The Ultimate Half Dome Hike Guide and How to Get Half Dome Permits - GymWhisperer.com
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Half Dome - Yosemite National Park

The Ultimate Half Dome Hike Guide and How to Get Half Dome Permits

8.2 Miles to Half Dome

Start at the bottom of the Mist Trail.

This is your ultimate guide to a successful Half Dome hike and how to get Half Dome permits. The Half Dome hike in Yosemite National Park stretches over 16 miles (round trip) from the floor of Yosemite Valley, tracing along the Merced River past two gorgeous waterfalls (Vernal and Nevada), and all the way up to the legendary cables at Half Dome. So if you’re planning a trip to Yosemite that includes a Half Dome, then this guide will explain how to get Half Dome permits and what to expect when you climb the Half Dome cables.

How to Get Half Dome Permits

Before you can even think about doing this amazing hike, you will need a Half Dome permit. Technically the permit is for using the cables on Half Dome. However, Half Dome permits are checked by park rangers at the base of the sub dome (we’ll get to the sub dome in a bit), so you can’t even hike up to the bottom of the cables without a permit.

Half Dome Trail

Hiking the trail up to Half Dome.

Applications to win Half Dome permits are available by on online lottery on the Cables on Half Dome website. The entry period for the Half Dome lottery takes place each year in early March, and permit winners are notified in April. It took me several years of entering the lottery before finally scoring the elusive Half Dome permit. So if you’re thinking about doing Half Dome, then be persistent and eventually you’ll likely win!

UPDATE: Starting in 2020, Yosemite introduced a new Half Dome permit lottery system. It now let’s you pick up to 7 different days throughout the season, which gives you a better chance of winning (vs. the old system where you needed to go all in on one specific date). I scattered my 7 selections throughout the season, with a mix of popular days (weekends) and mid-week days to improve my odds. Yosemite even has a website that publishes the Half Dome lottery statistics so you can see which days give you the best odds of winning.

There is a non-refundable $10 fee to enter the lottery, and – should you win – you will then need to purchase the permit at a rate of $10-per-person. So if you have 4 people in your party, then you will end up paying $50 ($10 to enter the lottery plus $10 for each of the 4 people in your party). This will be the best $50 you ever spend.

When you enter the lottery, you only need to know the total Number of people in your party, but you do not need to know the Names of those people. You will be entering the lottery as the Leader of your hiking party, so You will need to be present on the hike, but you can figure out who is going with you later…I imagine it’s very easy to find some friends to go up Half Dome with you!!

Also when entering the lottery, you have the option to include the Name of one Alternate Leader who can take over your hiking party if you can’t go. But your permit is not valid unless at least one of the Primary or Alternate Leaders is in the hiking party (i.e. you can’t give away or sell your pass to anyone else).

If you don’t win a Half Dome permit in the March seasonal lottery, there is a daily lottery you can enter. In 2020 with COVID-19 restrictions, there will only be 50 daily permits made available. The entire process for the daily lottery takes two days. For instance, in order to win a daily lottery for a Saturday Half Dome permit, then you’d enter the daily lottery on Thursday morning with the winners being announced on Thursday night. If you can swing a last minute trip to Yosemite with only a couple days’ notice, then see if you can get lucky with the daily Half Dome permit lottery. This is also a good plan if you’re already staying in Yosemite for several days, and want to take a shot at scoring a daily permit.

During your Half Dome hike, be sure to bring a printed copy of your permit with you as a backup. I was never asked to show my permit, but the park rangers did ask for my name and verified it against a computer.

Lodging for Your Half Dome Hike

Once you get your Half Dome permit, you’ll need a place to stay. Depending on your fitness level, the Half Dome will take 12-14 hours, so you want to start your hike as early as possible so the closer to the trail head the better.

Mist Trail

A few minutes into the Mist Trail and already gorgeous Yosemite views.

Your first choice should be to staying in Yosemite with options to include tent cabins, traditional camping and a limited selection of traditional hotel rooms. If it’s your first trip to Yosemite, then Curry Village is a great choice because it has glamping-style tent cabins (kind of like in the MASH TV show) with cots, blankets and bear boxes to store your food. Plus Curry Village has community bathrooms/showers, and is a short walk to a lodge-style dining hall, a full bar and a swimming pool. The rates are also very reasonable – you’re not going to find a better value anywhere than Curry Village, and it’s an ideal way for newbie campers to experience Yosemite.

Yosemite lodging has a 7 day no-charge cancellation policy. Since it’s so hard to even get a reservation to stay in Yosemite, many travelers reserve whatever they can get and then end up cancelling right as it gets closer to the 7 day window. In fact, some people make phantom reservations for Multiple rooms/cabins/tents and then cancel them all at once. So if you end up with a hotel room way outside the park, then keep checking with Yosemite as your Half Dome hike date is 7-14 days away. You may get lucky and pick up a cancellation. One trip I was able to book [unicorn] cabin 819 in Curry Village because someone had cancelled it moments before I called. TIP: If 819 is available, take it.

But reservations in Yosemite can be as elusive as getting the Half Dome permit itself, so don’t be discouraged if you can’t stay in Yosemite – it just means you’ll need to wake up earlier. For my Half Dome hike, I stayed in a hotel about 20 minutes away from the trailhead in the town of El Portal.

You also have the option to camp overnight in Little Yosemite Valley, but that requires hiking about half way to Half Dome with overnight camping equipment and supplies. If you’re really into going up Half Dome but can’t get a place to stay, then this is a backup plan to consider…but I wrote this Half Dome guide for the day-hiker in mind. So if you plan to camp overnight in Little Yosemite Valley, be sure to research all the Wilderness camping rules about what your Half Dome permit grants you.

What to Pack for your Half Dome Hike

Merced River

Lush foliage along the Merced River.

So now that you’ve got your permit and a place to stay, you need to get your gear ready. My biggest tip here is to pack as light as possible (duh I know) because it is a long and strenuous hike. IMPORTANT: you can’t leave your backpack at the base of Half Dome, so consider this when packing since you’ll be carrying everything all the way to the top of the cables. Back in the day, you could leave your backpack at the base of Half Dome while doing the cables. These days the Yosemite wildlife will eat through your bag to get your food, and the ravens have learned how to open the zippers on your backpack. So unless one of your climbing party decides not to go up the cables and stays behind to watch your gear, you will be wearing your pack on the Half Dome cables.

Remember, you’re going to be hiking about 16+ miles over the course of the day, so leave the extra weight at home. Here’s what you will need:

  1. Gloves. I put gloves at the top of the list since you don’t normally think to bring gloves on a hike, but gloves are a must-have for the Half Dome cables. I used some old workout gloves – the kind with exposed fingers – and they were perfect. You don’t need thick, heavy leather work gloves…just something comfortable that will give your hands a little extra grip and protect your skin from the metal cables.
  2. Permit (and Driver’s License/ID). The park rangers will have computers/iPads to verify your permit, but bring a printout of your permit just in case. You need a permit for the Half Dome cables and don’t expect your cell phone to work during the hike, so go old school with a piece of paper. Remember that the Leader or Alternate Leader who is listed on the permit needs to be present on the hike, so you can’t use someone else’s permit if they don’t go up with you.
  3. Day Backpack. Bring a backpack that’s just big enough for your gear. A good quality day pack is fairly reasonable to purchase, so if you have a deluxe/giant 2+ day backpack, do yourself a favor and downsize for your Half Dome hike.
  4. Appropriate Shoes. I have a pair of low-top hiking shoes that I love, but several people on the hike with me were wearing basic athletic shoes. The trails at Yosemite are well-kept and meticulously maintained, so even a basic athletic shoe sole will get the job done. IMHO you may be better off with a pair of athletic shoes that you’ve already been wearing and know are comfortable, rather than a brand-new pair of hi-tech hiking shoes that might surprise you with blisters, etc.
  5. Loose Fitting Clothes. Wear shorts if weather permits. And if you want your legs covered, then loose fitting hiking/walking pants are fine. Avoid tight jeans. Your legs are going to get a serious workout over the course of the hike. You’ll be doing miles of rocky stairs, so you want your legs to be able to move freely. The trails leading up to the base of Half Dome are clear of brush and plants, so there’s nothing you need to protect your legs against, making shorts a great option for this hike.
  6. Sunglasses.
  7. Hat.
  8. Light Jacket. I brought a hoodie that I didn’t end up wearing, but the temp began dropping towards sundown and I could see how I’d be glad to have it if it got any cooler.
  9. Water. I brought 3.5 liters of water with me (2 one-liter bottles of Smartwater, and 3 half-liter waters), which turned out to be just about perfect. I comfortably and steadily drank water throughout the day, and still had about a half liter left at the end.
  10. Food. I often bring too much food, imagining an amazing food experience during the hike…Taste these strawberries, man – double rainbow all the way. For Half Dome I managed to control myself and keep it light and compact with only a few energy bars, some jerky and trail mix. Don’t plan a complicated picnic lunch – you won’t have time for anything more than random snacking. And it gets hot, so avoid trail mixes with chocolate and other easily-melted foods.
  11. Trees in Yosemite

