The Hike Up
- Started on the Mist Trail at 6:00 am
- Reached the top of Vernal Fall at 7:10 am
- Continued on the Mist Trail
- Reached the top of Nevada Fall at 8:45 am
- Hiked to Little Yosemite Valley
- Continued up through the forest
- Arrived at base of Subdome at 1:45 pm
- Reached the top of Subdome and the cables on Half Dome at 2:20 pm
- Arrived on top of Half Dome at 2:45 pm
The Hike Down
- Followed the same route back to the top of Nevada Fall
- Continued on John Muir Trail
- Arrived at the Yosemite Valley shuttle bus stop at 8:45 pm
My Favorite HighlightsDon’t get me wrong! This entire trail is an epic journey full of unforgettable sights but here are a few that really got imprinted in my mind forever.
- Mist Trail near Vernal Fall
- Subdome climb, and the views from Subdome
- Cables on Half Dome
- John Muir Trail at the top of Nevada Fall near Liberty Cap
On the morning of our Half Dome hike, I woke up at 3:30 am, which was 30 minutes before the phone alarm was set to go off. I guess my mad excitement had altered my biological clock, and this gave me a chance to get dressed and have a hassle-free cup of coffee. I even managed to prepare toasted bagels with cream cheese for everyone before they all had to get up. Precisely at 4:00 am, the sublime phone alarm tune started carrying throughout the hallway. I entered the kids’ bedroom and quietly let them know that it was time to go conquer the Half Dome hike. As soon as they heard me, they jumped up out of bed, all excited and ready. There was no fussing, whining, and complaining, which was definitely a very encouraging sign! Here we were, ready or not, we would be hiking to Half Dome with kids!
To Take the Kids on the Half Dome Hike, or Not
Hubby and I had had many conversations, some of them contentious, as to whether or not the kids should come along with us on the Half Dome hike. Hubby didn’t think they would make it all the way up and down and was worried about all the whining, dragging of feet along the way, and the strenuous nature of the climb. I was less concerned with those details and argued that they should go, focusing on what an incredible experience it would be for them, that absolutely shouldn’t be missed! There were also the logistics of finding a babysitter for the entire day in a relatively remote town in California, away from home, and one who wouldn’t mind starting their day at 4am!
Kids Need a Little Pep Talk
In the end, we just didn’t put enough effort into finding someone to watch the kids, so we mutually agreed that they would come on the Half Dome hike. After the decision was made, I had a very important task: to prepare them mentally for this experience. It would be the hardest hike of their lives so far, but also a HUGE achievement! I stressed how difficult it would be, and that they would feel tired, and might even get blisters on their feet. Hubby encouragingly chimed in that they probably wouldn’t make it! Wincing slightly, I tried to focus mostly on what an awesome accomplishment it would be. I told them they would probably be the only kids on the great Half Dome hike!
Power Puff Girl Cheer
Of course, in a situation like this, a parent should never forget to mention the kids’ favorite superhero characters. So, I did tell them they would be just as strong and great as the Power Puff Girls. They quickly pointed out that the Power Puff Girls could fly, therefore they would not need to hike for hours to get up there. Well, they had a point! I had to come up with something quickly, so I declared that they would have their own special powers, climbing on big, steep rocks! They seemed satisfied enough with this answer.
Don’t Forget Your Permits
After all four of us were ready, we took our toasted bagels and got in the car. We had to eat on the road in order to save time, and get to the trailhead early. We knew it was going to be a very long day of hiking, and we did not want to be caught on the mountain after sunset.
I double checked to make sure that we had our permits for the cables at the top of Half Dome. I was told we would have to present them to a ranger somewhere along the way. Without valid permits, we might not be allowed to continue past the base of the area known as Subdome.
The Only Lottery I Ever Won
In recent years, the National Park Service has limited the number of people allowed to go on the Half Dome cables to 300 per day. It is considered unsafe for larger crowds, as well as the natural environment and wildlife. So most of those 300 daily permits are distributed through a lottery found at Recreation.gov – Cables On Half Dome, CA.
I followed the simple instructions and submitted my application during the month of March, 2017. I received word of my good fortune in the beginning of April, when the results were e-mailed to all applicants. It was a great thrill to win permits for the date that was my top choice, which also happened to be hubby’s birthday! Today was our lucky day, and our chance to exert ourselves to the limit on those infamous cables.
We left the house for our Half Dome hike right around 4:15 am. There were hardly any cars on the road at this hour, so we had a very smooth ride into the park. We quickly made our way into Yosemite Valley, and drove to the back of the loop road near Happy Isles. A park ranger had informed us earlier that the beginning of our trail was there.
