A Hiker’s Guide to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

Low Impact Tips for Hiking Half Dome

By John P. DeGrazio

Yosemite Half Dome Cook's Meadow
A Hiker’s Guide to Half Dome by John P. DeGrazio

Half Dome is the most popular hike in Yosemite National Park and one of the most sought after adventures on the planet. The demand for this hike is so great that the National Park Service began implementing a permit lottery system in 2011 to reduce extreme overcrowding of the trail. A large portion of the Half Dome trail is in Yosemite Wilderness. Having successfully led over 100 summit attempts of this epic journey, I would like to share a Hiker’s Guide to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park with some basic minimum impact guidelines to enjoying the wilderness from our partners at the Leave no Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.

A Hiker’s Guide to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

Hiking Half Dome requires a great deal of determination and stamina. If you are one of the lucky ones who have received a permit in the preseason lottery, you have probably begun your training. I highly recommend developing a routine of at least three days per week of cardio as well as some arm strengthening exercises if you have not already. To reach the summit of Half Dome, you will need to hike 16 miles roundtrip while gaining just about 5,000 feet of elevation. In case that wasn’t enough, you will be required to pull yourself up 600 feet of steel cables at the very end. That’s why the arm strengthening will be important. <Insider’s Tip> Do not rely solely on your arms while ascending the cables. Instead, drive off your legs. Sure, they will be tired at this point; but the taxing that your arms will receive will be far greater if you do not rely on your legs. There are more tips for a successful Half Dome summit on the YExplore Hike Half Dome page complete with a gear guide and safety video.

The cable route on Half Dome is expected to be open by May 16 this year. However, there is a possibility of delays since we have received a fair amount of snow at that elevation while storms continue to hit the Sierra Nevada throughout spring. Check the National Park Service website for updated Half Dome information. If you already have your permits, you are good to go. If you were unsuccessful, you may also acquire them through a secondary 48 hour lottery once the season begins.

Hikers Guide to Half Dome in collaboration with Leave no Trace

Leave No Trace is an organization that teaches outdoor ethics for minimal impact uses of our natural lands. It is an important concept to understand. Everyone wants to enjoy nature, but we all can use some education on how to enjoy these beautiful parks and wild lands more responsibly. I have established a much stronger connection to Yosemite since I have been practicing these Leave no Trace ethics and truly enjoy sharing them with visitors from around the world. This summer I will be speaking at several venues on a topic I titled “Fostering Yosemite Stewardship in the Digital Age”, I will be making an appearance at the Sierra Ecosummit on June 11 in Groveland, CA and will speak at REI stores in the Bay Area in September.

Leave No Trace has seven simple common sense ethics to follow. Each is listed below followed by suggested applications to your Half Dome hike.

Know Before you go This is the first rule of any outdoor activity. It’s such a wide ranging topic, but I will share some highlights. First, do your homework. Research the hike, nutrition guidelines, and fitness routines. Make sure you let a friend or family member know your plans and also be certain to check in with a ranger when you arrive in Yosemite. Finally, be sure to pack the right gear. Most importantly, hydrate before the hike and stay hydrated all day, Summer months are hot and dry in the Sierra. Dehydration is one of the last things you want to deal with on this hike.

Choose the right path Yosemite Trail crews spend a lot of time constructing and repairing trails. Please show respect to them and other hikers by staying on trails. Please do not shortcut trails. It causes erosion and also kills the wildflowers and other plant life that struggles to grow in the higher elevation of the Half Dome trail.

Trash your trash Please make sure to pack out any items you pack in. This includes any biodegradable items such as orange peels and apple cores. Although they will eventually decompose, it will take much longer in higher elevations. Also, by leaving this fruit behind, you are introducing a non-natural food source to the wildlife. Other items to consider disposing properly are fruit stickers, corners of wrappers, tissues, and band-aids. I recommend carrying a small bag to trash every item as you consume your calories for the day. Finally, one of the biggest trash problems on Half Dome is the pile of gloves left behind for other hikers. This unwanted trash pile grows almost as high as Sub Dome by the end of summer, and many of them wind up in the stomachs of marmots and squirrels. At last year’s Yosemite Facelift, we removed several full bags of gloves from the cables that weighed hundreds of pounds. Please take them back down the mountain with you.

Leave what you find If you see a beautiful flower, you will want to take a photo of it instead of wearing it in your hair for all to see as you ascend the cables. It’s also a bad idea to take rocks from Half Dome. It’s important for everyone to have the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of this place. The more we remove, the less there is for others to experience. Finally, please do not build rock piles known as cairns on the trails or Half Dome itself. Many people think they are helping by placing them, but even the slightest miscalculation in placement can lead someone down a wrong trail or even off a cliff. I’ve knocked over several misplaced cairns on Sub Dome that pop up all the time and lead hikers dangerously closer to the edge of the rock than they need to be. This has become an issue on the summit as people believe they are “beautifying” nature. Leaving your mark is overrated. Let nature do the work, just enjoy it.

