We woke up to the smell of pine trees and little wood stoves billowing layers of smoke around our tent-cabin colony. We were camping in a tent cabin at Tuolumne Meadows at Yosemite, a group of three…a bro trip one could say. At 6:30 in the morning, we packed our bags and set our mental sight on hiking Half Dome. Two days earlier we had applied for a permit via the lottery system (this must be done if you want to hike Half Dome, as they only allow 250 people to hike it a day), and we lucked out and got it! With only one day in Yosemite, we wanted to make the most of our trip. For me, hiking the iconic and historic Half Dome was literally a pinnacle bucket list item. Tuolumne Meadows sits above Yosemite Valley, offering cooler temperatures, and can give you a more secluded vibe than the camps down in the valley. If you’re willing to drive a little, it’s a great spot. The drive takes about an hour and a half, but it winds through some of the most beautiful country – slabs of granite, a lake, and you can even stop for a view of a portion of Yosemite Valley from the top, featuring Half Dome. You’ll arrive by descending a hill and tunneling down the massive granite walls that make up the sides of Yosemite. Arriving gave us a feeling of awesomeness…like the actual definition of awesome. We couldn't fathom imagining the glacier that carved the valley features left today. Then, there gleaming in the early light was El Capitan, and can I just say, WOW! There are few natural features that have evoked feelings of being so incomprehensible in size. I mean, we’re talking a few thousand feet of sheer rock. Thinking about the climbers past and present who’ve climbed every vertical inch astounds you. It’s bigger than you imagine.
We began our ascent up the trail, covering a solid half mile or so of paved trail, mostly inclining. Once you cross the first bridge, there’s a great view of Vernal Falls up the canyon, and to the opposite direction are many sheer rock faces. It’s a great spot for some photos. From there, the trail gets challenging, involving almost a constant stair climb for the next mile or so. Some steps are reasonable, others over a foot high. As you ascend you’ll come up to Vernal Falls, which gorgeously features a wide drop-off over a smoother slab of vertical rock, making for an ideal picture. You will ascend right next to the waterfall, and continue above it, getting a slight respite for a 1/4mi or so. Near the top of the falls you’ll notice a lake where the river slows down, creating a prime spot to take a break in the shade or eat lunch. Swimming there isn’t allowed, but that didn’t stop people from tossing layers aside, taking a dip and sliding down the slippery slabs of rock.
As you continue on, you’ll ascend up stairs and switchbacks until you get to the second waterfall called Nevada Falls. You are able to go off trail to get a better view, but this waterfall will be careening over a much larger cliff face, slightly sloped. The falls create a cool effect of fast water plummeting straight down, while the slower water on the sloped rock slides down, making it appear to be pouring in slow-motion. Once on top (more stairs and switchbacks) you can have the best view of the valley you climbed up. Running water from the stream above provides a refreshing jolt to your head (should you dip it in), while sun-baked slabs of rock make perfect tanning beds to nap on or listen to the rushing water. When continuing on from these falls, it’ll be flat for a 1/2 mi or so through a lesser dense forest with a sandy bottom. Make sure you have enough water at this point, as people are prone to dehydration or even heat-exhaustion/stroke. Once the flatter trail is over, it’s upward bound. As you walk along, if you know where to look, glimpses of Half Dome and the cables can be seen. As you ascend more, you may see tiny ‘ants’ going up, or the humans way up high. The forested ascent was my least favorite part of the hike, as it took up a solid 5mi of the one-way journey. If you love forests, you’d love it! However, I enjoy vistas and valleys, so and after a while the trees all started looking the same. Eventually, we reached a nose of granite coming down from Half Dome, and this was the first chance to catch a view of Yosemite Valley from up high. Anywhere here would be a good place to hang out and rest, but if you continue up the trail to get over this smaller granite outcropping, you’ll reach the flat trail that goes for 1/8mi or so to the base of what begins the difficult ascent to the cables, and it’s here most people rest from either coming up or down the trail. We spoke with the ranger at the bottom, about the ascent, and his duties. He said that he hikes up in two days, and then goes to the top and sleeps out on the exposed rock of Half Dome. We thought it was hardcore. I mentioned to him that I found a great rock overhanging that created an ideal place to sleep, to which he replied he knew about it and someone died hanging out in there and got struck by lightning. Yikes! Anyway, after chatting him up, we began the final couple ascents to Half Dome!
