An Amateurs Guide to Hiking The Half Dome
Updated March 2, 2020
The iconic symbol of the Half Dome dominated the photo, dwarfing the surrounding peaks. From the moment I saw it, my Midwest heart yearned to discover everything about the iconic granite face. It took all of 10 minutes to discover it was climbable and devise a plan to summit it with my dad the following year.
Naive and the ripe age of 19, I bought a plane ticket for my dad for Christmas, marking the beginning of our ill-equipped quest for the summit. Being from Michigan, there wasn't exactly anything around to train on and I knew nothing about mountains, hiking, or elevation, leading me to completely underestimated the difficulty.
In the years since, I've bagged many of peaks, prompting me to revisit my initiation climb with comical ignorance often. Although not technical, the length and elevation are a force.
Let's start from the beginning...
After flying into San Francisco, we headed out to the valley to start the adventure. We were dreaming of a secluded night under the stars, roasting marshmallows and meticulously checking our gear in preparation for our 6 am start time. That dream was heartbreakingly squashed roughly 2.7 seconds after entering the valley. Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication with the park employee I spoke to on the phone months before regarding camp reservations. Ignorant of Yosemite's busy season, my understanding that reservations in the campground were offered, but not required was vastly inaccurate.
We skipped into the reservation lodge. "Two nights of camping, please!"
Under their stifling chuckle, the park employee informed us we were over an hour away from the closest campground with any room too spare. And when they meant you could catch a spot at "Camp 4" if you came early enough (because it is a non-reservation campground), they didn't mean before noon...the line usually starts for that camp around 5 am, with only the first few often get a spot.
Update 2019: Camp 4 is now a lottery-only campground from late May to early September. Learn more here.
Ignoring the potential shit-show ahead of us and the fact we were homeless for the next four nights, we drove between the giant granite walls in awe of the intense and dramatic beauty. It was our first time in California, a place we'd both ultimately pictured as a giant traffic jam.
All valley lodging was booked and we had no idea of our next plan. We were committed to begin our hike up the Half Dome the following day since climbers receive a date-specific hiking permit months before. There was no leaving and trying another day. Driving around a campground, I asked my dad if we should try making friends with some fellow adventurers in the hope of crashing on their campsite. Shortly after, we stumbled upon the most delightful family from Las Vegas, who, despite the strict rules of the National Park, let us pitch the tent behind the camper (Sorry Yosemite!).
The morning plan was to get up at 4:45 am and head to Camp 4 to wait in line until they let the newcomers in at 8 am and then throw our pile of crap in a site and start our hike. Already situated in line at 6:15 am, I watched the darkness slowly turn to dawn over the thousand-foot cliffs at my feet. I peered over to the Half Dome and realized if we were to wait until we got into the camp, we would never make the summit in time. Most people say that if you don't reach the peak by 3:00 pm, you're in danger of getting stuck in the night of the High Sierra's.
I rocketed up from my sleeping bag and ran over to my dad, who was reading an announcement board next to the line.
"I'm not missing the summit for a campsite."
I didn't have to argue with him. Just like that, we marched out of the line and jumped into the car en route to the trailhead.
Although this is only the beginning of our camp troubles, moral of the story for camping at Yosemite: MAKE RESERVATIONS!
The Half Dome Hike
We set our first foot on the trail at 6:30 am. The sign read: Half Dome Summit 7.8 Miles. The morning was cold, so we dressed in long sleeves and sweatshirts, which we figured we would store away later in our backpacks. Well, it turns out we sweated through them in the first constantly-inclined mile. But not only had we already made the mistake of too many layers but we also immensely overestimated our ability to carry everything we had in our packs. That lead to a bathroom break just beneath Vernal Falls, where we stashed all of our warm-weather wear under a storage box to collect on our way down. No matter how cold you are at the beginning...don't overpack or you'll be carrying unneeded weight up an already treacherous climb.
Just below Vernal Falls is the last source of clean water until you return after the summit. This means there are a solid twelve miles of non-stop ascending and descending before your next freshwater source. Either bring a water purifier to use on rivers or make sure to bring more than enough water. The last thing you want to do is get stuck in the mountains with dehydration.
Continuing on, the steeper inclines and rocky steps begin that lead you up and next to Vernal Falls, then another 1.2 miles to the top of Nevada Falls. The hike is hard work, but extremely doable. Up past these waterfalls are other trails day hikers without Half Dome Permits use, so traffic will be greater than higher in the mountains.
After Nevada Falls, the trail flattens for about a half-mile...enjoy it! This section is known as Little Yosemite Valley and can serve as a campground for backpackers. We considered staying here until the decision was ruled out after realizing we would have to hike everything up. Here we were tired but had made relatively good time. It was about 11:30 am ad we had a set time to arrive at the summit by 1:30 pm.
However, as soon as the incline started again I started realizing how much we underestimated the mountain. By this time, we were thousands of vertical feet high and where the air was much thinner than at sea level. Michigan is relatively low and our bodies were not used to the high altitude, which was the most challenging part. Others who have been in high altitudes before seemed to walk by relatively unaffected by the height. But for our two untrained bodies, it was the first time we had experienced a strenuous workout above 8,000ft.
The trail twisted and turned for hours, although we seemed to get nowhere. We would walk for 20 seconds and be so out of breath a 2-minute break would have to be taken. Not realizing our exhaustion was purely from the altitude, we had decided to take an extended 15-minute break in hopes of regaining strength. We sat next to a log, attempted to choke down a protein bar and eventually fell asleep into short cat-nap in the middle of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range.
