- Location: Half Dome, Yosemite, California
- Distance: 15.7 miles (out and back)
- Ascent: 4,800 feet
- Difficulty: Extremely strenuous
A few years ago, I had the magical experience of climbing Half Dome — but not just any ol’ Half Dome hike; we started at 3am in order to catch the sunrise at the top. There are a ton of great reasons why you should do this: cooler temperatures, sunrise views, and almost most important of all, less crowds.
Here’s some of the photos from this awesome hike, and at the end, I’ll relay some of my tips and recommendations if you want to do the same trip.
We got to Yosemite the day before, but all of the campgrounds were full (and you should expect that if you don’t have a reservation), so we went to a campground outside of the valley. Unfortunately, we had to get up around 1am (so we could pack up and drive into the valley for our 2-3am starting time), which meant going to sleep around 5pm, which is pretty much impossible in a campground around dinner time. Lesson learned.
Of course, there aren’t that many photos of the hike during the dark. We all had headlamps and day packs, and it was warm enough that I climbed in shorts.
The trail was great at night — we ran into only a few other hikers, and the cool air made the tough parts of the hike (such as around the waterfalls) a lot easier. Speaking of waterfalls: have you ever seen a waterfall reflecting the light from the moon? Vernal and Nevada falls were simply spectacular.
It was slow going, and eventually the sun started peaking out from the mountains…
The moon — doing the hike during a full moon is highly recommended.
We made it to quarter dome, right before Half Dome, at sunrise proper. If I was more in shape, we could have made it, but the sunrise was still wonderful since we were above the trees.
Quarter dome is where the trail disappears and you start scrambling up rock. Not the most sure footed of surfaces. A few places, it’s just rock to one side and a sheer cliff on the other. I was tired and a bit shaky at this point so it was a bit unnerving.
Get an idea of how steep it was?
Okay, the cables. We used climbing harnesses, no regrets. I realize that 99% of the people who climb Half Dome have no issues at all with using the cables without any kind of support, but take a look at the picture again — that is really freaking steep.
We used climbing harnesses with two carabiners, so we always had one secured to the cable while switching the other one over. It made climbing slower, but I felt more secure. I did sleep a couple times, but never enough that I would have fallen without the harnesses, but again — no regrets. Would use them again.
Success — the top of Half Dome.
Here I am climbing down, holding up a few people. Again, no regrets on the harness. Some people climbed up and down on the outside of the cables where there isn’t even any footholds, which I think is frankly stupid. Don’t do that, folks — people have died.
More illustrations of how steep it is.
Then it was just a merry walk back down to the valley. Which wasn’t very merry at all, because the pads of my feet started screaming out in pain, not being used to walking 15+ miles in one day. I started getting some blisters too and regretting my new hiking shoes (which have since been returned.)
Took my shoes off here and soaked my feet in the stream for about 15 minutes, which eased the swelling and helped the pain.
Tips & Recommendations
- Climb at night. We passed hordes of people climbing up while we were climbing down. Some were hiking in flip flops. It turned into a tourist attraction.
- If you climb at night, shell out the extra bucks for a hotel in or near Yosemite. I got maybe an hour or two of sleep the night before due to the raucous campground we were staying in.
- Bring a harness, if you want to clip-in/clip-out on the cables. I felt 100% more secure doing this.
- We ate GORP and goo — I wished I brought a lightweight stove for some hot chocolate or coffee on top of the dome.
- Start hiking around 2am, depending on ability. We ended up leaving around 3am and didn’t quite make it to the top in time for sunrise.
- Take the Mist Trail route to go by two spectacular waterfalls (Tenaya and Nevada falls) on the way up. It’s a steep and slippery trail though (hence the name), so be careful.
- Train for this hike. It’s killer.
What to pack
This is typically a day hike, so a day pack is usually what you need. You can hike to a backpacking camp and camp out a day before. Honestly, I’d rather do the entire trip with a day pack, rather than climbing the Mist Trail loaded with gear. The waterfalls are gorgeous in the moonlight, and you’ll won’t be loaded down with a tent, sleeping bag, pad, etc.
Like mentioned above, you can carry a harness for the cables. Other than that, don’t forget:
- Hydration. There are streams early on in the hike if you need to filter more, but the majority of the hike (especially the strenuous end) isn’t near water, so make sure you have plenty of water.
- Food. We did it with goo and GORP — if you have an ultra-light stove, I’d recommend bringing that for some hot food and liquid when you get to the top of the dome.
- Gloves for the cables. More traction, hurts less. There will likely be a pile of crappy gloves at the base of the dome, but I’d recommend grabbing a good pair from home, like these, which are form-fitting with good grips (as compared to loose leather gloves.)
- First aid kit and moleskine. I got so many blisters, but that’s my shoes’ fault. But really, you shouldn’t ever hike without having a basic first-aid kit on hand.
- Extra socks. It’s a luxury you could probably go without, but awfully nice when your feet get sweaty and start hurting.
- Hiking poles. Save your knees. Helps for both going up and down.
- Brimmed hat. If you’re going in peak season (August), a hat on the way down, especially a full coverage hat, is awesome.
- Sunscreen. See above.
- Permit. See below.
Important information + permits
The year I did it, you could still show up the day before to get a first-come, first-served permit. Now, you need to reserve a special Half Dome permit months in advance, and only 300 are allowed per day. The lottery opens from March 1st to March 31st, so if you’d like to go, figure out your dates quick in order to get into the lottery this year. Here’s a graph with the most popular days.
It costs $4.50 (online) or $6.50 (by phone) to get into the lottery, which is non-refundable. Permits are an additional $8 per person if you get one, which is refundable if you cancel your trip more than 2 days before your scheduled hike.
I’m going to do this hike again this year — wish me luck!
Any tips or recommendations for Half Dome that I missed? Leave them in the comments!