Climbing Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is one of the most sought after hikes in California and perhaps the entire US.
Due to its popularity, the National Park Service instituted a permitting system to limit the number of hikers on the climb.
Currently only 225 hikers can ascend Half Dome per day- 1/8th of the number of climbers from before the permitting system was introduced. Not surprisingly, the permits are very difficult to obtain. The daily permits for the entire season (May-October) are issued in a lottery conducted in March. In 2015, the chance of getting a permit was 33%. For 4 years, I entered this lottery and for 4 years I failed.
The other option to climb Half Dome is on a backpacking trip through the wilderness. Backpackers with an itinerary that goes near Half Dome can ask to get one of 75 permits earmarked for backpackers. The problem is that permits that allow you to camp at the logical Little Yosemite Valley campground fill up exactly 168 days ahead of time. After consulting my college roommate Anthony recently climbed Half Dome on his honeymoon and looking at dates I applied for a permit to hike the Happy Iles/Illouette trail and climb Half Dome over the Columbus Day long weekend-the final weekend the Half Dome cal. I faxed in the application (that’s just how Yosemite works) and 3 days later received an email that my application was accepted. I sat there in disbelief. I was going to Half Dome with a plus 1.
I immediately called up my friend and mountaineering partner Andrew. He also had failed for a number of years to get the Half Dome permit and was excited to climb with me. Unfortunately, just one week before the climb, he had to cancel. While I certainly would have gone alone, I decided to reach out on Facebook and see if anyone wanted to go. I immediately got a call from my high school friend Scott, who climbed Humphrey’s Peak in Arizona with me just 6 weeks prior. He apparently enjoyed the trip enough to want to spend another weekend with me. In addition to normal camping/hiking gear, we brought gloves for the cables.
November 8, 2016: Navigating Yosemite Valley
Scott and I set out on Friday night. We reached the town of Oakhurst around 11pm. After a quick search showed that hotels were over $100/night, we opted to sleep in the car underneath a tree in a dirt parking lot about a mile past town.
The next morning we woke up and drove into Yosemite National Park’s South Entrance. After paying the steep $30 entrance fee, we drove for almost 45 minutes to reach the famed Wawona Tunnel. We drove through the tunnel and emerged on the other side to be greeted with a stunning view of the entire Yosemite Valley. All the landmarks: El Capitan, (a dry) Bridalveil Falls and, in the far distance, Half Dome were all there!
It was now 8:30 am and we had to pick up our permit by 11. We drove into the Valley and saw signs for the Visitor Center day parking. Despite it being the off-season, the lot was fairly full. What the park doesn’t tell you is that the “Visitor Center Parking” is actually a mile away from the visitor center. So we jogged about 15 minutes over to the visitor center.
There, we checked in with the ranger. After a 5-minute safety lecture, we were given the permit aka the golden ticket and a bear canister for our food. We then watched the park film “Spirits of Yosemite”. The booming narrator’s voice who Scott described as a wannabe Morgan Freeman became an ongoing joke throughout the trip.
On the way back to the car, we took a brief stop to check out Yosemite Falls, which were completely dry at point in the year. It’s hard to fathom how such a powerful waterfall can completely dry up.
We then drove to the trailhead parking at the far end of the Valley about 15 minutes past the Visitor Center. Despite all of the infrastructure in the park, somehow the Park Service hasn’t gotten around to paving this very popular parking lot. There are medium sized potholes and no markings for parking spaces. Cars were parked anywhere they could.
It was now 11:30 and we were hoping to get a quick meal before the hike. The nearest place to get lunch was the Curry Village, which was recently renamed Half Dome Village due to a legal dispute with the previous concessioner. Curry Village looked like an army camp. The 500+ white tents were placed right next to each other. While there is no privacy or sense of being in the wilderness, it does allow more people to stay in Yosemite Valley, which is a good thing.
The Village is serviced by a lodge similar to a summer camp mess hall. Unfortunately, the main cafeteria is only open for breakfast and dinner. The only lunch option is a pizza place on the deck that opens at noon. We lined up along with 20-30 other people waiting for it to open. Eventually we got our pizza and quickly headed back to the car to prep for the hike.
Finally around 2pm, we were ready to go for real.
From Happy Isles to Illouette
The trail to Half Dome starts at Happy Isles, where the Merced River reaches the Yosemite Valley floor. There are a number of small islands. The first section of the hike is called the Mist Trail and is perhaps the most popular hike in the park. It is so popular, that the “trail” is essentially a paved road for the first mile that gains a deceptive 500 feet. It then crosses a creek and becomes a staircase up the side of a canyon. Here it passes by the 317 ft. tall Vernal Falls. Normally the mist from the powerful falls shrouds the trail and moistens the hikers. However since this was the end of the dry season, the falls looked more like a 317 ft. trickle. It was still impressive and there was a small rainbow formed by a mist at the bottom of the falls.
The staircase up the falls was steep and full of hikers. We took a break at the top before heading onward towards the 594 ft. Nevada Falls. The staircase up Nevada Falls was almost twice as tall as Vernal and was directly in the sun. With the heavy pack and the heat, I struggled here. After about a half-hour of climbing the staircase, we made it to the top of Nevada Falls in good spirits.
It was now about 6 pm and we had an hour before sunset. We crossed over Nevada Falls and walked down the John Muir Trail for about 5 minutes before switching to the trail towards Glacier Point. After about a mile, we took a small spur trail over a ridge and into the Illouette Valley. We set up camp in a clearing. For the first time in the park so far, we were the only people in sight. We went to bed early in preparation for the big day tomorrow.
