Julie United States 78 Comments

The hike to Half Dome is one of Yosemite’s most challenging and most memorable hikes. On this hike you get to walk on some of Yosemite’s most popular hiking trails, view the Vernal and Nevada waterfalls, and walk through shady forests of Sequoia trees. But the best part of the trail is the final climb on the Half Dome cables and your reward from the top, one of the best views of all of Yosemite.

If you are planning to hike to Half Dome, here is what to expect, from start to finish.

What is Half Dome?

Half Dome is one of Yosemite’s most recognizable landmarks. The top of this granite dome sits 4,800 feet off of the valley floor at a total elevation of 8,844 feet (2,695 meters).

Half Dome Yosemite

There are several ways to get to the top of Half Dome. Most people get here by hiking the 17-mile round trip route from the valley floor and taking the cable route to the top. Rock climbers scale the vertical face of Half Dome to the summit.

Half Dome Permits

You must have a permit in order to climb the subdome and the Half Dome cables. Permits are awarded in a preseason lottery for the entire summer hiking season.

A maximum of 300 permits are awarded per day, with 225 for day hikers and 75 for backpackers.

The sign posted before climbing the subdome.

Half Dome Permit

As the Half Dome hike grows in popularity, the chances for being one of the lucky lottery winners decreases. To learn more about the permit process and how to increase your chances of winning the lottery, read our post.

You can also get more information on the National Park Service website.

Hiking Half Dome

This post covers the one-day hiking route we took to Half Dome. We hiked up the Mist Trail and down the Muir Trail, one of the most popular hiking routes to Half Dome.

Facts About the Half Dome Hike

Distance: 17 miles round trip
Total Ascent: 5,457 Feet
Difficulty: Extremely strenuous
Length of Time: 10 – 14 hours
Permits: You must have a permit to climb the subdome and the Half Dome cables.
When to go: The cables are up (conditions permitting) from Memorial Day through Columbus Day. It is possible to climb Half Dome when the cables are down, but that is beyond the scope of this post.

Please note: If you read other blogs and information provided by the National Park Service website, you will see the distance for this hike ranging from 14 to 18 miles. Choosing the Muir over the Mist Trail can impact these variations. We hike with a Garmin GPS and use the stats it outputs for these hiking posts.

Half Dome Elevation Profile

Elevation profile

The Route to Half Dome

The photo below was taken from Washburn Point, very close to Glacier Point. In this photo you can see most of the hiking route to Half Dome (the yellow dots). The trail starts at the valley floor (not visible in this photo) and climbs up next to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall. It passes behind the Liberty Cap, through Sequoia forests, and then up the far side of the subdome and Half Dome.

Half Dome Hiking Route

The Trailhead

The hike starts on the Mist Trail. The closest parking is the Yosemite Valley Trailhead Parking, located just past the Half Dome Village. From this parking lot, it is a half-mile walk down a service road to the Happy Isles Bridge and the start of the hike.

You should consider starting the hike as early as possible, sunrise or even earlier. If you are staying in Yosemite and will be using the shuttle bus for transportation, they do not start running until 7 am.

Our day started very early. We stayed in Mariposa, located one hour west of Yosemite. At 4 am we rolled out of bed and at 6 am we started the hike.

Tyler and Kara

High Sierra Loop Trail

Vernal Falls

The first part of the Mist Trail is a paved, asphalt trail that constantly gains elevation. It is steep at times. From the trailhead to the top of Vernal Falls, it is 1.5 miles (2.4 km).

Just past the Vernal Fall footbridge, only 20 – 30 minutes into the day, is a water fountain. This is your last chance for drinking water on the hike, unless you plan on purifying water from the Merced River. This is also your last chance for flush toilets.

Last Water

Past the footbridge, the trail climbs steeply and steadily to Vernal Fall. And this is where you see how the Mist Trail earns its name. Long, slippery staircases wind uphill along the river and the falls. During this part of the hike, you may get drenched by the mist. In July, this mist is refreshing and it kept us pleasantly cool. During cooler months, you may want to bring a poncho with you to keep you dry.

Mist Trail

Vernal Falls



Once at the top of the falls, there’s a spectacular viewpoint and a great place for a photo op.

Top of the Falls

Nevada Fall

The climbing continues up to Nevada Fall. The trail winds through shady forests and more staircases constructed out of rock and boulders. From Vernal Fall to Nevada Fall you will hike 2 miles (3 km).

