celebrating after a very long day
"The Big One"
This hike has been on my list of "Gotta Do" Hikes for a long time. For years I've wanted to make this trip, but I have never found the time to prepare or train for this trip. On September 25, 1999, my friend Casey and I made it to the top. The top of Half Dome was worth the wait and the journey was definitely an adventure to remember.
Trailguides will list the mileage of this trip as either 14.0 or 16.4 miles. The mileage varies based on your route. Because we were on the trail late in the season, we choose the Mist Trail. Taking the Mist Trail saves 1.2 miles off the trip each direction, but is brutal on the knees. Had we made the trip earlier in the season, we would have choose the longer John Muir Trail to avoid getting soaked by Vernal Falls.
We started this trip by spending the night at the World-famous city of El Portal, made famous by the recent murders. We woke up at 5:30 in the morning, ate a quick breakfast, then waited in line for the Hwy. 140 park entrance to open. At the time we made the trip, Hwy. 140 was closed 10:30pm - 6:30am to repair the damage from the January 1997 Flood. We drove to Camp Curry where we parked and caught the shuttle at stop #1/14 (you can't park at Happy Isles). We took the shuttle to Happy Isles, stop #16, and hit the trail at 7:15am (4,040', 0.0mi).
This trail is the most
trail in Yosemite and this day it defiantly lived up to it's
You can take the Happy Isles trailhead to Vernal
and Nevada Falls, Tuolumne Meadows, The High Sierra Loop Trail,
other backcountry locations, and of course the Top of Half Dome.
It's also the end/start of the 211 mile John Muir Trail (JMT).
Shortly after leaving the trailhead, we reached the Vernal Falls Bridge (4,400', 0.8mi). This is the the last potable water on the trail so it's a good place to fill up your water bottles. It's also the location of the first toilet on the trail.
We continued up the Mist Trail. Because it was late in the season, Vernal Falls was practically dry. This enabled us to make great time up the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls (5,040, 1.3mi). We continued on the Mist Trail to the intersection with the JMT (5,960, 2.5mi) where the second toilet is located.
From there we continued to the popular backpack camp, Little Yosemite Valley (6,120', 3.7mi), and continued along the JMT. Little Yosemite Valley has the last toilet on the trail. The trail along Little Yosemite Valley gives you great views of the backside of Half Dome. It's hard to believe you will be climbing up it! At the next intersection, we leave the JMT to start the Half Dome Trail (7,000', 5.0mi).
You will travel an
path around the backside of Half Dome. Along the trail you will
the last filterable water at a very small spring (7,400, 5.6mi).
As you continue, you will get an incredible view of the East side of
Dome and your first glimpse of the famous cables.
This was our first view of the switchbacks and cables.
The route up the East side of Half Dome is in red,
the cables start half way up at the "V" notch.
These are the steep switchbacks on the first half up
the East side
The first view of the
is intimidating, but the set of switchbacks cut into granite are
intimidating. These switchbacks are more of a Class 2 scramble
a Class 1 trail.
The cables at 11:15am
The cables at 2:00pm
We started up the cables at 11:15am. Luckily the line was not very long and we were able to move quickly up. While going up there were plenty of people who "chickened-out" and were headed back down.
The cables are very
• If you slip you will fall to your death, no doubt about it
• It takes a lot of energy to climb up the steep slope.
• The high elevation (8,836') makes it very difficult to climb up the steep 50+
degree slope. It's steeper than the pictures render.
• You are tired from walking 7 miles uphill just to get here
Top of the Cables
Casey celebrating after a long trip
At 11:45am, we reached
top of Half Dome (8,836', 7mi). We were completely exhausted when
we got to the top.
The top looks a little alien, kind of like Mars
The top is often crowded, as many people make this trip
We enjoyed the view at the top for about one hour before we headed back down. When we were at the top, there were probably 100 other people also celebrating. When we came back down the cables, there were at least another 100+ people climbing up the cables. We fought our way down squeezing past the climbers.
We finished the trip
tired at 4:45pm. We spent a total of 9.5 hours on the trail, 8.5
of which were hiking. On the trail we each drank 4 liters of
and estimate we each expended about 3,200+ calories getting there and
On our way back down the mountain, we each swore we would never make the trip again. On the drive home, we both agreed we were ready to do it again.
Since making that trip, I've been back to Yosemite Valley several times. Every trip I need to look at Half Dome. Some overwhelming desire forces me to identify the ledge I stood on which overlooked the Yosemite Valley. I don't know why, but since I've been to the top, Half Dome looks different.
• Train - Unless you are a marathon runner, you will have to train for this trip. Ideally hiking is the best
training, but if that isn't possible use a stairmaster and treadmill.
• Acclimate - Unless you acclimate, you will be sucking air. If possible, acclimate in Tuolumne Meadows
(8,000+') or Yosemite Valley (4,000'). We spend the night at El Portal (2,000') and were hurting
once we got above 7,000'.
• Get an early start - This trail is the most popular one in Yosemite. It is very crowded and you will
discover people move in "waves". Try to start in the first wave, this will mean catching the very first
• Use hiking poles - Because this trail is very rough (like rough rock stairs) use hiking poles to save the knees
• Bring plenty of water - Everyone has different water requirements. When we made the trip the end of
September (90 degrees), we each used 4 liters of water. Recommend bring a minimum of 4 liters per
person, as well as a water filter to "make" more water. Plenty of locations to fill water.
• Bring gloves - To climb the cables, you will need gloves. You need them for two reasons: so you don't
slip and fall to your death, and to avoid blisters when coming down the cables.
• Avoid traffic jams - There are often 10-20 minute waits to get up the cables, start early.
• Face down - When coming down the cables you can either face downhill or walk down backwards. We
found it easier to face downhill, it really isn't that scary.
• Going to the bathroom - There are pit toilets at the Vernal Falls bridge, Vernal Falls, Mist Trail / JMT
trail intersection, and Little Yosemite Valley. Plan appropriately if bringing women, or to take dump.
• Time of year - If you are planning this trip early in the season (May or earlier), be sure to call the
ranger station to ensure the trail is snowfree and the cables are up. If you are planning this trip late
in the season (October or later), call to ensure the cables are up. Unless you are an experienced
rock climber, you don't want to attempt this trip if the cables are not up.
Schaffer, Jefferey P. 1996. High Sierra Hiking Guide Yosemite. Berkeley: Wilderness Press, p. 58-62 (day hike #21).
O'Neil, Dennis V. 1996. Trail Tools Yosemite Valley. O'Neil Software, p. 44-47 (trips 6A and 6B).
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