How To Hike Half Dome


How to hike Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

Hiking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park was one of the most amazing and challenging things I've done. Lying in the heart of Yosemite National Park stands a granite dome, rising above all the peaks around it. It's one of the USA's most recognizable icons and the 360 views from the top of the dome are unbeatable. But getting there is no easy feat. Between the challenge of the hike and the views you are rewarded with, there is no doubt why adventurous spirits from all over the world want to stand on top of this dome.


Half Dome was once thought to be a summit that couldn't be reached, but now cables are bolted along the side of the dome assisting climbers on their trek up. If you want to attempt the climb, first you have to be lucky enough to win a permit in Yosemite National Park's lottery system. Then you need to be physically and mentally prepared to tackle this hike.


This post covers the following topics:

1. Obtaining A Permit

2. Fees

3. Training for Half Dome

4. Hiking to Half Dome

5. Tips for Climbing the Cables

6. Gear to Bring

7. Hiking Half Dome During the Off Season


Before we begin, here's some specs on Half Dome.


Mileage: 14-16 miles roundtrip depending on the trails you choose

Elevation Gain: 4800 feet

Dome Elevation Gain: 400 feet at a 45 degree angle

Difficulty Rating: Extremely Strenuous

Average time to hike: 10-12 hours, but some take longer

Permit Needed: While cables are up, usually between Memorial Day and Columbus Day.



If you want to climb Half Dome while the cables are up, you will first need to obtain a permit. Yosemite National Park only permits 300 people a day to continue the hike past the subdome (the last climb before reaching the cables). There is a ranger stationed at the subdome who checks your permit and photo ID. If you try to sneak in you could be faced with a $250 fine. The permit system was created to protect the wilderness area, reduce crowding, and increase safety so please respect it.


There are a handful of ways to obtain a permit:


1. Pre-Season Day Hiker Lottery

Yosemite issues 225 permits per day for day hikers. This means you have to complete the 16 mile hike in one day. Here's what you need to know about the preseason lottery:

  • Pre-season lottery runs from March 1st to March 31. No matter what time of year you want to hike in, you have to apply in March if you want a reservation in advance.

  • The lottery is not first come first serve basis, you can apply at anytime during this period.

  • You can apply for up to 6 different dates, listing your priority.

  • You can only submit one application per lottery. If you try to submit multiple applications, all of them will be cancelled.

  • Max group size of 6 people.

  • Improve your odds of winning by selecting weekdays over weekend dates.

  • Apply for a permit online at Recreation.gov.

You will be notified in mid-April if you won a permit or not. If you won a permit, you must accept your permit by the specified date.


2. Daily Lottery (Day Hike)

If you don't win a permit in the pre-season lottery, you still have a chance to get a permit in the daily lottery. Here's a few things to know about the daily lottery:

  • The number of daily lottery permits is dependent on cancellations and unclaimed reservations. There is not a set number of daily lottery permits.

  • You apply two days before the day you want to hike.

  • The application period runs from midnight to 1pm on the day you apply.

  • If you won, you would be notified the same night you applied on.

  • Example: if you want to hike on Saturday, you would apply on Thursday before 1pm and you would be notified Thursday night.

  • Apply for a daily permit at Recreation.gov


3. Reservation for Wilderness Permit w/ Half Dome Permit

The Park issues 75 wilderness permits with Half Dome added on per day. To go backcountry camping in Yosemite you need to obtain a wilderness permit. When you are making a reservation for a wilderness permit you have the option to add on a Half Dome permit request if your itinerary passes through the vicinity of Half Dome. The Half Dome permits are awarded on a first come, first serve basis and are valid for the duration of your wilderness permit. To apply for a wilderness permit click here.

  • Reservations for a wilderness permit can be made up to 24 weeks in advance and up to two days before your hike begins.

  • You can apply for up to 3 different dates in your reservation request.

  • Each confirmed reservation cost $5, plus an additional $5/person. Fees are non-refundable.

