Josiah D. Whitney, geologist and Sierra surveyor,
stated in 1870 that Half Dome “never has
been and never will be trodden by human foot.”
But the summit of this granite monolith, which
Whitney called “perfectly inaccessible,”
was first reached five years later and since
that time has been the destination of hundreds
of thousands of visitors.
It was the last Saturday of summer
last September when John and I entered the famous
Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park. This
camping trip and Half Dome dayhike were my way
of celebrating my 50th birthday, which had occurred
the day before.
The first thing someone who spends
any amount of time in Sequoia National Park
will notice in Yosemite is the people —
in cars, walking, on bicycles, in buses, everywhere!
But also having an obvious impact are the striking
landscapes, which almost makes null and void
People-packed or not, Yosemite
must be experienced. It is an awe-inspiring
place of unforgettable natural beauty.
Reaching the summit of Half Dome
entails a 16.4-mile roundtrip hike and 4,800
feet of vertical elevation gain. We added a
couple more miles onto this planned daytrip
by arising before the shuttle buses and walking
to the trailhead from Lower Pines Campground
and returning on foot as well.
We were on the trail at daybreak
on the last day of summer (Sunday, Sept 21)
on a morning that dawned cloudless and warm.
The trail to Half Dome begins where the John
Muir Trail does, which extends from Yosemite
Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney.
The Half Dome mileage of 8.2 on
the trail sign looked wimpy compared to the
211 miles it stated for Whitney.
Beginning at an elevation of 4,035
feet, we were dressed in shorts and short-sleeved
shirts. But we soon realized that the sun wouldn’t
be shining into the narrow Merced River canyon
until we had left it far behind, and the temperature
was dropping as the altitude increased, so we
soon were adding layers.
Mile 1.0 (4,600 feet elevation)—
We reached the Vernal Fall footbridge and had
not yet seen another hiker. Whoever wants this
magnificent, yet popular, waterfall to themselves
better get on the trail early.
The 400-foot waterfall was at its
low point of the season — barely a stream
was running down the vertical rock face —
but we weren’t here solely to view the
world-renowned Yosemite waterfalls. We were
on another mission.
Above Vernal Fall, the Mist Trail
to Nevada Fall leaves the John Muir Trail and
shortens the total mileage to Half Dome by a
half-mile, so we initially planned to take this
route. We hiked along the south side of the
Merced River, then climbed the steep staircase
to the top of Vernal Fall.
About a half-dozen people were
resting here, all headed to Half Dome. Nearly
level with the top of the waterfall, we found
a scenic viewpoint where we, too, took a break.
It was breakfast time, so we fueled up with
tangerines, banana bread, and a hardboiled egg.
Mile 1.5 (5,200 feet)— After the steep
climb to the top of Vernal Fall, the trail relents
slightly and follows the river past the stunning
Emerald Pool. There is a trail junction here
and a choice to be made: the Mist Trail or take
a .3-mile spur to rejoin the John Muir Trail.
One glimpse at the people ahead
on the steep, narrow Mist Trail and we turned
toward the JMT. Although this option is longer,
the elevation gain is obviously the same, meaning
that the JMT is less steep than the Mist Trail.
The trails merge again at the top
of Nevada Fall. It’s interesting to note
that even with the additional mileage, we made
it to this point well ahead of the parties we
had split from below.
The lesson is that the shorter
trail isn’t always the easiest trail.
Another truth is that no matter what route is
taken here, one is never alone for long.
Mile 3.1 (5,980 feet)—
The Nevada Fall area had always been our turnaround
point when previously hiking this route. It
is a worthy destination.
At the top of the waterfall, there
is an impressive section of river that flows
serenely across glacier-polished granite until
the water dramatically plunges 594 feet off
the precipice on its way to the serene Emerald
Pool and breathtaking Vernal Fall.
Although inviting, we didn’t
pause here, in part because we had a long way
to trek, but mostly because it was cold. The
sun’s rays were bathing the surrounding
mountains in morning light, but the Nevada Fall
area was still in the shadows because the sun
had not yet risen above the 7,076-foot Liberty
Cap, the granite dome that towers over Nevada
Fall and is so-named for its resemblance to
the Liberty Bell.
From here, the trail crosses back
to the north side of the river via a footbridge
and parallels the azalea-lined waterway briefly
before turning north and climbing a brushy,
and sunny, slope. At this point, if a bathroom
break is necessary, several stalls await.
At this early hour, there was already
a lineup at the pit stop. We bypassed the crowd
and headed up the trail as the layers began
to be peeled off, the hikers multiplied, and
the Merced River continued to provide the music
and the scenery.
Mile 4.5 (6,100 feet)—
At the next trail junction, the John
Muir Trail makes a right-angle turn to the north
while the Merced Lake Trail continues along
the river to its headwaters. Here, we entered
Little Yosemite Valley, which is the location
of a backcountry ranger station and a backpackers’
campground, where many spend their first night
out on the way to Half Dome or Lake Merced.
