Climb Half Dome
The hike to the top of Half Dome from the valley floor is a 16.4 mile strenuous
day hike with a 4,737 elevation gain up to 8,884 feet. Most of the trail that leads
to Half Dome is the John Muir trail which starts at Happy Isles and leads all the
way to the summit of Mt. Whitney 210 miles away. The distance is longer than it
seem to be because the trail takes a large loop around to the opposite side of Half
Dome (East Side) before the actual granite ascent begins.
If you can help it, this should not be your first hike of the season unless you
are already in good shape and have strong knees. Although superior athletic ability
is not required, anyone attempting this hike should be in generally sound physical
condition with no chronic knee or foot problems.
Unfortunately you can't park near the trailhead on this hike. The closest you can
get is the Curry Village parking lot. From here you can either walk to the trailhead
(approximately 1 mile if you know the way) or take the free valley shuttle to the
trailhead at Happy Isles. The shuttles stop on both sides of the street and you
want to catch the shuttle closest to the parking lot which is on the east side of
For most of the hiking season, the shuttles take you directly to Happy Isles to
a shuttle stop right before a bridge. At the date of this writing, instead of walking
through Happy Isles, walk across the road bridge and then take a right onto a wide
trail that leads to the trailhead. This is necessary because the foot bridge from
Happy Isles to the trailhead is closed due to a rock slide from Glacier Point that
destabilized the bridge and destroyed a large portion of Happy Isles.
For the early and late parts of the hiking season, the shuttle only goes as far
as the Pines Campgrounds (Upper and Lower). The shuttle then loops within the Upper
Pines Campground and stops at a shuttle stop right outside the entrance to both
the Upper and Lower Pines Campgrounds. This is as close as you get and is therefore
your time to get off. Make your way to the trailhead via the road on the West side
of Upper Pines or partially through the campground itself. I usually start through
the campground and then find the road for the rest of the walk.
As your reward for choosing to climb Half Dome, the beginning of this trail takes
you through the most popular short day hike in not just Yosemite Valley but in all
Illilouette Fall: You immediately begin to gain elevation as you move deeper
into the canyon where Happy Isles is located. The thick forest at the beginning
only allows fleeting glimpses of the river below. At your first view, which is also
a decent rest stop, you'll be able to admire the beautiful Illilouette Fall as it
plunges 370 feet and joins with the river right below your feet. Straight across
and almost straight up you find Glacier Point. Your last view of Yosemite Valley
to your right (before you start to approach Half Dome) presents you with a partial
glimpse of Yosemite Falls.
Vernal Fall Bridge: At 0.8 miles you reach the Vernal Fall Bridge that beholds
a fantastic view of Vernal Fall at 320 feet high. Seen above Vernal Fall is Mt.
Broderick to the left and Liberty Cap to the right. As you pass over the bridge,
there is a water fountain that you can use to fill up your water bottles. Don't
count on this water fountain to work because it is turned off for part of the season
and don't ask me which part. You will also find a bathroom with all the amenities.
John Muir Switchbacks: Continuing up from the Vernal Fall Bridge about 200
yards you find that the John Muir trail heads off to the right with a collection
of switchbacks that take you to the top of Nevada Fall. This is the way that we
come down because it is not as steep and slippery as the trail we are about to go
up. A little further up and off to the left there is another Vernal Fall view point
that you need to do a little boulder hopping to get to. From this viewpoint, you
not only get a closer view of Vernal Fall but the Mist Trail can also been seen
to the right of the fall.
Mist Trail: The closer you get to the fall the more you realize why this
is called the Mist Trail. Of course, if you go during the latter part of the Summer,
you are likely feel no mist at all. Be careful as you climb the 200 odd very steep
and sometimes slippery steps to the top of the fall.
Vernal Fall: Once you reach the top of Vernal Fall you are greeted by a fenced
off area (poles actually) that keep you from getting to close to fall. Do not cross
the fence! Several people a year die as they are swept over Yosemite Park's various
water falls because they ignored posted safety signs and common sense. Off to the
right of this area you find the Emerald Pool fed by the Silver Apron. If it isn't
obvious, let me tell you here. This isn't a safe swimming area. And sliding down
the apron can easily smash you into the boulders below the surface of the water.
Clark Point: After Vernal Fall, the next major stop is Nevada Fall and you
have two choices on how to get there. As you follow the trail away from the Emerald
Pool you quickly come across a fork where you can head directly towards Nevada Fall
(to the left) or towards Nevada Fall via Clark Point (to the right). In my opinion,
if you have never gone either way than go left (I like to explore). If you have
already gone left, then go right. After you've tried both, you'll notice that the
trail to the right (although slightly longer) is much safer and easier as it avoids
the steeps steps on the Nevada Fall Mist Trail.
Nevada Fall: If you travel via the Nevada Fall Mist Trail, a new log bathroom
waits for you at the top. At this point, if you want to see the top of Nevada Fall
before going on to Half Dome, take a right and travel about 200 yards. If you travel
via Clark Point, you come across the John Muir Trail about 1/2 mile away from the
fork. Make sure you follow the signs and go up (to the left). As you approach Nevada
Fall you have a magnificent view Liberty Cap and the 594 foot drop of Nevada Fall.
Little Yosemite Valley: Leaving the top of Nevada Fall on the way to Half
Dome the log bathroom previously mentioned is found. Directly after are a few brush
switchbacks that take you over a short pass and down into Little Yosemite Valley.
