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Guide to Half Dome & Everything You Need To Know Before Starting

If you’ve heard of Yosemite National Park, you most likely have heard of Half Dome, an exciting and treacherous summit that one must do if the opportunity arises. Each of us has wanted to attempt this hike ever since we first visited the national park in the summer of 2014. A few weeks ago, we finally had the opportunity to summit the dome. 

Hiking Half Dome requires a lot of preparation so we arranged a list of our tips to better prepare you for your trek up. 

What to Know About the Permit

Due to its popularity, the Yosemite National Park Service implemented a permit system to hike Half Dome. Today, the maximum number of permits reaches 300 — this includes 225 day hikers and 75 backpackers. To get a permit, you will need to enter a lottery system at recreation.gov. Permits can be applied for up to a 6 person group. You can request up to 7 different dates, with only one of the dates being approved. The lottery opens up on March 1 and closes on March 31. Permits are picked around mid-April.

Tips:
When applying for a permit, we recommend choosing weekday options if you want to up your chances. Both of us applied for a permit on days between Monday-Friday and we both got approved. Click here for the lottery statistics to help choose your dates.

Didn’t get a permit? You can always hike up the trail and ask fellow hikers if they have extra permits and will allow you to hike up with them. Another option is to wait outside the permit office at 7am the day before the hike to try and snatch one from those who dropped out.

Looking to backpack at Little Yosemite Valley? Along with the Half Dome permit, a wilderness permit is required for backpackers. The perk is that you can get an early head start, beat the afternoon crowd, and you’ll hike fewer miles during the day. Click here for more details on backpacking.

What to Know About Half Dome

Half Dome Cables. The cables are up from late May to mid-October, which is when you will need a permit. There are some who attempt the hike with the cables down, however, we do not recommend this. With anything, proceed at your own risk.

The Distance of Hike. There are many different trails you can take up to Half Dome. We hiked the most popular one through Mist Trail, an approximate 14-mile roundtrip hike. We chose this trail for its length (it’s one of the shorter trails) and because you will be rewarded with two beautiful waterfalls — Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. 

Duration of Hike. The roundtrip trek to Half Dome through Mist Trail takes roughly 10-12 hours for an average person who is somewhat fit. Ultimately, the time depends on the number of breaks you take and how long your stay at the summit is. For slow hikers like us, it took a total whopping 14 hours.

Elevation Gained. Half Dome stands at 8,842 feet in elevation. From the trailhead, you will gain a total of 4,800 feet. Make sure you prepare yourself for the changes in altitude; this hike is no joke!

What to Pack

4 Liters of Water
. This is very important! To prevent altitude sickness and dehydration from being so high up, you will want to stay hydrated throughout the hike, even if you don’t feel thirsty. When your mouth starts to feel dry, it’s already too late. Note, with so much water, you’re going to need to pee. A lot. There are plenty of restrooms on the trail. If you must go and there are no restrooms nearby, be sure to do your business at least 100 feet away from any waterways to prevent contamination.

Gloves with a Good Grip. Your hands will thank you a thousand times over. Climbing the cables requires a lot of upper body strength. Having gloves with a good grip prevents slipping, chaffing, crying, and makes the climb a whole lot easier. If you do forget them, there will be a pile of gloves at the base of the cables.

Sturdy Hiking Boots with Wool Socks. With parts of the trail being quite rocky, you don’t want to give any chances to roll your ankles, stub your toes, or do any damage to the feet. Plus, a good pair of hiking shoes makes for an overall more comfortable and enjoyable hike.

Waterproof Jacket. If you decide to hike through the Mist Trail, know that it will get a bit misty from the base of Vernal Falls to the top of Vernal Falls. There is a specific section where it feels like you are being rained on, so if you don’t want to continue the hike soaked, bring along a cover for yourself (and one your backpack too!)

Headlights with Fresh Batteries. Don’t underestimate the time it’ll take to hike back. Take all the precautions you can think of. The sun may still greet you as you hike back down, but the moon could also quickly take over. Bring along headlights in case you make it back from the trail later than anticipated. We made it back with just enough sunlight to see through the towering trees.

Trekking Poles. These are a lifesaver. It’ll help you propel your body forward during steep sections of the trail, help maintain balance, and will carry you on when you don’t think you can walk any longer. They are also a great tool to avoid strain on your knees and hips on the way down.

Lots of Snacks. Snacks are not only delicious, but they’re a great way to refuel your body during a long hike. Your body needs plenty of carbs, proteins, and fats to continue on. Our favorite snacks to bring are energy bars (Clif Bar, Honey Stinger, and Pro Meal), nuts (salted almonds, trail mix, and peanuts), and fruits (dried fruits, apples, or tangerines). Make sure you have salty snacks because you will sweat out a lot of electrolytes that regulate nerve and muscle functions. Potato chips are a treat, too!

Sunblock. This is an essential many forget or don’t think they need, but sunscreen helps protect against the sun’s harmful rays, premature aging, wrinkles, skin cancer, and major sunburn that hurts for 3 days after the trip. We tried to sunblock every 2 hours.

