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Hiking Half Dome- Tips to Plan Your Trip to Yosemite National Park

Hiking the Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is truly an unforgettable experience. While this iconic hike is challenging and requires a lot of upfront planning, it’s totally worth it once you make it to the top! Keep reading for hiking Half Dome tips and information on how to get a Half Dome hike permit!

hiking half dome tips

Hiking Half Dome Tips: Planning your Trip

There are two main options for your trip to Yosemite National Park to hike Half Dome:
1. Day hike– complete the 16-mile round trip hike to Half Dome in one day (start at dawn and get back to your car in the evening)
2. Camping– break up the hike by camping at Little Yosemite Valley campground the night before you hike to Half Dome (about half-way there)
I definitely recommend breaking up the hike and making it a weekend-trip by camping the night before hiking Half Dome. Not only will this make for a more enjoyable trip, but I also feel like it’s slightly easier to obtain a permit this way.

How to get a Half Dome Hike Permit:

(This is a lot of info- bear with me! Wanted to give you all the details so you can be fully prepared. If you already have a permit, skip down to the bottom for hiking Half Dome tips).
The Half Dome cables are up from around mid-May to early October each year. Permits are required to hike up the Half Dome cables, allowing 300 people per day (225 day hikers and 75 backpackers).

how to get a half dome hike permit

Half Dome Hike Permits for Day-Hikers:

If you choose to do the Half Dome hike in one day, you must apply for your Half Dome permit via the preseason lottery in March. Each preseason lottery application can be for up to 6 people and you can choose up to 7 dates. (For a better chance of winning, choose a weekday instead of the weekend).
You must designate the name of your “trip leader” on your application, and that person must be present on your trip if you win. Each person can only apply as a trip leader once per lottery. The application period is March 1st-31st, and you will find out if you won the Half Dome hike permit by mid-April. You can apply for the preseason lottery (in March) at Recreation.gov.
There is a non-refundable application fee of $10. You will then be charged another $10 fee if you win the Half Dome permit.

Half Dome Hike Permits for Backpackers:

If you want to break up the hike and camp (recommended), backpackers apply for a different lottery, through the Wilderness Permit. They allot 75 permits per day for backpackers.
You can apply for a wilderness permit through the lottery 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of your trip. Your application must be submitted by 7:30am Pacific Time, 168 days in advance. (You can fax your application in 169 days in advance for lottery drawing on the next day).
While you are able to enter the lottery for a date that is fewer than 168 days in advance, there is really no point to doing so because most trailheads fill up on the first day they are available for lottery. You’ll receive an email with your results the next day.
One difficulty is that there is no online portal to enter the Half Dome hike permit lottery. The only way to enter is via fax, phone, or mail. The preferred way to enter (as noted from nps.gov) is through faxing your application in.
On your application, you have to note your entry and exit trailheads, and where you will be camping the first night. The most ideal scenario for a weekend trip to hike the Half Dome is to select Happy Isles Trailhead to Little Yosemite Valley (LYV) Campground. However, this is one of the most popular campgrounds, so you don’t have a good chance of winning this selection. (I tried 6 times in a row and didn’t win this way). My advice- include Happy Isles to Illiouette Basin as a selection on your application.
Illiouette Basin is about 2 miles out of the way from Little Yosemite Valley campground/Half Dome, but it’s well worth it if it means you have a better chance of winning the lottery! Note that the max number of people you can reserve for Illiouette Basin is 3. Also, this only dictates where you sleep the first night, so the second night you can stay at Little Yosemite Valley campground which is conveniently on the way to the Half Dome. See below for a screenshot of my application which might be helpful when you fill yours out. I won for my second choice selection.

half dome hike permit

Don’t forget to check the box to select for Half Dome hike permits!
If you win the Half Dome lottery through wilderness permit, you will be charged $5 for application fee, and $5 per person. You must pick up your permit at one of the permit centers during business hours by 10:00am the day of your hike. If you need to pick it up later than 10am, call the visitor center and they can hold it for you for late arrival.

Planning your Weekend Trip to Hike Half Dome:

Once you win the Half Dome permit lottery through a wilderness permit- get excited! You have quite the adventure ahead of you. Keep reading for tips on hiking Half Dome, what to expect on your hike, and what to pack.
If you’re coming from LA, the drive is about 6 hours (the last hour of the drive is spent driving through the park to Yosemite Valley). The entrance fee to the park is $35, and they do accept credit cards. On your way to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, make a quick stop at Tunnel View (the viewpoint on the left side of the road right after the tunnel). From this point, you have a great view of El Capitan and Half Dome!

tunnel view Yosemite

Next, consider making a quick stop at Bridal Falls if you are at Yosemite in May/June (any later than that and this waterfall is just barely a trickle of water since it comes from snowmelt).
After that- head to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center and stop by the Wilderness Center to pick up your permit.
You should also rent a bear canister here if you don’t already have one, so you can store your food and toiletries in it when you are back-country camping at Illiouette Basin the first night. (The second night at LYV campground they have bear lockers already there for you). The bear canisters cost $5 to rent. Don’t forget to also pick up a trail map while you are here! This is also your last place to buy any food/drinks before you start on your journey.
Next- head to the Half Dome Village parking lot to park your car, and take the free shuttle to the Happy Isles trailhead (shuttle stop #16). From here, you’ll start your hike! This hike is definitely not for the faint of heart- it’s mostly uphill the whole way and the temperatures can get very hot in the summer. Make sure you have enough water! By the time we started our hike, it was about 2:30pm, and we reached our campsite near Illiouette Basin around 6pm.

hiking half dome tips

The first stop on your uphill hike along the Mist Trail (about .0.8 miles in) will be Vernal Falls. Like I mentioned earlier, the waterfalls are the heaviest during May/June since the water comes from glacial melt, but even though it was smaller in August when I was there, it was still beautiful! There was even a rainbow at the base of the falls. This waterfall is an iconic site of Yosemite, so expect to be sharing the view with a lot of tourists.

