Hiking Half Dome: A Photo Guide

After completing our hike of Mt Whitney I had one more hiking goal in California I wanted to complete this summer, making it to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite. Over the course of my life, my family has traveled to the beautiful valley of Yosemite, and time after time I have stared at the sheer daunting granite structure that Half Dome represents, wondering what it would be like to stand on top. So after getting a site at Curry Village and getting a permit (you have to have a permit to do this hike, you will be turned around or fined if you do not) for Amie and I, we set out at 5:30AM to attempt to take down this giant.

We ended up summiting at 11:30AM and arriving back at our tent at 4:30PM, both completely exhausted but excited about what we had accomplished. What follows is a photographic guide to the climb, spotlighting all of the big points of interest you will pass on your trip. Hopefully this helps you if you are hiking Half Dome, or at least allows you to live vicariously through me and to see what summiting Half Dome entails.

Vernal Falls Bridge

After starting on the Mist Trail at the Happy Isles Trailhead, you will head up an uneventful 1 mile of uphill walking before reaching your first point of interest, the Vernal Falls Bridge. This area by itself is all some people do and it provides great views of the river and of the falls from far away.

This is also the last spot on the trail where you can get filtered water (right out of the sink). If you are doing this hike during the hot summer months I would highly recommend a water filter for the trail. This is the one that we have, and it really works well. Plus on this hike it allows you to go another 3-4 miles before you leave the last place you can filter water, thus giving you the opportunity to drink a lot more water on the trail.

Mist Trail

After you leave the Vernal Falls Bridge you will continue on the Mist Trail and start to approach the area that gives this trail its name. When you reach the start of the steps that lead to the top of Vernal Falls, you will notice a lot of mist will start to fall on you from the roaring waterfall, thus the mist trail.

This can often make the trail hard to walk on as it really wets down the stairs that you climb up and makes them slippery, so be careful. When we went it was a really dry year, so the trail actually was pretty dry and easy to navigate.

Do not underestimate this area though, it is a tough start to a long hike. You will be going up on uneven stairs for at least a half mile, make sure to take your time and take in the amazing views of the falls as you ascend.

Mist Trail Cables

Once you get about 3/4ths of the way to the top of Vernal Falls you will reach the Mist Trail Cables. All this is is a small uneven trial cut out the side of the mountain that provides a way for you to actually climb up above Vernal Falls. It has cables to help you steady yourself as you will be walking over large rocks.

These are not that bad, but the trail is very uneven so make sure to take your time.

Vernal Falls

As you are walking on the Mist Trail, before you reach the above cables, you will see beautiful views of these falls such as the below picture.

Most of the time this waterfall is flowing a lot harder than this, but it still provided for beautiful pictures and views when we were there. After finishing the cables you will be dumped out above the falls and get to look back over the 1.5 miles you have just accomplished.

Emerald Pool

Above Vernal Falls is a beautiful little pool called the Emerald Pool. It is easy to see where it gets its name as this water is a shining emerald-green. Make sure you do not swim in this water though, even though it looks calm the water can pull you towards the waterfall and even take you over if you are not careful.

Nevada Falls

After passing Vernal Falls and the Emerald Pool you will get to the bottom of Nevada Falls and start the trail up. This trail is pretty much all switchbacks and you gain a lot of elevation, but as you go in and out of the trees you are treated with great views of the falls.

As you get closer to the top of the falls you will know you are reaching the end of these switchbacks.

Last Bathroom

At the top of Nevada Falls is the last main bathroom on the trail. This is a good resting spot and is also where the trail splits off to the top of Nevada Falls and the John Muir Trail, we took this back instead of the Mist Trail. There is another bathroom at the backpackers campground, but it is off the trail and requires more walking so this is the last one right on the trail.

Merced River

After the bathroom, the trail walks lazily along and this mile will make you think the trail is going to get easier, enjoy it cause when you reach the forest again you start going up, and that doesn’t stop until you reach the top. Along the way there is a short little detour that takes you to the Merced River. It is completely beautiful and a great place to stop. On the way back down from Half Dome we stopped here and soaked our feet before continuing on.