Respect wildlife This is also an easy one to follow. If you stow your trash in a bag in your pack, you are letting wild animals find their own food which is the way nature intended it to be. Please don’t feed squirrels and marmots. Also make sure to zip up your unattended packs and don’t leave them below the cables. I have seen countless backpacks ruined and food stashes lost because they were raided by enterprising squirrels and marmots.

Be careful with fire Please never light a fire on the summit of Half Dome. It is illegal and unsafe.

Be kind to others Unfortunately, this is becoming the most controversial topic of discussion while hiking in nature. When we are in wilderness, we need to realize that what may sound reasonable to you is not reasonable to others. If you like to receive motivation from your music, that does not mean everyone around you would like to as well. Please use your headphones while hiking. Many around you would like to hear the sounds of nature. Bluetooth speakers are not advisable on any hike. There are so many hikers on this trail with diverse taste in music, and what sounds good to you likely will not sound good to others who are trying to share this wilderness experience.

Other ways to be kind to others on the trail is to practice good etiquette like letting the uphill hiker have the right of way and to avoid attempting to pass someone in a narrow or dangerous section of the trail. Practice patience and spend an extra minute to take in the scenery. Finally, my last advice is another <Insider’s Tip> Please use the cables wisely. There are two cables spaced out about four feet apart. It is designed to allow people to ascend and descend at the same time. Unfortunately, these cables become very congested at times, even with the new permit system. Safe passage requires patience from everyone involved. We always recommend getting accustomed to using only one of the cables while ascending. Using the right cable allows the descending hikers an opportunity to safely return to Sub Dome without delay. I have seen many people try to pull themselves up both cables at the same time and can assuredly state this method is not as efficient as using the right cable only. You will not burn out your forearms as quickly and you will attain self sufficiency which means you will not have to rely on waiting for the left cable to become free from others who will be descending. Additionally, it causes extended delays for everyone on the cables. This is no fun when you are stuck in the middle section of the climb which is the steepest. Think about this on a crowded summer day when the cables are full. It should typically take about 15 to 20 minutes to go up or down when everyone is using their own cable. Unfortunately, we have been stuck on the cables for over 45 minutes simply because some hikers do not wish to consider the other hikers. This, of course, is not unreasonable at 8,800 feet above sea level. However, it is something to consider before you begin your hike.

YExplore has produced a safety video on Sub Dome and the Cables that you can watch here:

Half Dome Permits Available From YExplore:

As you may know, YExplore offers guided Half Dome hikes. Below are dates we currently have available and would be happy to help you achieve your goal.

Half Dome day hike permits available: 2017 dates will be announced in mid April.

Half Dome 2 Day/1 Night Backpack Trip permits available: 2017 dates will be announced starting in December.

4 Day/3 Night Backpack Trip with Half Dome Permit: 2017 dates will be announced starting in December.

Thank you and have a safe hike everyone. Always remember to enjoy your Can O Peaches on the summit.

Half Dome Permit Lottery 2015

Apply for Half Dome Permits March 1-31, 2015 
By John P. DeGrazio 
YExplore Half Dome Summit Club by John P. DeGrazio

Today is the first day to apply for the Half Dome permit lottery which will run from 12am PST on March 1 to 11:59pm PDT on March 31. If you are planning on hiking to the summit of Half Dome on any day from May 22 to October 13, 2015, you will be required to obtain a permit to access the Sub Dome and cable portions of the Half Dome trail. Rangers will be stationed to check for permits, and you will be turned away if you do not have one. All permit applications are handled by Recreation.gov and can be made online or over the phone. The Yosemite National Park official website has more details about the process including a secondary daily lottery (48 hours prior to your selected date) for those who were shut out of the preseason lottery.

YExplore offers guided Half Dome hikes that give you an opportunity to attempt the 8842′ Summit in a day with the most experienced Yosemite guide service who consistently receives the highest ratings on Yelp and Tripadvisor. We break down the hike into manageable sections to help you focus on your goal. We will safely guide your group and give you the best possible chance for success while you learn about the area’s geology and natural history. We will also photograph the highlights of your trip with professional quality images and share them with you at the end of your adventure.

Group Outings in Yosemite National Park

If you choose our services we will develop a strategy for applying for permits with you that may potentially increase your chances of success. Once your booking is confirmed, we will help you create a training routine and check in with you from time to time to monitor your progress. On the day of the hike, we will provide added safety equipment including reliable gloves and safety belts. From the beginning, our guides will help you confidently approach this hike by offering a profile of the terrain, setting designated rest stops, and coaching you to add confidence when you need it most. If you reach the summit with us, you’ll also earn a highly coveted YExplore Half Dome Summit Club patch of your very own.

