A Guide to Hiking Half Dome in Yosemite
Miles: 16.4 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 5,457 feet
Permits: Required for the cables
When to go: Late May to early October (when the cables are up)
Half Dome is one of California’s most iconic hikes. Standing 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, Half Dome is also one of the hardest permits to get.
Permits are required for both day hikes and overnight backpacking trips.
When to hike
The National Park Service installed cables from late May to early October that take you to the top of Half Dome.
The cables can be installed later than late May or taken down before early October if the weather is unsafe. If it’s raining or there are thunderstorms, this is not a safe hike.
How to get a permit
You can hike to before the subdome right before the cables without a permit. But to get to the top of Half Dome permits are required for the cables.
There are only 300 permits awarded per day, 225 for day hikers and 75 for backpackers. The preseason lottery application is open from March 1st to March 31st and winners are announced mid-April. The permit is $10 per application and if you win a permit, you’ll have two weeks to pay the $10 per person for the permit.
One person (the team leader) can apply for up to six people for seven different dates. To stand a better chance of getting a permit, apply for mid-week before summer vacation begins for most (so May or early June) or after Labor Day in September or October. If you’re flexible on when you can hike it, Yosemite has Half Dome permit lottery statistics which can help you decide which days to apply for to increase your chances.
I applied for late September and early October and got a permit for the first weekend of October.
If you want to backpack Half Dome instead of day hike it, you’ll need to request a Half Dome permit with your wilderness permit application. You submit a wilderness permit application through their website up to 24 weeks (168 days) in advance and up until two days before your hike. The NPS has a chart that shows you which day to apply depending on your ideal start date.
Each confirmed reservation costs $5 plus another $5 per person. You will be notified of the results from the wilderness permit within two full business days, sometimes it does take three days.
You make a reservation online through this form. This is also the same form you use for all backpacking permits in Yosemite, not just Half Dome.
The trailhead is Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley or Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley. With this permit, you need to camp in Little Yosemite Valley on the first night. There are lockers to store food in, composting toilets and there is river water you can filter nearby. Treat all water before drinking it, I suggest using a water filter like Sawyer or Lifestraw. Here’s my blog post on water filters.
If you have a permit for Happy Isles to Merced Lake or Glacier Point to Illilouette, you can not camp in the Little Yosemite Valley area on the first night of your hike.
Camping is not permitted between Yosemite Valley and Little Yosemite Valley. If you would like to camp in a dispersed Wilderness setting, you must be at least two miles past the campground (at or beyond either Moraine Dome or the Half Dome/John Muir Trail junction). Camping is not permitted on top of Half Dome or at Lost Lake.
If you didn’t get a permit from the preseason lottery, you can still apply for the daily lottery! 50 permits are awarded per day, depending on cancellations and no-shows. You apply online through recreation.gov two days before your hike date.
Trailhead and parking
Park at the Yosemite Valley Trailhead Parking, right past Half Dome Village. From there, it’s a half-mile walk to the trailhead. You walk down a service road, past the Happy Isles Bridge, and to the Happy Isles Trailhead!
If you’re camping in the Upper Pines campground, the trailhead is literally right across the street. If you have reservations to camp there before and after the hike, you can just walk from camp to the trailhead.
Backpacking vs day hiking Half Dome
Follow the instructions above to get a permit for either backpacking or day hiking.
I day hiked it. It’s doable but far from easy. Going back, I would have backpacked it. It makes the trail more enjoyable and less physically straining when broken up into two to three days.
If you choose to day hike it, start well before sunrise. I mean like 3am, 4am or 5am. Expect to be hiking Half Dome all day.
I made this mistake. I’m used to being a weekend warrior. Drive up Friday night, adventure Saturday and Sunday, leave Sunday afternoon and be home by evening. My permit was for a Sunday, so I started at 5am, it took all day. I didn’t get to the car until 9pm. We were exhausted and falling asleep. Barely made it down to Oakhurst (about 1.5 hours from Yosemite Valley) to find a hotel room. I had to be at work the next day, so we slept for a couple of hours and then got back on the road. It’s a 5 hour drive home for me. Took turns sleeping and driving. It was horrible. So please, learn from my mistake. Take the next day off work and know it will take all day.
If you’re backpacking it can be done in a weekend. Assuming you get a weekend permit.
Training For Half Dome
Even though this is a popular trail, don’t assume it’s easy. It’s nature’s stairmaster, and that’s not over exaggerating. I didn’t spend much time in Yosemite before doing this hike and I underestimated nature’s stairmaster part.
Personally, I thought the cables were the easiest part of the whole hike. So train. Focus on developing strength and endurance. If you need more help with training, read through my training blog post.
Tips for the trail
The trail starts from Yosemite Valley by the Upper Pines campground from the Happy Isles trailhead.
