Under the subtle glow of the mid morning sun, I could see the faint outline of the iconic monument off in the distance. With every subsequent glimpse, the mountain slowly transformed from a hazy silhouette into an awe-inspiring granite sculpture. So awe-inspiring, in fact, that it has become the unofficial mascot for Yosemite National Park. Austere and foreboding as it was, I couldn’t help but answer Half Dome’s siren call with eager anticipation.
My pace quickened as I spotted a break in the trees up ahead. After emerging from the shroud of evergreen trees, I finally came face to face with the granite structure. The famous curvature of the granite monument set amidst a patchwork quilt of blue skies and weathered evergreen trees took my breath away. While the entire 16 mile hike is a study in absolute beauty, this was the moment I had been waiting for. The instant when I finally came face to face with the glorious mountain.
Although I would have loved to stay there for ages, soaking up the wondrous scene before me, I had a journey to complete. With some reluctance, I turned my back to the view and continued my journey to the infamous cables. After winding my way through the tightly configured granite switchbacks, know as Sub Dome, I finally reached the base of the cables. As I peered up at the 425-foot vertical ascent, I became acutely aware of the blustering wind that had been increasing in intensity throughout the day. This wasn’t a light breeze; it was the kind of wind that lifts you off your feet only to swiftly drop you on your bottom.
Normally, I would find the combination of a vertical ascent with super strong wind to be rather alarming. On this particular day, however, the pairing seemed rather thrilling. Perhaps the altitude had affected my judgement or maybe my sanity had decided to take a vacation. Whatever the reason, I was strangely excited to begin the ascent. My enthusiasm began to wane, however, as I realized there was nothing to prevent me from sliding down what had to be the world’s tallest slide if I lost my hold on the cables. Thankfully, I had a brave hiking buddy who was particularly skilled in the art of distraction; namely, distraction from the increasingly great distance between us and the ground.
After what felt like an eternity, my friend and I finally made it to the top of Half Dome. Now I realize that making it to the top of Half Dome is a pretty cool accomplishment. Really, though, I was just happy to be on level ground. I didn’t fully appreciate the awesomeness of that moment until I saw all of Yosemite open up before me.
My friend and I spent the next couple hours blissfully exploring the top of Half Dome, which, to my great surprise, turned out to be a rather large, flat landing. I did not, however, venture anywhere near the precipitous edges. While many people are more than willing to climb precariously close to the edge (let’s be honest, it does make for an epic photo op), I am not one of those people. I have a rather embarrassing habit of falling; I trip over cracks in the sidewalk, I fall walking down grassy slopes, I even trip over things that aren’t there. What can I say? It’s a gift. Given this proclivity, I believe I made a wise choice. The good news, though, is that you don’t have to be close to the edge to enjoy the scenery.
Everywhere I turned, my eyes delighted in a panorama of Yosemite’s highlight reel. I could see Glacier Point, the valley below, El Capitan…the list goes on and on. That kind of beauty did more than just delight my eyes, though; it flooded my heart with new possibilities. It was like an open invitation to dive into the fullness of life. The vast wilderness had awoken in me the desire to explore my highest hopes and most daring dreams; the ones that I had been too afraid to pursue in my everyday life.
I think that’s the true magic of coming to a place like Half Dome. For a few glorious days you get to step out of the ordinary rhythm of your daily routines, and step into a world of endless possibilities and boundless beauty. John Muir had it right when he said, “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.”
Tips to make your journey a little sweeter:
- If you can, visit Half Dome in June. The waterfalls are at their fullest, and the heat isn’t quite as intense as it can be in July and August.
- Make sure you apply for a permit! Half Dome Permit Information
- Try to reach the base of the cables around 11 am; that way you can conquer the cables at your own pace. This means starting your hike by 5am. I know it’s early, but I promise the early start is worth it. Before the sun rises, though, it is rather chilly and dark, so come prepared. Pack a headlamp for each member of your party. I suggest wearing shorts and leg warmers instead of pants. It’s not the most stylish approach, but I was rather thankful that I didn’t have to change into shorts in front of complete strangers when things warmed up. Plus, leg warmers are a lot easier to stuff into your pack than a bulky pair of hiking pants.
- Speaking of hiking packs, I recommend a camel pack. The hydration system allows you to store a lot of water, and you don’t have to take off your pack every time you want a sip.
- Fully pack your bag the day before and store it in a bear locker over night. That way, you can just grab your camel pack in the morning knowing that it’s completely stocked with snacks, water, and other essentials.
- Pack well-fitted work gloves or bicycle gloves; they’ll come in handy when you’re climbing the cables.
- On your way up the mountain, take the Vernal Fall/Mist Trail. There are stunning views of the falls that make the granite carved staircase well worth it. On your way down the mountain, take the Nevada Fall/John Muir Trail. This route may take an extra half hour, but after a full day of hiking your knees will thank you for skipping the stairs and taking the less steep trail back to the valley floor.
- Be sociable! Strike up conversations with people along the trail. I met the coolest people that day, like an engineer from Pennsylvania and two rock climbing buffs from Oregon who build zip-lines and obstacle courses for a living. There was also this incredibly sweet couple from Germany. They made it to the top of Half Dome, and they were in their 80’s! Talk about inspiring!
- Be safe! Yes, the goal is to make it to the top of Half Dome, but if the cables are down or there is a storm on the horizon, it’s just not worth the risk. Think of it this way: if you don’t make it to the top of Half Dome on your first attempt, you have a really good excuse to come back to Yosemite.
- Most of all, have fun! Take time to savor your surroundings. From the thundering grandeur of Vernal Falls to the quiet beauty of blue jays along the trail, every moment of the hike is overflowing with splendor.
A final note:
While the Half Dome experience does not provide the same solitude of Thoreau’s Walden Pond, the hike is one of the most popular in Yosemite for good reason. Everything around you is unfathomably beautiful and worthy of a postcard. Even the squirrels are photogenic. (Plus, the trail is incredibly easy to follow, which is a bonus for directionally challenged people like myself.) I hope you get to enjoy this sweet somewhere in the near future. Half Dome is an experience that will stay with you your whole life through.