As soon as you enter the valley the trail splits to the right and left. The trail
to the left (Half Dome Trail) is the most direct course to Half Dome. The trail
to the right (continuation of John Muir Trail) will follow the river all the way
to Merced Lake and the rest of the High Country. I recommend following the trail
to the left. At the point where you begin your ascent out of Little Yosemite Valley
towards the base of Half Dome there is another log bathroom visible (towards the
river and the camp grounds) midway between the two trails . . . just in case.
Valley Overlook: Although the trail has been steep all the way at least it's
been off and on. From here on the steepness doesn't stop. Before you reach the base
of Half Dome an overlook of Yosemite Valley and the East side of Half Dome will
demand your attention. This overlook is a few yards off the trail but is well worth
the stop. From here your vista starts at Half Dome, reaches down across Yosemite
Valley, and over to Snow Creek Trail and Snow Creek Valley. The base of Half Dome
is about 1/4 further but don't worry, the trail doesn't get any easier.
Lightening Warning: At the base of Half Dome are lightening warnings telling
the visitor that lightening can strike at any day of the year. Take this seriously.
If there are storm clouds anywhere in the horizon, think twice about continuing
and becoming part of the lightening rod made by the Half Dome cables.
Hump Ascent: The ascent up the back hump of Half Dome is the most treacherous
part of the trail thus far. The trail here is narrow, steep, full of slippery gravel,
and it's a long way down. Go slow, let faster hikers by, drink lots of water, and
take plenty of rest stops. The more dehydrated and worn out you are, the more likely
you are to make a fatal mistake.
Final Ascent: You're finally at the base of Half Dome and are ready to make
the final ascent. To do this you need good pair of gloves. If you didn't bring any,
a pile of used gloves can be found at the base of the cables. Even though questions
of hygiene may arise, it's still better to have a pair of these gloves than none
at all. For me, I take two pair of gloves; one for going up and one for coming down.
The going up pair is rubberized on the palm (fishing gloves) that help me grip the
cable tightly. The going down pair has Teflon palms that help protect from metal
splinters (although rare) in the cable. If you are to have one pair, like most climbers,
I suggest a comfortable pair of gloves with a good grip.
The Cables: There are two cables running up the back of Half Dome. These
cables are elevated off the granite with metal poles every few yards. At the site
of each of the metal poles is a piece of wood spanning the width of the cables.
Standing on the wood is a much easier place to rest because they are more level
than the granite mountain being climbed. Depending on the season, the cables will
either be up or down. Before I climbed Half Dome with the cables down I had no idea
what 'cables down' meant. For all I knew, the cables were taken down from Half Dome
and removed completely. 'Cables down' means that the metal poles and wood I just
described are removed. This means that the cables lie directly on the granite and
are not elevated. This doesn't mean you can't climb Half Dome. It only means that
it will be harder and more dangerous.
View from the Top: Welcome to the world of 360° views. From here you have
a more than panoramic view of all the following: Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley,
El Capitan, Washington Column, Tenaya Canyon, North Dome, Basket Dome, Snow Creek
Valley, Mt. Watkins, Mt. Hoffmann, Olmstead Point, Cloud's Rest, Sunrise Mountain,
Mt. Caclure, Mt. Lyell, Mt. Florence, Little Yosemite Valley, Cascade Cliffs, Sentinel
Dome, and the list goes on. I'll put this list in panoramic order the next time
I go up. Anyone want to help?
Don't Throw: The top of Half Dome is completely baron of all life except
for a periodic and industrious Marmot looking for handouts. There are places near
the face of Half Dome where you can look straight down into Mirror Lake below. This
is where you really need to restrain yourself from throwing anything over the side
as mountain climbers are often ascending.
New Mindset: The way back down to the valley floor takes a different mindset.
That of going slow enough not to slip and of getting back before dark. If you're
well prepared with flashlights and and jackets, then you can definitely afford to
go slow and stay alive. If you do end up using flashlights (a lot of people do)
then remember to go slow and watch the trail right in front of you for rocks and
Potty/Water Break: Upon reaching Little Yosemite Valley again a trail will
lead the way you came and one will lead towards the bathrooms and a watering spot
near the Merced River. This is a perfect chance to take care of business and to
refill the water containers. When leaving the watering spot, take an immediate left
on the John Muir trail. This leads back to the top of Nevada Fall a bit quicker
than finding the Half Dome trail you just came off of.
Take the Safe Way: Upon reaching the bathroom at the top of Nevada Fall I
recommend that you continue on over the fall. The trail leading down towards the
top of Vernal Fall is too steep to travel down safely. By safely I mean that even
if you do make it down without a serious fall, your knees might not be up to the
strain. After passing Nevada Fall and coming to Clark Point, continue down via the
John Muir trail and do not go to Vernal Fall. The same reasoning applies here as
on the top of Nevada Fall.
Use the standard Day Hike Checklist for this
If we can help it, we'd like to start early enough to so that we can spend around
an hour and a half at the top of Half Dome just kicking back and enjoying the view.
The biggest scheduling danger on this trip is hiking down the trails after dark
which very often pitch. This is also the reason that flashlights are MANDATORY!
Experience has proven that the following times are not exaggerated, especially when
traveling with a group of individuals with varying physical abilities. Therefore,
even though the return time is 8:00 pm, don't be surprised if you get home near
Leave Fresno Area
Quick Breakfast in Oakhurst at McDonalds
Happy Isles/John Muir Trailhead
Vernal Fall View Bridge
Emerald Pool & Silver Apron
Little Yosemite Valley
Start Back via John Muir Trail
Happy Isles/John Muir Trailhead
Return to Fresno Area
(Back to Top)