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Hiking Half Dome in Yosemite: what to pack, and what to expect

Hiking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is one of the most challenging yet rewarding day hikes in the United States. At over 16 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain, this hike requires planning and preparation. In this guide to hiking Half Dome in Yosemite we will explain how to prepare for hiking Half Dome, what to expect during the hike, and what to pack for your adventure.

Preparing for hiking Half Dome

When to hike Half Dome

Yosemite National Park. We hiked half dome on July 2, 2023.

The most popular time of year for hiking Half Dome is the end of May through mid-October. This is when the cables are “up,” aka when the metal cables that lead you up the face of Half Dome are elevated to chest height, allowing you to grip them with your hands during your ascent. This is also when the winter snow and ice have thawed, allowing for a safer hike. When the cables are up you are required to have a Half Dome hiking permit. 

Note that when cables are “down” (mid-October through May) they lay flat on the granite surface. People still climb Half Dome under these circumstances, but they use specialized equipment, and the climb is significantly more dangerous. This guide discusses logistics for hiking Half Dome when the cables are “up.”

How to get a Half Dome permit

From the end of May through mid-October, you are required to have a permit for hiking Half Dome. Permits are needed 24 hours a day, and only 255 people are permitted to hike Half Dome each day to avoid overcrowding. Permits are available on www.recreation.gov for a small fee.

You can secure a permit in one of two ways. The first way is to apply for a pre-season lottery ticket, which is open throughout March, and results are announced in mid-April. If you are awarded a permit, this allows you to plan your trip in advance!

The second way to secure a permit is through the daily lottery open from the end of May through mid-October. The daily lottery application period is 48 hours in advance of the desired hiking date, open from midnight to 4 p.m. Pacific Time. Applicants will receive an email notification of results late on their application date. This is how we secured our permit in 2023. At the time we lived in Davis, California, only a few hours outside of the National Park.

In 2023, only 19% of all permit applicants were successful. If you want to increase your chances of winning a permit then we recommend applying for a weekday, or applying for a few different dates.

Training for hiking Half Dome

Hiking Half Dome isn’t easy! Hiking 16.5 miles and climbing over 5,000 feet uphill is a challenge for even the fittest hikers. If you plan to hike Half Dome, it is wise to be in good physical shape, and be comfortable hiking 10+ miles.

Additionally – and this often gets overlooked – ascending the cables up Half Dome requires good grip strength. You will be holding on to the cables with all of your might for 30-40 minutes while pulling yourself uphill and waiting for others to ascend or descend. Your arms will get tired. In the month or more leading up to your hike, I highly recommend training with some forearm exercises. The last thing you want is to be half way up the cables with fatigued arms. 

What to pack for hiking Half Dome

When hiking half dome layers are key! When hiking half dome you’ll pass through cold wet mist below the falls, and hot exposed sections up at the top.

Packing for successfully hiking Half Dome requires some advance planning. You will be exposed to intense sunshine, wet trails, and will need to be properly hydrated and fueled for a 10+ hour hike. See below for our recommendations for what to pack for successfully hiking Half Dome.

Half dome packing list

  • Sun protection – You will get a lot of sun exposure. Wear sunscreen and clothing with built-in UPF. We love these sun hoodies for women and men.
  • Warm layers – Pack warm layers, like these puffer jackets for women and men. As soon as the sun dips, the air gets COLD!
  • Rain jackets – If you want to stay relatively dry when passing by the waterfalls (more on that below) pack some rain gear. Lots of folks wore these ponchos
  • Gloves – It is highly advised you wear good grippy gloves to protect your hands as you ascend Half Dome. These ones are excellent for holding onto the metal cables. 
  • Water bladder – I recommend packing at least a 2 liter water bladder.
  • Water filter – Pack a portable, light weight water filter for refilling your water along the Merced River. We have been using this filter for years. 
  • Snacks / lunch – You will get hungry on this 16 mile hike. Pack high calorie foods and prepare for at least a couple snack/lunch breaks. 
  • Good shoes – While ascending Half Dome, the granite is slick, so you’ll want to wear shoes with excellent traction. Don’t underestimate this! 
  • Head lamp – Because this hike can last 12+ hours, it’s a good idea to pack a headlamp. This is our go-to rechargeable headlamp.
  • Good backpack – Backpack preferences vary, but we recommend using a good hiking day pack. Amiana uses an REI day pack and Gwyn loves this Gregory day pack.
  • Via Ferrata Kit and Harness – While not required, a via ferrata harness adds an additional level of security for ascending the cables up Half Dome. This harness secures around your waist and allows you to “clip in” to the cables. If used properly, the harness will catch you if you slip.