Your safety is our number one priority, and we want you to be safe on this hike whether you choose our services or not. Please watch this safety video about the Sub Dome and Half Dome cables.

 We will also offer an excellent alternative to Half Dome in the event you do not receive a permit but would like to experience the Yosemite Wilderness on a less popular but no less scenic trail. 

Good luck to everyone, and try to remember these immortal words of Dr. Seuss on your summit day.

Dr. Seuss On the Half Dome Cables by John P. DeGrazio

#63 On Top of Half Dome at 70 Years Old

Guiding a 70th Celebration On Top of Half Dome 
by John P. DeGrazio 
Stanley Celebrates his 70th Birthday on Top of Half Dome in Yosemite by John P. DeGrazio

“What is the age of the oldest person you’ve ever guided up Half Dome?” I often get this question, and here’s the answer I always tell. “Let me tell you a little story about a man named Stanley Kowalczyk.” Stanley Kowalczyk has more determination in his little finger than most people have in their entire body. Stanley loves Yosemite, and he decided to celebrate his 70th birthday with a visit to his beloved national park and an attempt to summit Yosemite Valley’s most recognizable landmark, Half Dome. This story is more than just Stanley and his epic journey, but also about a group that ranged in age from 19 to 70 but worked together as a team to reach the summit.

The day started as all other summit attempts begin at our meeting location with introductions and a safety orientation. During the introductions, we learned about everyone’s age, background, and various hiking experiences that would be shared throughout the rest of the day. It was a game of one upmanship as we made our way around the group starting with the Fergusons who were in their mid forties. Then came the Uhler clan with ages ranging from 50 to 62. Ed was confident he was the oldest in the group until we turned to Stanley who announced he just celebrated his 70th birthday. Then we turned to Jennifer, our assistant guide who hadn’t turned 19 yet, and you could cut through the tension with a knife. Ok, not really, but some fun comments did follow. As we hiked to the trailhead, we shared more stories, and when I announced I grew up in Freehold, New Jersey, Bob Uhler quickly turned the conversation into a lovefest for the Boss, Bruce Springsteen. I was happy to oblige.

The Team on Top of Half Dome in Yosemite

It was a fantastic day for a hike, and everyone kept an even pace working together to reach our shared goal. The miles started adding up and so did the soreness for some of our group members. Stanley confided in me at our rest stop with just under two miles to the summit that things were becoming more difficult. I explained to him that safety is our number one priority and asked him if he wanted to continue. He affirmatively replied as if it weren’t even a question. Our pace had slowed a bit on the upper mountain, but that is natural with just about every group. I assured everyone we were doing well and were soon at the base of the Sub Dome.

The Uhler Tribute on the Half Dome Summit by John P. DeGrazio

We took our time making it from the Sub Dome to the cables, and stopped for our last safety orientation below the final 600 foot ascent. On the cables, we worked as a team going board to board in a methodical fashion. Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen so many different approaches on the Half Dome cables. While, technically there is no wrong way to ascend them, I believe strongly in pulling yourself up using only one cable on the right side. I’ve seen countless people trying to navigate their way through this steep section by grabbing both cables and trying to swing themselves upward. I find two problems with this method. First, this becomes very tiring and burns out your forearms quickly. Climbing the cables requires both arm and leg strength, and, just as in rock climbing, I like to rely more on my legs because they are a lot stronger. This also allows me to reserve my arm strength for farther up the line when we pull ourselves up over some three foot granite steps on our route before we reach the summit. The second reason I teach our groups to use one cable is what goes up must come down. As in other hikers. When up climbers and down climbers both want to use both cables, it creates a huge logjam. If everyone stayed on one cable when there is two way traffic, there would less time that hikers will be stuck on the steepest, slickest part of the climb. It makes sense and can help prevent fatigue. What I love about sharing some of our techniques with others who are not in our group is the reactions we receive. The vast majority is receptive to our concepts, and many thank me at the top. Others, well, you can’t please everyone. My only goal is to avoid stress and make this a safer environment for everyone.

Stacey Celebrates on the Summit of Half Dome by John P. DeGrazio

After several extended breaks on the roughly 60 boards leading to the summit, we made it. Stanley and the rest of our group were overjoyed. It was truly a special moment as Karen, Ed, and Bob unrolled a homemade banner in a tribute to their dad. Bob even removed his favorite Bruce Springsteen t shirt from his pack to wear for this special occasion. Karen’s husband Kevin and their friend Matt also joined in the celebration. Greg and Stacey were giddy as they hopped on all the rocks as they posed for their victory photos. Then there was Jennifer who hardly broke a sweat. I was happy to share this moment with every member of our group and honored to be the lead guide for a moment that was so special to everyone. Before we descended, I kidnapped Stanley and forced him to sit in a spot that was fitting for his accomplishment. He regally accepted the challenge and gazed into the Tenaya Canyon with amazement. We took a long time descending that day, and all were delighted to reach the parking lot. It was another spectacular day in Yosemite and one each of us will never forget.