Neither of these sites are visible
along this section of well-used trail, although
we did pass a couple of groggy backpackers heading
down. The route here is on a gentle grade for
more than a quarter mile but the trail is actually
a trench of deep sand due to the abundant use
We were alone on the trail once
again while walking through the valley, but
as the elevation increased so again did the
crowds. As we began a forested ascent, we met
many hikers, going both up and down. A group
of Stanford University students heading down
informed us that they began their Half Dome
hike at 1 a.m. and were on the summit for sunrise.
Mile 6.2 (7,020 feet)—
Another trail junction is reached while in this
forest of firs and cedars. This is where those
heading to Half Dome leave the John Muir Trail,
which now heads east to Tuolumne Meadows, a
little over 20 miles away.
Over the past couple of hours,
we had been working our way around the back
side of Half Dome, so as the trail now continues
its upward trend it also begins turning west
for the approach. We passed a group of a dozen
UC Berkeley students who were slowing their
pace due to the altitude, which was not yet
a factor for us, thanks to Sequoia National
Park, where most of our hikes begin at the elevation
we were just now reaching.
I passed this large group, but
John got caught in the traffic jam, so I walked
for awhile with a man who I learned had flown
from the East Coast and met up with other family
members specifically to hike Half Dome. He was
feeling the effects of the thin air and stopped
to rest, so I bid him goodbye, but I would be
having another conversation with him later in
As the trail rises above the shadow
of the trees, the trek gets serious. There’s
a steep climb consisting of a couple dozen short
switchbacks on a granite stairway that requires
some strenuous, high-stepping lunges to ascend.
This narrow section of trail took
our breath away, and it wasn’t just due
to the scenery. I would take as many steps as
possible, then move to the side and suck in
some oxygen while drinking in the view, which
includes Clouds Rest and the Quarter Domes formations.
As the trail then levels on a plateau,
it becomes as wide as a two-lane highway. This
is a vivid contrast to what we were about to
encounter — the one-way-only cables that
can become gridlocked with hordes of hikers.
From here, there is a stunning view of the east
side of Half Dome.
8.0 (8,400 feet)— We climbed
out of the flat section and over a knob of rock,
which is Half Dome’s east shoulder, and
there they were… the famous cables, looking
both intimidating and inviting.
We sat down and contemplated this final leg
of the journey. I had only previously seen photos
of the cables, and the route is much steeper
than I had envisioned.
As we rested, three people from
separate parties turned back, choosing not to
make the final ascent.
It was just after 9:30 a.m. when John and I
began our Half Dome summit push. We started
up the cables at about the same time as another
group of five, but in surveying the route, there
were just six other people on the rock, all
in ascent mode near the top.
The “cables” are actually
threaded through a short piece of pipe shaped
like the eye of a needle, which is coupled to
the top of a three-foot metal pole.
The poles are placed about six
feet apart up the dome’s east face, and
there are two parallel cable lines that extend
the length of the rock, creating the vertical
walkway. To assist with the precarious footing,
two-by-four-inch boards are placed crosswise
and loosely attached on the uphill side of the
This is the only way that it is
possible to reach the top of Half Dome without
technical gear as the pitch averages almost
45 degrees. In addition, the rock is slick due
to eons of glacier action and a century of hiking
boots. Then, because this is not challenging
enough, there’s the added hazard of loose
The smallest fissure or slightest
uneven surface along the route becomes a foothold
as the hands keep a tight grip on the cables
at all times, making gloves a necessity. We
brought our own, but for those who don’t,
there is a multifarious collection of handwear
at the base of the cables.
I enjoyed the climb, which although
steep wasn’t exceptionally tiring because
when one person up ahead would stop to catch
their breath, everybody in the line would have
to search for the nearest foothold, like musical
chairs when the music stops. We were behind
a woman who hadn’t even made it to the
steepest portion before her fear of heights
paralyzed her and she had to be assisted back
down by her husband.
During these final 400 vertical
feet, it is best to be patient. Plan the hike
accordingly and assess your fitness level honestly
so that this section can be completed without
Also worthy of mention is the combination
of high, open rock and the metal fixtures, which
make this a dangerous place to be in an electrical
storm. In addition, any amount of moisture would
make the rock even more treacherously slick.
Check the elements before you commit to the
cables. There have been six deaths on Half Dome
since 1995 and every fatal fall except for one
occurred when the rock was wet and slippery.
Mile 8.2 (8,836 feet)—
We reached the summit of Half Dome at 10:15
a.m., two of just a dozen or so hikers currently
reveling in the accomplishment. We spent the
next three hours on top.
Our first stop was the dome’s
highest point, where we looked down on Yosemite
Valley, nearly 5,000 feet below. For me, savoring
this precipitous view from the edge of the cliff
was best accomplished by lying on my stomach,
thus ensuring that my balance was under control
at all times.
