Hiking Half Dome: Journey to the Top
Updated: Nov 5, 2022
When I first decided to begin creating a travel vlog and share my experiences with everyone, deciding what my first entry should be was easy. It was a hiking experience and trip that had a lasting impression on me and was a crucial moment in my life. It happened two years after I had just graduated from college and was at the formative phase of my career. I had traveled for four summers in a row prior to this one but each one of them was with a group. Although, I had attempted to convince several friends to join for this trip as well, it was not to be. As is common with many in their early 20’s, life takes over. People begin to develop their careers, grow relationships, and raise families. I knew that if I wanted to travel and see everything that I had set for my life, I would need to become comfortable traveling alone. Although I was nervous at the prospect, I made the decision that it was time for me to make the leap.
There was no doubt in my mind what I wanted to do. My target was set on Yosemite National Park in California and the goal was climbing to the top of Half Dome. For those unfamiliar, Half Dome is a 2000’ foot tall granite peak that towers over Lower Yosemite Valley. Although there are many who climb the sheer face of this peak with climbing gear, I didn’t have the training, gear, or experience to make it to the top of Half Dome this way. So, I had to take an equally popular alternative path. The back of Half Dome contains two metal chains drilled into the granite with a series of 2×4 wooden boards in between the chains. Once a hiker reaches this location, they can pull themselves up board by board until they reach the top of the peak. This was my goal, and I was determined to accomplish it.
After flying into San Francisco, I drove from the airport towards the park. I finally arrived at the park, early the next morning and was immediately mesmerized by the park itself. Seeing the Lower Valley spanning in front of me, I still recall thinking “this must be what Eden looked like”. This was also when I got my first glimpse of Half Dome. To climb to the top of Half Dome, obtaining a permit is required from the National Park Service. After parking my car in the park, the ranger station was my immediate destination. I set off to collect my permit and make the required arrangements. Although a day use option is available, I wanted to savior this experience. I selected the multi-day permit for climbing Half Dome. This allowed me to camp over night in the hiker camp in the Lower Valley and then camp two additional nights in the Little Yosemite Campground in the high country. After getting a good night’s rest, I woke up with the sun and boarded the first bus that took me to Glacier Point in the high country of Yosemite. This is a highlight of the park that offers an aerial view of the lower valley with Half Dome front and center of this vista with waterfalls accenting the view. From Glacier Point, I began my adventure along the aptly named Panorama Trail. This trail circumvents the high country of Yosemite connecting one side of the valley walls with the other. Along the way, several waterfalls were passed, some viewed in the distance while others right off the trail. The views are indescribable along the entire path with panoramic views of the valley abounding. Around lunch time, I made it to the top of Nevada Falls, one of the larger waterfalls in the park. Although I do not recall what I ate there 12 years ago, I still recall sitting on a rock near the edge of the falls, enjoying the views of valley directly ahead of me, Half Dome towering over me to the right, and the sound of water rushing over the falls echoing all around me.
After finishing lunch, I continued down the Half Dome trail towards the Little Yosemite campsite where I would be spending the night. I was setting up my camp as the sun was beginning to go down and I partook in a time-honored camping tradition, the campfire. There were quite a few campers staying here on this night and getting to know them is an incredible experience. I recall meeting teachers, doctors, and artists around the same campfire. A which tapestry of people from all walks of life, coming together to have a shared experience in this park. Once the campfire burned out and we all turned in for the night, I experienced the splendor of a clear sky, no lights, and no moon. I spent an hour simply staring up at the milky way filling the sky above me before I finally went to sleep for the night.
The next morning, it was time to set off on my goal: the top of Half Dome. I set off early morning from the campground along the Half Dome trail. The views were as majestic the second day as they were during my time on the Panorama trail, especially when I had gotten above the tree line and enjoyed
360-degree views of the adjacent valleys. By late morning, I made it to the base of the cables. I recall one emotion taking over when I first laid eyes on the cables: complete fear! Seeing these dead-on made them appear to be a completely vertical climb. After a pep talk from some fellow hikers who noticed my nervousness as well as a pep talk from myself, I began my climb. For those of you who are ever staring at the cables in the future, I offer this advice: once you begin the climb, the ascent turns out to be far less steep than it appears initially and is honestly not too frightening an experience; provided you are able to tolerate heights. 30 minutes later, I was at the top of the Half Dome, looking over the valley 2000 feet below me. I spent the rest of the morning up there, sitting on the edge. Enjoying the peace and quiet, talking with fellow travelers, trying my best to take photos that can capture what I was seeing in front of me. I had my lunch on the edge of Half Dome, with my feet dangling over the side of the sheer drop to the valley floor (not a safe choice in retrospect and not something I recommend my readers do).
As lunch was coming to a close, I gathered my gear and began my descent down the chains. A word of warning that I learned from this portion of the hike. Around lunch time is when most people hiking this trail in one day will reach the chains and the line to ascend can get hectic with 1 or 2 people perched on each 2×4 wood board. The same boards and chains that are being used to ascend are the same ones I was trying to use to descend. Be very cautious when attempting this, as there were a few hikers frozen on the chains and had to be helped back down. The heights and exposure on the chains are substantial and should not be attempted without adequate preparation prior. By mid afternoon, I was back at the camp site and enjoyed another well earned night of relaxation under the stars.
The next morning, it was time to embark on the final leg of this adventure. The trail from the Little Yosemite Campground back down to the Valley Floor along the Mist Trail. On its own, the Mist Trail is an amazing experience. The trail descends from the high country, back down to the Lower Valley within a canyon carved out by two large waterfalls, Vernal and Nevada Falls. A series of stone steps was carved into the side of the valley wall to create this trail. The Mist Trail gets its name because the trail is located at the edge of both waterfalls, close enough for them to create a perpetual mist along the stone steps, adding to the serenity of the hike but also adding to how hazardous the trail is since the steps are perpetually wet and slippery. By late afternoon, I had reached the valley floor. Surrounded by the same towering granite peaks I had spent the last 3 days climbing on top of, I hiked back to my car. I would go on to spend another week and a half within Northern California on that trip and would encounter many more marvels from the giant Sequoia trees to seeing a pod of Blue Whales in Monterrey Bay. But those are stories for another day…
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