Climbing a National Park Icon
Merely hearing the word “Yosemite” immediately conjures up a number of images in my mind. There are the park’s many renowned waterfalls. Bridalveil Fall, Vernal Fall, and Nevada Fall are all picture-perfect sights, and I could never forget Yosemite Fall, the continent’s tallest waterfall. Then there’s El Capitan, the gigantic granite monolith. And of course the unbelievable groves of giant sequoia trees that rise from the forest like magnificent towers reaching out to the heavens above. Not to be forgotten are the sprawling subalpine meadows and snow-capped peaks of the High Sierra region. But above all else, when I think of Yosemite National Park, Half Dome reigns supreme. No other sight is as undoubtedly synonymous with Yosemite as the granite masterpiece.
Half Dome soars high above Yosemite Valley. From the valley floor it looks as if it is posing, showcasing its sheer northwest face. While it isn’t truly half of a dome, it certainly looks that way from far below. The massive chunk of granite rises nearly 4,800 feet above the eastern end of Yosemite Valley.
For years the summit of Half Dome was thought to be unattainable. Nowadays hundreds of determined hikers reach the top on an average summer day. Foot traffic got so high that more than a thousand people could be on the trail in a single day. Now those numbers are limited to a maximum of 400 hikers on the upper reaches of the Half Dome Trail. A mandatory permit system was adapted in 2011, limiting trail traffic every day of the week. However, there was no such system in place five years earlier when we started up the trail.
The three of us; Joe, his girlfriend Kate, and I, got up at 6:00 a.m. on Half Dome day. We had been looking forward to the epic hike since before our 37-day trip even began. Once up, we each indulged in some protein bars for breakfast to load up on energy. We took our time to carefully fill our packs with supplies. I packed a lot more food and water than I ever had before, and still should have brought more. Once we felt our packs were good to go we got in Kate’s rental car and headed to the famed valley.
It took us about an hour to drive to Yosemite Valley along the motion-sickness inducing roads. I was driving so I felt fine, but Joe and Kate were both feeling a little iffy from the curvaceous up and down driving. We ended up at a parking lot just past Curry Village near the Upper Pines Campground. We were still about a half-mile from the trailhead, but that was the closest parking we could find. The alternative would have been to take the free shuttle through the valley, which would have brought us right to Happy Isles (shuttle stop 16). However, after riding the shuttle on our previous trip to the park we wanted to avoid it this time around. We felt like the shuttle took us on a long, roundabout route to reach our destination.
Considering the length and difficulty of the hike to Half Dome’s summit, we really didn’t need to add an extra mile (round-trip) from the parking lot. Depending on the specific route taken, the trail from Happy Isles to the top of Half Dome and back is between 14 and 16.2 miles long. There is an elevation gain of 4,800 feet, which is almost a vertical mile. The final 400 feet require the use of a steel cable “ladder” that traverses smooth granite at a 45 degree angle. So, not only is the hike extremely strenuous, but it has an added element of excitement and adventure. The arduous journey takes most hikers between ten and twelve hours to complete depending on their fitness level and how much time they spend on the summit.
Proper preparation and planning are necessary due to the length and difficulty of the hike. We didn’t fit in many good warmup hikes in Yosemite, but Joe and I did complete a few good practice hikes in Yellowstone about a week earlier. In retrospect, I probably should have gone on a few more difficult practice hikes before attempting Half Dome.
Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, the amount of food and water packed must be taken seriously. A minimum of one gallon of water is recommended or else a decent amount of water and a purification device. Plenty of food is needed, ranging from salty snacks, to energy bars, to sandwiches.
Even clothing must be carefully selected. The temperature at Half Dome’s summit is often 15 to 20 degrees cooler than that of the valley. Layering is a good idea. It was hot the day we went so it wasn’t much of an issue, but I still packed a long-sleeved shirt and rain coat, just in case. Lightweight hiking boots or sturdy hiking sneakers are usually best on the trail. Even socks should be taken into consideration. Cotton socks tend to bunch up on long hikes, which can cause painful blisters. Hiking socks are certainly nice, but simply doubling up on socks can usually do the trick. That reduces friction and should keep you blister-free. Oh, and one more thing, a headlamp or flashlight is a must. Since the hike can take over twelve hours there is a good chance it will be finished in the dark.
We began our trek at 8:25 a.m. Within minutes we completed the quick half-mile jaunt from the parking lot to the Happy Isles trailhead. That would be our last stretch of level walking for a few hours. We were at an elevation of 4,035 feet above sea level. It was still early, but there were already a number of people at the trailhead near the Happy Isles Nature Center.
The start of the hike was familiar as Joe and I had tackled it just one year earlier on the incredible Mist Trail. Although it was fairly crowded, the beginning was nice and easy. The dirt path was wide and comfortable under foot. It gained in elevation almost immediately, but the grade was subtle at first.
We moved along the trail with ease, enjoying our surroundings. The path soon paralleled the rushing Merced River. It flowed with a fury as it snaked its way between boulders. Although we were passing through the start of the hike swiftly we were careful not to over exert ourselves. This was a marathon hike, so it was important to pace ourselves.
