Yosemite Stays and Half Dome Lessons
Half Dome is an incredibly challenging, relentless, beast of a hike, that continues for miles past when you think you should be done. It's also 100% worth the trouble and is one of my most memorable experiences to date.
Here's my very rough and probably not complete guide.
Where to stay
There are approximately 1,000,000 vacation rentals in the Yosemite area, so it's hard to pick just one. If you're staying outside the park, I'd recommend the Oakhurst area. It's about a 10 minute drive to the south entrance of the park and the town itself has some great food options. Mariposa is another great town, just a little further away (about 45 miles from the park entrance).
Since this is probably going to be a very long blog post, I'll share just the basic details of the lovely Airbnb we chose in Oakhurst:
My rating: 1,000/10
4 guests, 2 bedrooms, 2 beds, 1 bath
10 minutes from the south entrance to Yosemite
Located on the site of a historic lumber mill and was built in 1923
15 min drive to Oakhurst
Huge wraparound patio and lots of outdoor seating
Includes an outdoor shower (!), washer/dryer, record player, lots of books, indoor fireplace, and a grill
If you're looking to stay IN the park and aren't lucky enough to snag a coveted spot at one of the main campgrounds—North Pines, Upper Pines, Lower Pines—I'd say Curry Village is your best bet.
The location is unbeatable, and while the accommodations are nothing special, the area offers a ton of food options within walking distance and some great spots to socialize after a long day hiking.
We stayed in the canvas tents, which, given it's a National Park, were hugely overpriced (they start at $155). They're also very basic and can get pretty hot at night. Again, nothing special, but I think the location is worth it. It was also still available to book about 2 months out from our trip, which is a rarity in Yosemite.
Hiking Half Dome
Half Dome is Yosemite's most challenging day hike, and is said to be one of the hardest hikes in all the National Parks. To complete the hike, you must have a permit—you can read more about that here.
Alltrails and Yosemite maps will tell you Half Dome is between 14-16 miles, but it's actually more like 17-20 (depending on your route).
As stated above, you need a permit to complete the hike. Some people "permit jump" and are able to get a same-day permit. The Hiking Guy blog has some good info on permits here (I'm no expert on obtaining permits—I was incredibly lucky and my friend got permits through no work of my own, allowing me to just tag along).
On average, Half Dome is completed in 10-14 hours. It can be less if you're a pro climber and more if you're a little out of shape or if you take longer breaks.
Half Dome sits at 8,846 feet above sea level.
You'll climb 4,800 feet in elevation on the hike.
You'll need to leave early to complete the hike in one day—probably around 3 or 4 AM.
It is VERY strenuous. Bring lots of water (more than you think) and electrolytes.
Preparing for the hike
Once you have your permit, there are several things you'll want to do to prepare for the hike.
First, assess your overall physical fitness. I spent the summer working my way up to 15 minutes on the Stairmaster and did 30-minute treadmill workouts at a 12 incline 3x a week. I also tried to walk 10,000 steps as many days as possible and did some practice hiking. All of this really paid off—while the hike was still incredibly difficult, I do feel like it prepared me to be able to climb straight uphill for hours on end.
Next, assess your upper body strength. Can you do a pull-up? Can you do more than 5 pushups? Can you hold yourself up on a rope swing? If you answered "no" to any of these questions, I would either 1) start doing some serious upper-body workouts to prepare or 2) know that the cables are going to be a lot more challenging than you think.
I read and heard that you don't need incredible upper body strength to complete this hike, and while that may be true for some, you do need SOME upper body strength for the cables. Without it, you're putting yourself at great risk. As you may have guessed, I answered "no" to all the above questions. My upper body was not strong enough to pull me up the cables, which led to my hands and arms cramping while I was up there. You do NOT want to be in this situation.
*If you're in the no-upper-body-strength club and don't have the time or resources to train and improve, that doesn't mean you shouldn't do the hike. The cables are not everything-they are only a small portion of the hike. It's okay to skip them, it's okay to only do a few. Don't let them stop you from this experience. More on that below.
