Hiking Yosemite Half Dome

Notes by piero scaruffi | Yosemite page | California hikes | Other California destinations

Short notes

Half Dome is a granite dome in Yosemite National Park, one of the most visible landmarks of the Yosemite Valley (which is, in turn, the most visited part of the park). It rises 1,444 meters from the floor of the valley, so it is very visible from anywhere in the valley. The elevation of the summit is about 2,700 meters.

The best season to hike Half Dome is from mid may to the end of june, when the waterfalls are full. The worst season is august, september and october (lowest amount of water). See the right column.

The trail to the Half Dome of Yosemite National Park via the Mist trail is one of the most celebrated in California. The Mist trail alone is worth the trip because it gets very near two waterfalls. The falls are spectacular in the spring, and chances of getting wet are high, hence "mist" trail (not recommended in the summer because the waterfalls get far smaller). Beyond the falls, the trail goes through a pine forest and after a series of steep switchbacks reaches the granite summit. First one has to climb what is basically a vertical staircase, and then one is confronted with the "cables": a vertical ascent of 274 meters to the very top of the granite dome that requires arms as much as legs. The top affords some of the best views of Yosemite Valley (although i prefer the view from Clouds Rest and from Glacier Point, which include Half Dome itself).

Roughly, from the trailhead, you walk 15' to the first bridge, 30' to the top of the Vernal Falls, another 45' to Nevada Falls (a total of 7 kms for the Mist Trail), then 45' (about 4 kms) to a fork, where you take the left branch and walk 45' to the steps, then 30' on the steps, then 15' on the cables, for a total to the top of about 4 hours (12-13 kms).
Going down will take you pretty much the same amount of time. When you are back to the restrooms (half way into the descent), you can either turn right and go back through the Mist trail (short but tiring) or go straight (through Nevada Falls) and take the mule trail (long but easy). Either way it will take you the same amount of time.

The total elevation gain is 1,463 meters in a relatively short time, which makes it one of the steepest trails in California (like just about any trail that starts from the Yosemite Valley).

Half Dome is not as high as the High Sierra, but the elevation gain is so sudden that many people suffer from altitude even at 2,700 meters, especially those who camp in the valley. (It is wise to camp at higher elevation on Tioga Rd).

Note: the cables are up from mid-May to mid-October. You can hike to the top of Half Dome before mid-May and after mid-October but it will be more like rock climbing than hiking, and there might be ice on the already slippery granite.

Detailed description

Park near or at Curry Village (renamed Half Dome Village in 2016). Take the shuttle bus and tell the driver to drop you off at the trailhead for Mist Trail/Half Dome (bus stop 16). Cross the bridge, turn right into the dirt road and walk till the end. That's where the hike starts. In a few minutes you will reach a bridge and the last drinkable water. At the fork, go left if you want to do the Mist Trail. The Muir trail (right turn) is a much longer alternative. Through steep steps, you get to Vernal Falls in a few minutes. When you are at the top of these waterfalls, the trail will go down for a few meters and you will be right at the top of the waterfalls. Ask around if you lost the trail. The trail goes upriver following the creek for about 0.5 kms, then it turns left and crosses the creek over a bridge (if lost, just look for the only bridge over the creek). Then the trail starts climbing steeply towards Nevada Falls. It takes a while to get there. The trail actually turns left and leaves Nevada Falls behind. If you want to see Nevada Falls, you have to turn right at the junction with the trail that connects to the Muir trail (there's a sign). It's a little detour. If you don't want to see them (advice: see them on the way back), keep going up (i.e., left). The trail will eventually flatten out and you will be following a creek. On your left handside you will start seeing Half Dome. This is Little Yosemite Valley and it has a campground. Past the campground, the trail starts climbing again among thicker evergreen vegetation (look at the giant pine cones). It gets steeper and steeper as broad switchbacks takes you to the fork to Clouds Rest. Bear left towards Half Dome. The switchbacks continue till your right hand-side has the first impressive view of Yosemite Valley and Tenaya Canyon. At that point you are about to reach the steps. Eventually you get to a scary sign about storms on Half Dome and, if there are no clouds, proceed to the steps. If you are afraid of heights, this is the first test. The steps are very firm (it's granite), but there is nothing to protect you if you slip or trip, especially at the end of the steps. When you're done with the steps, you reach a false summit. Now you have the back of Half Dome in front of you and you'll soon be able to see the people pulling themselves up the cables. The trail loses a bit of elevation while approaching the bottom of the cables. Pick a pair of gloves from the pile (or bring your own) and start pulling yourself up the cables. If you are sensitive to altitude, this is where you start panting. Take it easy. It is not very long, but it takes a while. Let faster people pass you on the left. When you are at the end/top of the cables, bear right to get to the summit. The best views are from the USGS marker (the real summit), from a cliff that seems to be sticking out from the dome, and from the very northern side. In the right season the latter offers views of both Nevada and Vernal Falls plus views of the Upper Falls. In the right season Tenaya Canyon looks quite impressive from the USGS marker, and the mountains to the northeast are particularly spectacular. In the wrong season the waterfalls are all too low or even dry, the Tenaya creek is almost invisible and the mountains around look like ugly hills, so most people just take a picture of the parking lot below. On the way back, walk backwards down the cables: it's faster and safer. The trail is very trafficked so you can always ask people for directions.