In Search of the Trail
Hubby parked the car as close as he could, we all jumped out, put on our backpacks, and started walking. It was 5:35 am, and still quite dark out, which didn’t help us since we were not familiar with this particular area. The kids were thrilled though, because they had the perfect excuse to use their new camping flashlights, and proceeded to shine them maniacally in every direction other than forward. We had to somehow figure out how to get to our trail without wandering around and wasting too much time. While hubby and I were feeling unsure of which way to go, the kids continued jumping happily, having fun with their flashlights.
On the Way to the Trailhead, Just Another Extra Mile
Just then, we saw a couple of young guys hanging out near a small wood cabin. Fortunately, when we asked them to point us toward the Half Dome hike trailhead, they were able to point us in the right direction. It turned out we had to walk a full mile up the main road before we even got to the starting point of our trail. During the day, the park shuttle would take us there, but it didn’t start running until 7:00 am. Oh well, what was another mile of walking! As we got closer to the beginning of our trail, we saw more and more groups of people moving in the same direction. Despite the early hour, everyone looked fresh and ready for new Yosemite adventures!
After we walked on the road for a little longer, we crossed the Merced River over a wide, paved bridge. Shortly thereafter, we saw a large sign that showed the distances to different points in the park. This was clearly the beginning of our Half Dome hike!
According to the sign, Half Dome was a whooping 8.2 miles away! Hubby looked at the time and told us it was exactly 6:00 am. We figured staring this early would give us plenty of daylight to go all the way up and down. As I took the first few steps on the trail, I knew one thing for sure: I would definitely be breaking some personal Fitbit records today! But I felt ready, and had been looking forward to this for a long time!
Mist Trail and Vernal Fall
We started our journey on the Mist Trail towards Vernal Fall, which was the first leg of our Half Dome hike. A park ranger had told us that the trail got its name because of the fine mist that carries over from two nearby waterfalls, particularly in the area of Vernal Fall. The beginning of the Mist Trail was paved, and ascended gently while following the path of the Merced River.
The sky was starting to get lighter, but the Moon was still quite bright, hanging above a large mountain range. More and more people were catching up to us on this perfect morning.
After about 20 minutes, we reached the only water station along the entire Half Dome hike. It was next to the Vernal Fall bridge, at a point where several trails converge. At this time, we didn’t need to fill up because we had barely used our own water supplies. As we proceeded, the kids demanded to know when we would take a break so they could have some candy and Gatorade. This was their biggest motivation! I suggested that we stop about every 2 miles. My Fitbit was set to measure the distance, so I had a rough idea how far we had gone. The kids agreed, and we continued on.
To the Bottom of Vernal Fall
After we passed the water station, the Mist Trail turned into a beautiful, unpaved path, which again followed the Merced River. It was a comfortable walk through a dense forest, accompanied by the sounds of rushing water.
It wasn’t too long before we made it to the bottom of Vernal Fall, an amazing waterfall that crashes on the rocks below with tremendous force. At this point, the Mist Trail transformed into a set of rocky stairs, which lead in front of, and then to one side of Vernal Fall.
The More-Than-Misty Stairs
As we started climbing up these stairs, we realized that we would be getting a lot more than just fine mist! The higher we went, the more drenched we became. Since the stairs were becoming steeper and steeper, this wasn’t such a bad thing. Taking a cool waterfall bath in the early morning while sweating from all the hiking was quite revitalizing.
The stairs went on for a while longer, leading closer to the top of the waterfall. It was wet and steep, but an absolutely spectacular climb as well. Even the kids forgot to ask about Gatorade and candy because they were too busy enjoying getting soaked by the cool mist. The rocky stairs were followed by a short passage near the edge of a rock that was fenced off with pipe rails. From here, we could see the trail far below, and the Merced River lined by giant boulders on both sides.
On Top of Vernal Fall
We reached the top of Vernal Fall at around 7:05 am. Feeling good about our progress, we sat down for some food and snacks. The kids were thrilled to finally get to consume some of their sugary delights. If there was one place they could make good use of all this sugar, it was here, on the Half Dome hike!
On to Nevada Fall
After we took some photos and relaxed for a bit longer, we were ready to continue our epic Half Dome hike. Here, Mist Trail led into a dense forest where it remained pretty flat, ascending gently from time to time.
At one point, we came to an open area where we crossed over a wood bridge. Shortly thereafter, we were back in the forest, enjoying the fresh smells of Mother Nature.
Bottom of Nevada Fall
From here, it wasn’t too long until we arrived to the rocky bottom of Nevada Fall. The view of the entire waterfall opened before our eyes. This was yet another magnificent display of the crashing and raging power of water.