You’ll then keep going up about 600 granite steps to the top of Vernal Falls (1,000 feet elevation from the base). Prepare for slippery conditions and waterfall spray if you are there in early spring/summer!
After this part, the amount of people drastically decrease as you keep heading up towards Nevada Falls (about 1.3 miles).

nevada falls Yosemite

Once you reach the top of Nevada Falls, you’ll see a rest point with a bathroom and signs pointing you in the direction of Half Dome, LYV Campground, John Muir Trail, and the Panorama Trail. If your permit is for Illiouette Basin the first night, turn right and head along the Panorama Trail. (If your permit is for LYV campground the first night, turn left). The top of Nevada Falls is also a good place to get more water before you head to your camp spot for the night.

As you head up Panorama Trail, you’ll encounter several switchbacks until you get to the top of the hill. We were pretty much the only people on this trail, and even had a close encounter with a bear with 3 cubs on our way up! Make sure you are aware of your surroundings.
Honestly, there weren’t many signs at this point in the hike so I’m not quite sure if we camped at actual “Illiouette Basin” as we never encountered a sign for the basin, but after we completed the switchbacks and reached the top we saw evidence of past campsites so we posted up there for the night. There was no one else around for miles, and the view with the sunset was beautiful!

The next morning, wake up early and start your hike back down the switchbacks and back across the top of Nevada Falls to the rest stop, where you will see signs pointing you towards Little Yosemite Valley (LYV) campground and Half Dome. Hike to LYV campground,which has about 30-40 campsites, and pick a spot to set up camp before continuing on to Half Dome.
This campground has bathrooms, but not running water. However, you can get water from the Merced River that flows next to the campground. They also have about 1 bear locker per every 3 campsites which is really convenient, and makes for a social atmosphere. We made some great friends sharing our campsite! There is plenty of shade with lots of trees, which is also great for setting up a hammock.

(Photo by Nicco Baumann)
After you set up your tent, leave most of your belongings and just pack a small daypack for your 3-mile hike to Half Dome. Make sure you pack enough water! Don’t underestimate this hike- it’s hot and mostly uphill.

Once you reach the subdome (the huge rock you climb up via stairs before you get to the actual Half Dome) there will be a ranger there to check your permit to let you pass. Make sure you don’t forget to bring your permit!

hiking half dome tips

You’ll climb up the rock-stairs on the subdome, soaking in amazing views of Yosemite along the way. Once you get to the top- you’ll arrive at the base of the Half Dome! It will take you about 30-45 minutes to climb the Half Dome cables and reach the top, where you’ll get to see the most amazing view of Yosemite!

hiking half dome tips

Hiking Half Dome Tips: Climbing the Half Dome Cables

  • Wear gloves! You definitely need gloves as you will be pulling yourself up along the wire cables and you don’t want to hurt your hands from the friction, especially on the way down. I picked up some cheap gardening gloves at Walmart which worked great. People do leave their gloves at the base of the Half Dome once they are done, but you can’t count on that.
  • If you’re scared of heights, you might want to consider wearing a harness. While most people don’t wear a harness to climb the Half Dome cables, if you are scared of heights or just want that extra security, pack a harness with you. It might get annoying having to clip and unclip at each cable intersection, but at least you have that extra security if you feel that you need it.
  • There are 2×4 wooden platforms about every 10 feet, which are great to rest on your way up and down the cables
  • Make sure you wear hiking boots with good traction, as some parts of the rock face are slippery as you climb up
  • Don’t keep any water bottles or loose items in the side pockets of your backpack as you climb up. It could be dangerous to the people below you if something falls out as you climb up the Half Dome cables!
  • Make sure you don’t leave your backpack with food laying out once you get to the top and are taking pictures, or else the squirrels will be the ones enjoying your snacks!
  • The Half Dome cables have people going both up and down at the same time. There will be people going down as you are going up, so you’ll have to step to the side and let them pass you as they go down. People will do the same for you once you are climbing down!
  • Most of all- enjoy the experience! It’s such an awesome feeling to not only be one of the lucky permit-winners, but also to actually climb up the Half Dome cables and reach the top of the rock face. The challenging hike to get there is totally worth it for those views!!

hiking half dome tips

After you climb down, head back to LYV campground for the night. Take a dip in the Merced River that flows through the campground to cool off after your adventurous day!

The next morning, make the hike back down to Happy Isles trailhead. When you reach the rest stop at the top of Nevada Falls, you can opt for the less-steep, but slightly longer, Muir Trail instead, which will bypass Vernal Falls. We did not take this route, but some by-passers noted to us that it would have been better to go that route with our backpacks to avoid the steep decline. Either way works, though, and is definitely easier than the hike up!

Hiking Half Dome Tips: Packing List

A few of my favorite things that I had for this backpacking trip:
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Questions? Comment? Shoot me a note: info@readysetpto.com.
Happy trails!

(Photo by Nicco Baumann)

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