One Best Hike: Yosemite’s Half Dome
(Pages 10 & 11)
There are only a small few trees left. Camping was allowed prior to 1992, and most of the trees were cut for firewood. Today, you cannot camp above the 7600-foot level, and marmots and squirrels appear to be the only inhabitants. These furry mammals are cute, but resist the temptation to feed them. The summit is a protected area due to the dwindling population of Mt. Lyell salamanders that live deep in the cracks on Half Dome.
With the thousands of visitors that reach the summit each year, I was surprised to find that there is no formal control over who can go up the cables. Age, size, or strength do not matter. There is no one monitoring the cables, so if you are willing, you can attempt it. This reflects the personal freedom we enjoy in America. Even a quota system would require park resources to manage, and there are no plans to limit access. The youngest child I’ve seen go up the cables was about 10. At that age, children should have the energy and spunk to make the hike, but waiting until they’re a couple of years older is recommended. With an adult behind them on the cables, children are fearless. Please make a rational decision about taking children. This is a hard hike and even youngsters need to be properly outfitted and prepared. They should be allowed to rest often and go at their pace—not yours. Water is essential for them. Turn back if it becomes too much;don’t push them. This is a great bonding experience that they will remember for years.
Half Dome is also known for its oft-photographed 2000-foot sheer face. Rock climbers sometimes scale it, since it is one of the world’s most vertical rock walls. It was first climbed in 1957, by Royal Robbins (aged 21), Mike Sherrick, and Jerry Gallwas. It took five days. Today, this wall and nearby El Capitan are very popular climbs; however, our undertaking is a hike and not a climb. We will venture up the safer back side of Half Dome.
Overview of the Half Dome Hike
Why would you want to hike up to Half Dome? Fair enough question. The quick answer is: “Because it’s there!” Seriously, after one has done the other challenging valley hikes, such as Yosemite Falls or Glacier Point, there comes a time to enter into the fraternity of those who “made it to the top,” like the gift store T-shirt says. Half Dome is a grand accomplishment. Doing anything for 10 to 12 hours is a cause for celebration. The hike can awaken your adventuresome spirit with a new feeling of “I can do anything.”
Some of the comments I’ve overheard from those who’ve gone to the top include: “Awesome,” “Breathless,” “Adrenaline Rush,” and “This is the true Spirit of Yosemite.” For many people, this is their Mt. Everest and is one of the most ambitious things they will ever undertake. Maybe after conquering Half Dome, you’ll embark on even more challenging adventures.
The Half Dome hike is a first-class adventure. You’ll get a chance to get up close and personal with Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall, stroll through scenic Little Yosemite Valley, and view the crystal-clear Merced River. The long series of switchbacks on the way to the base of Half Dome are strenuous and will test your resolve to get to the top. Finally, there is the long pull up the cables, which is guaranteed to raise your heart rate. All of this will lead you to the climax: standing on the very top of Half Dome and gazing down nearly a mile onto the valley floor.
Some people do this hike in two days. They load backpacks, hike up one day, and arrive in Little Yosemite Valley to spend the night (permit required.) Then, the next morning, they summit with a smaller day pack and return to the valley floor the same day. My preference is for a one-day hike. Carrying a 30–40 pound pack up the steep trails is quite a lot of work. Although you’ll enjoy the fun of the camping experience, you’ll also need to deal with bears. You’ll have to carry all your food, clothing, and gear about 2000 feet up from the valley. A one-day trip is very doable. You’ll get a good night’s sleep, but will need an early start; 6 a.m. is recommended, with a 7 a.m. “drop-dead” start time. For a one-day trip, you will need to carry only minimal equipment, as described later. Your hike will start out chilly, but should soon warm up to be very pleasant. With increasing altitude the air will actually get cooler. If you keep a good pace, you should be heading up the cables well before noon and will arrive back to your camp before sunset. (Bring a flashlight, just in case.)
When you’re on the top, a few feet from the edge, you can look down on the Ahwahnee Hotel or over at Cloud’s Rest, Glacier Point, El Capitan, and toward the vast San Joaquin Valley on the horizon. So this is why we do it. It’s a tough view to equal. With conditioning and commitment, almost anyone can do it.
Seize the day!
Leave No Trace
The author highly encourages you to respect Yosemite (and other areas you frequent) so that future generations can enjoy them, too. The “Leave No Trace” principles are merely common-sense outdoor ethics to help preserve our fragile ecosystem. Leave No Trace is an awareness and an attitude, not a rigid set of rules. As more natural areas are turned into housing projects, strip malls, and parking lots, humans need more than ever before a place to go to take respite and contemplate the meaning of life.
Keep these principles in mind:
1. Plan ahead and prepare.
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
3. Dispose of waste properly.
4. Leave what you find.
5. Minimize campfire impacts.
6. Respect wildlife.
7. Be considerate of other visitors.