“Half Dome was perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of all the prominent points about Yosemite which has never been and will never be trodden by human foot.”
– Josiah Whitney, describing Half Dome in 1868
If only Josiah Whitney had been able to experience what I got to experience, hiking Half Dome in all its’ glory. A 16-mile magical journey that traveled through magnificent forests, past waterfalls I could only imagine in movies and climbing 5,000 feet to one of the best views of the valley. Half Dome exceeded every expectation I had, or could have had, coming in.
To start, you need a permit to hike Half Dome. There are 2 ways to accomplish this, the early lottery (which I wasn’t successful in) or a lottery 2 days before (which I was successful in). There are only around 250 permits that are given out per day. I started the hike bright and early at 6:15 am partly to avoid the massive amount of people coming into Yosemite and partly to make sure I had enough time to complete the hike. I boldly predicted I’d complete the 18-mile hike (added on 2 miles to the parked car) by 2 or 3 pm. Little did I know what I was in for!
The start of the journey
I started off on the Mist Trail which began innocently enough with some mild elevation gain on a nice paved trail. The slight elevation gain was enough to get the heart pumping bright and early in the morning. As I proceeded along the trail, I got my first view of a waterfall that for lack of better words didn’t look real. A little further along and I was treated to magnificent up-close views of Vernal Fall’s. I have never been to Ireland or Scotland but I felt like this waterfall belonged there. As you went up the right side of the waterfall, you were greeted with about 1,000 stairs just to get those quads firing. The Mist Trail lived up to its’ name as I was treated to a light cool mist from the waterfall that simply felt amazing on a warm day.
Just a little farther along the trail was my favorite waterfall of the whole entire trip, Nevada Falls. Along the way, I met a couple of hikers who had lost the trail and a little hope. I had packed along the trail map just in case and I was able to navigate all of us back onto the correct trail thankfully. There are very few markings on the trail and although it is well traveled, there were a few places that you could have gone the wrong way by accident. Nevada Falls is something that I can’t explain in words no matter how I could try. It was easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve been on this earth and I savored the moment. As you can see from the picture below, the beauty is simply stunning!
My favorite picture of the trip and my favorite waterfall
After the beautiful scenery of back to back waterfalls, the next part of the trail got a little more boring by comparison. I continued to rise in elevation and at this point, I was starting to feel the effects of hiking at elevation in some warm weather. It was about 85 degrees in the sun and about 70 in the shade by the river but this section was almost all the hot portion. I stopped several times to catch my breath as the switchbacks and the rocky terrain became very tedious as I ascended towards the base of Half Dome. I was glad that I had packed along some Nuun tablets to replenish the electrolytes that I was sweating off from the gradual climb.
As I approached the base of Half Dome, I got some preview views of what was to come of the scenic valley which was definitely some great motivation to keep pushing. Finally, I reached the ranger that would grant admission, with proof of our permit, to the restricted Half Dome area. The difficulty of the hike did not disappoint because, after that checkpoint, I reached the toughest part of the climb. It became immensely steep and it was non-stop switchbacks, that would challenge even the most aerobically fit humans, from here to the base of Half Dome. I was breathing pretty hard and had to take frequent breaks at this point but I continued to press forward.
400 feet straight up to the top of Half Dome, intimidating!
Finally, I reached the base of Half Dome! However, getting to the base of Half Dome and looking up at it was the most intimidating aspect of the climb. When I saw it, I immediately second-guessed myself and thought, can I really do this? The trail goes literally almost straight vertical ascending into the sky and you have some cables that look like they are from the 1800’s to hang onto and pull yourself up. However, everyone told me that it was easier going up this portion of the trail then it was on the switchbacks that I had just completed. I took a break and sat down to eat my lunch while watching people ascend the face of Half Dome. As I was sitting, I heard a noise and saw a 32 ounce Nalgene water bottle come tumbling down the Half Dome route like a Plinko chip on the Price is Right. Thankfully, the water bottle fell innocently to the ground but it could have easily injured someone or ripped someone off the Half Dome cables.
Sweatiest hands I’ve ever had taking a picture!
I summoned up my courage and decided it was time. I grabbed ahold of the cables and began my ascent up the side of Half Dome. I was surprised to find that what people had told me was true, it was actually much easier than it looked……..as long as you didn’t look down. You would pull yourself up and then when you got to one of the horizontal boards, you would rest. At one of the resting spots, I decided to do something risky, take a picture. Never had I been more nervous in my life to drop my phone so the few pictures I snapped on the way up didn’t quite do it justice. I was really glad that I had bought some gloves the day before at a hardware store and they definitely helped going up and down the cables.
On top of Half Dome and feeling like I was on top of the world!
Finally, at 12:30 pm, 6 hours after we started, we made it to the top of Half Dome. The space up top was actually huge. The views were literally out of this world! After a long and tedious hike, I got the glory of seeing the valley in all its beauty from one of the top vantage points in the park. You could see literally forever at the top and I gained a new appreciation in my heart for the beauty of Yosemite National Park. After enjoying the views up top for almost an hour, it was time to do the hard part, go back down.
Thankfully, the way down went much faster than the way up. However, despite bringing a full gallon of water in my pack, I was running short on water and really had to conserve it. I thought a gallon would be more than enough but with the heat and tedious nature of the climb, I went through more water than I expected. I would advise bringing more if you make the hike yourself during the summer. On the hike back, I was able to soak in the beauty of everything the trail had to offer one more time. I certainly enjoyed my time at the beautiful waterfalls a second time. The only thing I didn’t enjoy was how my quads/knees felt like after climbing 5,000 feet in elevation and then coming back down. I ended up making it back to the parking lot around 5:00 pm just missing my estimate of 2-3 pm.
Overall, hiking Half Dome was a once in a lifetime experience. It took just as much mental effort as physical. I saw people from all walks of life, old, young, athletic, overweight, etc make it to the top. Don’t ever feel limited or intimidated that you yourself can’t make this climb as long as you put your mind to it and come prepared. As always, my recommendation is don’t look at pictures on the internet, get out there and do it! Whether that’s Half Dome at Yosemite National Park or going to a local state park, get outside, be active, enjoy life!
-Dr. Brian Damhoff DC MS