  • If you try to submit multiple applications, all requests will be cancelled.


4. FCFS Wilderness Permit w/ Half Dome Permit

One day prior to the day you want to start your backpacking trip, you can apply for a first come, first serve (FCFS) wilderness permit at one of the wilderness permit stations. At the time of applying, request a Half Dome permit. You can only request a Half Dome permit if your itinerary goes through the vicinity of Half Dome. Before going to a permit station, determine which trailhead you wish to start your hike at. Then go to the nearest permit station to that trailhead since they are given first priority.


5. Hail Mary

If you struck out on all the ways to obtain a permit, there is one last option that I've heard about, but I'm not sure how well it works. You could hike all the way up to the subdome where the ranger is waiting to check permits. Once there, check with the ranger to see if there were any no-shows. If there are any open slots, the ranger may allow you to pass through on to the dome. This might mean waiting around a while till hiking groups have passed through. If you didn't win a permit, but you are determined to hike Half Dome, this might be your best bet, or try your luck again next year.



For all permits, there is a non-refundable $10 application fee due at the time of submitting your application.


If you won a permit, there is a $10 per person fee which you pay at the time of accepting your permit. If you have to cancel your permit, do so by 9PM Pacific time the day before your hiking date to be eligible for a refund.


If you received a wilderness permit, this fee is in addition to your wilderness permit fees.


Guide to Hiking Half Dome.

You won a permit, now what? Half Dome is not an easy hike. If you are not in good physical condition or have a fear of heights, you should not attempt this hike. Not the mention, the better physical condition you're in, the more you will enjoy the hike.


To prepare for Half Dome, you need to know how difficult the hike is:


  • The hike is long. The shortest way to Half Dome is 14 miles roundtrip.

  • The trail leading up to Half Dome is very steep, gaining 4800 feet in elevation.

  • The Dome itself is 400 feet tall at a 45 degree angle. It is every bit as steep as the pictures look. You will need upper body strength to pull yourself up the cables.

  • There is only one water spigot on the entire trail about one mile in, so you need to carry a minimum of 4 liters. That adds so much weight to your pack, but I'll talk more about water later.

  • Half Dome stands at 8839 feet and anything above 8000 feet is considered a high altitude hike. You could experience some symptoms of altitude sickness on this hike. Staying hydrated and nourished helps prevent altitude sickness. Learn more about altitude sickness here.

With all of these factors combined, Half Dome is an extremely strenuous hike and you need to train for it.



Training Recommendations


  • Get comfortable hiking. Do at least one big hike once a week. Each week increase the mileage and elevation gain until you're comfortable hiking between 13-15 miles and 4000 feet. This could mean starting your training three months in advance or earlier depending on your current physical condition.


  • Do strength training 3-4 times a week.

  • Lower body exercises: squats, sumo squats, lunges, calf raises, kettle bell swings, and deadlifts. Add weights to each exercise to make your muscles work harder.

  • Upper body exercises: pull ups (can be assisted with a band), tricep pushups, tricep kickbacks, overhead press and bicep curls.


  • Cardio: Hiking uphill is a lot of cardio work so the better your cardiovascular system is, the more you'll enjoy your hike. Pick your favorite cardio exercise and do it at least once a week for 30 minutes.


  • StairMaster: Using a stairMaster is a great way to train for hiking, but personally I find it boring. I'd rather be outside hiking a real mountain.


How to train for hiking Half Dome

Start Your Hike Early

Most people begin hiking between 4am and 6am. We chose the earlier start and hit the trailhead just a little after 4am. You'll want to start early for several reasons.

  1. If you're driving to the trailhead, the parking lot fills up fast. It was already half full when we showed up at 3:30am.

  2. You'll want to beat the crowd to the chains. It felt significantly safer to me to not have to wait behind other people going up or work with people coming down (since up and down the chains is on the same line). We were also able to move quicker not having to wait for other people.

