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Trails I've Hiked: Half Dome, Yosemite National Park


Rick Deutsch has made 23 trips to the top of Half Dome. It's not too early to start planning your hike to the top for next summer. Photo courtesy of Rick Deutsch.

Editor's note: Sadly, if you haven't made it to the top of Half Dome this year, you'll more than likely have to wait some seven months before you can take a whack at this classic national park hike. That's because Yosemite rangers have taken down the climbing cables for the winter. But that doesn't mean you can't start thinking about setting your sights on Half Dome's summit for next summer. To get you thinking about such a possibility, Rick Deutsch, author of One Best Hike: Yosemite's Half Dome and who made his 23rd trip to the top just last weekend, shares some thoughts and tips.

Most avid hikers know Half Dome. In fact, as the signature landmark for Yosemite National Park, its image is recognized worldwide. It's even on the 2005 U.S. quarter. From mid-May to mid-October, visitors can attempt this extremely strenuous 16-mile hike. The main challenge is the nearly 1-mile vertical mile climb from the valley floor to the summit. Then there's the final 425 feet, aided by a 45-degree inclined cable banister.

The trail begins in the eastern part of the Yosemite Valley at Happy Isles. A mellow 20-minute walk on asphalt begins your day. You'll see baby strollers and high heels on this beginning warm-up leg. The often damp Mist Trail then takes you to the Vernal Fall overlook. This is a perfectly symmetrical 300-foot waterfall. A similar stretch leads up to Nevada Fall, a 600-foot photo op. By now the crowd thins out. A peaceful 1-mile walk though the flat Little Yosemite Valley leads to the switchbacks heading to the Half Dome rock itself.

Seven miles from the start you arrive at Sub Dome on the shoulder of Half Dome. This is an often-unmentioned challenge of 400 granite steps. Once you conquer that, you next face the "Big Kahuna" - the imposing cables. Many reconsider the task at hand and turn around. An early start of the day will keep you away from the crowds that build before noon. If you continue on (most do) you change from hiker to climber. It is hard, but the views are superb up top.

The trip back down the trail to your lodging will not be much faster than your ascent. You are on a good trail, but it is wilderness and you'll be navigating many uneven granite rocks and slippery gravel. Don't be tempted to run down- your knees will explode.

With goods boots, hiking poles and water treatment gear, this hike can be done by anyone who trains for it. I've seen kids from 10 to 80 on the trail; it's fun for all ages. Pack a flashlight in case you sprain an ankle and don't make it back before dark. Cell phones work up top if you need emergency help. Rangers don't patrol the trail and there is no one "in charge" at the cables. The trail is well-marked and very popular – just follow the guy in front of you!

The top is 8,842 feet high and is generally well below any concerns for altitude sickness. But do not attempt this when there is thunder or lightning in the area. Half Dome gets hit every month of the year.

Rick Deutsch lives in San Jose, California.. An avid adventure traveler, he has done the Half Dome Hike 23 times. You can learn more about his background, and hiking Half Dome, here.

* All text and photos © 2008 Rick Deutsch, Carpe Diem Experience


This article says "early start of the day" - how early do you recommend we should start the hike?


For many folks this can be a 9+ hour hike, especially when you factor in time on top gazing around. I think I started at 8 a.m. and was back in the valley by 5 or 5:30 p.m. But, of course, it all depends on how fast of a hiker you and any others in your group are as well as if there's a line of folks working their way up the cables.

Kurt is a fast hker! 9+ hours is flying! Most folks will take about 10-12 hours to do the hike. First timers may take 13-14 hours. Hey, it's not a race - have fun! I usually stay about 45 mins at the summit but I start to get stiff and it's time to head back. I suggest doing a little stretching on top. there is no reason to hustle along - have fun and make stops at the Falls. I get going about 5:30 am. On weekends I want to be at the cables by 11 am or face a line. Getting up the cables is way easier at your own pace. People freeze up (there is no one "in charge" to get people moving). Average time up unimpeded is about 20 mins. Figure 45-60 mins on a jammed Summer day after noon.

Good luck - the cables are up mid-May depending on the weather/snow conditions. Late may is a safe date for your reservations.

Rick Deutsch

@ Steve: Start at the trailhead around 6:30 a.m. Then you should be able to beat the crowds even if you take your time on the trail. If you are a slow hiker and think you need more than five hours one way, then start even earlier.

I did the hike many years ago with a friend and we were both very experienced and fast hikers. We did the hike in about seven hours for the round trip (including maybe half an hour on the summit). So we were back in the valley shortly after noon, which was nice as we spent the rest of the day on the meadows of Merced River and later watched climbers bouldering near Camp 4, where we had our tent anyway.

