Ask Me: Hiking Yosemite’s Half Dome
I contacted you a while back about hiking and backpacking with my toddler. Your advice was amazing and my two-year-old is getting better and better when it comes to distance. He is walking two miles straight and absolutely loves nature. We recently hiked the Mist Trail in Yosemite to the top of Vernal Fall and we all enjoyed it—the best hike we have ever done so far. Now I am contacting you because my husband and I decided we wanted to make Half Dome our next year’s challenge. As soon as I saw Half Dome from Glacier Point I knew I wanted to be on the top of that rock. It has always been in my bucket list, but I think I am ready to check that off. I don’t know if you have done that climb or not, but wanted to ask about tips for a long trip (we plan on making it a three-day backpacking trip), gear and “training.”
We are planning on getting the permit for September or October. I need your advice because we love to hike, but we have never hiked more than seven miles because we are always with the little one, and seven miles is the most I can hike with him on my back for more than halfway. Obviously, I am not planning on taking Mikey to Half Dome, so I want to know how can I train without having to go on a 15-mile hike/backpacking trip with him (we don’t have family or friends here in California to take care of him, they all live in Puerto Rico).
Hope to hear from you soon,
Nice to hear from you again and I’m glad your hike on the Mist Trail with Mikey went so well. I’m not surprised, given how fun that trail is for kids and adults, and how much effort I’m sure you put into helping him enjoy it.
I’ve been up Half Dome a few times, most recently in September 2013 (when I shot the lead photo, above, on Half Dome’s summit). It’s incredibly scenic, challenging, and just a really exciting, big day. That said, many people do it, and many of them are not experienced hikers. (I hiked it years ago with my mom, when she was in her 50s, and in good shape, but only began hiking in her 40s.) I don’t want to downplay the difficulty or suggest that you not take it seriously. (I’m sure you won’t make that mistake.) I’m just saying that, with the right preparation, you’ll do just fine, so don’t be intimidated by it.
As you may know, some people dayhike it from Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley, a roughly 16-mile round-trip with 4,800 feet of elevation gain and loss. It’s a big day, but a reasonable objective for people who are fit and start early morning from Happy Isles. To do that, I’d start about an hour before sunrise, to get ahead of the crowds of hikers, which makes going up the cables and your experience on the summit much more pleasant. Starting an hour before sunrise means you’d only need a headlamp for about 30 minutes, and you’d have daylight before getting to the Vernal Fall area, where (as you know) the hike begins getting really scenic. The early start also gives you time to take breaks on the way down at spots like the top of Nevada Fall.
If you don’t want to attempt that big a hike in one day, backpacking to Little Yosemite Valley is a good alternative plan. Pack as light as you can, so you don’t wear yourselves out on the first day. Little Yosemite has metal bear lockers for food storage, so you don’t have to carry the weight of a bear canister. If you’re backpacking, there’s no great need to start really early that first day, you’ll have plenty of time to reach Little Yosemite Valley. But I would still get an early start on the day you hike Half Dome, probably leaving camp at first light, to get ahead of most hikers. Half Dome is about a 6.6-mile round-trip with almost 3,000 feet of elevation gain and loss from Little Yosemite Valley. The trail gets steep and strenuous, but also has incredible views even before you reach the cables, which are certainly quite steep for several hundred vertical feet. But the steepest, most difficult part of the cables is at the bottom; as you go higher, the angle lessens.
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Some backpackers hike back to Yosemite Valley the same day they hike Half Dome, which makes it a big day. However many nights you spend up there, I would hike up the Mist Trail on the day you’re going in, to see those waterfalls, and descend via the John Muir Trail because it’s less steep (easier on knees) and it’s also really scenic: There’s a spot along the JMT, not far beyond Nevada Fall when you’re going down, with a classic view back toward Nevada Fall, Liberty Cap, and the back side of Half Dome (above photo).
See this story for tips about training for hiking big-mileage days, and this Ask Me post where I offer a reader tips on training for backpacking; basically, I think if you exercise at least three or four days a week moderately hard, and try to get in some hiking or walking up and down stairs with weight on your back in the two to three months prior to your Half Dome hike, you’ll be fine. When my kids were little, I would take advantage of any free time to exercise—I’d sometimes put my baby son or daughter in a chest pack or child-carrier backpack and walk stairs for exercise! You’ll figure out ways to make it happen.
Got a trip coming up? See my reviews of the best gear duffles and luggage and 6 favorite daypacks.
You’ll find a lot of good information about hiking Half Dome at this link. Scroll to the bottom of that page and you’ll find this link to information about getting a permit for hiking Half Dome, which is required whether you’re hiking it one day from Yosemite Valley or during a backpacking trip. The park sets a limit of 300 hikers a day, and I think that’s a smart policy, having hiked it before the permit was required for dayhikers and seen many hundreds of people backed up on the cables, creating not just an inconvenience but a safety hazard.
As the second link explains, there’s a lottery for dayhiking permits, with an application period in March for a pre-season lottery, followed by daily lotteries during the hiking season. Obviously, the daily lottery isn’t convenient for people who have to travel a distance to Yosemite, so I’d apply for the March pre-season lottery, put in for several date options, and hope to get lucky.
Backpackers, including those (like you) who want to camp in Little Yosemite Valley before going up Half Dome, should apply for a Half Dome permit with their wilderness permit. I did it that way on my most-recent hike of Half Dome, and it may be easier than entering the dayhikers’ lottery, though I’m speculating that more people apply to dayhike it than to backpack to Half Dome.
You can apply for a wilderness permit up to 168 days in advance of your trip dates, and for a hike as popular as Little Yosemite Valley and Half Dome, you should submit that application in the first minutes on the morning of the first day you can apply for it.
Score a popular permit using my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
I have another suggestion for you. Take an extra day up there if you can afford the time and dayhike 9,926-foot Clouds Rest from Little Yosemite Valley. Do it the day after Half Dome, if possible, because many fewer people go up Clouds Rest, so it will feel special for that reason after you’ve been on Half Dome. It’s 1,100 feet higher than Half Dome and has comparably awesome views. It’s more than 11 miles and about 4,000 vertical feet round-trip from Little Yosemite, so it’s a full day for most hikers. Start early because the trail up gets sun-baked and hot by mid-morning in the summer, even in September. October would be cooler.
I think September is the best time for hiking anywhere in the Yosemite high country, and October can be good, too, but there’s also an increasing risk of a snowstorm in October, which would prompt the park to close the cable route on Half Dome (they remove the cables for the winter).
Do you like The Big Outside? I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today, a Trip Advisor site, and others. Get email updates about new stories and free gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box at the bottom of this story, in the left sidebar, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.
See all of my stories about Yosemite National Park, including my feature stories about dayhiking to Yosemite Valley waterfalls, thru-hiking the John Muir Trail, and a 65-mile backpacking trip south of Tuolumne Meadows, plus all of my Ask Me posts about Yosemite, and all of my stories about adventures in California national parks.
See also these stories:
“Gear Review: The 5 Best Headlamps”
“7 Pro Tips For Avoiding Blisters”
“Review: The Best Base Layers and Shorts For Hiking, Trail Running, and Training”
“10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You”
Good luck. Let me know if you have other questions. And keep taking that little boy out hiking! He’ll want to climb Half Dome with you someday.
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