Hiking Half Dome

By Amanda Schwarz

On July 12, I had the opportunity to hike what is arguably one of the most famous rock formations in the world: Yosemite’s Half Dome. Hiking from sunrise to sunset, it was undoubtedly an unforgettable experience. 

This arduous hike has a minimum mileage of 14.2 miles. However, my family and I opted for the longer route, hiking approximately 20 miles round-trip. The first option, the 14.2 mile Mist Trail, takes the hiker up a steep series of stone steps. Though the route is shorter, the steepness and difficulty of the steps make people turn towards the other option. The John Muir trail is longer, but gentler, taking the hiker up relatively mellow switch-backs. The discouraging set of stairs, as well as the fact that the Mist Trail earned its name this year with all of the rain, led my family to take the John Muir trail up.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

After completing the first leg, landing on the top of the breathtaking Nevada Falls, we began the ascent through Little Yosemite Valley. Settled in the valley is a small campground. Though Half-Dome is more commonly considered a day hike, some choose to make it a one-night backpacking trip. These hikers begin the hike in the evening. They stay the night in the campground, then finish the final leg to the top and hike all the way down the following day. Though this splits the mileage, I could not imagine it to be much easier. Carrying camping gear is no joke, especially up Half-Dome’s outrageous elevation. 

Finishing up Little Yosemite Valley’s many identical switch-backs through many identical looking trees, we reached the base of the sub-dome. A permit is required beyond this point. Despite being one of the hardest day-hikes in the whole valley, it is incredibly popular. To prevent crowds from ruining the hiking experience, Yosemite implemented a “lottery.” Three-hundred permits are given out per day, ensuring that the final portion of the hike will not become too backed up. Three-hundred may sound like a fair amount, but trust me, there are a lot of people who find spending sunrise to sundown walking up a hill enjoyable. Thus, receiving a permit can be a bit of a struggle. I would say there is a better chance of winning one for a weekday, but I would guide an eager hiker to check out the Yosemite National Park website for more information. 

Once the ranger verified our permits, we continued to Sub-Dome. Sub-Dome is a smaller rock to the back of Half-Dome. However, unlike Half-Dome, it is not steep enough to merit cables. Instead, Yosemite vouched for the painful, second option: stairs. Tall, steep, and unforgiving stone steps weave up Sub-Dome. The trees have all but disappeared by this point, limiting the shade. However, it leaves the surrounding area open for  a stunning view of Yosemite and the surrounding mountains. The higher the climb, the better it gets. 

A semi-flat rocky surface bridges the gap between the top of the stairs and the bottom of the cables. The infamous cables span the 400 vertical feet of granite between the hiker and the top. I am not generally scared of heights, but since I, like most hikers, opted to climb without a harness, the possibility of falling was nerve racking. 

At long last, we made it to the top. This was relatively relieving. Patches of snow still lingered in areas, but the rest was as expected: a bunch of rock. The view of the valley was pretty neat though. Facing Yosemite Valley, I could see everything. El Capitan, famous among rock climbers, stretches up the right side of the valley. Additionally, due to the recent surplus of rain, multiple spectacular waterfalls were visible from the summit. 

After a mandatory top-of-Half-Dome-BeReal (I was pleasantly surprised by the cell service), we began the descent. I found going down the cables to be much worse than going up, but that opinion varies from person to person. The hike back through Little Yosemite Valley was just as unimpressive as the hike up, but going down is usually significantly quicker. At the top of Nevada Falls, my family split up. My sister, who was suffering dehydration sickness due to the fact she completely disregarded the park’s recommendations (4 liters of water per person), headed down the Mist Trail. She wanted the shortest route down. My mom accompanied her while my dad and I took a much needed break at the top. Here, I cooled off in the frigid water of the Merced River. Once we were ready, my Dad and I (who still had no interest in the Mist-Trails wet-stairs) took the John Muir trail back. 

Hiking poles make a big difference on the way down, especially on steeper sections. While training for Half-Dome, I recommend trying them out. It helps minimize damage to the knees as well, which is always a plus. 

Almost 50,000 steps later, we made it back to the car just as the sun began to set. 

For a cautious hiker in decent shape, Half Dome can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience.