morning light with the sun coming up just to the right of half dome

Why Half Dome is the best mile-by-mile hike in the United States

It’s iconic. It’s majestic. Even though it’s only half a rock, it’s at the top of the grandest objects in the USA. Half Dome needs no introduction or even more fanfare, but here we are.

I’ve completed the Half Dome hike twice, both for sunrise, in 2013 and 2014. It’s the epitome of an amazing hike with zero negative things to say about it. It is why I feel so strongly that anyone physically able to do the hike should.

It’s that dang good and is so incredibly worth it.

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

What makes the Half Dome Hike So Dang Good

The Views on the Trip Up

Where to even start? The hike up to Half Dome is so freaking cool it’s hard to put words on it.

First, you pass Vernal Falls, where you’ll likely get wet half the year. It’s mind-blowingly gorgeous, and if you time it right, you’ll get a rainbow. As you keep going, you’ll reach a small lake perfect for refueling before pressing on.

Twenty minutes later, Nevada Falls appears. Larger than Vernal Falls behind you, more water than you can imagine pours over this drop. Yet, it’s serene at the same time. Peaceful, almost, as you soak it in with no other sounds.

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Now, the fun begins. You’ll have to climb the sharp switchbacks that hug Nevada Falls’ left side, inching ever higher towards Half Dome’s rocky summit.

Once you reach Nevada Falls, it mellows out for the next couple of miles. Welcome to Little Yosemite Valley. It’s a peaceful area with few visitors compared to the chaos below. Enjoy the solitude and flat ground, as the uphill is beginning again real soon.

Your sign for Half Dome will appear, along with warnings about hiker safety and having a permit to climb the cables. This is your final bit in the forest, as it zig-zags up and up for about 2.5 miles before you reach the subdome. Both times I hiked this, I was in the dark, so I don’t have much to say about this.

However, I will note that the steps and ~ 14 switchbacks leading up to the subdome were excruciating. I remember my inner quad muscles seizing as I climbed the final rock steps. Yet, shortly thereafter, you reach a plateau that allows you to conserve energy as you make the final steps to the Half Dome Cables.

Yosemite National Park
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

The Challenge of the Half Dome Cables

From here, it’s a mental and physical push to the top. Many, many people turn around here, seeing the cables as too much to handle. I had the same thought at points but pushed on.

It’s genuinely unnerving looking out and seeing a slick rock fade away into nothingness. I won’t beat around the bush; you will die if you fall left or right. If you slide down, maybe you have a chance.

So don’t fall.

I felt comfortable and safe when I did it in 2013 and 2014. I kept a strong grip on the cables (bring gardening gloves to help) and rested whenever possible.

Furthermore, going up and down when few people were on it minimized any potential inflection points of crossing paths with people.

Finally, you’re there. You’ve reached the top of Half Dome. For me, with the first light hitting the Yosemite Valley floor below, all I could think of was how magical it was.

Controlled crowds

Another reason Half Dome is so great is that a limited number of people can visit. Furthermore, those who do visit are in great shape and usually respect the trail and those around them.

Basically, these are top-notch hikers who know how to act in the backcountry.

All of this makes for a pretty good environment and experience.

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Final Thoughts on Hiking Half Dome

If you are tossing around the idea of hiking Half Dome in 2024, do it. It is hands-down one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, and you will undoubtedly love it. Just don’t forget to enter into the lottery for the permits.

Indeed, it’s a challenging hike but very doable. Plan for the entire day, soak it up, rest, and you’ll do great!

This Article First Appeared on Alec is a professional photographer, writer, and content creator in Seattle. You can see more of his work here.

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