Forest Trail

Hiking with Kids

The trail splits near the top of Nevada Fall. Go left to continue onto Half Dome. You can go right, hiking 0.2 miles (0ne way) for an optional detour to the top of Nevada Fall. However, if you choose to hike down the Muir Trail at the end of this hike, you will pass this same viewpoint.

Trail Split

We chose to walk the short distance to Nevada Fall. It was a beautiful morning with hardly anyone on the trail, so we wanted to see the falls before the crowds arrived.

Nevada Falls Bridge

Liberty Cap

The Trail to the Subdome

After Nevada Fall, the trail levels out for a little bit. Enjoy this…soon the climbing starts again.

Flat Trail

After passing Little Yosemite Valley, the trail climbs through a forest of Sequoia trees. It’s not a hard climb, just a constant, steady uphill walk. Occasionally, through the trees, you will get a glimpse of Half Dome. If you look closely, you may even be able to see climbers on the cables.


There it is

The Subdome

Climbing up the subdome is difficult. We named this part of the hike the Ass-Kicker Stairs because that’s exactly what they are.

By now, we were at 8,000+ feet. And we were tired. We just hiked for three and a half hours uphill.

These steps seem huge and by now it didn’t take much to get us out of breath. We’d walk up a short ways, take a brief rest, and then continue on again.

It’s slow-going, but the view that awaits you is so awesome.

Climbing Sub Dome

Sub Dome

From the top of the subdome, you get your first close up view of the Half Dome cables. Now the real fun begins!

Half Dome Cables

The Half Dome Cables

It took us 4 hours to hike from the start of the Mist Trail to the top of the subdome. Even with kids, this is a very fast pace. We are not “stop and smell the roses” kind of hikers. When we hear that it takes 10 hours to finish a hike, we see that as a time to beat. That’s just how we are.

Our climb up was quick since there were very few people in front of us. I knew to expect a steep incline and slick surfaces, but even so, the difficulty of this climb took me a little by surprise.

This climb is hard! Don’t underestimate it.

Climbing the Cables

The granite surface has been worn smooth by the shoes of the thousands of people before us. The climb is so steep that we pulled ourselves up more with our upper body strength than by walking up with our feet.

Half Dome Cables

It took us roughly 20 minutes to climb the 400 feet up the Half Dome cables. With very few people in front of us, we only had to take several short breaks as other hikers climbed down past us.

Tyler Rivenbark

It’s a relief to finally reach the top. We made it!! Now we could take in the view and enjoy our accomplishment.

For more information on climbing the Half Dome Cables, read our post filled with photos and what to expect on the cables.

On Top of Half Dome

Initially, we planned on a longer stay here than what we actually did. But rain clouds were in the area, and now knowing just how steep and slippery Half Dome is, we did not want to be on those cables if it started raining. After a few photos we headed back down the cables.

Half Dome

The Visor Half Dome

Kara Half Dome

Climbing Down the Half Dome Cables

During our brief rest on top of Half Dome, many more people arrived at the cables. It took longer going down since now we had to wait to leapfrog around other climbers. But that gave us more time to enjoy the view and take photos. For us, being on the cables was thrilling and we loved every minute of it.

Edge of the dome

Now that there were more people on the cables, our descent took a total of 45 minutes. By the time we were on the subdome, it did rain, just a little bit, just enough to justify our decision to descend early.

Hiking Back to Yosemite Valley

To get back to the Yosemite Valley, you must retrace your steps back down the trail towards the Mist Trail.

Yosemite Hiking Half Dome

Final View of Half Dome

Muir Trail or Mist Trail?

Once you are at Nevada Fall you have a decision to make. You can hike down the Mist Trail or the Muir Trail.

If you continue down the Mist Trail, you will completely retrace your steps to the valley floor, descending on those steep, wet stairs next to Vernal Fall. Also, the trail will now be filled with many more hikers, now that it is early or late afternoon.

Or, you can veer off onto the Muir Trail. The Muir Trail adds an extra 1.5 miles to the hike, but it is less steep than the Mist Trail. Plus, the Muir Trail gives you a great view of the back of Half Dome, as well as the Nevada Fall. If you want to see a different view of Yosemite and don’t mind a longer but less steep descent, consider the Muir Trail.