If you have gloves, you may want to bring them, so you don't have to rely on the ones provided by the park. A windbreaker or light jacket is often essential at the top, no matter how hot at the bottom.

Note that crowds of obnoxious unprepared hikers can be a total spoiler from the end of may throughout the middle of october.

Pictures of the hike

Trail map

If you belong to the "REI generation" that invades Half Dome (and Mt Whitney) every summer, i have bad news for you: Half Dome is neither the highest, nor the steepest, nor the most breathtaking place in Yosemite Valley. The steepest trail is the one from Mirror Lake to Snowcreek Falls. The most impressive view is either the one from Glacier Point (you can drive up there) or the one from Clouds Rest (basically, views that include Half Dome). The number of deaths on this hike has been increasing steadily but read the details: it's not the hike, it's the people who hike it. There is nothing dangerous about the hike itself. This is one trail that attracts the dumbest, most inexperienced, and most obnoxious city people in the state, sometimes people whose main experience with hiking is a small park in the Bay Area. If you are reading this page, you might be one of them.
After july the trail and the view from the top are actually quite ugly because the waterfalls have very low flows, there is no mist on the Mist Trail, the landscape is just brown/yellow and no waterfalls can be seen from the top (all three of Yosemite's tallest waterfalls are dry). The best time to hike Half Dome is usually june, when Nevada and Vernal waterfalls are full, the view shows the other waterfalls of the valley, and the Mist Trail is very misty. Before june, the cables are usually down.
This trail has become maddeningly popular, even with elderly people, children and (alas) fat people. It is not unusual that there is literally a line to get on the cables, because many people are very slow on the cables and, needless to say, it is difficult to pass them on a steep slope. Thus it is recommended that you don't pick a weekend day, or that you start as early as possible (starting at 6am is already too late to beat the crowds). If you are fast enough to get to the cables before 8am, you won't have any crowds to fight with. I have rarely seen such dumb, slow, unprepared hikers as on the Half Dome trail anywhere else in California. Hikers have died trying to pass outside the cables, for example in june 2007 (but i blame the slow people on the cables more than the ones who died). The crowds completely ruin the magic of the place. (See a suggested calendar). Not sure what is there to be proud of that you stayed in line with thousands of people. You are much better off hiking up Clouds' Rest, that, being 300 meters higher, affords better views (including a great view of Half Dome itself) and gets only a handful of visitors per hour.
As of 2015 a permit is now required to hike Half Dome any day of the week when the cables are up, which means that more and more inexperienced people try to hike Half Dome when the cables are still down (usually before May) which will certainly result in more (not fewer) fatalities. As of 2015, permits are not available in the park or on a first-come first-served basis: you must request them ahead of time through a demented online lottery system. The money you pay for the permit pays the salary of the rangers, which explains the whole scheme at a time when rangers risk losing their job due to budget cuts. The problem is that this bureaucracy will make Half Dome even more popular among the general public, especially inexperienced hikers, which will increase demand, which will probably result in further restrictions. Another side-effect, already very visible, is that more and more people decide to follow my advice and hike Clouds' Rest except of overrated Half Dome. Nothing wrong with that, except that soon Clouds' Rest will get more crowded than Half Dome and the rangers will realize that they can make more money charging a permit for Clouds' Rest. It's all about business.

Hike milestones

Assuming that you always bear left at every junction (Mist trail route).
  • Start at Happy Isle trailhead (1232m high)
  • To Vernal Falls: 30 minutes (2.4 kms, 300m elevation gain)
  • To the steps: 15 minutes
  • To Nevada Falls: 30 minutes (5.6 kms, 570m elevation gain, end of the Mist trail)
  • To Little Yosemite Valley: 15 minutes
  • To the John Muir fork: 1 hour (10kms)
  • To the steps: 40 minutes
  • Steps: 30 minutes
  • Cables: 20 minutes
  • Top (11.2 kms, 2695m high, 1463m total elevation gain)

Estimated total time for a non-stop hike at good speed: 4 hours.

If you go up the Mist Trail and down the John Muir trail (longer but less steep), the distance is 13.7 km (As of 2009, there was a confusing sign at the beginning of the trail that had a distance in miles that refers to the John Muir trail route and a distance in kms that refers to the Mist trail route).

My best time ever from the Happy Isles trailhead (2005): 34' to the top of the first waterfall, 23' to the top of the second waterfall (junction with the John Muir trail), 20' to the beginning of the switchbacks (end of Little Yosemite Valley), 1 hours to the beginning of the steps, 2h 46' to the top. (My friend Peter was 3' faster).

In the spring you do get very wet on the Mist Trail (first half of the trail to Half Dome). Most people who have hiked Half Dome in the very popular (but rather ugly) summer season will never know why it is called "Mist" Trail.