I was 48 and in moderately good condition when I did Half Dome in early July. I started at 6:30 am and summited at 2:30 pm (practically by myself up there) and got back at 8:30 pm, about an hour after dark. I did have a flashlight and I did take my time going up. I would suggest leaving no later than 6:30 am and 5:30 am wouldn't be a bad idea. You get to cover more ground with less traffic and before the place heats up. I chose to go up the switchbacks that connect with the Glacier Point trail so as to avoid the granite staircase next to Nevada Falls. I did descend down the staircase. A walking stick is a must on the descent, and 2 would be helpful descending through the misty area at Vernal Falls, especially if you are there after dark like I was. Also, there is no water between Little Yosemite Valley and the summit without detouring off the trail. Taking gloves for the ascent up and down the cables is essential if you value the skin on your hands. Climbing clips attached to a safety tether would have given me more peace of mind as I went up those cables, although it would have been hard to use them coming down because in areas it was kind of a controlled glide due to the effect of gravity. Also, when you get below Nevada Falls in the afternoon, be sure and look back to the falls. Depending upon the time of day and the time of year, there is an incredible 400 ft rainbow that cuts across the falls and is a picture of a lifetime.

I've done this hike three times, once in 1962 with my older cousin when I was a 17-year old high school middle distance runner, once alone as a Yosemite park ranger-naturalist in 1970, and once with my 17 year-old son in 1993.

The first hike was insipired by stories of the hike from our older uncle who ascended the cables in the 1930's and bragged about the experience often. The second hike was done to take photos of the Valley floor by night for use in my evening naturalist programs. I recall using a new aluminum tripod just purchased from Ansel Adams at Best Studio. Once I completed the photo shoot, I decended to the Valley by night using the light of the full moon. No flashlight was needed.

The last hike was by far the slowest of the three ascents, as a large backpack and the onset of middle age made a huge difference. My son and I overnighted at Little Yosemite Valley, and ascended the cables of Half Dome in the mid-morning. There were many more people taking this hike in 1993, than I remembered from years past. We lingered for about two hours on top and descended by mid-afternoon to Little Yosemite Valley, before continuing in the following days to Merced Lake and Tuolumne Meadows via Washburn, Bernice, Volglesang, Fletcher and Ireland Lakes.

The most disappointing aspect of climbing to the top of Half Dome is that once on its summit, the sight of Half Dome is no longer part of the Yosemite viewshed. It's not nearly as slick and polished on top as you would expect. It's more like a high desert landscape with sandy soil, dwarfed pine trees, a small snow field, and a resident yellow-bellied marmot.

My favorite views of Half Dome itself are from Glacier Point and Washburn Point, or perhaps midway up the old 1-mile Glacier Point Trail that traverses the Glacier Point apron above Curry Village (this trail has been officially closed for many decades, but it is now classified as a climbing route, requiring a permit). That trail exposes the best views of the Diving Board.

Thank you Rick for your fine article and bringing back many fond memories.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

I am 59 years old as of August and was a high school classmate of Rick Deutsch's in Arlington, VA back in the mid-sixties. Rick and I reconnected when I served on our 40th high school reunion committee. He wasn't able to attend our reunion in VA as he had a bunch of people he was hiking Half Dome with. We stayed in touch and he invited me to hike the Dome with he and some friends this past June. It was great fun, hard hiking as I am not a hiker, although I keep myself in good physical shape. We did leave the valley at 5:30 AM as Rick didn't want to get to the cables after 11:00 AM. There were indeed some people who decided not to make the final 425 feet cable ascent as it just was too much for them to imagine being able to make it up. The views from the top are magnificent with a 360 degree panorama. Rick was kind to furnish the essentials for me to include two hiking poles, which were invaluable, water bottles, a belly bag with holsters for the water bottles, and of course a lot of sage advice in order to prepare myself physically. His book, which I read, is chock full of all that you need to get prepared plus lots of neat information on the trip there and other interesting reading. It is a great destination and I have already booked my tent cabin for next June to "Do the Dome" with Rick and friends. We are actually drumming up a few of our classmates to make the trip in order to have a mini reunion along with a great hike.

I agree with Owen. While hiking Half Dome is a nice experience, the view from top can be disappointing, because you can't see Half Dome from it. It's the same with climbing any landmark. More often then not, the best sights are from top of number 2 or 3, because you see the iconic landmarks from there. Glacier and Washburn Point are great, as is Sentinel Dome.

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