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The goal of just about everybody who has ever donned a pair of hiking boots are Half Dome and it's summit. If you spend the night in Little Yosemite Valley and tackle the peak first thing the next morning, you'll have a better chance of avoiding the traffic jams that sometimes build up at the base of the cables, but it is a grueling workout, especially if you do it in one day!
Half Dome in Yosemite National Park
What are the cables? Without technical climbing equipment, the last four hundred feet are over probably 45 degrees (what feels like nearly vertical) of, smooth, granite, so a series of horizontal bars about five feet apart, flanked by cables with which to pull yourself up, are the only way to get to the top. It sounds scary but it is done by grandmas, kids and everybody in between. Wilderness permits are snapped up quickly, because of its popularity!
If you're unprepared or out of shape, the fourteen to sixteen mile round trip hike to Half Dome is not for you. Most of your way to the top of Half Dome, you will be gaining 4,800 feet of elevation. The reward is worth the effort, most would say. You will see outstanding views of Vernal and Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, Half Dome, and panoramic views of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra, from the shoulder and summit, along the way.
Some take longer, but most hikers take ten to twelve hours to hike to Half Dome and back. It's smart to leave around sunrise or earlier and then have a definite turn around time, if you plan on hiking during the day. You will turn around, for instance, if you haven't reached the top of Half Dome by 3:30 pm. Before you start, check for sunrise and sunset times. Hikers commonly struggle down the trail after dark because they don't have a flashlight, so each person should carry a headlamp or flashlight with good batteries. You should be prepared with a good compass and topographic map and know how to use them, although the trail is well marked.
The most infamous, or famous, part of the hike is the ascent up the cables. Without rock climbing equipment, the two metal cables allow hikers to climb the last 400 hundred feet to the top. Relatively few people have fallen and died on the cables, since 1919. Injuries are not uncommon for those acting irresponsibly, however.
While using the cables, allow faster hikers to pass you when possible, remain on the inside of the cables, and be patient with slower hikers and take your time!
Do not attempt the hike, if the cables are down for the winter (from the day after Columbus Day until Memorial Day weekend), the ground is wet (the rock and cables become very slick when wet, most accidents on the cables occur during wet conditions), or storm clouds are in the area!
With good traction and good ankle support, wear well broken in hiking boots. Ankle injuries and blisters are some of the most common injuries Half Dome hikers suffer. Prevent these problems by having good footwear.
On the cables, many people find gloves helpful. Pack them out, if you bring your gloves up.
While on trails, there is no trash service. Be sure to pack out all trash, while hiking in Yosemite. You can help park rangers by picking up trash that you encounter on the trail, when possible. At trailheads, bearproof trash cans are available.
Be sure to have plenty of water is one of the easiest ways to ensure a enjoyable, safe hike. Personal preference and weather conditions affect the amount of water you need to carry, but per person suggested minimum amounts are:
Less than a mile from the trailhead is the only treated water on the trail at a drinking fountain at the Vernal Fall Footbridge which is available summer only. Up to Little Yosemite Valley, Merced River water is available, however you should treat this water by using a giardia rated water filter, using iodine, or boiling. Significant illness may be caused by drinking untreated river water!
Vernal Fall Footbridge View
Below Vernal Fall, flush toilets are available at the Vernal Fall Footbridge. Composting toilets are available in Little Yosemite Valley, near the top of Nevada Fall, and near Emerald Pool above Vernal Fall.
Campground in Little Yosemite Valley
You are required to bury any solid human waste at least thirty meters (one hundred feet) from trails or water and at least fifteen cm (six inches) deep, at any other location. Toilet paper must be packed out.
During a lightning storm, the summit is a very dangerous place. Try to reach the summit early in the day to avoid afternoon thunderstorms and check the weather forecast before your hike. Leave the area while still using caution when descending the steps and cables, if in the summit area, and if a storm appears nearby, do not continue to the summit.
Windy conditions are common and the summit is typically eight degrees C (fifteen degrees F) to eleven degrees C (twenty degrees F) cooler than Yosemite Valley. Be prepared for rain showers and cool temperatures.
Each summer a few hikers have problems with altitude sickness. Symptoms may include nausea or/and severe headache. Descend immediately to relieve altitude sickness, it is the only way. Other environmental illnesses include low electrolyte levels (hyponatremia), dehydration, and heat exhaustion. Be sure to eat, and to take regular rest breaks in the shade, in addition to drinking plenty of water!
Because of frequent fatalities and injuries, entering pools above waterfalls is strongly discouraged and entering the Silver Apron and Emerald Pool is prohibited!
Silver Apron and Emerald Pool
You might still encounter problems, even if you bring the correct equipment and plan properly. Some cell phones have coverage from some locations on the trail and from Half Dome. During summer, Little Yosemite Valley Ranger Station is staffed. Where the Half Dome Trail begins to climb out of the valley, you can find the ranger station on the north side of the valley. The ranger station is not always staffed because park rangers frequently patrol the trail. To get assistance, you may need to send some members of your group or someone to Yosemite Valley.
Remember, have an enjoyable, safe hike and don't forget your camera!