Hiking Half Dome: How to Do It Right and Get a Permit

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 sheer, 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—including many years running this blog and previously as 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.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-books to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

A hiker atop Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Mark Fenton on The Visor or Half Dome, high above Yosemite Valley, in Yosemite National Park. Click photo to read about this backpacking trip.

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. Yosemite requires a reservation to drive into or through the park on some days from April 13 through Oct. 27; nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/reservations.htm.

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-books to three amazing multi-day hikes there.

Hikers on Half Dome's cable route in Yosemite National Park.
Hikers on Half Dome’s cable route in Yosemite National Park. Click photo for my e-book “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

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 sub-dome steps and 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), depending on conditions. The park allows 300 hikers per day on the cable route: 225 dayhikers and 75 backpackers.

The dayhiking preseason permit lottery is held March 1-31 and results are announced in mid-April. 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. People applying multiple times as permit holder or alternate will have all their lottery applications canceled. 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).

Find more information at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/hdpermits.htm and apply for the permit at recreation.gov/permits/234652.

Find your next adventure in your Inbox. Sign up now for my FREE email newsletter.


A backpacker hiking up the Half Dome Trail in Yosemite National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm hiking Half Dome while on a backpacking trip. Click photo for my e-book “The Best Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

Backpack to Half Dome

Instead of seeking a dayhiking permit, you can include Half Dome on a multi-day backpacking permit. In Yosemite, wilderness permit reservations are issued based on trailhead quotas. Sixty percent of permit reservations are available by lottery at recreation.gov beginning on the Sunday up to 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the date you want to start hiking, with the lottery for each specific window of dates closing the following Saturday. The remaining 40 percent of permits are made available at recreation.gov at 7 a.m. Pacific Time up to seven days in advance of a trip start date.

See “How to Get a Yosemite or High Sierra Wilderness Permit” and “How to Get a Last-Minute Yosemite Wilderness Permit Now.”

See also my expert e-books to three stellar, multi-day hikes in Yosemite, including “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite,” and “The Best Backpacking Trip in Yosemite,” both of which include 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.

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

A hiker on Half Dome's cable route in Yosemite National Park.
Mark Fenton hiking Half Dome’s cable route in Yosemite.

Not surprisingly, Saturday ranks as the most popular day for which people seek a permit to dayhike Half Dome (18 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 Tuesday or Wednesday (12 percent) and you will greatly improve 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.

Train Smartly

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.”

Read all of this story and ALL stories at The Big Outside, plus get a FREE e-book. Join now!

A hiker on The Visor of Half Dome, above Yosemite Valley.
Todd Arndt on The Visor of Half Dome, above Yosemite Valley.

Hike Light

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 much 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.

Wear lightweight, highly breathable hiking shoes that fit well and have a sticky outsole, like approach-style shoes such as the La Sportiva TX3. See my picks for the best daypacks and hiking shoes and my “Pro Tips For Buying the Right Hiking Boots.”

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.”

A backpacker on the John Muir Trail overlooking the Cathedral Range in Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt on the John Muir Trail overlooking the Cathedral Range in Yosemite National Park. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan a JMT thru-hike.

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.

You live for the outdoors. The Big Outside helps you get out there.
Join now to read ALL stories and a get free e-book!


Hike the World’s Most Beautiful Trail: The Alta Via 2

The 5 Southwest Backpacking Trips You Should Do First


Leave a Comment

11 thoughts on “Hiking Half Dome: How to Do It Right and Get a Permit”

  1. Awesome post, great information on hiking Half Dome! I’ve been wanting to hike this for a while now, and this post has given me the confidence to start planning. One thing I especially appreciated was the section on getting a permit, it’s important to know all the details before embarking on such an adventure.

    Michael, I have a question – what kind of preparation would you recommend for first-time hikers of Half Dome? Are there any physical or gear requirements to keep in mind? I am planning for a hike along with my wife on upcoming valentine.

    • Thanks, Ruth. All of the tips in this story are the suggestions I’d offer anyone, whether a first-timer or someone who’s hiked it multiple times. My tips on training and the actual hike are in the story. (To read the entire story, including nine sub-heads covering different aspects of the hike (the first one being the permit), you do need a paid subscription to The Big Outside, which gives you full access to all stories at my blog.)

      Good luck with your Half Dome hike!

  2. A slightly longer day hike but really very interesting was starting from Glacier Point to do the hike. Longer but less climb; then descend back to Glacier Pt or to the town, which we did. Very nice hike.
    Also if you don’t have a hike, like my son who decided to join me at the last moment, start early and when you get to where they ask for permits, hang around. So many groups apply for permits in advance that they often haave slots they did not fill, so when we were there they allowed hikers to fill those spots. Within half an hour, my son was following me up the climb.
    This was August. I also went to the office in town and waited in line 2 hours to be told there were no permits the nex day – so don’t repeat that mistake.
    Thanks for your website.

    • Thanks for sharing those suggestions, Ray. Starting at Glacier Point is a great way to hike Half Dome, finishing by either returning to Glacier Point or at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley (requiring a shuttle to Glacier Point to start the hike).

    • Hi Al,

      I wouldn’t suggest an age limit so much as point out that dayhiking Half Dome entails 16 miles and nearly 5,000 vertical feet round-trip. That’s a whole lot of hiking up and down, too much for most kids in grade school or younger. Still, some kids can handle that big a day. I would give kids a chance to build up to that level of endurance with shorter and increasingly longer hikes before committing to a day as serious as Half Dome.

      Check out my story “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be,” and all skills stories at The Big Outside.

  3. Good article but you didn’t mention shoes or gloves. I hiked it once with my son and we were surprised by how steep it actually was and how tight we had to grip. I had read the standard “bring gloves” but our cheap leather gardening gloves didn’t provide enough grip to give confidence. And the soles on my son’s shoes weren’t grippy enough on the smooth-worn granite. So my big advice is wear grippy gloves and shoes with grippy soles! I’d consider using rock shows for the cable section (I think I saw somebody do this that day) but I’ve never worn rock shoes at all myself.

    • Thanks for those suggestions, Glen, and you’re right about wearing sticky-soled shoes (I’ve added that tip to the story since you posted this comment). But I wouldn’t necessarily recommend rock-climbing shoes, partly because they can be uncomfortable for a long period of time but also because sticky approach-style shoes would be good and more comfortable. I like the La Sportiva TX3 shoes.

      The park often leaves a pile of old gloves, mostly leather, at the bottom of the cables for hikers to use and then toss back in the pile are their descent of the cables. Decent leather gloves will provide better grip than any other type.

      I hope you enjoyed your hike up Half Dome.