Summit view at the top of Half Dome
Half Dome, Yosemite National Park (California) 8,842'
Summitted, 6/6/99 and 6/13/03
Time Zone: GMT -8 hours
When to go:
Late May through late September
Assuming you don't want to do the technical route from the valley floor, you would take the main trail across from the Happy Isles campground on the valley floor. You cannot access the trailhead by car directly from the valley floor, so you can take a free shuttle bus or park in the day-use area by Curry Village and walk about 3/8 of a mile to the trailhead. The roundtrip hike from the trailhead is 16.4 miles and ascends about 5,000 vertical feel. It took me about 10 hours, including a break at the summit for lunch.
Hotel and Climb Reservation:
No guide, permit, or trail reservations are required if you are day hiking. There are several hotels run by the park service on the valley floor (ranging from the luxurious Ahwanee, to the primitive tents in Curry Village). I stayed at the Tenaya lodge (http://www.tenayalodge.com) , located about 1 mile from the southern entrance to the park and a 75 minute drive to the valley floor. The lodge is beautiful, rustic, and loaded with amenities.
Standard light hiking gear and lots of water for a strenuous day hike.
You should start early (I started at 7:30am) to insure you can make it before nightfall. The beginning of the trail is paved and proceeds about 1/2 mile up a fairly steep rise. You will cross a bridge and note a lavatory and water fountain. This will be your last chance to get fresh water so hydrate-up. The trail soon splits and you have two options. The slightly longer and less steep John Muir trail, or the shorter, steeper, and wetter Mist trail. In May and June, the waterfalls are flowing with incredible intensity and the mist from the impact of the falling water will get you completely soaked. For this reason, I recommend taking the Muir trail up...it's only an extra mile or so and you don't want to be soaking and cold all day. Both trails rise steadily until you come to the top of Nevada Falls. This is about the midpoint of the hike is terms of distance (but not altitude). The the top of the falls, the two trails meet and flow into a single trail. There is a spectacular lookout here. Take the time to walk to the fence and look over the falls. Do not even THINK of crossing the fence or putting your toe in the raging water. The water is flowing so fast that this move can literally suck you into the flow and you will fall to your death...you won't understand until you see the water flowing for yourself. Unfortunately, several hikers are killed at this spot. There is a solar toilet located about 1/4 mile further up the trail.
A view of the granite valley walls at an altitude of about 7,900'
The single trail now proceeds through a high meadow and along the river. There is another solar toilet off to the right, which is used by the hikers that make camp in this area (day hikers are welcome to use it). The trail will turn to the left and start a series of switchbacks through the woods. You will begin to feel the altitude here. Eventually the trail will split. The well marked intersection divides the main John Muir Trail (to the right) and the trail to Half Dome (to the left). Another hour or so will get you to tree-line and the bottom of "quarter dome" a large granite outcropping of stone, with steep steps carved into the rock. Do not go further if there is lightening in the area. At the summit of quarter dome, you can see the last part of the climb...the infamous "cables" The cables are maintained by the park service and are up between mid May and mid September (dates vary depending upon the weather). There are two parallel cables that ascend the 60-degree incline several hundred feet to the summit. Every 50 feet or so, there is a 2x4 board connecting the poles that hold the cables. The boards provide a welcome rest as you ascend. Don't be fooled, I've seen about 1/4 of the hikers turn around at this point. I've also seen people "freeze" in the middle of the cables or cry. This, of course, creates problems for those climbers wanting to go up (or down), which necessitates swinging around the frozen climber (assuming they don't want your help) and hanging onto a single cable for dear-life.
(The steel cables will rip apart your hands, so bring gloves. If you forget them, there is a pile of gloves at the bottom of the cable...it has become a tradition to leave your gloves in the pile for the next guy after you have descended (be selfish and keep yours of they are expensive).
Photo of me at the summit, the valley is immediately behind me...and 1 mile straight down
The summit is a large area and offers spectacular views of the entire Yosemite Valley. A large outcropping of rock extends above the edge of the far wall (closest to the valley). Due to the steepness of the angle (greater than 90 degrees in some places) and large vertical drop, several people of base-jumped from this point. It is illegal and dangerous. Several people have been killed.
Photo of a rainbow in the mist coming from Nevada Falls on the "Mist Trail"
On the way down, try taking the mist trail. The water offers refreshing break...just be careful...the rock is slick and steep.