King Stanley Opts for an Exciting View by Stacey Ferguson

YExplore Lead Adventure Guide John P. DeGrazio has reached the summit of Half Dome more than one hundred times. In this series, he will share stories from some of the most interesting journeys along the trail of Yosemite’s most popular peak. He will reflect on some of the most inspirational moments he has shared with hundreds of others while achieving their lifelong dreams. John will also share tips on how to properly prepare for such a long, arduous trek while providing insights on how to successfully complete this quest. He’ll also discuss changes to this hike he has witnessed throughout the years as well as many interesting encounters along the way.

Safety Tip #2 from the Trails of Yosemite

Hikers on The Half Dome Cables in Yosemite by John P. DeGrazio

Stow Your Hiking Poles Below the Half Dome Cables

By John P. DeGrazio

Yesterday I was stabbed on Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Seriously, I was stabbed by another hiker while ascending the Half Dome cables. Do you know what it feels like to be stabbed? My whole life flashed before my eyes, then everything went black. I was walking through a tunnel and then…

Stabbed on Half Dome

Kidding aside, the wound was not serious enough to require medical attention, but it did cause a sharp pain and left a mark. The weapon was a hiking pole, one of the most dangerous items a hiker can bring on the cables of Half Dome. Although the hiker did not intentionally assault me, his disorientation from being on a narrow passageway on slick granite nearly 9000 feet above sea level was understandable; however, his belief that he needed to carry his hiking poles with him to the top of Half Dome was not. There is obviously no utility for hiking poles on the cables, the final section of the hike. Many hikers dangerously dangle these poles from their undersized backpack. the poles constantly swing around recklessly behind hikers who have no idea of the potential damage they may cause. When sharing such a narrow path, the backpack bump has become a common hazard of the trail. There is an added risk of impalement from these sharp objects awkwardly attached to one’s back as they twist and turn their way through this section of trail that can be difficult to navigate. Further, some poles are in such a position that they can easily cause damage to another hiker’s face and eyes. I have been the victim of some minor assaults, but yesterday’s was the most significant and caused me to write this call to action. If you bring your hiking poles to the Half Dome hike, please leave them under a rock somewhere on Sub Dome or right before the cables begin. All hikers’ safety depends on it. There is a good ethos out there so you should feel confident that they will be there when you return. By completing this simple task, you will lighten your load and prevent future assaults. Remember these words the next time you have to make this decision, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye” -Unnamed Author

Other things to consider while completing the final portion of the hike: Keep water bottles and other items safely stored inside your backpack. I have seen countless items including water bottles, phones, GPS devices, and cameras fall several hundred feet from careless hikers who did not stow them properly. Please also remember managing the cables requires your complete focus, and it is not a good idea to take or pose for photos or videos until you have made it to a safe location above or below them.

John P. DeGrazio is the owner of YExplore and lead adventure guide for many guided hikes in Yosemite National Park. He has hiked thousands of miles in the Sierra Nevada and shares hiking and mountaineering techniques with outdoor enthusiasts on his tours as well as those he encounters on the trails. It’s his goal to minimize risk on his trips and will share safety tips with all listeners.

Feed from YExplore Adventure Blog: http://yexplore.com/adventure-blog/.

Safety Tips from the Trails of Yosemite

Mist Trail Hikers in Yosemite by John P. DeGrazio

Watch Your Step

By John P. DeGrazio

When hiking on granite or any other potentially slippery trail, it’s always best to cover as much surface area as you can with every step. This means that you should basically cover as much ground with your boot as possible. Sometimes you may be hiking on narrow steps that are wet from rain or waterfall mist. Sometimes they’re icy. A hiker should always try to get as much of their foot on the step they are climbing. This is also true and probably more important on the descent. If the step is too narrow to fit your entire foot, turn your foot sideways. This will help you prevent a slip and potential fall. Besides, it’s a lot easier to turn your foot than it is to turn the rock on which you’ll be stepping. Sidestepping is a classic mountaineering technique on steep descents and one that should be utilized on Yosemite’s Mist Trail and any other route to minimize risk. Many accidents occur on the way down when hikers are tired or not paying attention. Minimize your risk by always watching your step.

John P. DeGrazio is the owner of YExplore and lead adventure guide for many guided hikes in Yosemite National Park. He has hiked thousands of miles in the Sierra Nevada and shares mountaineering techniques with hiking enthusiasts on his tours as well as those he encounters on the trails. It’s his goal to minimize risk on his trips and will share safety tips with all listeners.

Feed from YExplore Adventure Blog: http://yexplore.com/adventure-blog/.