28 Things I Wish I Knew Before Hiking Half Dome

October 01 2017 – Leigh Brown

28 Things I Wish I Knew Before Hiking Half Dome
28 Things I Wish I Knew Before Hiking Half Dome

When we finally reached the summit of Half Dome and looked out across the top of the world, over the glacial peaks of the Sierras sparkling in the sunlight and down over the shadowy green treetops, far below in the jagged Yosemite Valley,

Words failed me, and I burst into tears.

I know, I'm a sap, but I hadn't thought I would ever ever ever make it there. At first, because it seemed like an unrealistic goal far out of my reach, and much later, during the handful of moments on the trail that morning, when I had seriously considered stopping in my tracks and turning back.

I am so glad I kept going.

Standing at the top, 8839 feet up, with nothing but clear air and amazing views in every direction, every step, every doubt, every fear and all the work was more than justified. It is one of the most amazing places and best experiences I have ever been or ever had.

Top of sub-dome

For those of you who haven't yet had the chance to visit the abundance of awesomeness that is Yosemite National Park, Half Dome is a titanic bubble of grey granite, carved in half over millennia by creeping glaciers, that rises almost 5000 feet above the Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in central California.

It's also that giant curved rock cliff that pops up as your default desktop wallpaper if you’ve owned a Mac in the last few years.

Apple is based in central California, after all.

The classic Apple Desktop Wallpaper featuring Half Dome.

What you may not know is that you can hike/climb/scramble your way up to the very top of that rock.

You can even stand on that little overhang on the front edge (if you're brave or crazy enough) and look straight down the face into the valley below.

This is one of the most popular hikes in Yosemite, and thousands of people make the pilgrimage to the top of the Dome each summer (the cables to the summit are only open when weather allows, generally from late May into early October).  

It's a challenging 16.5 miles of steep trail, scrambling, and nearly vertical cable climbing once you get near the top.

Nelson and I were crazy enough to make it all the way up and back down again, but realized there were a LOT of things we wished we had known before starting out.

We now share them with you, in the hope that your hike will be faster and safer, with less of the fear and more of the incredible fun than our own heart-pounding adventure.

And it really was an amazing adventure.

I'm gonna start with the hard stuff first, so don't get discouraged. Just keep reading.

You can do this.


28 Things I Wish I Knew Before Hiking Half Dome

Part 1—The First 6 Things

Take it Seriously

The hike up Half Dome isn't short, or easy. It's 16.5 miles up and back down to the valley floor (the closest place you can find food, drinkable water, or shelter if you're not backpacking) and we really mean up and back down. In the 8+ miles from the start of the trail to the summit, you climb nearly 5000 vertical feet. That's like climbing up 8,571 regular steps, and you're doing this in a few hours, before turning around and coming straight back down.

You'll be climbing to the top of the Empire State Building four times in a row. Phew!


1)  It's hard.

It's hard. Harder than you think. Stop listening to the blogs or time-blurred memories of friends who say it's easy. It’s not easy.

No part of it is easy.

But, if you know it's hard going in, you'll be okay. Not only okay, but you'll be prepared and strong and ready to enjoy every minute of your trail.


2)  If you come from the valley floor, it's all uphill.

Upward toward Nevada Falls

The first mile is a set of relatively steep up-and-down hills on a paved path. Nothing too strenuous unless you're carrying a heavy pack. After that, though, is a set of oversized cut stone steps leading up to the top of Vernal Falls, followed by another set of large stone stair switchbacks up to the top of Nevada Falls. Either of these can be wet and slick depending on the wind and spray from the falls. By the top of Nevada Falls you've gained nearly 2,000 feet in elevation from the trailhead, much of it climbing stairs, and it only goes up from there…

Stairs down beside Vernal Falls


3)  If you come from Little Yosemite Valley, it's still all uphill.

Dawn at the base of the sub-dome

After Nevada Falls comes Little Yosemite Valley, and a campground for those adventurous enough to backpack in.

At this point you're less than half-way to the top by elevation, so you still have close to 3000 feet to climb. You're also over half-way there in mileage, which means the trail ahead gets even steeper than the trail behind.

It's even harder to do at 5am in the pitch black with headlamps.


4)  The sub-dome is brutal, simply brutal.

Scrambling down the sub-dome

Once you've made it nearly 8 miles to the top of the forested ridge that Half Dome crests, your next challenge is the sub-dome.

This is a large dome made of cracked slabs of granite that you climb via a series of switchbacks and stone stairs, interspersed with stretches of scrambling up long diagonal stretches of rock (no railings ever, anywhere, just fyi. See the photo in #3). The stairs and switchbacks appear and disappear among the natural ridges, so it can be challenging at times to know if you're really on the trail or not. It's also a fierce and tiring climb, so just know it's hard and don't give up.

You'll make it to the top soon.

Two tips:

Tip one: if you have any pack larger than just a few pounds, leave it at the bottom of the sub-dome.

Portions of this are a true scramble over natural stone, and a backpack gets in the way.

We learned this the hard way. Trust us.

That said, you are still in bear and critter country, so you can't leave any food that isn't in a bear canister. A ranger is posted here during daylight hours, to check that everyone climbing up or down has a permit, so it is a safe place to leave your stuff, assuming food is stored properly or kept in your pockets.

Tip two: it is far easier to find the trail when you're following a path of people moving in the right direction. We got here before dawn, with no one else in sight, and we ended up sitting down and watching the sunrise while we waited for other hikers. If you're a confident rock-climber this shouldn't be an issue, but for those less comfortable perching on the side of a 45° rock slope that drops into oblivion on both sides, this is an area where you don't want to end up off-path. As soon as other hikers showed up the path was much easier to find and follow. It's hard to get lost with a line of people ahead and behind you.


5)  The cables are insane.

Cables up Half Dome

No picture I have ever seen comes close to capturing the true angle of the climb up the side of Half Dome, including this one. (Some of the videos on YouTube get a bit closer.) It feels like you're trying to walk straight up, like Adam West in the old Batman TV show walking up a wall with just a rope. It's not actually straight up. The cables max out at around a 45° angle, but when walking up a stone surface worn smooth by thousands of years of high-altitude weather and thousands upon thousands of feet, with 2000+ foot drop-offs on either side, well…

It feels straight up.

Plus, you're pulling yourself up by the cables when your feet slide on the smooth stone. Which happens... a lot. Better have a good grip. There is no safety net. If you fall, you're in trouble.

However, there are gear and techniques to mitigate the danger and be a little more secure going up and coming back down. I'll cover those in detail a bit later.


6)  I know I said it before but… It's hard.

Nelson on Half Dome

It's harder than the stories and blog posts make it out to be.

The thing is... it's also AMAZING.

So, know what you're getting into, prepare, and keep going.

You'll get to the top, and it will take your breath away.

I promise.

More to come in Part 2!

And remember, you can do this!


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