Hiking to the summit of the Half Dome in Yosemite National park was the #1 goal on our West Coast road trip. Not being able to plan our trip far ahead to secure permits in advance, we opted for attempting the hike after the summer season had ended, and just before the winter season would close all the park roads. The only drawback was that the “cable staircase” would not be “up” on the final 120m (400 ft) ascent to the half dome summit. Besides that there are only positives: no crowds, not too hot, not too cold, flexibility to choose a good date and to wait for good weather, cheaper accommodation etc…
Our plan was to be at the trailhead well before sunrise, so we set the alarm clocks to wake us up 5:30. We stayed at Yosemite West, 30 minute car drive from the Yosemite Valley and Curry Village. Outside it was still pitch dark and the temperature was lingering around 5ºC (41ºF).
We arrived to the trailhead parking lot at 7:20 and packed the leftover snacks from the car to the bear proof containers. We had chosen to go up following the Mist Trail, and take the John Muir Trail on the way down. Total distance of the hike would be around 24km (15 miles). The Half Dome summit is 2600m above sea level and the ascent from the valley floor would be about 1200 meters (4000ft).
The first part of the hike is one of the most popular day hikes in Yosemite valley, so the trail is very easy with clear signs everywhere. We were the only people on the trail and it was really peaceful. It’s easy to imagine how the park turns into a theme park during the summer weekends when over 1000 people hike to the top of the falls every day.
Sun was starting to rise but the weather was still a bit chilly. We were wearing all the layers, gloves and hats to stay warm.
The trail in the beginning is a wide concrete path and starts to elevate quite quickly. During the spring and summer month the waterfalls are on full power and spectacular. You will get wet from the spray (hence the name Mist Trail). In October there was hardly any water left in them. After about 30 minute walk there is a wooden bridge with great views to the Vernal Fall. Not so impressive in October though.
After the bridge you’ll find the last drinking fountain to fill up the bottles with purified water. The toilets were also still open on our way up. Shortly after, the John Muir trail and Mist trail parted to different directions. We went up the steep mist trail and chose to come down via the longer but less steep John Muir trail to save our knees.
The trail was getting more interesting, steeper and closer to the falls. We stayed dry and the surface was not slippery.
The path goes all the way to the top of the waterfall, so there were lots of steps.
By this time the sun was already starting to rise, and the sunlight on the surrounding rock walls was beautiful. We could finally strip the outer layers and just wear the long sleeved fleeces. Even without the full flow of water, the falls were spectacular and made us feel so small.
On the top there was a nice place for a break near the beautiful Emerald Pool. It must be a tempting place for a swim during the hot summer months. Swimming is understandably strictly forbidden. Just a little slip and you’ll end up at the bottom of the 99m (318ft) Vernal Fall.
After crossing the river on a wooden bridge, the trail got narrower with the river flowing on the right hand side. Soon after the views to the Nevada Fall were on their finest.
After some very steep stone stairs we arrived to the intersection of John Muir and Mist trails. Getting to the intersection took us 1 hour and 40 minutes.
The sign teld us that there was still 7.4km (4.6 miles) left to be hiked. We had already gained about 580m (1900ft) of altitude, so this was the halfway point to the Half Dome summit. Just a few hundred meters to the right would be the top of the Nevada Fall, but we continued to the left on John Muir trail towards Half Dome.
The trail was once again getting wider, in the woods along the Merced River. There were a few spots with nice sandy beaches, ideal for a swim during the summer.
From this part of the trail we also had nice views to the Half Dome, Sub Dome and the route we were about to follow. From there getting up those steep walls looked impossible.
The trail headed more into the woods and about 15 minutes later we arrived to an intersection again. To the left Half Dome, to the right Cloud’s rest and Tenaya Lake.
Gradually it got steeper and warmer. The sun was shining and we could hike in t-shirts. Soon we also saw to the first person, a guy running downhill on the trail. He had already been to the summit and was heading down fast. Just a normal morning routine for some people!
At the foot of the Sub Dome there was a large open area that seems perfect for camping. Is it allowed or not, we did not know.
The view to the Tenaya Creek was awesome, and on the hills we saw some snow from previous weekend’s storm.
From afar the Sub Dome looked almost impossible to climb, but there is a nice winding path with easy rock steps. The elevation and thin air was starting to slow down our pace though.
Almost there! We reached the Sub Dome after 4 hours of hiking. The altitude was 2490m (8170ft). Only 120m (400 ft) vertical vertical left. We had not taken any long breaks. Only many small photo stops to admire the scenery and nature. The pace so far had been steady and at this point we knew we were in no hurry, and would have plenty of time at the summit.