  3. You'll want to avoid the afternoon heat and there is a greater risk of thunderstorms in the afternoon.

  4. If you are planning on taking the shuttle to the trailhead, be aware it doesn't start running until 7am.


Choose Your Trail

There are several ways to reach Half Dome, but the most popular trail and the one we chose, departs from Happy Isles via the Mist Trail. It's the most popular route because it's the shortest distance and you also pass the iconic Vernal and Nevada Falls. The rest of my blog will be written based on the route we hiked.


The picture below was taken from Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. In this picture you can see both Vernal and Nevada Falls. The Mist Trail goes up along the right side of the lower waterfall and crosses over to go up the left side of the upper waterfall. After the second waterfall the trail turns left and goes behind Liberty Cap towards Half Dome. You summit the dome on the back side which you can't see in this picture.


How to hike Half Dome

Mile Markers

Take a screen shot of this so you have it on your hike!

Mileage for Mist Trail to Half Dome

Mist Trail

We parked at the Yosemite Valley Trailhead parking lot and began the hike just after 4am with headlamps to light the way. There were many groups beginning the hike at this time so we were not alone.


The last water fountain on the trail is about 0.8 miles into the hike just after you cross the Vernal Falls Footbridge. This is also the last stop for a real bathroom with flush toilets. The trail up to this point is paved, but after you pass the footbridge the pavement ends and the real work begins.


Vernal Fall

From the footbridge you start hiking up Vernal Fall and it's about 0.7 miles from the bottom to the top of the falls. This section was a real awakening for how steep the hike would be. The trail is made out of rocks to form a staircase and they are slippery from the waterfall spray. Use caution as you climb them. At the top of Vernal Fall, stay left on Mist Trail.


Vernal Falls in Yosemite National Park

Nevada Fall

Continue on the Mist Trail. Soon you begin the next rock staircase section as you hike up the left side of Nevada Fall. Once you reach the top of Nevada Fall you have hiked about 3 miles. Here, the trail splits, stay left to continue onto Half Dome. There is also a pit toilet at the top of Nevada Fall.


Nevada Fall in Yosemite National Park

Little Yosemite Valley

After passing Nevada Fall, the trail runs along side the Merced River before entering Little Yosemite Valley. If you plan on filtering water, make sure to do it before the trail leaves the river. This will be your last chance to filter water on the way up. The trail through Little Yosemite Valley is more gradual so your legs will get a bit of a break before you begin your next climb.


After leaving the valley, the trail begins to climb switchbacks through the forest. You'll get your first glimpses of Half Dome through the trees. In the forest section there will be a sign to stay left onto Half Dome Trail. At the sign you have gone 5 miles and you have 2 to go.


The trail levels about a bit before reaching the subdome. Right before reaching the subdome we each stashed a full water bottle under a tree to loose some weight in our packs. You are not allowed to leave anything with food in it behind because critters will get to it.


Tips for hiking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park


The Subdome

You will be greeted at the base of the subdome by a ranger who will check your permit and photo ID. Make sure to bring them with you! The subdome is a very steep rock staircase. Near the top of the subdome the staircase ends and you climb a smooth granite rock slab. This entire section is very difficult and tiring. We slowly pushed forward.


The subdome on Half Dome

Half Dome

Once you reach the top of the subdome, you have your first views of Half Dome up close and personal. It was insanely beautiful, but honestly, I was terrified. I had been pretty calm up to that point, but seeing how steep it was put a little fear in me. It is just as steep, or steeper than it looks in the pictures. We sat and had a snack to refuel before attempting to climb it. At this point make sure you have enough strength left to make it up and down the cables safely.


Watch the weather. Do not attempt to climb the dome in rainy or stormy weather. The dome is very smooth and slippery to begin with and rain only makes it more slippery. You do not want to be on this granite slab if lightening strikes. Thunderstorms are more common in the afternoon which is another reason for starting your hike early.

