By Michael Lanza
No hike in the country really compares with Yosemite’s Half Dome. The long, very strenuous, challenging, and incredibly scenic day trip to one of the most iconic and sought-after summits in America begins with ascending the Mist Trail through the shower constantly raining down from 317-foot Vernal Fall and below thunderous, 594-foot Nevada Fall. Climbing the cable route up several hundred feet of steep granite slab delivers a thrill that partly explains the hike’s enormous popularity.
The 8,800-foot summit of Half Dome—where many hikers complete the experience by standing on The Visor, a granite brim jutting out over Half Dome’s 2,000-foot Northwest Face—delivers an incomparable view of Yosemite Valley and a 360-degree panorama of a big swath of the park’s mountains.
Half Dome validates every step of effort you put into it.
Having been up and down those cables a handful of times over more than 30 years of dayhiking and backpacking all over the country—many of those years as an outdoors writer running this blog and previously the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years—I consider Half Dome one of the very best dayhikes in the entire National Park System and certainly one of America’s hardest dayhikes.
The cables are up for hiking Half Dome from late May through mid-October. A permit is required for this popular dayhike and a permit lottery takes place throughout March.
This story shares what I’ve learned about navigating the competitive permit system and embarking on such a demanding day of hiking that’s roughly 16 miles round-trip with almost 5,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. Please share your thoughts or questions about hiking Half Dome in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
Want to backpack in Yosemite? See my e-guides to three amazing multi-day hikes there.
Enter the Dayhike Permit Lottery
Whether dayhiking Half Dome or hiking the cable route to its summit on a backpacking trip, advancing beyond the base of the sub-dome (below the cables) on the Half Dome Trail requires a permit every day during the season when the cables are up, which is generally from the Friday before Memorial Day through Columbus Day (the second Monday in October). The park allows 300 hikers per day on the cable route: 255 dayhikers and 75 backpackers.
The dayhiking permit lottery is held March 1-31 and you can submit an application for up to six people (six individual permits) and for a range of dates, which improves your chances of success. You can only submit one application per season (i.e., only have your name as the permit holder or alternate permit holder on one application), and either the permit holder or alternate will have to show the permit to a ranger at the base of the sub-dome. The cost is $10 to apply and $10 per person if you obtain a permit.
A daily permit lottery for dayhikers is held throughout the hiking season to issue permits that are unused or canceled. That’s held two days in advance of the hike date and you’ll receive notification of the permit the evening you apply (for example, you’d apply on a Thursday to hike that Saturday and get notified Thursday evening whether you received a permit).
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Backpack to Half Dome
Instead of seeking a dayhiking permit, you can include Half Dome on a multi-day backpacking permit (by checking a box indicating you’d like to include Half Dome on your permit). In Yosemite, backpacking permit reservations are processed online by lottery 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the date you want to start hiking, with a 7:30 a.m. Pacific time deadline. You can apply online up to 169 days in advance and you will get a response within about two business days. For example, to start a trip on Sept. 9, submit your application on March 24.
Permits are issued based on trailhead quotas and the park accepts reservations for 60 percent of permits in advance and the other 40 percent are available no more than one day in advance of starting a trip.
See my downloadable e-guides to three stellar, multi-day hikes in Yosemite, including “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite,” which includes Half Dome, and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you identify and plan your Yosemite backpacking trip (including navigating the permit process). Find more info at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wpres.htm and nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermitdates.htm.
I can help you plan this or any trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.
Pick a Weekday in Spring or Fall
Not surprisingly, Saturday ranks as the most popular day for which people seek a permit to dayhike Half Dome (21 percent of applicants), with Sunday second (16 percent) and Friday third (15 percent), according to statistics from Yosemite National Park. Apply to hike it on a Wednesday (11 percent) and you will nearly double your odds of getting a permit compared to applying for a Saturday.
Similarly, permit application numbers are highest from mid-June through mid-September, so your chances of getting a permit are best midweek in late May and early June or late September and October.
See the charts at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/hdpermitsapps.htm.
The other good reasons for hiking in spring or fall include more moderate temperatures. Although spring can bring wetter weather, May and June are also when the waterfalls along the Mist Trail (and throughout Yosemite Valley) reach their most impressive peak runoff, whereas late summer and fall often deliver dry, pleasant weather.
Dayhiking Half Dome from the usual starting point, the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley, entails about 16 miles round-trip with 4,800 feet of elevation gain and loss. That’s a serious day of hiking—one I’d rate as “extremely hard” in a chart that provides metrics for assessing a hike’s difficulty that you can find, along with other “hard” and “soft” measures, in my story “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
Approaching a hike that hard casually can be a recipe for an unpleasant or worse experience. Train for it weeks in advance of the date, certainly by getting in some practice/training hikes, as well as following a regular training regimen. See my story “Training for a Big Hike or Mountain Climb.”
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As with backpacking, traveling light when dayhiking helps you move faster and maintain your stamina longer, and a few pounds can make a difference. Your daypack’s weight matters and will mostly consist of food, water, and clothing layers, none of which you need to overpack.
Food weight will diminish over the day, of course, but there’s no need to pack more than you intend to eat. Water is easy to refill along parts of the Mist Trail and most strategically at the Merced River on the JMT just above Nevada Fall, where you can top off your bladder or bottles before heading up to Half Dome and on the descent.
Bring a hard-sided or collapsible filter bottle, like a Lifestraw Go filter bottle or a Katadyn BeFree, which you can quickly refill when needed, and you can squeeze filtered water from a BeFree into a bladder. See my review of backpacking accessories, and all of my water filter reviews at The Big Outside.
With a forecast for good weather, you can pack an ultralight shell jacket that’s more breathable, packable, and lighter than a rain jacket. See “The Best Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking Jackets,” “The 5 Best Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking” and “5 Expert Tips for Buying a Rain Jacket for Hiking.”
I always use trekking poles on long hikes with substantial vertical gain and loss. See “The Best Trekking Poles,” “How to Choose Trekking Poles” and “The 10 Best Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles.”
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
See my stories “The 10 Best Hikes in Yosemite,” “The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls,” and “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows” and all of my stories about Yosemite National Park at The Big Outside.
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