From the summit of the Sub Dome we’ll finally had a good view of the cables resting on the Half Dome rock surface. It’s was an intimidating and scary view. Long and bumpy fall to the valley floor on both sides.
After a snack break we put on our harnesses, stashed our extra food, liquids and gear under a rock, and prepared ourselves for the final push. From the start of the cables the wall looked extremely steep and long. Only option to get to the summit was to start climbing, and pulling ourselves up using the cables.
Every 20-30 meters the cables are either bolted to the stone or attached to each other. At these points we had to unclip the carabiner and clip it back to the cable, while making sure that we were not on the same section of the cable at the same time. Otherwise, if the person higher up on the cable would slip and fall, he would also take the person below with him, before making a stop at the next bolt.
The climb was very intimidating and exposed, and felt tougher than it was because of the scare factor. Nearly vertical drops to the valley floor on both sides. Cannot be recommended to anyone suffering from fear of heights!
The rock surface was not slippery (when dry) and the cables were quite easy to handle with gloves on. There were some good spots for resting along the way, but some parts were just too steep for a break. Especially at the very beginning and at the end.
It took a lot of upper body strength to pull ourselves up, and at the same time lift the heavy cables from the rock surface.
After about 22 minutes of climbing and 120m of altitude gain from the Sub Dome, we reached the top. The time was 12 pm and the altitude 2650 meters. In total it took us 4 hours and 40 minutes to reach the summit from the valley floor. Hooray!
The views from the summit were breathtaking, and we were the only people at the top. A beautiful clear day, alone on top of one of the most iconic landmarks in the world.
It’s was quite warm and not windy. A perfect place for a lunch with a view.
The summit was much larger than we expected and there were many snow patches left everywhere.
At one point we saw a group of 7 people celebrating on the Sub Dome. Seemed that it was their goal for the day, as they did not continue to the top of Half Dome.
We spent at least 1 hour at the summit enjoying the views to the Yosemite Valley, Tenaya Creek, Cloud’s Rest, Little Yosemite Valley and Glacier point.
Just as we were preparing to head down, we noticed that there were two people heading up the cables. At the top they seemed much more exhausted than we were. The couple told us that they were from Singapore, where the highest point is just 163 meters (537ft).
Going down the cables was even more intimidating and harder than going up.
It’s much easier to walk stairs upwards normally than down backwards, and the same applies here. We had to be careful with every step, and holding the cable off the rock surface was hard on our back muscles.
The descent took us about 30 minutes. We made it up and down alive and felt relieved. There was still a long hike down to the valley ahead of us, and we started heading back from the Sub Dome around 14:10. So far the hike had lasted almost 7 hours.
The steps of Sub Dome were not any nicer going down than going up. But after the steps the trail was just easy strolling downhill. Despite that, we almost lost the trail a few times. It seemed that there were several trails zig-zagging below the Sub Dome.
On our way down we met only 3 people, an older gentleman on his way up to the Half Dome and a younger couple on a several day camping and hiking trip.
When we arrived to the familiar crossing of John Muir trail and Mist trail we did not head down the same way we came up along Mist Trail, but continued on the John Muir trail. It was a bit longer but less steep, therefore easier to walk downhill.
It took us 2 hours 20 minutes to reach the top of the Nevada Fall from the cables (total hiking time 9:10). There was still very little water on the fall, but it was spectacular to see it from so close.
The sun is shining warmly and we took a snack break, but continued our way quite soon, so we wouldn’t have to hike in the dark before reaching the valley floor.
After crossing the Merced River there was an intersection to the Glacier Point via Panorama trail. We still continued along the John Muir Trail which offered great side-views to the Nevada Fall. The path was quite wide and rocky and zig-zagged gradually down in the forest. After the views were gone it was quite boring, and slowly also darker.
The toilets and water fountain that were open on our way up were now both closed. It really was the last day of the season.
Just before sunset we arrived back to the trailhead. The time was 18:05 and the hike took us 10 hours 45 minutes in total. Tired but still feeling good, we headed back to the car, hoping that he bears had left our car and the stashed food alone.
The hike in itself was not that hard or demanding for us, but we can imagine that many people will struggle with the altitude gain and distance. The final ascent to the Half Dome felt safer than we first imagined, but also much more intimidating when we were actually on the huge wall hanging from a single steel cable.
In the end it was probably the most awesome dayhike we had ever done. Huge waterfalls, breathtaking scenery and also some excitement.
Also check our guide: How to prepare for Hiking Half Dome in one day
Here are some extra pictures from the hike: