We’re just back from a fantastic weekend in Yosemite, where we hiked Half Dome (Google Search, Google Earth link). If you haven’t already, I strongly suggest installing Google Earth and clicking on this link: the 3D view of the Dome is absolutely gorgeous (and remember you can tilt the view with Shift-Arrow Up/Down).

Unless you live in California, you have probably never heard of Half Dome. It’s not the highest peak in Yosemite Valley, but it’s famous for the hike that leads to its top, which is also said to be the most difficult in the entire park.

Here is the outline of our hike:

  • Total distance: 17 miles.
  • Vertical gain: 4800 feet.
  • Total time on the hike: 13 hours.
  • Quantity of water consumed: about a gallon.
  • View from the Spring Board on top of Half Dome: jaw-dropping.

Fortunately, there are several stages along the way that make the experience quite rewarding, even if you decide to turn around before you reach the top:

  • After the first 1.5 mile, you reach Vernal falls, which towers above the Happy Isles while giving you a good idea of what a vertical drop of gushing water can look like.

  • 2 miles later, you arrive at Nevada Falls, which is just a bit higher than Vernal Falls but offers an equally stunning view of the valley and a vertical drop that will make you dizzy if you lean forward too much.
  • The next 4 miles meander through Little Yosemite Valley and are fairly flat. This section allows you to walk around Half Dome in order to orient you toward the side that can actually be hiked (the side that is facing the valley is a vertical drop that attracts rock climbers from around the world).
  • The mile that follows starts going up more severely, but the beautiful pine trees and occasional view of the valley below give you a good reason for stopping and catching your breath.
  • Then you arrive at the bottom of Half Dome and you are facing your next challenge, sometimes referred to as “Quarter Dome”. It’s a series of very vertical steps carved inside the granite that allow you to climb over the first hilly part of the Dome. This section in itself would be enough for a casual hike, and it certainly got all of us out of breath by the time we reached its top.
  • And finally, you’re at the bottom of the Dome. By then, you only have about nine hundred vertical feet to overcome to reach the top, but the incline there is above fifty degrees, so a pair of metal cables have been drilled into the rock to allow climbers to get through this last section. It’s imperative to bring gloves with you or depend on the kindness of strangers who would be willing to part with theirs (it’s actually quite common). This part of the hike is not the hardest per se, but it will certainly put your vertigo sense to the test, especially when you climb it down (hint: do it in rappel. It’s not just that it hides the scary sight of the void beneath, it just makes the climb down much easier).

The hike is certainly strenuous, but nobody in our little group can even be remotely called a hiker. Yet, we pulled it off, and with us, dozens of other courageous hikers of all ages and fits that we saw along the way. Don’t let this description intimidate you, this is something that everyone should do at least once in their life.

An unforgettable day.