Climb Half Dome for Sunrise

Details

Distance

7 miles

Elevation Gain

2692 ft

Route Type

Out-and-Back

Added by Jonathon Reed

Take on an awe-inspiring adventure to the iconic summit of Half Dome and find yourself surrounded by stars and early morning sunlight—rather than the hundreds of tourists that line the trail at midday.

Half Dome is the jewel of one of the most stunning landscapes in the United Staes. Its rugged and timeless beauty attracts countless travellers, hikers, photographers and adventurers to the Sierra Nevada every year—hopefully including you.

Because of its popularity, your journey begins 24 weeks before you even get to Yosemite, with a Wilderness Permit reservation that includes a Half Dome permit. (NPS even has a handy table that shows you the earliest day you can reserve.) The park allows a maximum of 300 hikers on Half Dome each day: 225 day hikers and 75 backpackers. By attempting to reserve a Wilderness Permit, rather than just a Half Dome Permit (both of which are given out via lottery) you are maximizing your chances of getting the permit to climb Half Dome because most people day hike. If you want to be highly strategic (I was), check the quotas for different trailheads on the Yosemite trailhead information page. Fax the reservation, don't phone. If you don't get the lottery you can still get a first-come, first-served permit beginning at 11 AM on the day before the intended entry date.

Now you've got a reservation, but so do 300 other hikers—and you don't want to be bottlenecked with them at the cables at the top of Sub Dome. You really don't. The solution is simple. It might sound intense, but it's among the best adventures you can imagine: start at 2 AM.

Arrive at Little Yosemite Valley Campground the night before, probably either via the Panorama Trail or Mist Trail. Refill all your water bottles at the Merced River. Set up base camp. Don't light any fires that aren't in the communal fire ring. I've seen rangers hike in just to put out illegal campfires. Not worth it.

Set an alarm and go to bed as early as you can. The hike to the summit of Half Dome is 3.5 miles and 2,500' in elevation. When I hiked it, we budgeted for it taking four hours, and it took us three. Eat some warm food in the morning. It might seem like wasted time, but unless it's a very warm summer's night, the meal will be well worth it. Bring a light daypack with warm clothing layers, an extra set of batteries or light, your camera, water and snacks.

The trail leading to Sub Dome is usually easy to follow; and in the cool, isolated quiet of the night it does not seem nearly as long as it does in the heat of the day. The only spots that might give you pause are at the corners of unexpected switchbacks, when the trail turns sharply to the left or right. Also, be prepared for the rock-hewn stairs on Sub Dome to disappear once you've climbed the steepest section. It's still going to be dark and it might feel like you've lost the trail. Stay away from the edges of the dome and keep hiking up. At that point, there's no possible way to get lost.

We figured that climbing the cables would take us around 20 minutes, so we stayed out of the wind on Sub Dome until about 30 or 40 minutes before sunrise. Ended up falling asleep nestled under a rock ledge. We woke up very cold, but quickly warmed up once we started dancing and exercising our muscles. As silly as it sounds, I recommend this. Odds are you'll have that kind of extra time. Get to the base, put on all your layers and then wait until almost-sunrise to finish the trek. All that's left is the cables, which are as fun as everyone says they are, although perhaps more tiring than scary.

Once you've reached the summit, explore! Take in the sight of Yosemite Valley stretched out in blue beneath you. Sit on the edge of the rock face and drink in the sun's rays. You absolutely deserve it. Once you've had your fill, climb down and crash at Little Yosemite Valley. Do some day hiking, head back down, or continue on to Cloud's Rest and beyond.

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We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on.

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