Craig at the top of Half Dome 
celebrating after a very long day
Half Dome
"The Big One"
Distance: 14.0 Miles (roundtrip)
Starting Elevation:  4,040 feet
Ending Elevation: 8,836 feet
Elevation Gain: 4,796 feet
Trailhead: Happy Isles
Topo Maps: Half Dome


Each year 4 million people enter Yosemite Valley and every one of them sees Half Dome.  A very small percentage of them consider hiking to the top.  Of that small percentage, an even smaller percentage make it to the top.

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 crowded trail in Yosemite and this day it defiantly lived up to it's reputation.  You can take the Happy Isles trailhead to Vernal and Nevada Falls, Tuolumne Meadows, The High Sierra Loop Trail, many 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).
 
Happy Isles Trailhead sign
The "Mist" Trail

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 unusual path around the backside of Half Dome.  Along the trail you will reach 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 Half 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 cables is intimidating, but the set of switchbacks cut into granite are equally intimidating.  These switchbacks are more of a Class 2 scramble than 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 intimidating because:
• 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 the 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 extremely 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 water and estimate we each expended about 3,200+ calories getting there and back.
 

Retrospect
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.

Trail Tips
• 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
  shuttle bus.
• 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.
 

Trip References:
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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