Wildlife

One of the best things about Yosemite is how wild it still feels even with the amount of people there. Case in point, we were simply walking along the trail and saw a deer. As we sat and watched, two small fawns came up and started nursing. It was a really amazing sight to see in the wild like that.

First Half Dome View

After passing the backpackers campground you will enter the forest and see your first view of the end goal. It looks daunting but at least you are almost half way there.

Forest

The trail enters what I affectionately deemed “the never-ending forest.” It literally seems like it goes on forever, on the way up and on the way down as well. That being said it is beautiful and has lots of huge trees, many with moss-covered branches.

This is also a good area to put on some bug spray as there were a lot of misquotes here when we were here. When you finally get near the top you will see the split from the John Muir Trail (that you have been following) onto the Half Dome Trail for the last mile.

Above the Never-Ending Forest

As you start to exit the forest you will begin to remember what all the work was for. This area provides you with beautiful vistas in all directions, including the back country of Yosemite, Clouds Rest and Half Dome in front of you. It also provides the last real shade before you start the sub dome, so soak it in.

Sub Dome

If you have heard of the Half Dome Trail, the two things you have probably heard about on this trip are the cables and the sub dome. The sub dome is a glorified, mini granite dome that is connected to the back of Half Dome and serves to destory your legs before you reach the cables.

To climb it you have to go up about 600 feet in elevation in around a quarter of a mile. This is a total leg burner and the uneven stairs, if there are stairs at all, are really brutal. When you get towards the top there is really no stairs at all, it is just a granite grade that you walk up. Be careful as it is easy to slip here and there is not a lot to stop you from having a bad fall. This part is especially hard if you do it when the sun is blaring down on you as there is only three to four trees on the whole sub dome. Make sure you save your water.

Half Dome Cables

You have now reached the moment of truth. You can see the cables right in front of you, and they are all that is stopping you from reaching the summit. We arrived at around 11 and didn’t have much traffic, but if you get there much later you are probably going to get stuck behind some people. Here is the comparison between when we went up and when we came down. You can see what a difference 45 minutes makes here.

Don’t be disappointed if you turn around at the cables, it is really scary, no pictures can do justice to what it looks like in real life and I was close to turning around myself. It is essentially a 45 degree angle in the beginning, what seems like a 60 degree angle in the middle and then another 45 degree angle at the end. In the middle there are also granite steps of around a foot that you will need to step up onto while pulling yourself up with the cables. What makes this worse is that if you happened to slide off, there is a good chance you would be seriously, if not fatally hurt. Remember you have to go down as well so take your time and don’t let the people or the views rush you if you are not ready. You can see from the picture of Amie below its pretty daunting.

I just stared at the ground and pulled myself up, and on the descent we both decided to go backwards. This seemed to be a better way to do it for us, but everyone has to decide for themselves. I wouldn’t recommend looking behind you if you are afraid of heights as it is likely to make you freak out a little. Make sure to bring gloves, cause even though they have gloves at the base that have been left behind, those are not always there and gloves really make a difference is helping you make it up this mountain.

Also, if there are clouds coming your way, DO NOT GO UP. It is not worth slipping off a rock or getting hit by lighting for a summit, it will be there next time you come so don’t push yourself if you are not ready or if the weather is bad.

Half Dome Summit

The summit is really worth the craziness you put in to get here. It is about the size of seven football fields and is really a lot larger than I would have expected. It is a great place to have lunch and just soak in the views, but watch out for the critters, one of them was only a foot from grabbing my sandwich before I turned around and shooed him away. Here are some of my pictures from it.

John Muir Trail

On the way back we split off and took the John Muir Trail above Nevada Falls. This trail will add another 1.5 miles to your trip, but it is easier on the knees cause it is a much slighter grade. Amie and I both agreed that even though it helped our knees, the extra mile and a half was really difficult for us after already completing 17. The John Muri Trail provides amazing views of Half Dome and Nevada Falls in the same image and it is really amazing to see the area from this trial so it has its perks.

So there it is, my photographic guide to Half Dome. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope it helped you out if you are looking to climb it yourself! Do not underestimate this hike. It is around 17 miles long and has over 4500 feet of elevation gain. If you are looking to take it down, get a permit, train for months in advance, bring gloves and start early.Make sure to leave me a comment if you have any questions.