Depending on where you're staying and if you're camping, what you need to pack will vary. Here are a few things I brought that I found crucial to my hike (not at all a comprehensive list):
SaltStick Electrolytes. These were a LIFESAVER. I had the watermelon flavor, which quite honestly, tasted horrible. You get used to the taste, but the other flavors might be better. They're worth it, regardless of the taste.
Hiking poles. I brought collapsable poles, which are handy if you don't expect to use them for 100% of the hike (which I didn't).
5-6 liters of water, or a camelback and water filter. We brought the Katadyn BeFree Water Filtration System (recommended by the guy at the Yosemite store), and again, it was a lifesaver. I'd highly recommend this.
A good hiking bag (an obvious one).
Quality, broken in hiking shoes with good traction. I'm a lifelong Keen fan and wore a newish pair of the Keen Women's Voyageur shoe. Just make sure your shoes have good traction, as it'll be essential on the cables and sub-dome.
Camping at Little Yosemite Valley Campground
We were lucky enough to get a last-minute wilderness permit to stay the night at Little Yosemite Campground (LYV). If you're able, I'd highly recommend this, as it's a great way to break up the Half Dome Hike. Because this was last minute, we didn't have a tent. Our ranger actually suggested just bringing sleeping bags and camping out in the open (which we essentially did, with blankets instead of sleeping bags), but I wouldn't recommend this. We were fine, but after hearing how common bears are in this area, I wouldn't take the risk. We also get VERY cold at night, despite the fact that it was 100 degrees in Yosemite Valley during the day.
LYV is about 4 miles from Yosemite Valley and 5 miles from Curry Village. It's quite steep, and consists of the Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls portion of the hike. When you reach Nevada Falls, it's about an additional mile from there.
In addition to several dispersed campsites, LYV also has bathrooms and a few bear boxes for your food. Be sure to be EXTREMELY diligent about putting all food and everything that smells like food (toothpaste, gum, floss, lotion) in the bear box. Bear sightings are common in this area, and according to the ranger we spoke to, they're just "bigger, glorified raccoons" who want your food. Don't give them a reason to harm you!
The campsite is also a short walk to a beautiful stretch of the Merced River, where you can swim and top up on water if you have a water filter. From LYV, it's an additional 3.5 to 4 miles to the summit of Half Dome. You can leave your tent and non-food belongings at LYV and grab them on the way back down.
There are two main routes you can take to reach Half Dome. Your first option is hiking the Mist Trail. This trail is shorter than the alternative option, but that also means it's steeper and a bit more strenuous. It will take you up 600+ granite steps past Vernal Falls and beside Nevada Falls.
Your other option is the John Muir Trail. This trail is a bit longer and more gradual, and consists of several switchbacks leading up the mountain. This trail skips Vernal Falls but does offer a different view of Nevada Falls from the very top.
Many hikers (my group included) do a combination of both trails, and opt to hike the Mist Trail up and the John Muir Trail back down. This offers all of the possible views and takes you on switchbacks down the mountain, rather than having to descend the over 600 steps of the Mist Trail.
Before the hike, I'd read and heard that the sub-dome was one of the most strenuous parts of the hike, but beyond that, I wasn't sure what to expect. When I first spotted the sub-dome from the trail, I could not comprehend how we were possibly going to hike up it. From afar, it looks just as steep as the cables, and at times hiking it feels that way, too.
Sub-dome starts off with granite "stairs" (I use that term loosely) that lead straight uphill for a while. There are steep drop-off points on either side of these stairs—if you're afraid of heights, don't look around you during this portion of the hike. After a while, these stairs just...end. I thought we'd gone the wrong way at first, but nope, turns out you have to just walk straight up the steep granite the rest of the way. And I do mean straight up. It's incredibly steep, and a bit scary on the way back down. Some hikers we spoke to at the top said this part was scarier to them than the cables.
The vibe at the base of the cables is, as the kids would say, immaculate. There is so much camaraderie amongst the hikers there, it's unlike anything I've ever experienced. Everyone chats with one another, swapping stories of the beginning portions of their hike, asking those who just came off the cables how it went, discussing the reasons why some refuse to attempt them. Everyone is equally excited, exhausted, and running on adrenaline. Everyone is kind and willing to offer advice—or even gear like gloves or extra water—to those around them.
What to expect:
When we asked a ranger the day before if the cables were safe, she shook her head emphatically no. I've done a lot of "dangerous" hikes—hikes with warning signs saying people have died here and to hike at your own risk. On most of these hikes, I never felt like I was truly in danger. I felt that the signs were more for the unprepared than for a seasoned hiker like me. This was the first time I felt like I was doing something truly risky, and in the end, I was honestly shocked that they let just anyone who pleases mosy up on that mountain and attempt to pull themselves up the side of Half Dome.
I don't think you can really know what to expect when you reach the cables until you're there. I looked at dozens of photos and videos ahead of time, and each one seemed to tell a wildly different story. Sometimes the cables looked impossibly steep, sometimes they looked completely doable and more like stairs. In my research and on the trail, some people said the cables were far easier than they'd expected; some said they'd backed out at the last minute from fear; some said they were difficult but worth it. Some hikers told us that coming back down the cables was actually easier than going up; some said the descent was far more strenuous and terrifying than the climb. The one thing everyone agreed on is that it takes a lot of upper body strength.
These mixed reviews are mirrored in the experience on the cables in that it varies widely from person to person. My advice would be to truly make the decision to climb for yourself and not be too influenced by what those around you are saying—whether it's negative or positive. I was surprised to note that at least half the people with permits didn't do the cables. Many knew their limits and were happy to wait for the other half of their party to make the climb. Reading and talking about it ahead of time, I assumed that almost everyone did the cables. At least on the day I went, this was very much not the case.
Oh, and you'll need gloves with a good grip. We saw some people attempt it without gloves, and I honestly just can't comprehend why you'd do this. If you're not an extremely experienced climber, just don't do this at all. Garden gloves will do, as long as the grip is good.
We got to the cables just before 11 AM, and there were only a handful of people on the cables. By the time we left hours later, the cables were so backed up that a line was forming. I'd recommend getting there as early as possible so you don't have to worry about other hikers. During the busier time, we saw people go outside the cables to get around other hikers, sit down between the cables while waiting for those ahead of them, and perform a lot of unsafe maneuvers just to make room or avoid others. The less people up there, the more safe the climb will be for you.
I did not have the necessary upper body strength for the cables. I was actually quite surprised by just how much upper body strength it required. To me, it felt like doing a dozen mini pull-ups as I made my way up the cables. You are quite literally PULLING yourself up the side of the dome, one hand at a time. The beginning section has about 6 wooden planks leading up the granite that you can stand on. They're a bit wobbly, but good for taking breaks and to guide you up. These planks eventually end, and then it's just you and the slick granite pulling yourself straight upwards. There are poles you can use for support on the way up, but these poles are not 100% secure and CAN come out of their holdings in the ground, so just be mindful.
I'd made it a few steps up the non-plank section when my forearm and hands cramped and seized up. This happened to a lot of people I spoke to before and after. If this happens, you have no choice but to keep holding on. I'll spare you the details, but after hearing me scream, a kind man rushed up to help me down from the cables, one step at a time. It was the most scared I've ever been in my life, and while I'm glad I attempted the cables, had I known that my arms seizing up was a possibility, I probably would've only climbed a few steps up and called it a day.
My overall take is that you must have the appropriate physical upper body strength to climb the cables. Those who have a fear of heights are much more likely to conquer the cables if they have the physical ability to reach the top. At least if you get scared, you know you have your strength to fall back on. Those who aren't afraid of heights but lack the physical strength will find themselves in a panic (like I did) when they get halfway to the top and feel their arms starting to give out. Without the strength, you quite literally have nothing to fall back on.
The people at the base of the cables at Half Dome are the best kind of people. They'll do anything to help one another—they'll even complete the cables 1.5 times if it means helping someone struggling (me) down safely. They restored my faith in humanity.