November 9, 2016: Summit Day
We woke up at 4, packed up our camp and were on the trail at 4:30 arriving at Nevada Falls around 5:15. The falls were eerie and empty in the pre-dawn and if you were wondering, the park rangers do not turn off the falls at night.
After filling up our water, I realized that it was too early to proceed since we needed daylight to set up our next camp. After waiting about 30 minutes in the cold, we walked about a half-mile upriver to the Little Yosemite Campsite. Finally the sun was coming up, so we set up the tent in the crowded campground. We then ditched everything we didn’t need for the summit climb and headed up towards Half Dome.
Little Yosemite Valley was about the halfway mark in terms of distance and slightly under halfway in terms of elevation. The trail forced its way up the side of the forested valley – there was no scenery except forest and the grade was moderately steep.
Eventually, we made it to the base Half Dome. A sign reminded us that permits were required, but nobody was there to check today. The trail once again became a rock staircase as it wound its way up the sub-dome, a smaller granite dome just below Half Dome itself. Climbing the sub-dome took about 10 minutes. The legs were burning here since the climb was long.
The end was now in sight. The only thing standing between us and the summit of Half Dome was the dreaded cables. From our vantage, they looked more like a ladder stretching up the giant rock face. After taking pictures, taking a sip of water and putting on our gloves, we started up.
Imagine a line at a club (with all the people), except the velvet ropes were made of metal and went up a 45-degree slope. And the slope is on an incredibly slick rock that normal shoes cannot grip. Because of the slickness of the rock, wooden plans are placed every 10 feet to aid climbers and create a spot to rest. Pulling oneself up the cables using upper body strength is the only way to ascend. That’s the cables.
Luckily for us, we arrived early enough in the day that the crowds weren’t an issue. There were probably 3 people ahead of us on the cables. From start to finish, the cables took about 15 minutes and were very tough. Scott and I were relieved to be at the summit.
The summit of Half Dome is a surprisingly spacious place. There are 2 large hills. The closest hill is the true summit and is where the majority of the people hang out. The other hill is almost 300 yards away and gets very few visitors. We decided to hang out first at the summit hill with the crowds. The obvious photo spot is on an outcropping called the Diving Board where the rock juts out over the 4,000 ft cliff. Because Half Dome gets more than its fair share of climbers, people do really stupid/weird things. Walking over, I saw what looked like a tiny stream and some girls giggled and told me to watch out because it was their urine. One guy asked Scott to hold him over the edge so he could take a scary picture. Someone else told me he didn’t want to carry a camera/phone up, but still wanted a picture, so he asked me to take it and send it to him.
After an hour of stupidity, we wandered over to the other quieter hill where we were the only people. Scott then fell asleep for another hour. After wondering whether he fell off the dome or not, I called him. He picked up and we started down.
Going down the cables was much scarier than going up for 3 reasons. First, I realized how high up I was and how steep the cables are. Second, due to the slipperiness of the rock, I basically slid in between the wooden planks. Third, there were now a whole bunch of people climbing up, so I had to dodge them ever so carefully coming down. I probably passed at least 50 people on the way down and there were another 40 waiting to come up.
Eventually we made it down and talked to some climbers who were scared by the cables and came unprepared. I unsuccessfully tried to convince them to climb the cables since they made it this far already.
From the top of the subdome, it was a 90 minute slog down to Little Yosemite Valley. Since I was wearing a Superman shirt, Scott suggested I tell all the upward hikers to “Have a Super Day”. We got mostly positive reactions (after 4,000 feet of climbing, you can use all the positive encouragement you can get). Eventually we ran into another man wearing a superman shirt so we had to take a picture.
Once we returned to camp, we decided that there was plenty of time to return down to the Valley, which would give us more time to explore other parts of the park and get back to LA sooner.
We packed up pretty quickly and strolled over to Nevada Falls. Scott and I didn’t realize that this trail actually went along the riverbank. Near the top of the falls, we were approached by some lost hikers looking for the waterfall- surprising since its not that hard to miss a huge 600 ft waterfall.
From the top of Nevada Falls it was another 2-ish hours down. To avoid descending the stairs on the mist trail, we took the less steep but longer John Muir trail. It seemingly took forever, but we made it down without taking any staircases.
By 5pm, we finally made it back to the trailhead. After a visit to the car, we walked over to Curry Village to get a celebratory beer. We both ordered the Half Dome Wheat Ale, of course.
For dinner, Curry Village opens up their cafeteria. A huge crowd gathered to eat and watch the second presidential debate. People appeared to be from all political spectrums and very few people commented during the broadcast.
It was now about 7:45 and dark outside. Using google maps and GPS, we wandered our way over to the backpacker’s campground, which is open to anybody with a wilderness permit for one night. After setting up our tent, we quickly fell asleep after a long and successful day.
The next morning, we returned our bear canister to the visitor center, ate a celebratory breakfast at the Ahwahnee Hotel, visited Glacier Point and stopped for another celebratory beer at the South Gate Brewing Company in Oakhurst- right near the spot we slept in the car the first night.
I really enjoyed the Half Dome trip and I am especially glad that we went late season once the apparently unbearable summer crowds are gone. While it still felt crowded, I understand why the crowds come to Yosemite. It is an amazing place. Would I climb Half Dome again? On my own, probably not. The effort required to get the permits was so difficult, I would rather spend my energy elsewhere and enjoy other areas of the park. That said, it is a must-do for any California hiker.