Half Dome is one of the most iconic hikes in Yosemite National Park. Thousands of people hike to the summit every summer, and it’s a popular hike for a reason. Half Dome is quite unlike anything else in the world. When I lived next to Curry Village, I was lucky enough to watch the sunrise turn the granite face of the dome pink every morning. It’s hard to deny that Half Dome has a special allure to it. However, it’s not to be underestimated.
So, Is hiking Half Dome dangerous? Half Dome is one of the most dangerous hikes that you will be able to find in a national park. It is challenging for even the most experienced hikers. It requires preparation, training, determination, and no small amount of caution. Read on to learn how to make sure you’re ready to tackle Half Dome.
It’s not difficult to get in over your head with this hike. The distance and difficulty are significantly more than most other day hikes in Yosemite. The most challenging part of the hike – which may either terrify you or excite you depending on how you feel about heights – is the final ascent up the back of the dome. The Half Dome cables, the last stretch up to the summit, will be one of the most memorable moments that you may ever have hiking. It may also be pretty intimidating.
One of America’s Most Dangerous Hikes
Yosemite’s Search and Rescue team responds to about 100 calls for help on the hike to Half Dome each year. Many of these calls are from hikers that are ill prepared, dehydrated, or out of shape. Just the approach to the dome can cause significant injury.
The approach passes by several waterfalls in the very beginning of the trail. It can be difficult to get good footing here, as the mist from the water tumbling down covers everything around it and makes the rocks wet and slippery. This is especially the case in the springtime. It’s easy to slip and fall.
The last part of the trek up to the summit is the most dangerous. The cables are where the majority of the fatalities on Half Dome have occurred. Most who attempt the cables route will safely reach the summit, but the risk is not to be ignored.
Staying Safe on the Half Dome Cables
The last 400 feet of the ascent up Half Dome is a nearly vertical climb on slick, polished granite. In the summer, the park service assembles cables and footholds on this part of the hike. The cables, which are permanently bolted into the side of Half Dome, are attached to metal posts and act as a handhold to assist hikers up the side of the dome. This final part of the hike will use a lot of your upper body strength.
Upon first sight, the cables will probably look a little scary. Make sure to use caution, and prepare yourself properly. Below are a few tips and tricks to make the most dangerous part of this hike safer and a little less intimidating.
Gloves – You’ll be gripping the cables on your way up the dome. Many people use gloves to make this a little easier. Although sometimes there are discarded gloves at the base of the cables, I recommend that you come prepared with your own.
Footwear – Wear shoes that support your ankles and fit comfortably. Make sure that your shoes have very good traction. This isn’t the hike for your worn-out boots with no sole. Though there are footholds installed, the polished granite can be difficult to keep footing. The better your shoes can grip the rock, the better off you will be.
Take your time – There will frequently be many people on the cables at a time. You will most likely have a line of hikers both ahead of and behind you. This isn’t a reason to push yourself to go any faster than you feel comfortable with. “Slow and steady wins the race” has never been more accurate than it is on the Half Dome cables. You’ll be tired from the hike up to this point, so go slowly.
Prepare Yourself for a Strenuous and Exhausting Day
A long approach – While it may not look like a large distance from certain spots on the valley floor, keep in mind that the approach to Half Dome is actually quite long. Most people start their hike from the Mist Trail in Yosemite Valley, which is the shortest route at a 16-mile round-trip. This approach doesn’t waste any time before the incline. The Mist Trail is a steep hike up the Merced river, past Vernal and Nevada falls.
When you’re training for Half Dome, you’ll want to get your body used to climbing. If mountaintops aren’t available to you, even running up staircases can be a great way to train. Much of this hike will be a steep staircase cut into the rock.
Once you reach the top of Nevada Fall at the end of the Mist Trail, you will have gained 2,000 feet in elevation in just under 3 miles. This part of the hike takes most people 5-6 hours to complete, and you’ll still have 5 miles left to go.
Before you reach the cables, there will be one more staircase to tackle. This section is known as the Sub Dome. Imagine a tall, winding staircase cut into the side of the rock, and that’s exactly what you’ll be facing to make it to the cables.
Hiking at elevation – The Yosemite Valley floor sits at 4,000 feet above sea level and will be the lowest point during your hike. Once you start on the trail, you’ll be steadily climbing. From the valley floor to the top of Half Dome, you will have gained 4,800 feet of elevation.
It’s a good idea to accomplish at least a few long hikes at high altitude before attempting Half Dome, so that you become familiar with the way your body responds. Training at altitude is one of the best ways to prepare. Once you arrive in Yosemite, give yourself a little time to adjust. If you can go for a shorter warm-up hike to help acclimate yourself in the days leading up to hiking Half Dome, do so.
I don’t recommend coming straight from sea level to attempting this hike. Altitude sickness in the backcountry would be unpleasant, to say the least.
How much water to drink? – Water is going to be your most valuable resource and a necessity during this hike. I can’t stress enough how important staying hydrated will be to your success, as well as your overall health and safety. Start drinking a lot of water the day before you plan to attempt Half Dome to make sure that you’re hydrated when you start.
You should be drinking half a gallon of water each day anyway, so the day before your hike, make sure you’re consuming at least this much. The Park Service recommends drinking a gallon of water during this hike, at a minimum.
Keep in mind that water will most likely be the heaviest thing you will be carrying with you. The last water filling station on the hike to Half Dome is at the Nevada Fall footbridge, less than a mile in. You could fill up the water you will need there, but you will be carrying it for the rest of the day, which will slow down your hiking speed and tire you out quicker. Another option is to bring a water filter with you.
You will have a water source for a portion of the approach, as the trail will follow the Merced River until you leave Little Yosemite Valley. If you would prefer not to carry an entire day’s worth of water at a time, you can filter the river for a refreshing, cold drink. Do not drink from the river without either a filter or boiling the water, as you can risk getting giardia.
Number of Deaths on Half Dome Each Year
The most recent fatality on Half Dome occurred in May 2018, when a hiker fell off the cables. There have been roughly 20 deaths on Half Dome itself. Most commonly, deaths occur when hikers attempt the cables during stormy conditions. Thunderstorms are frequent in Yosemite during the summer, and rain makes the already slippery rock even more treacherous.
People have also been caught up at the top of Half Dome when a storm is rolling in, resulting in disaster, such as a hiker who died in 2011. Descending the cables is dangerous when dry, and can be fatal when the rock is wet.
Most years, hikers safely summit and descend from Half Dome with no fatalities. However, adverse weather conditions and lack of caution on the cables can put you in danger. Make sure to plan ahead, don’t attempt the hike if a storm is approaching, and prepare for a difficult climb.
Can you hike Half Dome in the winter? Yes, it is still possible to hike Half Dome in the winter, however, the already dangerous hike becomes significantly more life-threatening. The Park Service strongly discourages hikers from attempting Half Dome during the winter. The cables will not be up and snowy, icy conditions complicate the hike.
You should not attempt to hike Half Dome in the winter without mountaineering experience, climbing gear, and an emergency plan. Additionally, the Mist Trail approach is closed during the winter due to extreme ice.
Do you need a permit to hike Half Dome? Yes, you do need a permit to hike Half Dome when the cables are up. This is generally from late May until October, conditions permitting. When you apply for a permit, you are entered into a lottery for the dates you requested. The Park Service issues 300 Half Dome permits per day.
Short on time in Yosemite? Don’t miss our other article that will help you see the very best the park has to offer: How Do I Spend a Day In Yosemite?