When I hiked it, I was told its nature’s stairmaster and I didn’t believe it, but it really is. The whole trail is steep, expect to climb hundreds of stairs before even getting to the cables. Get an early start! It’s a long hike and sometimes there’s congestion on the cables because people get afraid, so go early to try and beat the crowds.
There are two trails you can take from Happy Isles to Half Dome. You can take the Mist Trail or the John Muir Trail. Both take you to the same place, but the Mist Trail has more steps and is steeper than the John Muir Trail. I took the Mist Trail up and the John Muir Trail down. If you have problems with your knees, I suggest taking the John Muir Trail down.
The map below shows you the trail if you take the Mist Trail or the John Muir Trail to Upper Nevada Falls.
For the cables, bring rubber gardening gloves, it will help your grip on the cables.
I’ve heard mixed arguments for or for not bringing a harness for the cables. Personally, I didn’t use one and I didn’t feel like I needed one. The gloves helped me hold on and the wooden plank steps help you have something to stand on. If you’re afraid of heights, a harness might help bring some peace of mind.
The key for me was to just put one foot in front of the other and know I was close to the top. I don’t have a terrible fear of heights, but I only looked down a couple of times because it freaked me out a bit. On the way down, it helped me to go down backward, so face the rock so you don’t have to see the drop.
Tips for the cables:
- Take your time and be patient with slower hikers.
- Let faster hikers pass you.
- Stay inside of the cables, don’t climb on the outside.
Do not attempt to climb up the cables if:
- There are storm clouds.
- The ground is wet. The cables and rock become very slippery and this is when most accidents occur.
- When the cables are down for the winter, unless you’re a very experienced climber.
If it’s raining, snowing or the rock is wet at all, don’t hike Half Dome! That’s when falls and deaths occur. It’s so slick so if Half Dome is wet at all, it’s so easy to slip and fall. I don’t say this to scare you, it’s to prepare you. Unfortunately, accidents are a reality of hiking, so the key is to be prepared and aware to minimize your chances of something happening.
What to pack
If you’re backpacking, read through my blog post on what I bring backpacking. If you’re day hiking Half Dome, read through my day hiking essentials blog.
Bring enough food and water for your trip. There are places to filter water, so bring a water filter in case you run out of water.
Here is a break down of how much water you should bring:
- 1 gallon (4 liters) if hiking to the top of Half Dome
- 2 quarts (2 liters) if hiking only to the top of Nevada Fall
- 1 quart (1 liter) if hiking only to the top of Vernal Fall
Remember to always pack out all of your trash! Including toilet paper.
My Half Dome Hiking Story
Earlier I mentioned that this was one of the hardest hikes I’ve done where everything went on. Well, here’s the story.
I got permits to hike it on a Sunday, I didn’t request the following day off from work, I figured I had done many long distance 15+ mile day hikes all summer long so I would be fine. We started hiking Half Dome at 5am and right from the start it was hard. We went up the Mist Trail on the way and it hurt. My legs were on fire from the stairs. But we pushed through all of the sets of stairs all the way to Half Dome. Before the sub dome, I got so tired of walking stairs, I started running them. It burned less.
We got to the summit around 3pm. It was beautiful, I’m so glad we made it. Then we turned around.
On the way down, we were struggling. We got to the top of Upper Nevada Falls and I went to filter water. This was in 2017, so even though it was October, it was a high snow year so there was plenty of water still. I miss-stepped and ended up falling into the river. There was no one around but my hiking partner who had both of our backpacks strapped to him. The river is pulling me down to the edge of the waterfall and there is nothing to grab on to get myself out. Thankfully he pulled off both packs (so he didn’t fall in) and made it to pull me out before I went too far and off the edge.
It was one of the scariest moments of my life in the mountains. I’ve learned to never take anything for granted and watch every step even when you’re tired.
It was 7pm in October, we still had miles to go and I was soaked from head to toe. That was not a fun hike down. We finally made it back to the car by 9pm.
Since I didn’t ask for Monday off, I still had to go to work the next day. By the time we got to the car, I could barely walk. We drove to Oakhurst and got a hotel. That was even a struggle not to fall asleep driving the hour outside of the park. We grabbed dinner and got to bed. We slept for 3 to 4 hours before getting up and trying to drive home to make it.
I ended up late for work and came in around 11am that day. I texted my boss what happened and he was very understanding. Now looking back, I should have just taken the day off.
What a story, right? Sometimes these things happen. If you take anything away from this story and the mess that was this hike is to be prepared. I cannot stress this enough. Anything can happen in the mountains, even slipping and falling into a river right above a waterfall because you’re tired and didn’t watch your footing.
For more on hiking and outdoor guides, be sure to check out my backpacking and hiking blog here. If you like what you see, subscribe to my email newsletter to stay up to date on all of my hiking guides.