Half Dome

Half Dome is the crown jewel of Yosemite National Park. No other landmark captures the attention of visitors quite as much as it does. Opportunities to make an impression are plentiful with the distinctive feature being visible from several locations in the park that are miles apart. Would it make such an impression had it been a full dome with a symmetric structure? Perhaps. But it is the mysterious prehistoric slice work that captivates as the big rock changes its personality depending on where you are viewing it from. It could be a hooded figure seated in the middle of all the imposing mountains around or a bird with its beak in the air taking in the breathtaking sights around it while taking a breath in the middle of a long flight.

The picture below was taken in August 2003 from Glacier Point (accessible from the valley floor via the 4 mile Trail or via road in summer). The Vernal and Nevada Falls are still in heavy flow which usually gets much lighter by the end of the Fall (pun intended). The trail to the top of Half Dome passes by these 2 falls and skirts around Liberty Cap. 

Half Dome can only be accessed on foot via a long 8.2 mile trail from the Happy Isles Nature Center trailhead. The hiker has the option of taking the longer but easier John Muir trail till the top of Nevada Falls or take the adventurous Mist Trail which climbs adjacent to Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. During the early summer months when the falls are at their peak season levels, the Mist Trail is slippery with the swirling mist from the falls. In late September, the falls are usually past their peak season levels and the mist is not present. It is still a spectacularly vertical ascent by the side of the two waterfalls with a brief stretch in between. The hiker gets a break on reaching the top of Nevada falls with a long level stretch across the Little Yosemite Valley. At this point the Mist Trail joins the John Muir Trail and the hiker continues on the John Muir Trail till the Half Dome turnoff. The option to split the hike into two days is provided by the campsite at the valley by the Merced river as it makes it way over the Little Yosemite Valley and then on to Nevada and Vernal Falls before its big Yosemite Valley stretch.

Topographic Map of the Half Dome Trail :  The Valley destinations (Curry Village, Ahwanee Hotel, the Pines campgrounds) can be seen. The trail starts at Happy Isles Nature Center.

Below is a drawing rendering the same from a more horizontal viewpoint. The location of Glacier point in this depiction puts the first picture on this page in perspective (since that was taken from Glacier point). Other useful details include Emerald Pool, 4 mile trail and the Panorama Trail.

Getting back to the discussion on the hike before we got interrupted with maps and drawings... Liberty Cap

The winded hiker may feel that the dome that is visible from the top of Nevada Falls is Half Dome, but a second look will confirm that it is not. This one is Liberty Cap (above pic) which has not suffered any chopping of its profile. This dome obscures Half Dome from this view point and it will be a long level walk across the Little Yosemite Valley before the trail bends left and starts ascending over a series of switchbacks. Half Dome comes back into view at some point during this ascent but it looks nothing like what it does from the other Yosemite viewpoints.

For one, the viewer is much closer to the massive rock and can see the patchy surface. The vertical wall of the half face is on the other side and not visible. And finally, a long trail of ant like figures can be seen scaling the wall at the infamous cable section. (see picture below)

At some point, the turn off to Half Dome appears leaving the hiker to turn left to proceed towards the curved back of Half Dome. The John Muir Trail continues towards Clouds Rest and beyond Yosemite National Park and all the way towards Mount Whitney.

Eventually, the real task at hand is clearly presented to the climber. As can be seen in the picture below, one needs to climb the steep and rocky section as it winds its way among the trees before reaching the bottom of the cable section (which also can be seen below). This stretch should not be underestimated ascending or descending. The path is narrow and treacherous and can get nerve wracking if there is a crowd going both directions. 

When that is out of the way, all that is left to do is climb the wall using the cables. There are plenty of gloves available at the bottom of the cables for those who did not bring any with them. You need the gloves to avoid the steel cables hurting your palms as you hang on to them. The cables are put up every summer and taken down every fall. The Cables are a series of pairs of hollow metallic cylindrical rods inserted into the smooth rock. Yes, inserted. You can easily take them out as they are not nailed down. A pair of metallic chains are attached to the rods that form a pathway for a single climber to hold on with both hands. Thin wooden planks (no wider than a toehold) are nailed to the smooth rock to allow the hiker to rest on tiptoe while holding on to the cables. 

The safest way to negotiate this section is to get an early start and/or do this on a weekday to avoid the crowds. Movement freezes when there are too many people. Nobody wants to get stuck on the pathway IN BETWEEN the wooden planks. You need the way to be clear to the next plank so you can quickly haul yourself up to it. If you get stuck in between you have to support yourself using only your arms as the smooth rock provides no traction. The picture below (taken during our trip) shows how crowded it can get. With people heading in both directions and with the need to have a free plank ahead of you to leave your current plank, one can end up waiting for several minutes at every single rung. And with people with varying levels of experience and confidence it can get very messy and dangerous.

At the point where the path crosses a bump in the rock surface (looks like a crease on a shirtfront in the pic below), there are no wooden planks for a toe hold. One has to simply take a deep breath and just keep going without stopping. Coming down is much harder on the mind as one is totally unsighted and simply has to slide down several steps before eventually hitting the next wooden plank.

There is plenty of room at the top to wander around and the views of Yosemite Valley and surrounding features will keep one busy for a while before the inevitable thoughts of descent return and one has to do the cables in reverse. Hopefully the crowds would have thinned by then....

How did our trip (September 25, 2004) go? 

Location

Time

Elevation (Feet)

Happy Isles Nature Center

7:30

~4000'

Top of Vernal Falls

8:15

5340'

Top of Nevada Falls

9:25

6210'

First view of cables

11:25

7800'

Bottom of Cables

12:30

8530'

Top of Cables 

13:30

8880'

Departure

14:30

8880'

Bottom of Cables

14:53

8530'

Happy Isles Nature Center

19:00

~4000'

Click here for the complete photo album.

Photos : Malini/Ragini/Parth/Venkatesh   Text: Venkatesh