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  • Congratulations! I have hiked up to Nevada Falls more time than I can count, but never made it to Half Dome. Thank you so much for sharing the journey. It’s still on my bucket list …

    • Thanks Debi! The hike to Nevada Falls on its own is amazing, there is a great swimming hole up there! You should def do Half Dome though, just feels awesome to check it off the list!

  • David

    Great photos and summary of the hike. Thanks for pulling this together.

  • Crystal H.

    Great post Josh! I love the deer and her fawn nursing – that is pretty awesome. And of course, the photography is beautiful. That shot at the top of Vernal Falls is INSANE!! I started panicing just looking at how close you were to the edge. I don’t know that my fears would let me successfully accomplish what you guys did, Awesome job!!

    • Thanks for leaving a comment Crystal! I appreciate it!

  • Frank

    Great pics and report. I have permits for Sept 5. Your pic on the cables makes it look very scary.

    • Thanks Frank! Let me know how your trip goes!

  • Artie

    Great pictures. I spent a summer working for IBM in San Jose back in ’83 when I was a Jr. in college at Indiana University in Indiana. I went on a trip with a few other interns – climbing up/down Half Dome via Mist Trail in a day. I’d only been told that it was a day hike up to climb a rock and come back. (I didn’t have the internet to turn to for information and just trusted those that I was with.)

    It was a good thing I was young and had taken hiking boots; gloves, those would have been good too. We camped right inside or outside the Park, got up when it was still dark but by the time we parked and unloaded it was dawn.

    Only by the grace of God did I get to live through that journey and see the sites. Thanks for your pictures, it brings back good memories – and a few not so good memories of the blisters I had.

    “Going to go climb a rock, oh yeah sure! It ‘s a bit more than that I’d say.”

  • William Staley

    Josh – after looking at your Whitney trip and now this Half Dome trip, I must say that you were blessed with outstanding weather. Good for you and your hiking pal.

    Congratulations on your one-day summit and return. That is one long hike, but it is the best way to do it.

    My girlfriend and I did it last in 08. We started at 7am and got back to Upper Pines CG at 9:30 post meridian. We grabbed our mountain bikes and headed over to the pizza joint in Curry Village. We were the last pizza order taken at the window that night! That was the best pizza and beer ever!

    Busy with school work, homework, and work work, so I’ll check out your other stories later.

    I’ll pass the good word on about Californiathroughmylense.com

    Sincerely, Bill

  • AFC1886

    Great website and a fantastic guide to a great hike! We visited Yosemite for the first time in September and hiked Half Dome via the same route as yourself – up via Mist Trail, down via John Muir trail. We left just before 7am and it took us about 13 hours in total, admittedly we took things a little slower than we probably should have. We stopped quite a lot, including for a good hour at the top of Nevada Fall to eat some breakfast and take photos, but this meant that we arrived at the cables about 2pm, missing the majority of the “peak” traffic which arrives about noon. There were not many people around at this time and it was great to be almost alone at the summit.

    Whilst I wouldn’t consider myself unfit, I don’t really work out or attend a gym or anything and this was a real tough hike. Worth every minute of it though for the views from the top and sense of achievement!

    • Ya I would agree that it was tough but the sense of accomplishment is so huge. Thanks for the comment! Glad there was not a bottleneck at the cables when you got there as well!

  • Wow! This was extremely helpful! We are planning a last-minute trip to CA and I’m really hoping we can get permits for the last portion of the summit! It looks absolutely amazing!

    • Thanks for the comment! I am glad you enjoyed the post. I hope you enjoy hiking it as much as I did, let us know!

  • awesome! thanks for sharing! 🙂 this is a really helpful guide for people who want to go. we just did the hike a few days ago and now i’m culling through my own photos.

    • No problem! Thanks for the comment! I hope you got some great pictures as well!

  • Marlena

    Wow, what a spectacular hike – thanks for sharing your adventure and photos!! I was literally biting my lip and clenching my fist while reading the part about the last incline to the top of the half dome with the cables… yikes!!! I may have to turn around at the point, haha. Definitely saving this for my “to-do” list in Yosemite, though. Thank you!

    • Thanks for the comment Marlena! It is for sure a super intense hike if you are afraid of heights like me, but I will say that for me there was no better feeling then knowing I had completed it!

