Half Dome is a Yosemite icon and is one of the most popular, and most photographed peaks in the entirety of Yosemite National Park. Hiking to the top of such an iconic peak is a special experience. However, it is no easy feat to get there.
There are a few different trails that lead to the top of Half Dome, including the John Muir Trail, but the Mist Trail is the shortest route to the summit. The hike has a distance of approximately 14.2 miles and a total elevation gain of about 4,800 feet. The average duration of the hike is typically 10 to 12 hours, but it could easily take longer due to the strenuous nature of the hike. Because it takes so long, it would be wise to start hiking at sunrise (or very shortly after). Even with an early start, it is always smart to bring flashlights and head lamps just in case. In addition, the national park recommends a minimum of four liters of water for this hike. Hydration is crucial for any hike, especially one of this caliber.
The first portion of the trail leads to Vernal Falls. From the start, the trail is very steep. The trail continues to get steeper as it follows a large set of stairs that enter the close vicinity of the falls. The stairs by Vernal Falls provide for a very unique hiking experience; you will feel the refreshing sprays of the waterfall, and you may end up being drenched during periods of heavy water flow. Be very careful on this section of the trail. The stairs are slippery and steep. There is little room for error due to a steep dropoff that leads straight into the roaring river below. Keep in mind that the only water refill station on the long hike is on the footbridge right before the stairs to Vernal Falls.
The stairs continue and gradually turn into switchbacks that travel up the left side of Nevada Falls. The top of Nevada Falls has a restroom and is a great area to take a break, have a snack and fuel your body for the latter portion of the hike.
The trail temporarily flattens out as it follows along the Merced River. Take advantage of the flat ground because once the uphill starts again, it does not stop until you reach the summit of Half Dome. This section of the trail is filled with an old-growth forest, giant sequoias and wildflowers.
After traveling uphill for a couple of more miles, you will reach the base of the Sub-Dome, a smaller peak right before Half Dome. The Sub-Dome is very steep and strenuous. A series of paved switchbacks take you about three-quarters of the way up the peak. The last quarter of the hike up the Sub-Dome requires you to scramble up granite. The top of the Sub-Dome has beautiful views and provides you with the first up-close glance of the cables that lead to the top of Half Dome.
The famous Half Dome cables lead hikers 400 feet up the side of the granite face. It is, by far, the steepest and most dangerous part of the trail; you will be hiking up a wall of rock that is 46 degrees steep at some parts. Before attempting the hike, there are a few items that are necessary in order to ascend the cables to the summit:
The planning, preparation and strenuousness required on the hike to Half Dome provides every hiker with the reward of possibly the most stunning panoramic view in Yosemite National Park. At the summit, soak in the beauty of the awe-inspiring valley, and fuel yourself for the long, downhill trek back to the trailhead.
The proximity to waterfalls, the slippery stairs, the roaring rivers and the steep ascent on the cables all combine to make this hike difficult and dangerous. Be sure to respect the beauty and power of the nature you experience on this hike.
For additional information and tips, check out what the National Parks System has to say about the hike.