Half Dome sunset Yosemite

Everything you need to know to hike Half Dome

Half Dome may be the most recognized rock formation on Earth, and it’s the logo of one of the biggest outdoor brands on Earth. It’s what makes people want to hike Half Dome. Towering nearly 5,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor at an altitude of 8,839 feet, it is in a class of its own when it comes to attracting outdoor enthusiasts and photographers.

Hopefully, by reading this, you’ll also learn how to hike Half Dome!

I’ve had the joy, exhaustion, and pleasure of conquering Half Dome twice in my short time on Earth. And I’ve been fortunate both times to watch the sunrise from the beautiful granite slab overlooking the valley.

What you need to know to hike Half Dome

Before you get to experience this terrific hike, you have to first jump through a few hoops. This includes going through the Half Dome lottery, getting to the valley, packing, hiking, and beating the cables. Next, we’ll break down how to hike Half Dome so you don’t have anything to worry about when you wake up to summit the ‘Dome.’

Half dome lottery: Permits, Permits, Permits

What you need to know to hike Half Dome:

  • You cannot hike the cables without a permit
  • Applications go live for the lottery on March 1 and end on March 31.
  • They give out 225 to hikers and 75 to backpackers each day. They also give out 50 permits a day during the season for those who don’t plan ahead or do not get it in the preseason lottery.
  • As you’d assume, weekends will be more sought after than weekdays.

Learn more about the Half Dome lottery here. 

Staying In or Near the Park to Hike Half Dome

What you need to know about hiking Half Dome:

Driving in:

  • Fresno: It’s about a two-hour drive into the valley floor
  • Los Angeles: Get ready for a haul. It’s about five and a half hours from the city of Angels
  • San Francisco: Weather conditions may give you alternative routes but expect a four-hour-long journey.
  • Reno: In winter, Tioga Pass is closed, so you have to go way out of your way, but in the summer, this is a four-and-a-half-hour drive.

You have plenty of lodging options:

Yosemite Valley:

You can stay at Half Dome Village (formerly known as Camp Curry, RIP), The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly Ahwahnee, RIP), Yosemite Valley Lodge, Big Trees Lodge (formerly Wawona Hotel, RIP), all the campgrounds, and the Housekeeping Camp.

You’ll want to do these months and months in advance (especially the camping) if you hope to snag a spot.

Tuolumne Meadows:

This is a nice spot to stay outside the valley. Heads up, you’re up around 8,000 feet which means regardless of the time of year, it’ll be chilly at night. This is the spot if you plan to hike up in the Meadow area. Or you could camp. That’s an option too.

Outside of the Valley:

  • Bass Lake: There are plenty of lodging options around Bass Lake which is about a 50-minute drive to the valley floor.
  • Fish Camp: A small lodging ‘town’ has options for hotels if you want to be closer to the entrance but not as close as Tanaya.
  • Tenaya Lodge: This is the nicest spot outside of the park and only three miles from the Yosemite entrance.
backside of yosemite how to hike Half Dome
Clouds Rest to the left and Half Dome to the right. Taken at Olmstead Point in YNP.

Getting Prepared for Hiking Half Dome

What you need to know about how to hike Half Dome:

Preparing Physically:

Half Dome is not easy. It’s 16 miles round trip, and you’re gaining over 5,100 feet of elevation gain. In other words, you better get off the couch at least two months before doing this or you’ll struggle. No one wants to be a struggling straggler.

Depending on when you go and where you live, there’s nothing better than getting out and hiking in the outdoors. But the stair stepper and treadmill will work if you live somewhere flat or uber-hot during the summer.

I won’t get on my high horse and pretend to tell you how to train for hiking Half dome, but if you can do a couple of 8-10 mile hikes beforehand that include steps, you’ll be fine. (The way down is pretty simple; you’ll cruise after leaving the cables.)

If you’re already active (gym 5+ days a week), you’ll be able to do this relatively easily but leave the gym and get outside once in a while.

What to bring for hiking half dome


The weather will determine what you need to wear, but chances are high that you’ll start right around sunrise, so a long-sleeved, breathable shirt is probably needed. I’d also suggest bringing a separate shirt to change into on the top so that you’re not in a soaking-wet shirt all day.

In addition to the clothes (I’ll leave the specifics up to you), you’ll want to bring: A wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, sunblock, heavy-duty gloves for the chains, and hiking boots. You could also bring water shoes if you want to soak your feet in the stream on the way down and hiking poles if that will help you out.

Remember, while this hike has a ton of prestige, it’s only a day hike. There’s not a ton you need to bring for hiking Half Dome.

The Goods:

Now we’re cooking…almost literally. This is the part that we all like to talk about. What to bring to keep our energy high and bellies full.

Lots and lots of water. When I hiked for sunrise, I brought a gallon of water and two 32oz Gatorades. However, I went uphill in the dark with no sun. That played a huge role in not sweating as much.

The food is much more subjective. First, get the salts, as you’ll lose them in your sweat. This can include beef jerky, chips, and nuts. Second, protein. Usually, this can be lunch meat/sandwiches/PB&J. Third, but most importantly, carbs.

