Half Dome and 1/2

Half Dome Evening Glow

Lord, I love this hike. Lord, I hate the cable route. It’s not because of the climb, the exposure or physical effort required; it’s due to the many other hikers excited to be there.

The key to a successful RT ascent in one day is to start at 4:00 AM at the Happy Isles trailhead.

The hike is 14+ miles RT unless you do the smart thing and descend via the John Muir trail back to the Valley floor which adds 2 miles to the RT route. Doing so saves you from facing late afternoon traffic on the Mist Trail as well as saving your knees while descending the granite steps near Vernal Fall.

The best of all possible scenarios is to hike the day before to the top of Nevada Fall (about 2.6 miles with an elevation gain of 2,000′) to catch all of the sites and views along the way. Views of Mt. Broderick and Liberty Cap as well as the falls themselves are nothing short of a religious experience. If done as an afternoon day hike, the light will be spectacular. Descend to the Valley floor for refreshments in Curry Village and an early sack time. Having hiked almost halfway to the summit, it’s also a good way to get your hiking legs and lungs ready for the whole enchilada the next day.

The next morning, hit the trail at 4:00 AM and climb to the top of Nevada falls by daybreak. Since you’ve seen the sights along the Mist Trail, you won’t feel like you missed anything except the crowds. Plus, you’ll get to see the sunrise over the Valley from the elevated perch of the Nevada Fall bridge.

Continue through Little Yosemite Valley, a benign, flat and relatively boring section of trail until you begin to climb to the shoulder of Half Dome, sometimes referred to as Sub Dome or “Quarter Dome.” The climb up Quarter Dome is actually pretty tough because it is so exposed and comprised of a series of steep drop-offs, multiple stone steps and switchbacks.

Arrive at the base of the cables and take your turn using them to pull yourself to the top. If you’ve arrived early enough (some folks camp out in Little Yosemite Valley and may actually have a head start on your 4:00 AM start time) the crowds shouldn’t be too bad. If you do the hike on a weekday in mid-to-late September visitors to the park have thinned a bit.

Be sure to check with the NPS regarding cable route permits. It is advised to read ahead regarding water sources and toilet facilities along the way. Don’t piss in the Merced, please. Also, don’t leave gloves at the base of the cables. The pile left by previous hikers is just a mess and unnecessary.


  1. DestinationIsolation says:

    Excellent advice. I haven’t gone up since permitting began but the line of people was really a circus and dangerous. Hopefully the permits fixed some of this.

    Another great alternative is to do the hike at night. Pick a date to coincide with a full (or nearly full) moon. You can bivouac right below the cables and ascend at dawn or up top to enjoy the sunrise. Camping isn’t allowed, but taking a nap is 🙂 Head back down early enough and you won’t even have to deal with those going up the cables.

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