From the rim of Half Dome, we had
a Google Earth view of our campground, the golden
meadows, green forests, roads, and river. It
makes sense that since Half Dome can be seen
from just about anywhere in the park, then from
the top of Half Dome, hikers have a 360-degree
panorama of Yosemite. We pulled out the topographic
map and acquainted ourselves with the landmarks
in this part of the Sierra — from El Capitan,
up the remote Tenaya Canyon past Clouds Rest
to Cathedral Peak and Mount Hoffman. Turning
south, there’s Mount Starr King, the Illilouette
Creek basin, and to the southeast the Clark
Range. To the east is Moraine Dome and, behind
it, Mount Florence.
We settled against a dresser-sized
chunk of granite to eat lunch while people-watching
and shooing away a persistent marmot (did this
oversized rodent utilize the cable route to
procure his territory?). It was a mostly college-age
crowd that was gathering, and several different
languages were being spoken. Not wanting to
postpone sharing their feat, many were talking
and sending photos on cell phones.
As it approached midday, the horde
was quickly multiplying, so we packed up and
continued our tour of the summit area. It is
reportedly the size of 17 football fields, so
there is plenty to explore.
Just west of the dome’s highest
point, there are exfoliated slabs that extend
off the main rock, and we stood on this lip
— unofficially called “The Visor”
— to pose for photos with Yosemite Valley
in the background and far below. From here,
hikers can also look back toward the main summit
for a close-up view of the famous north face
of Half Dome.
Next, we walked to Half Dome’s
less-crowded west side, which the map calls
the Diving Board. This is where one notices
the great expanse of granite that is Half Dome.
From the dome’s high point
to the far end of the Diving Board it is about
a quarter-mile walk at a slight decline. There
are blocks of granite lying atop the solid white
rock that is Half Dome, some that settled in
their resting places by nature’s forces
while others are stacked like snowmen by hikers.
When heading in this direction, the obvious
turnaround point is when the rock becomes forebodingly
It was after 1 p.m. when we headed
back to the cables. Whereas our ascent included
just a handful of people along the route, the
descent was going to be high-country congestion
as rush hour to the summit was in full swing.
The climb up did not frighten me,
but on the way down I gripped the cables much
tighter, so much so that I wore off the top
layer of my gloves. I concentrated on standing
straight and fought my natural inclination to
lean back, just to make sure that my feet wouldn’t
slip out from under me.
There was a steady line of people
coming toward us, most who didn’t mind
stopping to take a breather while we passed.
Some people were chatty and happy, others were
tense and trembling.
When I was about 100 feet from
the bottom of the cables, I twisted to let a
hiker go by, which caused my backpack to rest
on the cable and forced a half-full, quart-sized,
plastic water bottle from its pocket. To my
dismay, it started bouncing down the rock face
on the outside of the cables. There were several
people below me, all heading uphill. I yelled,
“Heads up!” and most stopped to
watch the bottle performing its acrobatics.
It would hit the rock, fly into
the air, and bounce again. It could have soared
off the south side of the rock at this point
but instead crossed to the north side of the
cables and headed toward a drop-off that would
propel it directly down to the valley floor.
Instead, something incredible happened.
The bottle went airborne one more time and perfectly
stuck its landing in the pile of gloves at the
base of the cables. It was quite entertaining
for all who watched.
By the time I climbed down to retrieve it, any
witnesses were up on the cables, so I quickly
snapped a photo of the upright bottle at its
landing site, surreptitiously put it back in
my pack, and kept hiking.
Just beyond the crowded cables,
there were more than 50 people seated on the
nearby rock crest contemplating whether to climb
or not to climb. A few dozen were members of
the Cal women’s crew team. As we continued
descending, we met more team members valiantly
attempting to complete the hike.
Below the granite steps, meeting
up again almost exactly where I had left him,
was the East Coast man with whom I had hiked
for awhile on the way up. The altitude won that
day and he didn’t make it to the top,
but his wife did, he said, who was climbing
Half Dome to celebrate her 50th birthday.
Wow! What are the odds of that?
I, too, was climbing Half Dome in honor of my
50th. They were in touch by walkie-talkie, so
he knew she was close. I waited to meet her,
two 50-year-olds from opposite sides of the
country who chose to spend their birthdays at
the same place and the same time.
Just before reaching Little Yosemite
Valley, we stopped to watch a young brown bear
dig for grubs in a log. He was oblivious —
a little too much so — to the growing
throng that was gathering to watch him.
Continuing on, we met up with the
captain of the Berkeley crew team who was one
of the first of her group to Half Dome and was
now on her way back. She explained that the
team embarks on this hike every year as a bonding
exercise. They leave Berkeley on charter buses
in the early morning and arrive in Yosemite
Valley to hit the trail by about 8 a.m. They
are to make the bottom of the cables or turn
around by 1:30 p.m.
They are back in Berkeley later
that night. That’s quite a 24-hour adventure
for these young women, many who had never before
spent time in the mountains.
Farther down the trail, we stopped
to talk with two rangers in Little Yosemite
Valley who happened to be tracking the same
bear we had just been watching. At Nevada Fall,
we again opted to stay on the John Muir Trail
rather than take the shorter, people-packed
We arrived back at our campsite
at 5 p.m., just in time for happy hour. We toasted
another memorable day in the Sierra.