Back on our feet no more than 20 minutes later, we had walked a whole two minutes before we were twice as exhausted as before. The nap did nothing to help but was successful in making the hike even harder. One of the main mistakes that lead to our exhaustion was the lack of nutrients. We had packed multiple protein bars, nuts, and fruit bars, but by the time we had reached the top of Nevada Falls the site of any food made our stomachs churn, which ended in very little to be eaten for the rest of the day.
At this point, my dad was starting to lose hope of making the summit. Here we were, two unprepared beginner hikers attempting to climb one of the "most dangerous hikes in America." We'd never climbed anything before, sure we loved hiking, but back home we would be looking at elevation changes no greater than 500ft, not thousands. It seemed as if we had done nothing right and it was clear by this time there was no chance of making our 1:30 pm summit goal.
On a break of frustration as other hikers passed, my dad put his hand on my shoulder and told me that he would wait here and that I should make the summit without him.
"Shalee, I keep looking at the top, and it's not getting any closer."
"Then stop looking at it!"
I angrily paraded another 100 feet up the trail before surrendering to my screaming lungs. My dad caught up and begged me to go, where I was persistent that I would not go without him. I knew how much he would regret it if he stopped now. I got this trip for him as a Christmas present, and I didn't fly us out here to quit with our goal in reach. I understood his pain, but the top was close and I'm one stubborn daughter. So we continued on one step at a time.
Reluctantly we made our way up the trail. Finally, after taking over two hours to hike under two miles, we were at the sub dome. The sub dome consisted of an almost vertical wall up a rocky slope, which was climbed by small indents made to use as steps. It was 2:00 pm and I knew if we were going to make it we would have to push. The sub dome is relatively safe as long as you stay on the intended stairs and watch your step. Any foolish playing or misstep could send you down the slope side.
Atop the sub dome, the massive granite face of the Half Dome hits you in the face. Its vertical slope is your last and final challenge. Once you make it up, you're at the top, you've done it.
However, it's not that easy. To successfully make it to the top, you must climb within the cables on the side of the dome. If you attempt anything outside those lifelines, you're plunging down a rocky cliff until you meet hard ground thousands of feet below. Gloves are vital when climbing the cables because without them, your hands will be so torn that blood and blisters will be your consequence. Take one step at a time, remember that a poorly thought decision can have a deadly consequence.
Eventually, after hundreds of feet of heart-pumping climbing, we had made the summit at almost exactly 3:00 pm. In the words of 19-year-old Shalee: "PRAISE THE LAWD."
The view is insane. After almost giving up, my dad nearly signing a petition for my adult adoption, and thinking we failed; we were standing on the summit. The first thing I did was walk to the far side of the dome, plop down on the rock and call my aunt. "We made it!" I told her, where she replied, "You did? Congratulations! Glad to be back down?"
"...we're only at the top."
Time ticking, we spent about 30 minutes at the top, smiling cheek to cheek and taking pictures on the edge of thousand-foot cliffs (because why not?). My dad thanked me for forcing him to the top because he already knew how massive his regrets would be otherwise. Seeing his face after completing a considerable accomplishment was well worth making him hate me on the way up. We bid farewell to the top and began our journey back to the valley floor, thousands of vertical feet below.
The decent on the cables was scarier than the ascent and the rest of the hike down was just as long, but not as grueling. Our breathing had adjusted to the height, but our legs were screaming in pain from non-stop climbing since 6:30. We stopped only twice on the way down, knowing that we were racing sunlight. Shortly before 10:00 pm, we took our final steps onto the valley floor.
We collapsed into the car and sat there motionless for minutes before realizing our need for food. Since 12:30 pm, we had eaten only a few nuts next to a river on our descent. Starving, we pulled into the pizzeria parking lot where our legs were so cramped from the climb we could barely walk (seriously we looked pathetic). I thought I was going to throw up, but I knew I needed to eat. Well, next thing you know the entire greasy cheese pizza that was in front of me was gone.
Being totally unprepared to hike something of this scale was a challenge that I loved more than anything I had ever done before. That day on June 13th, 2013, we successfully made the summit of our first mountain by hiking over 18 miles without any previous training or experience. The half dome hike was now successfully checked off from our bucket lists. Not only that, it sparked my ever-growing love for summits around the country and the world. Six years later and I've got a fair share under my belt, including scaling multiple state and country highpoints, and a technical summit of the nearby Mt Whitney.
So for anyone looking to complete the Half Dome hike, do it! Make sure to apply for a hiking permit, which usually needs to be done in March. About 50% of people who apply get permits, so it's never guaranteed. I hope this post gives you what not to do and how to maximize your enjoyment. I cannot tell you these words give you what to expect because no matter how hard and how often you read it, there is knowing until you begin. Being able to climb the Half Dome is a risk worth taking. However, the dangers which lurk on the trail should be taken seriously. Hundreds of people are rescued every year, some with severe injuries. The sub dome and Half Dome are climbs that can take a life. Be safe and enjoy the view! It's worth it all.
Lastly, I would like to thank the fantastic family from Las Vegas, who opened their camp to us. You gave us hospitality & kindness on a night that would have undoubtedly ruined our climb. Your stories, food, and laughs have stuck with us since the trip and I hope someday you stumble upon this post and we can reconnect. Thank you.
At any given moment, Shalee is either lost, hunting for ice cream, or obsessively planning her next adventure.
Born and raised in rural Michigan, she began exploring the shores of Great Lakes as a teen, often sleeping in her car to save money. Eventually, her urge to explore pushed beyond her Midwest borders. Today, Shalee shares her tips and stories to thousands of readers interested in adventure, outdoor, and sustainable tourism. Her pack now includes two spunky hiking cats and her partner, Josh. Learn more about her here.