      • Marlena

        I am totally afraid of heights so I would probably be just as scared, haha! I agree, though… I love that feeling of accomplishment at the end. Guess I will just have to see what decision I make then and there 🙂

        • Haha yep! That is what I did as well. When you are there it is easier to convince yourself to just finish it.

  • merlyn

    Ive hiked Half Dome three times already, and we will be going again on October 11th, but I’ve never gone down through John Muir Trail, that is a good idea..Thanks for the info..continue hiking..love reading your blog..

    • Oh man you are awesome! I did it once and don’t think I will be doing it again as I am afraid of heights! The JMT portion of the trail does add some beautiful views!

  • Steve McKinney

    Thanks, Josh. Hitting Half Dome on Saturday. Hope to channel John Muir and Walt Whitman. Thanks for the helpful tips…my legs are tired just reading about it. Anyone else going up 9/28/13 hit me up stevemckinney1@comcast.net

    • No problem, hope you have a good time Steve!

  • For me I was pretty dead the day after. I was in shape but that much mileage and elevation gain is tough on the body in one day so, short answer, I would think a day of rest would probably be needed but it depends on your abilities I am sure.

    • dan

      Thanks. Will get at least that day of rest and maybe two before continuing. I guess it is train, train, train because I intend to complete the hike. Blogs like yours are inspiring, Come on August!

      • No problem! Make sure to get some good grippy gloves for the cables as well, it makes a huge difference!

        • dan

          Well thought that I would check back in. I completed the Half Dome Hike in August. My friends and family are getting pretty tired of me retelling how great it was. I re-read your post today. I smiled at your description of how scary the cables looked. I’m convinced that if it weren’t so hard to get there, no one would ever attempt them. Well worth the effort, I REALLY hope to do his again before I leave this earth. And after my hike, I appreciated your blog/photos even more. Thanks again for posting.

          • Thanks so much for returning to comment, I love to hear about successful trips! I agree that the 10 miles to get there pushes you to pass the cables as they are very daunting in real life!

  • Brian Heinrich

    When you say train train train how do you mean? I’m from Florida and no hills or mountains.

    • I would consider stair steppers at the gym to get your body more used to a lot of uphill climbing

  • Carla V.

    Thanks for this very interesting and insightful report on your hike!! Your photos and descriptions were wonderful and very much appreciated and enjoyed!!

    • No problem, thanks for the comment!

  • Mimi

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful adventure. I got the permit to hike in July but probably will be going on my own do you think is dangerous to go alone? I am planning on staying at Curry Village and starting my hike at 4 AM.

    • The trail gets a lot of traffic, especially in July, so I would guess you should be fine. Do make sure people know where you are and what time you will be back and such so that you are prepared. Also be sure to be careful on the cables with gloves and good shoes for traction.

      • Mimi

        Thank you 🙂

        • Mimi

          Btw in your opinion is mt. Whitney harder than half dome?

          • I thought Half Dome was harder, but I did Mt Whitney in two days. I am sure if you are doing it in one day Mt Whitney is probably much harder.

  • sasidhar79

    Hi Josh, How did you prepare for this hike ? Please share your training method.

    • I did this and Mt Whitney within a month of each other so my training applied to both. The most important thing is getting altitude training and also getting a good amount of uphill training. I hiked through many of the 6 pack of peaks in SoCal (http://socalhiker.net/a-six-pack-of-peaks/) and I was at the gym three days a week doing the stair master to develop my leg muscles. I felt like this helped me a lot and prepared me for the really long day that is half dome. Let me know if you have other questions!

  • Richard

    Hi Enjoyed the insight I am going up Half Dome July 14 my 54th Birthday have 4 permits and right now just need 2 Plan on going up the mist trail and coming down John Muri I have found a good way to Train is to go to a Park or a School Football field and walk up and down the bleachers that helps me. Thanks Richard Wall Retired Elevator Man IUC Local31 Houston TX

    • Thanks for the comment and good luck on the hike! Let us know how it goes

  • Lacey

    This is a great post! Thank you for sharing! I like all the pictures. I’m planning on hiking Half Dome later in September. I’ve been going on hikes during the weekends to prepare but I’m not sure if it’s enough. I also work out so I hope this helps my stamina and endurance for this hike.