    On the trail to Half Dome.

    Sunscreen. You’re going to be outdoors, with a good portion of the hike in direct sunlight. Apply your sunscreen early and every 2 hours to keep from getting sunburned.

  12. Cell Phone. There is limited/no cell phone coverage throughout the hike, although ironically you may have better service as you get higher up. I ended up using my cell phone camera for most of the hike, so you could get away without a proper camera if you don’t need maximum quality photos. I also loaded up my phone with a free Yosemite trail map app, which came in handy a couple times during the hike. If you’re using the app, use the Download Offline Content option on the app before your hike. You won’t have reliable service on your phone, so put it in Airplane mode to extend your batter power during the hike. Your phone’s GPS still works in Airplane mode, which means the Trail app will still be able to pinpoint you on the map. But the main reason for the phone is for emergencies…if you get in a tight spot, hopefully you’ll be lucky to get a signal through.
  13. USB Battery Charger for your Phone (with the CABLE to charge your Phone!). These chargers are available on Amazon, so bring a small USB battery that will recharge your phone if you need it. Again – bring the cable so you can connect your phone to it! TIP: If you’re buying a charger for this trip, consider a model that has a flashlight built into it.
  14. Camera (optional). If prefer the quality of a proper camera instead of your phone, then bring a SMALL point and shoot camera. This is NOT the hike to lug around your heavy SLR setup with extra lenses – leave the SLR behind. I happened to bring my old GoPro up Half Dome because I store it with my camping gear – it weighs little so I grabbed it at the last second just for kicks…scroll down for my GoPro video on the top of Half Dome.
  15. Trail Map (optional). Normally I bring a trail map, but I accidentally left mine in Los Angeles. So I tagged this as optional since I managed to do the hike fine without it, but if you have a map, you might as well toss it in your pack. You can also use the free Yosemite trail app on your phone. TIP: After you install the app, click the “Download Offline Content” button so it will work without cell service.
  16. Flashlight. If you plan your day correctly and start out early, you can get up and down with sunlight, so the flashlight is for emergencies. Get a camping style LED light with a strap that goes around your head. In a pinch, your cell phone is a flashlight.
  17. First Aid Kit. Half Dome is a day hike on a well-travelled and relatively safe trail, so don’t go overboard on a first aid kit. Some band aids, Neosporin, and rubbing alcohol should be enough. Maybe some Advil/Ibuprofen.
  18. Leatherman / Multi-tool. Don’t go hiking without a basic multi-tool – I like one that has pliers, a knife and some simple tools.
  19. Lighter. For emergencies, you’ll be glad to be able to start a fire.
  20. Paper Towels. Clothes are not napkins. So take a few sheets of paper towels, fold them up and stash them in your pack.
  21. Plastic Bags/Ziploc Bags. A couple bags always come in handy for storing trash, wet items, etc.
  22. Bug Spray (optional). I don’t like using bug spray, but I was getting bitten by a few mosquitos towards the end of the day. So if bugs bug you, then bring some bug spray. I didn’t.