We hiked down the Muir Trail. The first mile is spectacular. We loved the views of Half Dome, Nevada Fall, Liberty Cap, and down to Yosemite Valley. Because of these views, we were glad we chose the Muir Trail. But it does add extra distance to the hike, and most of the trail is long, steady switchbacks for four miles, all of the way until you get back to the Vernal Fall footbridge. Most of the Muir Trail is monotonous, and if you are like us, by this point, you just want to be done. We practically jogged down the trail because we wanted to get done quicker.

On the Muir Trail Half Dome

Muir Trail

By now, it was mid-afternoon and temperatures in Yosemite were in the 90’s.

By the time we reached the end of the trail, once again back at the Happy Isles Bridge, we had hiked for 8 hours and 50 minutes, including time for stops. Somehow, Kara managed to hike the entire 17 miles on her very young legs, a major accomplishment. Tyler did even better, carrying extra weight on the trail and setting our fast pace.

Finished Half Dome

Hiking Half Dome is an accomplishment to be proud of at any age. And once you do this hike, you will never look at Half Dome the same way again.

Want to see more? Check out our Half Dome video:

Should you Hike Half Dome?

Do not underestimate this hike! Over twenty people have died hiking Half Dome (either from falling off the cables, having a heart attack, being struck by lightning, or from failed base jumps).

If you have a fear of heights, you should not do this hike. The trail up Half Dome is very steep and very slippery. This is not the place to confront your fears.

You must have a very good level of physical fitness. You will be climbing (and then descending) 5,500 feet. Most of this climb comes before the subdome. If you are fatigued by the time you get to this point, it only makes the hike more dangerous. Once you are on the cables, it is a very strenuous climb to the top. You will need to be able to pull your body up using your upper body strength. This is not to be underestimated. If you do not think you are fit enough or have enough upper body strength, go no farther than the subdome. And just remember, once on top of Half Dome, you still have at least four more hours of hiking to get back to Yosemite Valley.

Young children should not do this hike. Again, this hike is dangerous and not a place to bring young kids. In our opinion, the youngest age we would recommend is 12 years old, and only if they have lots of hiking experience.

If you are traveling with kids, it is safe for them to hike to the subdome. They can wait here with an adult if someone in your group wants to hike up the Half Dome cables.

At the time we did this hike, Kara was almost 13 and Tyler was 14.

If rain clouds are in the area, do not climb the cables. Half Dome is not a place you want to be in with rain, wind, or lightning. People have died on Half Dome from being struck by lightning.

For more information on the climb, watch this video on the National Park Service website.

What to Bring on the Hike

Hiking Shoes. You need hiking shoes or boots for this hike. No tennis shoes and no running shoes. You need to wear shoes with good traction to minimize slipping while climbing the cables.

Water. The National Park Service recommends 4 liters of water per person for this hike.

Gloves. Gloves are a necessity for climbing and descending the cables to protect your hands.

Your Half Dome permit. Make sure you have this packed in your backpack. You will also need to bring a government issued ID that matches your name on your permit.

Sunscreen. There is shade on the trail, but the cables and Half Dome are totally exposed and most likely you will be here midday.

Harness and Clips.  This is the best way to stay safe while climbing and descending the cables. If you plan to do this, you will need a harness, carabiners, and a Y-shaped lanyard. We did not use a harness and clips on the cables, but if we did it again, we would.

Hiking poles (optional). Hiking poles take about 30% of the weight off of your legs as you descend, easing knee pain and other symptoms. I use Black Diamond Distance Z poles and love them. They easily collapse down to fit in your luggage and hiking backpack, plus they are extremely lightweight. The poles come in several sizes, so make sure you pick the right length based on your height.

Alternatives to the Mist and Muir Trails

There are several other options for reaching Half Dome, other than taking the Mist and Muir Trails.

From Glacier Point: 20 miles round trip

From Tenaya Lake: 23 miles round trip

You can break up this hike up into two or three days by camping overnight in Little Yosemite Campground. On day one, hike the Mist Trail to Little Yosemite Campground (4.3 miles), on day two hike 7 miles round trip to Half Dome, and on day 3 hike back to the Yosemite Valley via the Muir or Mist trails.

More Information for Your Trip to Yosemite:

Do you have any questions about hiking Half Dome? Comment below!

Are you planning a trip to the United States? Read all of our articles about the USA in our United States Travel Guide.