Hiking Half Dome: what to expect along each section of the trail

The trail up to Half Dome is a steady climb uphill, with some exciting sights along the way. Here’s what to expect on the trail throughout the day.

Beginning of Hike – 0 miles into the hike

There are a couple different trails to reach Half Dome. The most popular trail is the Half Dome via the John Muir Trail, which is 16.5 miles roundtrip and a 5,300 foot elevation gain. We hiked this trail in July 2023. If you are hiking the Half Dome via John Muir Trail, you will start in Yosemite Valley near Mirror Lake trailhead. Parking here is stiff competition, so we recommend starting EARLY, both to beat the crowds and the summer heat. We started our hike at 6:00 AM, though many hikers start even earlier! 

Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall – 1.0 – 3.5 miles into the hike

Amiana in front of Nevada Falls!

The beginning portion of the hike is along the Mist Trail, which is aptly named. After a steady climb uphill for about one mile, you will reach the stone steps leading toward Vernal Fall. The swirling mist from Vernal Fall can make this stretch of the trail incredibly wet. We were absolutely SOAKED from the mist – it felt like we had jumped fully-clothed into a pool. Even our hiking boots got wet! Some smart people wore ponchos, and brought waterproof sandals to keep their hiking boots from getting soaked. If you want to stay relatively dry I’d recommend packing at least a poncho!

After passing Vernal Fall, you will continue to ascend the trail toward Nevada Fall. As you near Nevada Fall the trail can also be quite misty and wet, but less so than Vernal Fall. The falls are beautiful, and very loud. At the top of Nevada Fall you can find a pit toilet and a place to filter your water in a small creek.

The hike toward Sub Dome – 3.5 – 7.5 miles into the hike

The section of the hike between the falls and Sub Dome takes you through sparse pine forests. Along the way you’ll get tantalizing view of your ultimate destination: Sub Dome and Half Dome (both are pictured in the distance here).

Once you pass Nevada Fall you’ll begin the long 4-mile slog uphill to Sub Dome. This portion of the hike is rather unremarkable, passing through a forest, and occasionally next to the Merced River, where you can filter drinking water. You will also get frequent views of Half Dome jutting up in the distance.

You’ll want to attend to any “bathroom needs” before you reach Sub Dome at 7.5 miles into the hike, as there are few few trees/nowhere to hide along that portion of the hike. Additionally, you’ll want to ensure you have plenty of water before reaching Sub Dome, as there are no water sources nearby.

Sub Dome – 7.5 miles into the hike

Sub Dome is a large granite dome that you have to ascend before reaching Half Dome. From May through October, a park ranger is stationed at the base of Sub Dome checking Half Dome permits. You are required to present your permit and your ID (e.g. driver’s license) to the ranger in order to proceed up Sub Dome to Half Dome – no exceptions! We saw several groups get turned away by the ranger because they didn’t have their permit. Expect the ranger to give a safety talk before allowing groups to continue the hike.

At an elevation of 8,000 feet, the hike up Sub Dome is tough. It is entirely exposed to the sun, climbs steeply uphill, and the air feels thin if you’re not used to hiking at altitude. Take your time up Sub Dome and take breaks if you need them.

Half Dome – 8 miles into the hike

After reaching the top of Sub Dome you will be face-to-face with the base of Half Dome. This view of Half Dome alone is truly a sight to behold! If you squint, you can see the infamous metal cables ascending the steep face of the dome. It is so steep it looks vertical!

The base of Half Dome is where people prepare to climb up the cables. You’ll notice folks putting on their gloves to protect their hands on the cables, and their via ferrata climbing harness if they choose to “clip in” to the cables on the ascent. Many people also choose to leave behind extra gear, since as hiking poles (which will only get in the way on half dome). Remember to secure ALL of your belongings if you plan to hike up half dome. If you drop a phone or gear item it will slide off the cliff face and be gone forever.

Climbing the half dome cables
Climbing the cables on Half Dome.

If you choose to ascend the cables, prepare for a long climb (especially if it is crowded)! The cable section climbs about 400 vertical feet at about 45 degree angle, which is STEEP! The granite can feel slick under your feet, and you will use the cables to pull yourself up the trail. You will occasionally find rickety wooden footholds affixed to the ground. Use these for a few moments to regain your strength before continuing. Along the hike up Half Dome, you will hold on to the righthand side of the cables to allow people coming down to pass on your left. 

Why I turned around on half dome

I’ll admit, I (Amiana) got about half way up the cables before turning around. Because it took a long time to ascend because the cables were crowded, my grip strength became weak, and the granite my feet began to slip on the slick granite. Feeling unsafe, I decided that this was not the best day to make it to the top of Half Dome, so I turned around about halfway up the cables and headed back to the base. If you find yourself in a similar situation I hope you feel empowered to make the best decision for your own safety. It’s okay to turn around – making it to Half Dome is still an incredible accomplishment! 

