Half Dome: Climbing the Most Beautiful Peak in Yosemite National Park

November 3, 2020 /
Yosemite Half Dome Hike

Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

When someone says Yosemite, the words that come to mind are nature, beauty, adventure, soaring heights, silence, grandeur. But most of all, when you hear say Yosemite, you think El Capitan and Half Dome, the two majestic peaks that so frequently appear in the most vivid dreams of every avid hiker. Well, in this article, we want to tell you everything there is to know about one of these two peaks, the Half Dome!

“What’s Half Dome?” Many of you will ask. It is a massive granite peak, almost 8858 ft high, which, if looked at it from its side, it appears to be cut precisely in half, taking the shape of a sharp beak of a raptor, or a sharp claw. The cut rock face is the fantasy of many hikers and climbing enthusiasts and is known to be, as we shall see, difficult to access.

The way we’re talking about it, the Half Dome looks like something for experienced hikers, and that’s in part true. If you’re reading this article, you know that you’re not planning a walk on the Manhattan Beach promenade, but on one of the most difficult trails in Yosemite National Park.

You’ll need some preparation, but if you know what to do, you’ll be able to tackle the entire Yosemite Half Dome hike or at least a good part of it. The views along the trails leading to the summit will certainly pay off for all the anticipation and exhaustion you’ll experience on the way up.

Half Dome: Trails You Can Take

hiking half dome yosemiteDepending on the possibilities and the time available you can choose different trails. Here they are in detail:

Happy Isles Trailhead: How Long is the Trail?

Let’s start by giving some information about the most demanding and popular trail among hikers.

  • The Half Dome hike is a long walk through some of the most incredible and legendary natural splendors in Yosemite Park, not least among them are the Emerald Pool, the spectacular Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls and the Liberty Cap summit, not to mention the many overlooks from which you can see the Half Dome itself as you gradually approach. Much of the climb will be under the shade of a thick pine forest, which will allow you to see forest fauna up close. It will be instructive and interesting, as long as you don’t meet a bear!
  • Get up early! You will have to walk a total of 10 to 13 hours to cover the 17 miles of the hike (as well as 4800 ft of elevation). The best thing to do is to check the time of day when the sun rises and sets and organize your schedule accordingly. Most hikers – especially those who want to get to the top – leave at dawn, and you should do the same.
  • You will take the trail at Happy Isles, not far from Curry Village. You can take advantage of shuttle bus #16 but as the service starts at 7:00 am, which may be too late. If you want to start walking earlier, you can park your car in the parking spaces provided and cover the route on foot. You will need it to warm up!
  • Useful basic recommendations: Avoid starting to climb if the weather is menacing. What can you do if it starts to flood after 10 miles? In any case, bring suitable clothing for such a hike, reliable and sturdy hiking boots. If you are also climbing the wall, you will obviously need a pair of gloves to climb the cables, but we will tell you all about it momentarily. Bring plenty of water and food, as well as something to store your trash in and throw it away when you’re back in the valley. You won’t find restaurants or trash cans along the narrow trails to the summit.
  • Would you like some more information? Take a look at the photo gallery below (or the video at the end of the article).

Photo of the Half Dome Hike

Little Yosemite Trailhead: The Shortest Trail

It seems hopeless. For you 17 miles are really too many and you don’t have the physique, the preparation, the will or the time. Don’t worry, you can start your excursion from Little Yosemite Campground; you will be “just” 7 miles away. Although the walking time is obviously shortened, don’t forget that you’ll still have a difficult walk ahead of you, so plan your itinerary and be sure to check the weather conditions.

To understand how much time you will save on the hike, this map can be useful to you, where the trail is highlighted by Happy Isles (the red line, the green line, the yellow line and a piece of the blue line) and Little Yosemite Campground (a part of the yellow line). There are other trails (e.g. those starting from Tenaya Lake and Glacier Point) but they are even longer and tiring and therefore not recommended unless you are an expert.

Last but not least… the cables hike!

half dome permitsThe last part of the climb requires its own section. As you may have guessed, this trail saves the best for last, for those who decide to climb to the top of the rock façade. Yes, because the last feet of elevation is not for the faint of heart or for beginners, let alone those who are afraid of heights. You will climb to the top with the help of two metal cables for a long stretch.

For this reason, as mentioned above, it is strongly recommended that you wear durable gloves that can help you during the ascent. One recommendation: if you arrive at the base of the rock face after 4pm, turn back. It is not prudent to climb after that time of the afternoon.

Permits: the Half Dome lottery

Half Dome YosemiteYou now see that the final part of this excursion is very demanding. Some climbers may climb more slowly and with difficulty and, in these cases, patience is the most useful weapon, especially if … there is a line. However, the Yosemite rangers have thought of the right strategy to limit the “traffic” on the metal cables: a lottery for the permits.

No one will stop you from getting to the slopes of the Half Dome, but if you don’t have a permit you won’t be able to continue to the top. Considering that a maximum of 300 climbers per day is allowed, and that Yosemite is very popular, climbing to the top seems like a privilege for very few, so where do you get this permit? And how?

You will need to log on to the official website and try to win a permit through an online lottery, bearing in mind that you can apply for permits for a maximum of 6 people. If you are in a group, you will only get permission if there is availability for all participants on the selected date or date range. During the hiking season, there are 50 permits per day, so you could decide to get them five months before the excursion, which is risky if you want to maintain a little flexibility in your itinerary.

So it’s all up to your luck! Remember that it costs $10 to enter the lottery, which will not be refunded if you lose. If you win, you will pay an additional $10 per person when you receive the permits.

Half Dome Guided Tour: Which One should I Choose?

If you are not confident enough to go on your own, or simply want to rely on the experience of a guide, you can take advantage of a guided hike. We recommend the Guided Half Dome Hike, a special offer dedicated to the Half Dome. You will be guided on the excursion we have described above, along the entire route, including the final climb. You will also be provided with technical equipment suitable for the ascent and first aid. What about permits? No problem: the total price includes also the permit, without lottery (if you already have one you will have to specify it when buying the tour). UPDATE: unfortunately the tour terms have changed and the permit is no longer included in the price. You will have to get it personally by lottery.

There is also the Yosemite Hiking Excursion, which is cheaper and, depending on your level of experience, offers a range of different routes within the park, choosing from beginner, intermediate, moderate, challenging and strenuous hikes. The Half Dome is considered a strenuous hike, but on the official website it is not clear if the entire length of the trail is walked. It would seem that the hike is shortened, based on the fact that permits are not included in the price as well as the meeting time with the guide (8:30 am, definitely too late to get to the top).

The choice is yours. The climb to the top awaits you!

PS: If you are looking for accommodations in the area, make sure you read our article on where to stay near Yosemite Park!

Half Dome Hike Video

Bernardo Pacini
Bernardo Pacini

I am an editor and copywriter and have published some poetry. Besides traveling, my interests include literature, experimental music and good food

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