A short distance up the trail we stopped for a quick water break. In between a few swigs of water I turned around and glanced back the way we came. Then, looking up through a break in the trees, I caught a glimpse of Yosemite Fall far in the distance. I could only see Upper Yosemite Fall, its thin stream of water fluttering high in the air. The fall was veiled by the shadow of the mountain from which it dropped. I took a couple of pictures before we proceeded along the well-manicured pathway.
Less than a mile from the trailhead we arrived at Vernal Fall Bridge. The long wooden bridge crossed the intensely foaming Merced River. Huge boulders created explosions of water in front of the bridge, causing a light mist to swallow the entire area. The crashing river rapids produced white noise throughout the area. That made it difficult to safely photograph Vernal Fall in the distance.
The bridge provides the first view of Vernal Fall on the hike. The frothy white Vernal Fall folded over a 317 foot high cliff in the distance. It is easily one of the most picturesque waterfalls I have ever seen. It demands to be photographed. As attractive as it was, it was not as impressive as the first time I saw it. That’s because this time it was late-July, while the first time was in mid-May, a couple days after the valley had flooded. The amount of water flowing over Vernal Fall that day was tremendous.
There were some people resting just past the bridge, near a water fountain and restrooms. The last time we were there the fountain hadn’t been turned on yet. This time we didn’t need any more water yet and had recently taken a break so we carried on without stopping.
We quickly escaped the small crowd near the bridge and headed east along the trail, staying close to the mighty Merced. We had gained a little over 400 feet of elevation so far, meaning we only had around 4,400 feet to go. After considering that number I quickly gave up counting down the elevation as we went.
Soon after we passed the bridge, just two tenths of a mile, we reached a trail junction. We were at the spot where the Mist Trail and the long distance John Muir Trail split. We paused at the intersection and contemplated our options. We could continue straight up the Mist Trail to the crest of Vernal Fall or make a right and start up the forested switchbacks of the John Muir Trail en route to Nevada Fall. A year earlier Joe and I made a circle of it, going up the Mist Trail and down the Muir Trail. Kate had never been on the trail before.
The Mist Trail is both shorter and more scenic than the Muir Trail. However, it is also far more crowded, considerably steeper, and more difficult due to its countless granite steps. The gigantic stone staircase is normally enveloped by mist, soaking the steps and everyone on them. The water also makes the granite very slick, which requires extra caution, causing hikers to march slowly up the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall. Those factors combine to make the shorter Mist Trail take longer than the easier John Muir Trail.
Since our focus was on topping out on Half Dome, not the fantastic waterfalls of the trail, we avoided the Mist Trail. Frankly, we had a ton of difficult climbing ahead, so passing on the large uneven granite steps of the Mist Trail was probably a great idea. The John Muir Trail is the more popular of the two options among those hiking to Half Dome for the same reasons we chose it.
The pathway narrowed as it began to wind its way up the mountainside. Most of the route was through thick woods. It gradually climbed more than 1,000 feet, spread out over a few miles.
The three of us casually made our way up the trail. It was easy, but time consuming. The endless stretch of switchbacks up the John Muir Trail weren’t too scenic either, but that was alright, because we knew we would see our fair share of magnificent scenery farther up the trail.
We mindlessly marched up the zigzagging trail for over an hour. The higher we ascended, the fewer trees obstructed our view. Then we arrived at an impressive scenic vista. There was a gorgeous view of Nevada Fall with Liberty Cap beside it.
Nevada Fall launched out and off a level expanse of granite in a thin white torrent. It plunged into the forested valley below. The waterfall vanished from view a few hundred feet below its crest. Looking at the scene, Liberty Cap, a tall granite tower, stood just to the left of Nevada Fall. A hazy pale blue sky hovered overhead.
We stopped and gazed out over our surroundings for a few minutes. From there we were also able to see the next mile or so of our route. The path would follow a long narrow ledge clinging to the mountainside before arriving at the clearing above Nevada Fall.
We took a short water break before continuing on. Then we completely left the forested switchbacks behind us and picked up our pace as the path temporarily leveled off.
Soon we were on the ledge we had seen from a distance. The path was solid rock at that point. It was only a few feet wide with a substantial drop-off to our left. The ledge was never so narrow that it felt especially dangerous. It was mostly level and at times lined by a short stone wall.
We moved along the ledge swiftly and easily. It was comforting to see our immediate goal, Nevada Fall, getting closer. The soaring waterfall grew larger and louder with every step.
Minutes later, the three of us arrived beside the thunderous Nevada Fall. There was an expansive, mostly level clearing above the fall. A metal railing ran alongside the Merced River as it approached the edge of the steep cliff. There were several people spread out around the earsplitting waterfall. It looked like a good resting place for us as well.
There was more space on the other side of the river and it wasn’t quite as crowded, so we walked across a wooden footbridge that spanned the churning Merced River. We sat down on some rocks beside the river and took out our water and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
It was a great setting for an early lunch. We took our time eating, not wanting to rush through our time in the middle of such an amazing landscape. We were admiring the view from beside the brink of the fall to where the river landed several hundred feet below. We had hiked about three miles so far and were just about 2,000 feet above the valley floor.