The cables on Half Dome

  • Stash your hiking poles between some rocks before going up the cables. You are not allowed to leave backpacks with food behind here.

  • Remove any loose clothing and hats and put it securely inside your backpack.

  • The ranger told us many people loose their cell phone on the cables so we put ours inside our packs. I don't think I would have had the courage to take a hand off the cable to take a picture anyway.

  • Wear gloves on the cables. More on this in the gear section.

Tips for climbing the cables on Half Dome.
  • About every 10 feet is a wooden plank bolted to the granite with posts that hold the cables up around waist height. Some of the planks are wobbly so be sure to test it before putting your full weight on it. Use the planks to take a little break if you need too.

  • Always have three points touching. This means if you are taking a step, your other foot should be planted to the ground and both hands should be gripping the cable. When moving your hands forward, both feet should be on the ground, moving one hand at a time.

  • Do not hike outside of the cables. We saw one hiker attempt this on our way down (he was going up) and a ranger yelled at him until he got back inside the cables.

  • Be patient with slow hikers.

  • Do not underestimate how steep and smooth the granite is. Take each step with care.

  • There is no shame in not making it to the top. Your life is the number one priority and if you don't feel like you can make it to the top and back safely, then turning around is the right decision.



Starting our hike early paid off because when we started hiking up the cables around 9am there were no other groups on the cables. About half way up we ran into one or two other groups coming down. It took us about 30 minutes to climb up the cables.


The climb was steep. About a quarter of the way up I had to give myself a pep talk. My entire body was shaking with fear and I knew I couldn't go further if I didn't get a grip of myself. I told myself to either plow forward with every bit of strength I had or turn around. I chose to plow forward. I put my fears aside, gained control of my wobbly legs, and I didn't look out the rest of the way up. I made it to the top.


Once we peaked the dome, the whole world opened up. The 360 degree views were unbelievable. With Yosemite Valley below us and granite all around, it was worth every bit of sweat, blood and tears to get there.


Views from the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

Views from the top of Half Dome

How to hike Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

At the top we enjoyed our lunch, soaked in the views and took a handful of pictures. We spent about an hour at the summit.


Climbing down the cables is just as hard as going up. Some people go down the cables face forward and others choose to turn around and ladder walk down. I preferred going face forward while my friend ladder walked down. About half way down the cables we started running into groups of people going up. You have to communicate and take turns going to the next plank. The people going up should stick the the right side of the cables and the people coming down should stay on the left. Overall, everyone was very friendly and worked together to safely make it up or down the dome. I enjoyed exchanging words of encouragement with other hikers here. When we reached the bottom of the dome, a line of people waiting to go up had started to form.


How to climb the cables on Half Dome

Return to the Trailhead

We made it back down the chains by 11 am and began the long walk back to the trailhead. You descend the same way you came up. Once you get to Nevada Falls you will start to see more people. Hiking up to Vernal and Nevada Falls is one of the most popular hikes in Yosemite, even if you don't continue on to Half Dome.


Mist Trail or John Muir Trail

At Nevada Falls you have the option to retrace your steps via the Mist Trail or you can turn off on the John Muir Trail (JMT). The JMT adds an extra 1.5 miles, but it is less steep. We chose to take the JMT. Personally, I prefer a more gradual descent because I get achy knees. I also enjoyed the different scenery and new view of Nevada Fall.


Muir Trail in Yosemite National Park

After about 4 miles from leaving Nevada Fall, the JMT meets back up with the Mist Trail at the bottom of Vernal Falls. This last leg of the trip seemed to go on forever. It was super crowded with people and we just wanted to be done. Finally we reached the bottom of Vernal Fall. We each filled up a water bottle at this fountain and chugged it before continuing the remaining 0.8 miles back to the car. The total hike took us 12 hours.


After the hike we treated ourselves to a dinner out. It was an early night for us as we were exhausted. When I look back at pictures, I still can't believe how steep the dome was. It still gives me chills. It's definitely an accomplishment to be proud of.


