trail that has an extra spot on theirs. For example, if you see a group of 4 people a couple miles into the trail, you can ask them if they're hiking up to Half Dome and if they have any extra spots available on their permit. This has been a success story for SO many people and if you're determined like me, you can probably find someone with an open spot.
This tactic works great for parties of 2 (or less, like me since Zach didn't want to climb the cables)! You can still find success with a larger group of people, but you may have to split up when going to the top since you'll need to find different groups with extra permits.
Zach and I hiked Half Dome on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, and I met at least 5 other people at the top that didn't have permits but were able to join other groups. I guess 5 doesn't sound like a lot, but hey, I didn't talk to that many people!
Tips for Joining Another Group's Half Dome Permit
This strategy is totally ranger-approved, so no worries there. Their only job is to make sure the permit-holder checks in with their ID, and that they have the amount of people on their reservation (or less). It doesn't matter to the rangers who accompanies the permit-holders.
Start asking people early on if they have space for you! I made the mistake of waiting until we got to the ranger checkpoint to ask groups if they had openings, and many of them did, but they had already given the spots to other people who asked.
If you ask them earlier on in the trail, you don't necessarily need to stay with them the whole time. Most people we met had split up, but just planned on meeting at the ranger checkpoint.
Offer to pay $10 for the permit if another group lets you use one of their spots - this will cover your cost of the permit and it's a nice gesture.
Be patient! There are no guarantees you will find someone with a permit, but I'd say be prepared to wait. Start your hike at sunrise so you have plenty of time allotted at the sub dome trying to find someone with an extra spot.
I waited around 30 minutes until I found someone with one opening, then another 10 minutes since they wanted to rest before beginning the rest of the hike. Once the ranger checked them in, I broke away a bit and climbed on my own.
I have heard plenty of success stories from people who weren't able to secure permits finding people along the trail with extra spots. If this hike is on your must-do list and you couldn't get a permit, I absolutely recommend trying this method. Regardless, hiking to the sub dome is worth it in itself. You have nothing to lose! Although, I'll be honest, I would have been SO upset if I just spent hours hiking uphill to complete my bucket list and I was never able to find an extra permit.