Be prepared for a thigh burner. This “trail” goes up a smaller dome/fin of rock hundreds of feet, switch--backing, and sometimes letting you choose your own path. Once you crest the rock, you see the cables, and your first thought is, “I’m going up that?! No way.” Looking at the side of Half Dome, you’re staring at people going up and down the cables, on what could only be perceived as a vertical angle. We spent a few minutes watching people and psyching ourselves up for the challenge, and then we were ready. We put on gloves for the cables (we highly recommend them), and we got lucky because we went without them, but there was a stash at the bottom (do not leave gloves, the ranger made us carry them out to dispose of, as they end up being litter). Once we started going up, we quickly found that this rock was slanted at more than a 45 degree angle, it was insane. The rock there is so slick from all the oily shoes and friction that it’s hard to rely on your feet much at all. About every 6-8 feet there is a secure 2x4 for you to get your foot on, providing a good chance to stand up. How you get to each 2x4 is for you to figure out. A few people went back down after about 20ft because they just didn’t have the arm strength to pull themselves up, and pulling yourself up is just about the only way to do it. The cables will take a long time if there are any more than a few people going up/down, I think we took 30-45min. If you’re fit, not scared of heights, with no one blocking you on the way up, you’d be done in maybe 5-10min. What takes a long time is waiting on other people, while they fight their mental battles with their life on the line. That’s the other thing, your life is on the line. Should you fall, unless you can grab a hand, pole, or board, you will likely be rolling down a steep-sloped granite mountainside for a hundred feet or so until you plummet off a cliff, as there’s one on either side. You are ascending up a semi flat 10ft narrow section like a spine, and on each side the slope increases downward. Do not take the climb lightly, a woman died on the cables the week after we visited. People are welcome to bring harnesses to clip in along the way, but this will take you much longer, and should you fall it’d mean a slide down some rock for up to 6-8ft. Should you keep your wits and courage and make it to the top a few hundred feet later, you get an absolutely incredible view of the valley! You also make some new friends with whomever you climbed up with, since it sort of turns into a team building activity.
At the top of Half Dome we rejoiced and took photos, and chatted up some of our new buddies! I took a picture of a couple out on a spire of rock, and approached them after saying “I don’t want to appear creepy or anything but I had to take a pic of you both because it was a perfect moment.” I showed them the picture and they loved it so much! We exchanged info and I sent them the picture, and checked in post-descent to make sure we had all made it down. Descending back down was honestly a bit of a challenge, with body joints pounding over and over. By far, going down was the worst of this entire hike for me. Since we started our hike fairly late, our last 2hrs or so of hiking was in complete darkness with headlamps. I do not recommend hiking back down in the dark, especially if you’re new to the trail. We got lost a couple times, one of those times was nothing, but the second, we walked off a couple hundred feet until we found ourselves near a creek/cliff. It took a few minutes to search around for the trail, but we found it, and realized we had just gone straight through a switchback down an alternative foot track veering off the trail. It is of utmost importance to pay attention while hiking, remembering where you’ve been, and not getting lost in conversation or exhaustion and simply trudging past or through a trail. We took a long time in the dark to get down, as you can imagine since we had to navigate cliffs, waterfalls, and giant stair steps. We finally came out of the entrance to the hike around 10pm, and we were so thankful to be done. Looking up at Half Dome among the stars, we just said “holy crap that was insane…it literally took ALL day.” Laughing and groaning, we walked the last mile to the car, feasted on snacks, and drove back to Tuolumne Meadows. That 1hr drive was the hardest drive I’ve ever had to do in an exhausted/sleepy state. We were thankful to make it back, shower, take in the smells of smoky stoves, and bundle under covers to fall asleep.