Basically, eat anything you want. Trail mix is a great hiking food (hopefully, this isn’t breaking news to anyone reading this), along with crackers and whatever looks good to you in the store that isn’t weighing you down. Also fruit. Eat your fruit, people!

The Pack:

You’ll want a solid daypack with a belt strap to keep some of the weight off your shoulders. You probably don’t need anything bigger than an 18-22L for your Half Dome hike.

What you need to know about how to hike Half Dome:

Hiking Half Dome:

This is no joke. Hiking Half Dome is difficult. Do not underestimate it. Also, never, ever go past subdome when the weather could turn bad.

Enjoy it. It might be hard, but the scenery is brilliant, and you’re out in Mother Nature. Don’t forget to smile, laugh, and have a great time with friends.

Plan to spend 10 to 12 hours on this hike.

vernal falls half dome lottery
Vernal Falls – The first water fall and test on how to hike Half Dome
nevada falls yosemite hiking half dome how to hike Half Dome
Nevada Falls

The Mist Trail:

This part of the hike will be crowded. The first 3.5 miles are on the Mist Trail, taking you next to and then over Vernal and Nevada Falls. Most people stop at Vernal, so after that, the majority of the tourists will be behind you, and the trail will clear up in a significant way.

The steps will be slippery on your final ascent next to Vernal Falls. Take your time, as many people will be coming up and down.

Also, be prepared to get damp.

how to hike Half Dome

Little Yosemite Valley. Halfway hiking Half Dome

For the next mile to a mile and a half, it’s flat, letting you catch your breath and prepare for the upcoming summit push. This is the area where most of the backpackers stay, in Little Yosemite Valley.

two miles to half dome

Up to Subdome:

Now, you’re back in a forest, giving you a break from the sun, though you’ll hardly notice as you’re huffing and puffing through switchback after switchback. This part is 1.5 miles long. Once you get out of the forest, you still have to conquer the steps.

This is where my quads started to die on each step up. I would not object if someone said this was the most challenging part of the hike. Once you’ve made it to the sub-dome, you meander toward Half Dome. It should be pretty easy to spot. From the end of the forest to the cables is less than half a mile.


The Half Dome Cables:

Depending on the time of day and your hiking time, take a few moments to relax and catch your breath. However, if looking at the cables and the way up will freak you out, keep pushing forward.

The cables are unique. Going up the 400-foot granite slope, there are wooden slabs every 10 feet, give or take. This provides a place to break and rest your sea legs momentarily. In the beginning, you’ll be able to walk with few issues, but your arms will become a very valuable asset as you keep going up. Use them! You will be at a 70% or more grade at some point, and it’s a full-on upper-body workout.

My number one tip for how to hike Half Dome: Take your time hiking Half Dome. If you’re going up in the middle of the day, you’ll likely pass people on the cables. Don’t freak out. Do it calmly and safely (think one person high, one person low…one person left, the other right.

Whatever it is, talk it out and make sure both people are on the same page. If not, this is where you die if you fall.

how to hike Half Dome
Half Dome
Half Dome cables hiking half dome
The cables at the bottom.
how to hike Half Dome
Probably the steepest part of the cables.

Hiking Half Dome – Reaching the Summit

You. Made. It! Yell to the heavens. High-five your friends or anyone near you. If you’re a crazy person and hauled a bottle of champagne up, open that baby up!

Plan to be up here for a good 45 minutes to an hour while you take photos, eat, change clothes that are probably soaking wet, or even nap. Don’t forget to stretch; you still have eight miles to go.

Going Down the Cables

This is the only section of the downhill I’ll go into detail on. Some say *raises hand* that this might be worse than going up. There are two schools of thought going down: Facing out and looking back at the rock.

I chose to look at the rock because yours truly isn’t the biggest fan of heights – especially 400-foot heights where death awaits on either side. This is where the gloves come in handy as you’re hiking Half Dome.

You’ll want to slide them down the chains – instead of taking your hands off them. The wooden slabs help, especially if you start to slip (please have good grip shoes).

how to hike Half Dome hiking half dome
Favorite Photo.
Half Dome Cables hiking half dome
Looking down. Don’t lose your lunch.
Looking down half dome cables
Sub dome and the cables.

Consider taking the John Muir Trail Down vs the Mist Trail

Another tip for how to hike Half Dome: You can bypass Nevada Falls on the way down (and on the way up, I guess) by going on the John Muir Trail. This is a slightly longer but less steep option, and it takes you away from the crowds.

It also provides an excellent view of Nevada Falls. I did this my second time – to try something new – and it was excellent. It’s all a personal choice at this point.

Sunrise Yosemite Half Dome
Yosemite Valley. If you won the half dome lottery, you’ll be standing on top soon.
Sunrise Yosemite Half Dome  half dome lottery
how to hike Half Dome

Back in the valley after Hiking Hike Half Dome

Eat. Hydrate. Put your feet up. Relax. Sleep.

You’ve just completed one of the most well-known hikes in the world, and you’ll forever have the memory to prove it. Hopefully, your next day in the park is a quiet one – maybe you’ll float the Merced River – and let your body recover.

Again, congrats on hiking Half Dome!

Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.

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