Hiking Half Dome

September 7th, 2012 → 4:08 am @ // 7 Comments

One of the decisions you’ll need to make during your John Muir Trail thru-hike is whether or not to take a detour and hike to the top of Half Dome. If you haven’t already decided, here are a few thoughts.

First, a bit in the way of description for those who may not be aware of what is involved. If you’re not an experienced climber, the only way to the top of this most famous Yosemite landmark is via the northeast shoulder of the mountain. Along that route are twin cables, running up the steep granite face, to the flat (and surprisingly large) top of the dome.

Although the cables are installed all year long; they are not “set-up” until the spring. Once the snow accumulation is gone, Rangers suspend them several feet off the ground, on metal stanchions mounted into the granite. Wooden boards are laid across the bottoms of the stanchions to brace against as you climb. The stanchions and boards are removed for the winter, usually sometime in October.

The slope, in places, exceeds sixty degrees. I have never seen a photo that does the true nature of the climb justice. Many people, when they first approach the bottom, turn around and leave—deciding that the incline is a bit more than they had signed up for. (Truthfully, I was almost one of them.)

Gloves (to protect your hands from the cables) and shoes with flat, sticky soles help considerably.

The top is amazing, and, in my opinion, well worth the trouble. One doesn’t often look down on El Capitan, and the views of the valley floor are incredible. Don’t miss the opportunity to get on your belly and scoot to the very edge for the view straight down. (Just make sure that no more than your head is hanging over!)

But should you do it during your John Muir Trail thru-hike?

If it takes a ton of money or travel time for you to get to Yosemite National Park, and you don’t expect to be able to return to the park in the next year or so, go ahead. Scaling the cables is an amazing adventure. It’s scary, but relatively safe, and it provides a tremendous payoff for just half-a-day of delay. (I say it is relatively safe, but there have been a few fatalities over the decades of use. There is little room for error on the cables. Should you slip and let go, the odds are against you.)

I also believe that the cables are the “firefall” of the twenty-first century. (More on the firefall, if you have never heard of it.) In other words, I think the days of the cables are numbered. They have always been a thorn in the side of a certain element within the National Park Service, and in recent years they have instituted a permitting system to regulate access. In short, if you don’t do it when you have the chance, you may not get the chance again, after the government’s mighty thumb rubs out the option to do so.

Should you decide to try, there are a couple of problems of which you should be aware:

  • You will probably have to enter the wilderness on a Little Yosemite Valley permit. Unless you plan on getting up early enough (and are fast enough) to hike to the top of Half Dome, hike back down, and then hike all the way out of Little Yosemite Valley, you will not be able to enter the wilderness on a “pass-through” permit. (There is nothing wrong with entering on a LYV permit, but this means you’ll be competing for a smaller number of permits.)
  • You will need to either haul your entire backpack up the cables, or leave it somewhere in the wilderness. Remember, until you hike past the Half Dome trail, the trail winds through areas frequented by day hikers. Someone may be tempted to pilfer something out of your pack. The more likely and determined thief, however, would be one of the many, many bears that frequent Little Yosemite Valley and have come to associate brightly colored bags with tasty, tasty treats. There is no surer way to end a John Muir Trail thru-hike, on the very first day, than to find your backpack, tent and other supplies ripped apart and littering the spot where you hid it.

One last comment on permits: the current policy, although I could find it written nowhere, is that if you have a wilderness permit to hike the JMT you automatically get a Half Dome permit. Be sure to ask the Ranger when you get your JMT permit, though, to either annotate it on that permit, or to give you a different permit for Half Dome.

Update on the permits to climb Half Dome via the cables (as of April 2013): the NPS has cut the number of permits from 400 per day to 300 per day, and Wilderness Permit holders no longer automatically get to climb it. One must annotate Half Dome on the reservation request, or get it added to a walk-up permit. There are only 75 set aside for WP holders, so there is no guarantee that you will get your permit.

Ultimately, my advice is this: if you can arrange to do the Half Dome hike at another time, skip it during your JMT thru-hike. If this is going to be your only chance, don’t miss it!

Good hiking, Ray

John Muir Trail Sierra Nevada Yosemite

The top of Half Dome is larger than you might imagine!

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7 Comments → “Hiking Half Dome”

  1. Ravi Nagarajan

    4 years ago

    Ray, what do you think about hiking to Little Yosemite Valley (entering on a Happy Isles>>Little Yosemite permit), setting up camp there, and then making a round trip to Half Dome? That way, the tent is set up and food and other items could be put into the bear boxes (or food could just left out in the bear canister). This may be trading trust in people not to mess with the gear for the possibility that bears may do so if the pack is stashed/hidden near the JMT/Half Dome junction. I’m not sure which risk is greater. One thing I know having done Half Dome before is there is no way I’m willing to wear the pack on the cables!

    I very much enjoyed your e-book and I’m planning a thru hike for 2013, almost exactly one year from now.


    • Ray

      4 years ago

      I think that makes a lot of sense, Ravi. You still run the risk of a rampaging ursine in LYV campground, but at least there is a place to store all scented items. Another reason this makes sense (if you have the time) is this: you could actually get a later start on day 1, camp at LYV that night, knock off Half Dome before the crowds arrive, and then pack up and move on down the trail a few miles before camping day 2.


    • Kwunchanok

      3 years ago

      Wow..I went on this hike, IT WAS GREAT. I had so much fun and would love to do it again. I think every one that went learned something new, and learned how to appreciate nature in all ways.


  2. Tom Dowser

    4 years ago

    Thanks again for the blog. I just finished my JMT through hike on 8/18/12. We got a pass-through permit from the valley and while doing so, the ranger asked if we planned to do Half-Dome. She didn’t automatically add it to the permit, so I would make sure to let them know that you plan to do Half-Dome and to add it to the permit as you said.


    • Ray

      4 years ago

      Great point, Tom. They have a lot going on there at the Wilderness Center; it’s always good to ensure you have exactly what you need while you have their attention.


  3. Richard

    1 year ago

    Ray, A friend and I plan to do eight through hike and start at happy Isles. What do you think about doing half dome during our acclimatization the first few days while we’re staying at a nearby in? Also where would you A friend and I plan to do eight through hike and start at happy Isles. What do you think about doing half dumb during our acclimatization the first few days while we’re staying at a nearby inn? Also where would stay to acclimatization and be near this?


    • Ray Rippel

      1 year ago

      Doing Half Dome ahead of time is certainly an alternative, although getting a permit might be difficult. The other thing to keep in mind is that it is a long and strenuous day hike. My favorite place to stay is at Mammoth Lakes (see http://jmtbook.com/where-to-stay-before-your-john-muir-trail-hike/), but that isn’t near Half Dome. Getting accommodations within Yosemite Valley at this late date might be difficult. Check their website.


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