As you drive into Yosemite, you can't help but wonder if God is an outdoor enthusiast. The lofty granite peaks stand tall and mighty, overlooking the verdant green valley below. Waterfalls cascade hundreds of feet down the sheer cliffs. An unbridled display of nature's grandeur. As John Muir said about Yosemite, “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature, I was ever permitted to enter.”
The half dome hike was the centerpiece of my trip. Step 1 of a Half Dome hike is to get permits. There is the season lottery and the daily lottery. If neither attempt is successful, try the begging lottery as we did when we were one permit short for our group. We basically asked everyone along the way if they had extra permits. And we eventually found one! If I ever have extra permits, I will put a sign on my backpack saying so, when I hike the trail. I think it would be a crime to let Half Dome permits go unused. The permits are checked just before the sub dome, which is well before the cables. If you don't have a permit, you don't even get a decent view of the Half Dome.
A few pointers to any Half Dome dreamers. Start early to avoid traffic in the valley, to find parking close to the trail head and to avoid crowds at the cables. We reached the parking lot at about 7am. The hike is about 18 miles round trip from the nearest parking lot. It took us about 11 hours including a half hour spent at the top of Half Dome. The Mist Trail is fairly well marked and easy to follow as it snakes along the Merced River. The Vernal Falls and the Nevada Falls, in full flow during the early spring season, painted a beautiful picture. And I love the sound of rushing water. The trail can be strenuous at times. Some people recommend hiking poles. I had them but didn't use them. Take plenty of water and/or a water filter. The last place where you can filter water from a stream is at the Lower Yosemite campground, which is about 4 miles into the hike. The trail is shaded for most part which is a bonus. That is until you get to the sub dome which is exposed granite with a few hardy trees providing some shaded rest points. And the Half Dome itself is completely exposed. Gloves are useful on the cables section to haul yourself up without ripping your palms.
The highlight or the tough part, depending on your perspective, is the cables section. Metal cables along with wooden slats provide for a way up the steep and slippery granite rock face. At some points, the inclination is about 45 degrees I read. You will need some upper body strength to pull yourself up when there is no traction for your feet. You can take your time and rest at the wooden slats which are spaced about 10 feet apart. But you will cause a traffic jam as there is only one way up and down and it is impossible for people to pass you when there are hikers coming down too. So for the sake of all, keep yourself moving. It took me about 20 min to get up. And about 30 min to come down as traffic had picked up significantly by then. It is very safe as long as you don't do anything stupid, like climb when it is wet or go outside the cables.
The views from the top are absolutely gorgeous. Granite hill tops with a smattering of snow as far as the eye can see. Vertical cliffs drop down into the lush valley floor. Evergreens hug the sides of the mountains wherever they can. Streams rush down to the valley floor in the distance. The cool breeze refreshes the weary mind and body as you soak in the exhilarating views This truly is one of nature's grandest monument.
Half dome has to be in the bucket list of every avid hiker. A great challenge with sweet rewards. The only downside in my opinion is that it is a trail that goes out and back, in the sense it is not a loop, unless you take a detour on the John Muir trail towards the end. That means once you are done with the summit, you have to drag your butt 8 miles back down to the trail head along the same trail you had just seen. Maybe that gives you time to ponder upon, to digest the beauty of Yosemite or maybe you can just enjoy the scenery a second time with the sun at a different angle, especially the waterfalls that face west.
The Lonely Planet guide certainly is not kidding when it says that Yosemite makes Switzerland look like God's practice run!