Parking at Half Dome

In all likelihood, you will begin your Half Dome hike at the Mist Trail. If you’re driving in, park at the wilderness parking lot between Curry Village and the Mist trailhead – it’s about a quarter mile from the parking lot to the trail. I accidentally parked in the Curry Village parking lot instead of the trailhead parking lot, which probably added another quarter mile to my hike, so drive a little past Curry to find the trailhead parking lot.

TIP: If you’re staying in Yosemite and brought a bicycle, then leave the car parked at your campsite and bike over to the trail head (bring a bike lock). The free Yosemite shuttle busses don’t run early enough in the morning to take you to the trail at sunrise, so don’t count on the bus for your Half Dome hike.

What to Expect on your Half Dome Hike

Half Dome is a bucket list hike, so stay in the present and enjoy every moment of your experience. Plan for about 10-14 hours’ worth of hike, pace yourself and unless you are doing it for time, resist the urge to race to the top. Appreciate the surroundings, take breaks for water, sunscreen, food & rest, and keep an eye out for photo opportunities…take as many pics as you can!

The Half Dome hike is a strenuous hike that calls for a reasonable level of fitness to complete the hike in a day. On a difficulty scale from 1 to 10, it’s considered a level 10 hike and you’ll understand why by the time you get to the top. If you are out of shape or have old leg injuries that tend to flare up, then you’ll be struggling to do Half Dome in a day. Youth can propel you to the top – there were some teens and 20-somethings on my hike that breezed up the trail and summit like it was nothing.   

Your Half Dome hike should begin as early as possible. I hit the Mist trailhead at 7 am, but I wish I started an hour earlier. It was getting dark at the end of my hike and the extra hour in the morning would have been a nice buffer of sunlight.

The Half Dome hike begins at the Mist trailhead, which is about a quarter mile from the wilderness parking lot near Curry Village. The Mist trail is a great warm-up that is literally paved for the first half mile, so parents can do this portion on a different day with a baby stroller!

Wooden Bridge on the Mist Trail

Wooden Bridge on the Mist Trail

The pavement ends at a large wooden bridge, which is the first of many photo-ops for the day. Just beyond the bridge are some restrooms and a water fountain. So if you need a pit stop early in your Half Dome hike, then Mist is your only facilities break until the Nevada Falls outhouse another 2 miles into the hike, and it’s the only running water on the trail in case you need it.

After the wooden bridge, you’ll face a series of steep stone stairs that wind their way up towards Vernal Falls. The steps will be wet and the air will be full of mist from the Vernal waterfall…literally putting the “mist” into the Mist Trail. Don’t worry if you get a little wet during this portion of the hike – you’ll quickly dry off once you pass Vernal and get into the sun.

TIP: The steep steps near Vernal are a good approximate of the degree of difficulty of the steps at the sub dome. Think about how you’re feeling going up these Mist trail steps – because if you’re struggling or winded during these steps, then you’re really going to find the sub dome to be a challenge later in the hike. For real – the sub dome is gonna kick your ass, so if you’re having trouble with the steps leading up to Vernal Falls, you may want to hang out at the base of the sub dome while your party summits Half Dome.

Steps up the Mist Trail

The steps up Mist Trail get wet from the mist of Vernal Falls.

The top of Vernal Falls opens to a large flat rocky area that lets you walk up to the edge of the waterfall. Take a short break and snap some photos before continuing to your next destination.

Next up is Nevada Falls. Be sure to take some photos when passing the falls on your way up in the morning, because it will look very different on the way back down when it’s in direct sunlight. I took a rather long hydration break by Nevada Falls on the way down, hypnotized by the sound of the water cascading over the rocks.

Continue on the Mist trail past Nevada Falls, and you’ll eventually connect with the John Muir trail at a T-junction. The last public restroom on your Half Dome hike is at this trail junction. There’s no running water at this facility, but there are bathrooms if you need. You’ll be taking a LEFT onto the John Muir trail, which means you’ll be passing next to the restroom as you continue up the trail.

SIDE QUEST: Taking a RIGHT at this junction is a short walk to a beach area. If you have time on your way back down at the end of the day, make a quick stop to dip your feet in the water before the home stretch of the hike.