    • Thanks for the comment and good luck on the hike, let me know how it goes!

  • Deyanir

    Ive really enjoy the trip through your pics. Thank you!! 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment glad you liked the photos!

  • Dante Drummond

    Hi Josh,

    I’m a 67-year old female and at 50 wanted to take this on and never did. Thank you for letting me live vicariously through you. I never realized how difficult it was. Kitty.

    • Thanks for the comment and I am glad this post helped you experience the hike! It is a crazy one for sure!

  • Heather

    Hi Josh! I just returned from hiking Half Dome Trail two days ago, and I have to say, your blog is a perfect representation of the hike! I really had no idea how intimidating the cables would be when they were right there in front of me. (Too bad I hadn’t come across your blog prior to my trip) Ultimately, due to some light rain showers earlier in the day, I decided not to go up the cables. It’s cool to see your pics of the view from the summit. Thanks for a great post!

    • Good job not going up the cables when they are wet. The mountain will always be there and it is much better to be safe! Plus you were 95% of the way there so if you chose to do it again you know what is in store!

  • Dave

    Great description of the hike and awesome pictures! I’ve done this hike three times (at 40, 50 and 60 – sort of a right of passage into each new age milestone) and I hope to do it when I am 70. One thing I can tell runners or even joggers is that it really helps me to jog on the way back down, as it (1) feels like a different set of muscles, and (2) gets you down quicker ( I jog slow and steady (with cross trainers) and it usually takes about 2.5 hours down). That said, I only recommend jogging when it is clearly safe (never down the subdome nor down the steps at Nevada and Vernal). Cheers to all

    • Thanks for the comment and the recommendation, it does seem like jogging would be a good idea if you can handle it on your knees!

  • Icela Estrada

    Amazing blog and virtual tour! I plan to conquer Half Dome for my bday in July. I’m scared of heights but no matter what I’m going to do it. Of course I will be careful and make sound decisions. Thank you so much for the virtual tour. It will be my map and my giude! How many months do you recommend I train prior?

    • Thanks for the comment and glad you liked the post! Let me know how it goes when you get back! I started training 2/ 3 months before I went and did a lot of stairs at the gym as the stairs really help a lot! Let me know if you have any other questions!

  • Tiffany Tate Hall

    Amazing photos! We’re road tripping from TX in a couple of weeks and I can’t wait! The only thing that we’re indecisive on is clipping onto the cables. Did y’all do this or were many other people clipped in? Thanks!

    • It is possible to clip in but it would be extremely slow going as there are 60 or so times you would need to unclip / reclip while on the cables. I haven’t seen someone do this but I am sure people have.

  • Marie

    First of all this is an amazing guide for this hike. Thank you for sharing. I feel more confident being able to see what we’re going to experience ahead if time. Second, we are going to do this hike in September but only want to go to the subdome. Do you know if we need a permit for that? We’re 100% sure that we’re not going to go up the cables. Also, Do you think a small lunch & a couple of snacks like almonds & an apple would be enough food for the day? We’re bringing about a 1/2 gallon of water each & a filter to use with stream water.

    • I am pretty sure the permit is only needed for the cables, but I would check with the ranger by calling the station in Yosemite just to make sure, as you do not want to get a ticket. As far as food, I always recommend bringing more than you think you will need as it is better to be over prepared then under prepared. It is hard to provide a solid recommendation as everyone is different with how they eat and drink on an intense hike like this. Have fun and let me know if you have any more questions!

    • Jack

      The spot where the ranger checks for permits is at the base of the subdome shortly after the never-ending forest, so without a permit you very likely would not be able to set foot on the subdome.

  • Thomas Hawkins

    Awesome snaps, I loved the hike! Could I buy one of your photos for commercial use?

    • Thanks for the comment, if you are interested in buying a photo send me an email Josh (@) CaliforniaThroughMyLens.com

  • Going on the hike in a few days! We’re camping along the route to break up the day hike. Beautiful pics and a little nervous now about the height. Will definitely be only looking at my feet! 😉

    • That’s awesome you are doing the hike soon! Camping half way will make the hike a lot more manageable for sure. I was afraid of heights and made it to the top, just don’t look down while on the cables haha.