We took a quick inventory during our lunch break. We had eaten some snacks along the way and were busy eating our PB & J’s, but we still had a lot of food left. Our water supplies were in pretty good shape, too. Before we first began our hike, early that morning, I warned Joe that I thought he and his girlfriend should bring more water. However, we thought there would be a couple of places along the way to fill up. In reality the only source of safe drinking water was the water fountain beside Vernal Fall Bridge, which was less than a mile from the trailhead. In addition to our supplies, we checked on each other to see how everyone was feeling so far. In that regard, we were doing very well.
After our little meal we got back on the trail. I felt great; recharged, refreshed, and excited to move on to new territory. Joe and I had both made it to the top of Nevada Fall a year earlier before looping back down to Happy Isles. This time we weren’t even halfway to our turnaround point.
The trail paralleled the frothy river, full of boulders and rapids, as it led away from Nevada Fall. We were soon past the fence that had barricaded it. I stood beside the rushing river and stared into it. The combination of the water splashing furiously against rocks, the speed of the current, and the noise mesmerized me. It was like gazing into the dancing flames of a bonfire. After a minute I broke free of my trance and caught up to Joe and Kate.
A little farther up the trail the river began to look slower and more peaceful. Looks can be deceptive, though. Despite the surface looking calm the undercurrent remained fierce. Multiple people have been swept away by the powerful river before plunging over Nevada Fall to their death.
The John Muir Trail led us into the woods. The temperature continued to rise under the sweltering sun, making us thankful for the shady forest. It wasn’t long after we left Nevada Fall that we came across another trail marker. This one stated that we were 4.5 miles from the top of Half Dome. That meant we were almost halfway there. That may have been the case, but we still had about 60% of the total elevation left to gain. Based on that, we were pretty sure we had a very difficult 4.5 miles remaining.
The path grew steep once more as we continued through the woods. It began as a sudden burst uphill, but since we just had a long break we were able to take it in stride, at least at first. At that point the trail remained near the river, but it wouldn’t for much longer.
The steep grade continued for close to a mile. There wasn’t much to look at along that stretch as it was all through thick forest. After walking uphill for so long we were relieved to have the trail start to level off. We approached a small meadow and the closer we got to it the flatter the terrain became.
Then we arrived in Little Yosemite Valley. We were given a great reprieve from the constant uphill hiking. Little Yosemite Valley is home to a backcountry campground. The Merced River flows through the forested area. In addition to there being space for many tents, there is a small ranger station and a bathroom.
We saw several tents on our stroll through the campground. Most of the people that camp there use it as a base camp for a shorter hike to Half Dome’s summit. Hiking to the top of Half Dome from Happy Isles is a grueling all-day adventure. Spending a night in Little Yosemite Valley cuts the hike basically in half. That option wasn’t for us, which might have been a good thing. When we were walking through the area we heard that the small campground isn’t just frequented by black bears, but that it is essentially run by them.
We took our time in Little Yosemite Valley. The trail was wide and comfortable under foot. It was also level, which was a rare find on the long hike. One more thing was the heat. It was a very hot day, but we were almost constantly in the shade. It was tempting to hurry through the level stretch of land, but instead we slowed down to save energy, stay cool, and simply observe our peaceful surroundings.
The trail split in two near the campground. We turned north and headed ever closer to our iconic destination. Yet again we were hiking steeply uphill through a densely forested area. This stretch was a little more scenic and the trees smelled fantastic. I guess when you’re hiking through steep woods all day you find subtle differences between the patches of forest.
It was during that stretch that I heard a strange sound nearby. It was a noise that I had never heard before, yet it was familiar, as if I should immediately recognize it based on my surroundings. And I did. It sounded like someone shaking a baby’s rattle. I instinctively jumped. A large rattlesnake was just a few feet away. It was fully coiled, laying in the shade. There were a couple other hikers that approached and cautiously observed the snake for a few minutes. We watched our step as we quickly moved out of there.
After another mile or so we reached a trail junction with an accompanying sign. We had reached the point where the Half Dome Trail separated from the John Muir Trail. That meant we had hiked roughly six miles uphill since we started at Happy Isles, gaining over 3,000 feet in elevation. In other words we still had to climb over 1,800 feet in two miles to reach the summit.
We took a quick break at the trail intersection to talk to a couple from California who was backpacking through the area along the John Muir Trail. They had large, bulging backpacks and told us they had attempted the Half Dome Trail a few years earlier. They told us that they made it all the way to the bottom of the steel cables before turning back. They said they had a fear of heights and the sight of the cables was simply too intimidating. That was the complete opposite of what I needed to hear at that point. I am also considerably scared of heights. I really hoped I would be able to handle the end of the hike without freaking out or surrendering to my fear. The couple wished us luck and continued on the John Muir Trail. We continued north onto the Half Dome Trail.
Unsurprisingly, the trail steepened yet again. We had grown to expect that after spending the morning on the trail. The grade of the path was probably more substantial than anything we had dealt with so far.