After this junction, you’re in for a long haul up the John Muir trail, through Little Yosemite Valley, and upward toward Half Dome. It’s will be a few miles of the best nature that Yosemite has to offer. Expect a gradual and steady incline with a mix of small rocky steps and trails. It’s a very safe and well-travelled trail, so you can keep your head up and appreciate the beauty of your surroundings. Keep your camera handy, take photos and remember to keep hydrating.

After the junction, you’ll begin getting more and more direct sunlight, so take a moment to put on some sunscreen if you haven’t already. You’re most likely going wake up with sore muscles the day after you summit Half Dome, so don’t add a sunburn on top of it!

Before you Hike the Half Dome Cables

Vernal Falls

Vernal Falls on the Mist Trail

I started my hike at 7 am, set a goal to get to the ranger checkpoint at the base of the sub dome by noon, and got there at 12:15. I hiked at a very casual pace with several stops for water, photos and snacks. So I definitely took my time and still got to the base in about 5 hours without feeling rushed.

For what it’s worth, all morning I was crisscrossing paths with others on the trail who were going to Half Dome. Some appeared to be hard-core hikers and others were making jokes with me about how out-of-shape they were…but everyone ended up at the cables within an hour of each other. Unless you’re trying to hit a 10 hour speed run, then enjoy the day, appreciate the amazing Yosemite setting, and you’ll naturally do the hike in 12-14 hours.

When you arrive at the ranger checkpoint, they’ll ask for the name of your permit Leader. They’ll also inform you that the checkpoint is the last chance for some shade and rest before the most challenging part of the hike. As much as you’ll be excited to summit Half Dome, take their recommendation and spend a few minutes to hydrate, have a snack and re-apply sunscreen.

Before you start the steps at the sub dome, the rangers will give you an orientation on what to expect. Pay attention to what they say! From what I recall, things I learned on the orientation included:

  • You need to carry your backpack up the cables. The local wildlife will chew through your backpack to your food, and the ravens have learned to open backpack zippers. So you can’t leave your pack at the bottom of the cables unless you have someone in your party to stay behind and guard it.
  • Walking sticks/poles are useless on the cables. The rangers said it’s okay to leave your walking sticks at the bottom of the cables if you don’t want to carry them up.
  • Many backpacks have outer side pockets for water bottles – don’t use these pockets! The rangers explained how many bottles slip out of these pockets and pile up as trash. So store your water bottles INSIDE your pack during the climb up the cables.
  • Keep your gloves. There used to be a stash of community gloves at the bottom of the cables where people would leave behind their gloves and pay it forward for those who arrived at the cables without any. This is no longer the case – gloves are considered trash, and the rangers don’t want anyone leaving their old gloves behind even if it’s for a good cause.

The Sub Dome

Near the Sub Dome

Take a quick rest here before going up the Sub Dome.

After the ranger checkpoint, you immediately start the grueling climb up the sub dome steps. The sub dome is essentially a giant rocky hill of steps that you must climb over before reaching the base of the cables. Just about everyone who goes up Half Dome says the sub dome is the hardest physical effort of the entire hike. And if the sub dome portion of the climb is a serious challenge for you, then think about skipping the cables. I chatted with a younger, fit-looking hiker at the bottom of the cables who opted not to do the final portion of the climb…he did the right thing! Safety first.

The Half Dome Cables

Half Dome Panorama

The sense of scale is hard to see in this photo so zoom in on the people and the cables going up Half Dome.

The Half Dome cables are one of the most unique and insane experiences you’ll ever do. They were built in 1919 and you can’t help but think how they can’t possibly be up to modern safety codes. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – this 100-year-old cable and plank system totally works and will get you to the top of Half Dome even if you aren’t a hard core rock climber. It’s just one of many things makes Yosemite so awesome since you feel its history every step of the way up the mountain.

The cables resemble the little poles and velvet ropes you find in lines at a movie theater, and just like theaters you stand between the ropes so you have a rope on each side of you. The Half Dome poles are the same, except that they’re held in place with deep holes drilled in the rock, and the velvet ropes are replaced with a long steel cable that threads through the top of each pole.