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Half Dome Yosemite Hike

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Comments 78

  1. Thank you so much for all the details. I am just coming off this adventure and am so grateful for all of your advice as it is spot on! Your photos are also outstanding! So grateful to have found your site.

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  2. This is a thorough pictorial of the journey. I recommend everyone in your group bring a day-hike backpack with a water bladder, like a camel-back (called a “hydration pack”). Even then, you will likely need more water. The easiest solution is to obtain a hiker’s pump, complete with a filter. The filter will prevent catching a variety of illnesses that could occur from bacteria common in water in the wilderness. There are two very good places to get water. One is from the Merced river (treat or filter the water) near the LYV (Little Yosemite Valley) campsite. The other is a little tricky to find. After leaving LYV, the trail cuts through the woods. From another site, they said, “Look for Little Spring on your way up – after the John Muir Trail split [which heads off to Clouds Rest, to the right], be on alert after a hard switchback to the left (when hiking up). Near a fallen [redwood] tree, the spring is only a few steps off of the trail on the left. Fill your water bladder back to the top.” Again, make sure you filter and/or treat the water.

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      Hi Molly. They are very similar in terms of difficulty. Half Dome has a little more elevation gain over a slightly shorter distance, but I think that the South Kaibab to Bright Angel is a little harder. What makes the Grand Canyon hike so hard is that your biggest chunk of elevation gain comes at the very end of the hike. The last four miles can be brutal. As for Half Dome, a big chunk of the elevation is on the Half Dome cables. This part is challenging, but since people tend to go slowly here, it doesn’t feel so bad. Plus, the thrill of being on the cables gives you a nice energy boost. Then, it’s a downhill walk all the walk back to Yosemite Valley. Both are amazing hikes, so if you are planning to do Half Dome soon, I hope you have a great hike!!! Cheers, Julie

      1. Super helpful! Thank you so much for your quick reply! We did the Grand Canyon hike back in October and it was incredible – glad to know this one will be a bit similar!

  3. Hi Julie!
    After my few disappointing attempts last year, wife secured our permits for this season, and we will be hiking this August.
    Thank you very much for the detailed description and some awesome tips. You folks are great inspiration.
    Kalpesh 🙂

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      1. Hi again Julie!
        So, we did our trek till subdome peacefully. After a bit of rest and absorbing the absolute beauty and gigantic views, we started our ascent on cable. We had no harness and after 5 or 6 rungs or so, wife found herself a bit uncomfortable and we descended immediately. Best decision ever.
        We will try next year with harness and better upper body strength, let’s see. Hope for the best.
        Kalpesh 🙂

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          You made the right decision. It’s best to stay safe and do what you feel is comfortable. I look forward to hearing about your experience next year…it will be worth the wait and anticipation. Happy travels and happy hiking in the meantime. Cheers, Julie

  4. Hey there! Your blog is so great. I am planning a trip to Half Dome, and this is very detailed and down to earth (no pun intended). One thing though- a few times you say that the Half Dome trail goes through Sequoias. I wonder where you got that info from? According the National Park website, there are only three Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) in Yosemite National Park, and none of them are in Yosemite Valley or Little Yosemite Valley. Giant Sequoias only grow in groves on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. There are other trees with deep red colors, and many people colloquially refer to red-colored trees as “redwoods”, even though they are not. I wouldn’t want someone to read this post and then be disappointed that they did not see Giant Sequoias!

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      I thought I had heard somewhere that those are sequoia trees. Maybe I got my info wrong. Thanks for letting me know! Happy hiking! Cheers, Julie

  5. Thank you for posting your hike! The photos along the way and description is wonderfully helpful! I’m planning on hiking to HD in July 2020 with my 14 year old son and want to ask some questions if you don’t mind. Was there cell signal and who is your provider? What food and supplies did you bring? We’re there “bathrooms” along the hike? Did you bring more water than what was recommended? Thank you so much!

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      We have Verizon and I didn’t check my phone all that much, but I did post a photo on Facebook when we were at the bottom of the cables, so service must have been pretty good. We brought a picnic lunch, lots of snacks, and 4 liters of water per person. We didn’t bring any extra because 4 liters is already very heavy to carry. There is a bathroom at Vernal Falls, very early in the hike. After that, you can go in the woods. We bring ziplock backs and toilet paper when we hike, to carry anything out other than pee. 🙂 Have a great hike!! Cheers, Julie

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