The Best Way to Hike Yosemite's Half Dome

There's no bad way to climb Half Dome. That being said, there is a better way than the traditional all-day slog. Read on...

Soooo, Half Dome. You’ve heard of it. You’ve probably seen pictures. If you’re anything like us, you’re more than slightly entranced by it, spending many waking hours daydreaming about being on top of the world’s most iconic giant granite boulder. Something like this:

First, some logistics:

You are only allowed to climb Half Dome if you have a permit. There are two ways to procure a permit. One is via an annual lottery that occurs during the month of March each year. Set the calendar alert now for March 1st to remind yourself not to miss this window. Pro tip: hedge your application by picking less popular dates than midsummer weekends – go with weekdays or shoulder season weekends.

The second is the day-ahead lottery. This is good if you’re in the area, or are planning to visit Yosemite for a several day period and want to give yourself a chance at climbing Half Dome. The long and short of it is that you apply two days ahead of the day you’d like to hike (e.g., Thursday if you want to climb Saturday, and then hope for the best). 50 permits are held back for this allotment. Pro tip: if there are multiple people in your group, apply more than once.

This official site does a great job of laying out the process in more detail. The long and short of it is that this hike requires some planning ahead – hopefully this demystifies it a bit for you.

How to do the trek:

This hike will be an amazing experience pretty much regardless of how you do it. The setting is too epic for it not to be a special experience. That being said, we have a hunch as to how to make it even better:

Start the hike at 1am.

Why, you ask? Too many reasons:

  • Avoid the crowds. We just climbed Half Dome, and had the whole thing to ourselves for about an hour. Laying on our backs on the world’s largest granite boulder, watching shooting stars in the pre-dawn morning. It was a magical experience, made even better by the fact that we were the only one’s there. Also, the cables can become a total nightmare traffic jam, again you avoid this by being down before most people even start their way up.

  • Stars (some of them shooting) fading into one of the most epic sunrises you can image. The hour before dawn and the hour after it showcase Yosemite at it’s finest. It’s up there with the epic sunrise hike we did in Patagonia. We’ll let the pictures do the talking…

  • A night hike is something everyone should experience at least once – why not do it in Yosemite. Walking by headlamp through a wilderness like Yosemite is an awesome experience. Turn off your light during rest breaks, and watch darkness instantly retake the ground your headlamp had captured. Look up at the stars – amazingly bright and many – and let your eyes adjust to the dark. You can darn near walk by starlight, and the outlines of the massive mountains and granite outcroppings of Yosemite Valley are no less epic than during the daytime.
  • It feels easier this way. The beautiful thing about walking at night is that you can’t tell exactly how far you still have left to climb. (The answer is invariably “a lot more, you’re still not close”). During the day, the distance and the climb (almost a full mile of vertical feet) feel damn near insurmountable. At night, it’s one foot after another and you’ll be there before you know it.
  • People on the way down will think you’re superhuman. People you meet when you’re on your way down and they’re still on the way up will ask you repeatedly “did you already make it up to the top???” The combination of jealousy and awe in their voices is a nice little perk.

A few things to remember:

  • It gets cold up there. Not shocking, considering you’re at 8,800 feet. The walk up will most likely cause you to seat and you’ll feel confident that the warm clothes you brought weren’t worth it. Wrong. Bring a change of clothes and a couple extra layers. If you have the pack space, bring a sleeping bag for a little stargazing before the sun arrives.
  • The cables are a little bit scary – make sure to grab gloves from the rock bowl next to the bottom of cables. Trust us, you’ll want them.
  • Bring a small stove and some instant coffee / hot cocoa. Nothing makes the morning better than a hot drink, not that it needs to be any better…

That’s about all you need to know. The cables are down for this year, but start game planning now for how you’ll get your permit for next year.

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