The Cables of Half Dome

Climbing the Half Dome Cables

The cables are a very effective system even for inexperienced climbers – you’ll feel surprisingly in control and safe. Getting to the top is more about confidence and your physical condition, but technically it’s not much different than going up a ladder. The cables are the sides of the ladder, with a hand on each side. The planks are the steps of the ladder.

The steel cable itself is clean and smooth, feeling more like a high quality rope than metal. It’s about the diameter of a Nickel and I imagine gets replaced every few seasons – it’s certainly not an old rusty cable that’s been around since 1919.

As you go up the cables, you climb in between the two cables with a hand on each one. You then simply walk up Half Dome as if it’s a giant ladder, keeping most of your weight on your feet to push you up the mountain and using your arms to pull some of your weight as well.

The wooden planks are basically a 1×4 connected to the base of every pair of poles. These planks give you a sturdy “step” to safely pause as you make your way up the mountain. They’re also helpful when waiting for those above you to continue, or to shift to one side of the cables as other climbers are coming down.

The cables are steeper and “scarier” than the sub dome, but all the hikers I talked to at the top of Half Dome agreed that the sub dome required more effort than the cables. The cables are basically a lot of rinse and repeat – hold the cables in each hand as you walk up to the next plank, take a short breather standing on the plank, then continue up to the next plank.

So if you can do the first few sections of the cables, you’ll be able to get all the way to the top with patience. Also, I found that the steepest/hardest part of the cables was near the bottom of Half Dome, so once you get about a quarter of the way up, you should definitely be able to make it all the way.

The Top of Half Dome

The top of Half Dome is large and flat, so you can take off your pack, walk around, have some sacks, and take dozens of photos.

You won’t be seeing any human construction at the top of Half Dome, so don’t expect any guardrails or warning signs. The edge of Half Dome is wide open, so tread carefully as you get to the edge and Diving Board area. Appreciate the view – it won’t get any better than this!

I spent about 45 minutes exploring top of Half Dome, checking out the views, taking photos, hydrating, snacking and resting before the walk to the Yosemite floor. Half Dome doesn’t happen often, so enjoy your time at the top.

Going Down the Half Dome Cables

Nevada Falls Yosemite CA

Take a break at Nevada Falls as you trek back down the mountain.

Going down the cable is a lot easier than going up. Many people chose to go down the cables in reverse, with their backs to the bottom of the mountain. I tried going down backwards and also facing down the mountain. I felt more in control facing down with each of my hands gripping both cables. Except for a few spots where it felt more natural to move in reverse, I found the front facing method to be easier and safer.

Once I got to the bottom of the cables, the rest of the hike was merely retracing my steps back to the floor of Yosemite Valley. I moved quicker with fewer stops on the way back, so I was glad I took my time going up (photos, etc.). I was definitely feeling it when I passed Little Yosemite Valley about halfway back down the mountain…I admit I was a little envious the Little Yosemite campers who were already done for the day.

Other than trying to finish before losing daylight I wasn’t in a particular hurry, so I still enjoyed my time on the return trip. I made it all the way to the bottom of the Mist Trail with the final traces of sunlight, but the walk from the trail to the parking lot was dark. If I had been another half hour behind, I would have needed a flashlight for last bit of the Mist trail. I got back to the car at 8:30, so the Half Dome hike took 13.5 hours.

Half Dome is the Ultimate Day Hike

Half Dome is easily one of the most awesome hikes on the planet. And you can finish Half Dome in a day if you plan accordingly. So hopefully this guide will help you win the Half Dome permit lottery and successfully make it all the way to the top of the Half Dome cables.

I met someone on the trail who flew in from Florida with only 2 days’ notice, including getting the plane ticket and accommodations within 48 hours. Trust me, if you ever have a chance to do Half Dome and you’re up for the challenge, then drop everything you’re doing and go! I promise it’s worth it.

Do you have anything to add? Please help us improve this guide to Half Dome permits and Half Dome cables and add your comments below!
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