Bug Spray with DEET. It’s summer and bugs enjoy being outdoors as much as you do. Purchase bug spray that has DEET and is EPA approved to protect against disease-carrying insects. It’s one of our 10 favorite summer essentials

Camera. We know, the thought of lugging along a camera in addition to all your other supplies is crazy. But YOU JUST CONQUERED HALF DOME and the view at the top is insane. You’re going to want to capture at least one good shot as a memory. Or, if you don’t want to carry the extra weight, a cell phone will suffice too.

First Aid Kit. Accidents can happen at any time. Since you’re out in nature, it is crucial to have the essentials directly on hand. You don’t need anything too fancy, but be prepared for small cuts with bandages and alcohol wipes. These compact first aid kits from REI can do the trick.

half-dome-yosemite-national-park

Other Important Information to Keep in Mind

Although we don’t think you have to be the fittest or the strongest person on Earth to hike Half Dome, you do have to be somewhat fit and active.

It’s common to start the trail early — personally, we recommend a time before sunrise. Our group started the hike bright and early at 4:30am and finished at 8pm. We stayed the night at Camp 4 and parked at the trailhead parking lot, just past Half Dome Village, (formerly known as Curry Village) — a 7-minute drive from the camp. You will see a sign labeled “Trailhead Parking”. If that parking lot is full, you can park at Half Dome Village. From the Trailhead Parking, it’s another 3/4 – 1-mile hike to the start of the Mist Falls trailhead.

Before starting the hike, have a turnaround time everyone in your group agrees on. We decided that if we didn’t make it to Half Dome by 3:30pm (per Yosemite’s suggestion), we’d turn around. We didn’t want to hike in the dark and risk getting lost.

Tips:

The last water refill station is at the base of Vernal Falls. We refilled our hydration packs and water bottles here.

While ascending the cables, we noticed some hikers had a harness rope tied to their waist with the ends attached to a carabiner, which then attached to the cables. This is a great way to secure yourself for a safer climb. 

Jennifer’s Experience:

Half Dome was brutal! The climb up was challenging (I was scared shitless), and the hike back was excruciatingly long. I think I felt miserable during 90% of the hike. Still, I am so happy I did it! And with a few of my closest friends, no less! I’ll always remember how I felt at the top. It was euphoric. It was unreal. It was awesome. At that moment — standing at the edge of the mountain, looking past the tall evergreen trees and into the valley, with a sandwich in my hand after one of my toughest climbs — I felt as if I could accomplish anything in life. Anything. I was so proud of myself and of my friends. I think I almost cried as I looked down… probably because I am so afraid of heights, but I kept thinking, “Holy smokes, I am finally here. I’m standing at the top of Half Dome. Never looking at this dome the same ever again.” This hike also reminded me how supportive the hiking community is, too. On the climb up, all around were comments like, “You’re almost there” and “You’re doing great!” — I loved it. That’s likely what kept me going. 

Tip: When on the cables, remember to take your time and don’t let people rush you. Go at a pace you are comfortable with because if you fall, you might take others down with you. Lastly, don’t underestimate the challenge this hike poses — mentally and physically. You can expect the worst and that won’t even equate just how brutal the roundtrip hike is.

Vivian’s Experience:

Hands down the most challenging and brutal hike I have ever done in my entire life (so far). My body was so broken. I have never been so excited yet exhausted and dead (not literally) at the same time. There were times when I thought I could no longer go on, especially after Nevada Falls when the elevation picked up for the next 4 miles. By the time I got to the Sub Dome (the part just before the cables), I was so drained. However, like many successful challenges, it felt incredible when I finally made it to the top. I seriously could have cried as I tried to comprehend what I just accomplished. I believe that hiking, in general, requires more of mental toughness than physical. It is amazing what your body can do with the right kind of mindset. As I walked around the summit and marveled at the view, I eventually found a cozy spot to eat my lunch. All I thought was “Wow, I did it. I finally did it.” I must admit though, the hike back down was absolutely terrible. My friend even pointed out that I physically looked miserable (not that I could hide it even if I could). My body, especially my feet, were aching so much that every step I took was painful. Boy, I happy to see the car when we descended the mountain.  

watching brave hikers climb up from the bottom of Half Dome

 

half-dome-yosemite-national-park

 

the view from the top of Half Dome


This experience is definitely one for the books. It’s a memory that we’ll never forget. Admittedly, it was one of our toughest experiences so far, but it was also one of the most rewarding. It may seem daunting to hike the grandiose Half Dome at first, but as long as you prepare and have the heart and mindset to do so, you’re going to be okay. It’s a great feeling to be able to say, “I HIKED HALF DOME!” It’s an intense feeling. Good luck to our future hikers, we wish you the very best!

If you have any questions about the hike to Half Dome feel free to email us at tinycaravan@gmail.com. We’ll be happy to answer them!

Cheers,
Jennifer and Vivian

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