In retrospect, I am confident that if I had a Via Ferrata harness I would have felt comfortable completing the hike. I describe this more in the “safety on Half Dome” section below.

Many people continued upward where they eventually reached the summit with truly spectacular views. If you have made it to the top of Half Dome, that is a HUGE accomplishment, and you should be proud of yourself!

The Decent – 8+ miles into the hike (back to trailhead)

You have just climbed over 5,000 feet uphill! Phew! On the way back down to the trailhead be cognizant of your energy levels. Low energy can lead to trips and falls. Take it slowly and rest as needed. It was a long day and we were very tired on this stretch of the hike even though we were in excellent hiking shape! I recommend packing “high value” and “high energy” snacks like gummies and treats to keep you motivated and full of energy.

Safety on Half Dome

It is imperative that you take safety seriously while hiking Half Dome. Each year, rangers assist with dozens of rescues for Half Dome hikers. Although uncommon, people do die on Half Dome due to slips and falls, or adverse weather. Read below for our tips for what to bring and how to plan for a safe and successful half dome hike!

Weather

If it begins to rain or there is a chance of lightning, DO NOT attempt to climb Half Dome. If it begins to rain the granite becomes even more slick. Slips and falls on the cables can have dire consequences, and people have died after attempting to summit in the rain. Similarly, if lightning is in the forecast, the metal cables conduct electricity. This can shock and kill you.

Gloves

We highly recommend climbing the Half Dome cables with a good pair of grippy gloves. The cables can feel slick and hot, especially if your hands start to sweat. A good pair of gloves provide the necessary traction to grip the cables, while also protecting your hands.

Via Ferrata Harness

While not required, I won’t hike Half Dome again without a Via Ferrata harness. This harness fits around your hips and uses a carabiner to attach to the cables. If you do slip on the cable climb while wearing a harness and clips you may tumble down the slope 10-15 feet, but the harness will ultimately break your fall and could save your life. Otherwise, there is nothing to stop you from falling over the edge. Most people don’t hike with a harness. From what I saw, about 15% of hikers do wear one.

Good shoes

Thousands of hikers have worn the granite smooth over the past several decades. You will want to wear shoes with great traction. While we wore our normal hiking boots (in mens and womens), some people recommended approach shoes, which have even better grip on granite surfaces.

Listen to your intuition

Hiking up the Half Dome cables is as much of a physical workout as it is a mental workout. If you feel unsure about ascending, feel panicked, or feel unsafe it’s okay to turn around, or to not attempt the cables. I learned on my way down that many people at the base of Half Dome did not feel like ascending that day. They were happy to sit at the base and watch the spectacle.

Additional Considerations

Amiana on subdome. The camera is facing east, away from half dome.

Where to stay before hiking Half Dome

Since it’s wise to wake up incredibly early to start your Half Dome hike (before sunrise!), we recommend finding lodging close to the trailhead. The closest campgrounds are the Upper Pines, Lower Pines, and North Pines. You can reserve your campsite on recreation.gov. Curry Village, which is also close to the trailhead, offers soft-sided cabins for a slightly elevated camping experience. If you are not down to camp, you can also book a room at Yosemite Valley Lodge or The Ahwahnee in Yosemite Valley, which are both relatively close to the trailhead.

How much water do I need?

Hiking Half Dome is strenuous, and the dry California climate will zap you of your hydration and energy. As such, it is crucial to plan your hydration strategy accordingly. We each packed a full 2 liter water reservoir AND a portable water filter. We filtered water once on our way up toward Half Dome and again on our way back down along the Merced River.

Pin this spot on your Google Map, which is a tranquil spot to easily filter your water about half way along the trail to Half Dome. This is one of the few reliable spots to safely filter your water along the entire trail. In total, we each drank 3-4 liters of water throughout the entire hike. There is no potable water along the hike, so you either have to pack in all of your own water (which is heavy), or you have to filter it. We opted to filter our water.

Final Thoughts

Hiking Half Dome is one of the most rewarding and challenging hikes in the United States. If you successfully make it to the top of Half Dome you have earned some serious bragging rights! That said, make sure to plan your hike in advance, and pack and trail accordingly to ensure that you, and the people around you, are safe during this adventure.

Have you hiked Half Dome? If so, what was the most memorable part of the experience? If not, what parts would you be the most excited (or nervous!) about?

Make sure to follow @gwynandami on Instagram for more hiking guides and travel itineraries.

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