I tailored the gear listed below specifically for Half Dome, but also check out my post, Gear Guide for Day Hiking, for a complete day hiking gear list.


Hiking boots with really good traction. If your hiking boots are old and worn out, think about getting a new pair before your trip because you will want boots with great traction. Make sure to break them in before the big day. Do not wear brand new boots on a 16 mile hike. That's a recipe for blisters! My preference is the Salomon X Ultra 3 Hiking Shoes. They are incredibly comfy and lightweight and the grip on them worked great on Half Dome. Pair your boots with wool socks.


4 Liters of Water: After leaving the trailhead, there is only one water fountain on the trail. It's about 0.8 miles into the hike. It is recommended to carry 4 liters per hiker from this point. Trust me, you want it. I carried 4 liters to the summit and was running very low on my way down. Luckily another hiker who had been filtering water offered to share half a liter with me. When I reached the Merced River, I filtered another liter. I wasn't planning on filtering water that day, but I'm glad I brought my Steripen just in case. If I were to ever hike it again, I would plan on filtering water on the way up too. I carried my water in one 3 liter bladder and one wide mouth Nalgene.


Electrolytes: I always add Nuun tablets to my water on all hikes for electrolyte replenishment, and needing them on this hike was no exception.


Food: Bring more calories than you think you'll need. Hiking snacks should be lightweight and carry a variety of nutritional value. I always carry something high in protein, something sweet, something salty, and something high in potassium. Bringing Gu Energy Gel is a great supplement to your hiking snacks with not a lot of extra weight.


Nitrile Gloves: You should really have a pair of gloves with grip for climbing the cables. I'd imagine without gloves you would loose a layer of skin on your hands. I chose nitrile dipped gloves and they come in all sizes. They worked great. On our hike down we ran into two hikers that received a permit in the daily lottery and they did not have gloves so we gave them ours. In the past, people use to leave their used gloves at the base of the dome, but that is not allowed anymore. Don't rely on gloves being there and you should not leave your gloves there either.


Hiking Poles: I started using my hiking poles around Vernal Fall and used them the rest of the hike except on the cables. They really help with muscle fatigue and save your knees on the downhill.


Harness: Some people choose to wear a harness on the cables. For it to accurately work you need a Y-shaped lanyard called a "via ferrata" paired with a harness. The Y shape allows you to move one clip, while still being clipped in with the other. Most people we saw on the cables did not have a harness on and we didn't use one either. If you are extremely nervous about the cables, I'd recommend getting one though.


Sun Protection: You are in the sun for a long time on this hike. Make sure to bring sunscreen, SPF lip balm, sunglasses, and a hat to protect you.


Insulating Layer and Rain Jacket: I bring this on every hike no matter the forecast. You need something warm in case you get injured. Weather conditions are known to change fast in the mountains too.


Headlamp: If you start the hike early like we did, you'll be starting in the dark so you'll need a headlamp. If you start later in the morning there is a good chance you'll be finishing in the dark. Regardless of how fast you think you'll be, bring a headlamp and extra batteries.


Small trash bag: Carry out everything you brought in. Do not leave your trash, including TP on the trail! There are no trash receptacles on the trail so you are responsible for carrying out your own trash.


First Aid Kit: Your kit should include the basics, blister treatment, and insect repellant. Since it's such a long hike, I'd recommend taking Ibuprofen before beginning the hike.


For a complete hiking gear list and recommended clothing, see my post: Gear Guide for Day Hiking.


It is possible to hike Half Dome during the off season when the cables are down and you don't need a permit to do so. However, this is an extremely risky option and you should only attempt to do this if you are an experienced climber. Meaning you know how to properly use climbing ropes and a harness. I am not skilled in this so I will not attempt to write a guide on it, but it is an option for those with the knowledge and experience.


What gear to bring for hiking Half Dome.


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