Six Tips: Half Dome

Being avid hikers, we always appreciate good info when prepping for a day on the trail (we use The Washington Trails Association Site religiously in Washington). We learned a lot from our recent hike up Half Dome, so we figured we’d pay it forward. Let us know if you have any additional tips in the comments!

1. You need a permit. You can go about this two ways: 1) either apply in the month of March for a lottery to be selected at a later date, or 2) if you are like me and don’t plan that far ahead in life, you can apply two days before your hike. 225 permits are awarded per day via the March application period, with the remaining 75 issued in a lottery during the climbing season (usually late May to October). If you choose the two-day route, you will apply between midnight and 1 PM two days before your climb. So, if you want to hike on a Tuesday, you will need to apply Sunday. The success rate is around 31% on weekdays and 12% on weekends, but you can increase your odds by submitting requests for each member of your hiking party. The applications cost $10 in addition to the $10 per person permit fee, so you’ll pay for better odds, but we were able to get a permit on the first try with both Jacquie and me applying for a climb on a Tuesday. For more information on getting the permit, including the application process, visit Yosemite’s Half Dome permits site.

2. Make sure you have enough time. You will want to budget around 10-14 hours for the hike, as you can take a few different routes to the summit. The most popular route is to take the Mist Trail up to Vernal Falls and the John Muir trail back. This route is a total of about 15.5 miles round trip. The Mist trail on the way back can be dicey as you will need to navigate around the climbers going up while you’re trying to maintain your footing on the slippery granite steps. Because of this, you probably won’t save that much time, even though it is about 1.3 miles shorter round trip. If you don’t feel like taking the Mist Trail at all, the hike total is 16.5 miles via the John Muir Trail. While you might think that you can blaze the trail and make it up and back in less than 9 hours or so, know that you will be waiting at the base of, or even on the cables.  Plan to spend about 30 minutes each way on cables, as you will inevitably need to wait for those slower than you in front, or to let people by you coming down. The last 400 feet are certainly the most exciting in the best and worst ways, just know that you’ll have about a cumulative hour of this excitement. All told, this hike took us about 11.5 hours with multiple of snack and photo breaks along the way.

3. The cables are unlike anything you’ve probably seen or done. You’ll want gloves to assist in your climb up. These will protect your hands, help your grip, and keep your hands clean, avoiding the sweat, sunscreen, and possible blood from the thousands of visitors who have traversed the cables before you.  If you don’t have gloves, there may be a pile of gloves at the base of the cables for you to pick up a pair. While it might be tempting to pay it forward and leave your gloves for the next person, stash them in your bag and throw them away in the valley once you’re back. The park considers the gloves litter, and they encourage you to be a good steward and take as many as you can away from the trail. While on the cables, be patient and put one foot in front of the other, using the wood two-by-fours at each set of poles as good waiting points. It will be slow going, but as long as you face forward and keep three points of contact the climb will be smooth. Coming down the cables, face the top, the same way you went up. It may be tempting to go down the cables face forward, but granite is slippery. You will be much more stable keeping your body perpendicular to the rock face, leaning back a bit while holding on to the cables.

4. Stay on the trail. Not only have people died getting swept away in the adjacent river, but the trail was created for a reason. It might be tempting to cut your time short by skipping the switchbacks, but this is detrimental to the surrounding wildlife. If that doesn’t do enough to deter you, we saw a baby rattlesnake on the edge of the trail in Little Yosemite Valley, so there’s also that.

5. Bring Bug spray. If it looks like you’ll be coming back around dusk, don’t forget this oft-overlooked item. The mosquitoes certainly will be looking for you!

6. Bring enough food and don’t forget electrolytes. For long hikes, a snack for every hour or two is usually sufficient. Stick to calorie-dense foods, such as nuts, snack bars, energy chews, etc. If you’re like me, you will sweat a lot on this hike. Don’t forget to replenish that sodium! I like Nuun tablets, salted nuts, or Clif Shot Bloks. Bananas are also good for preventing cramps. If you feel yourself starting to tighten up, have a small portion of any of these and you should loosen right up!

For more info, visit this post about our experience or our packing list for the hike.

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