We admired it for a few minutes, and continued following our path through the forest. Gradually the trail became steeper, and more rocky as it led on one side of the waterfall up towards the top.
Even though we were walking fairly close to the waterfall, we weren’t really getting any mist here. Maybe it was the direction of the wind, or maybe the angle of the falling water to the path…the point is, we remained dry this time!
Top of Nevada Fall
After a series of rocky switchbacks and some more stairs, we arrived near the top of Nevada Fall at around 8:45 am. This was an area where several trails along the Half Dome hike came together. I noticed that one of those trails was the John Muir Trail, which the rangers recommended we take on the way down. They told us it was a little bit longer than the Mist Trail, but less steep. It would allow us to avoid the slippery, wet stairs at Vernal Fall, which could be hazardous, especially after a very long day of strenuous hiking.
The Spick-And-Span Amish Family
To the delight of the children, we decided to take another short break from our Half Dome hike here. At this particular location, we couldn’t see the top of Nevada Fall, but we could hear the water splashing nearby. While sitting and snacking on our delicacies, we saw an entire Amish family pass by. Their group consisted of a man, his wife, a teenage girl, and two teenage boys. They were all dressed in traditional Amish attire. I was most impressed with the women whose long dresses and white bonnets still looked perfectly clean and tidy. I imagined they must have walked up the Mist Trail near Vernal Fall! How was it that they didn’t get at least a little bit disheveled?
Little Yosemite Valley
After we took a little time to rest, we were ready to continue our journey. I glanced at a sign that showed the remaining distance to the summit of the Half Dome hike was 4.5 miles. Frankly, we felt encouraged. It sounded like we were almost half way there! We got back on the trail and resumed our hike. It was again a rocky path that weaved in and out of the forest. The kids seized every opportunity to climb on as many large stones near the trail as they could find. Before too long, we came to an area of the park known as Little Yosemite Valley. Just as the name suggested, it was a small valley tucked away high up in the mountains. There was a designated camping area there for all those smart backpackers who chose to take more than one day to enjoy the beauty of the area. This was where we would’ve stopped if we had planned to take two or three days for our Half Dome hike. In fact, this was the recommendation of all the park rangers that we talked to.
Flat, Easy, and Beautiful
Once up here in the Little Yosemite Valley, the trail became totally flat, and at times was covered in sand. It was following more or less along the path of the river, and the area felt more open. It was here that we saw again our final destination, the back of Half Dome.
The giant granite rock was standing to our left looking totally impossible. It was mind-blowing to think how far we had come on our Half Dome hike, and see how much further and higher we still had to go.
The Everlasting Forest
We continued enjoying the flat trail through Little Yosemite Valley for a little while longer before coming to a much steeper area that led into a forest. Clearly, it was time to get our leg muscles working and hearts pumping again. There was still a lot of altitude to gain on the Half Dome hike, and we couldn’t expect any more areas of flat, relaxing hiking. Another sighting of the back of Half Dome reminded us just how much higher we still had to climb.
The kids were still holding up pretty strong, although they started asking more often if we were there yet. They certainly enjoyed all the attention they were getting from other hikers on the trail. Since ours were pretty much the only kids hiking up there, almost everyone asked them how old they were, and praised their strength and courage. They sure felt very proud!
Two More Miles to Go
We continued climbing up through the forest, and at one point came to a sign that showed we had only 2.0 miles left to the top of the Half Dome hike. Little that we knew, those two miles would be some of the most challenging in our lives!
We walked a little further past the sign, and decided to stop for some sandwiches and snacks. The kids were getting tired but the food, candy, and Gatorade gave them more energy. Surprisingly, they seemed quite excited to be getting closer to the final goal. As we continued walking, we noticed that the scenery around us was changing and the dense forest began yielding to more open, rocky areas. We had reached a whole new altitude, and the emerging views were absolutely breathtaking.
We spotted the side profile of Half Dome, much closer than the last time we saw it. When my younger daughter looked at it, she exclaimed, “Hey Half Dome, I am coming for you!” A couple of young adults nearby laughed and commented how amazing it was for the kids to even make it this far.
The Quiet Before the Storm
From here on, the trail led to a fairly open, granite terrain with amazing views all around. We were quite excited that now we were getting really close to our goal.
Then, suddenly I caught sight of the enormous cliff that was partially obstructing the view of Half Dome. It was tall, unimaginably steep, and we could see the tiny people that were crawling up there. This was the section of the trail known as the Subdome. I had heard of it before, but never really knew exactly what it was.
My thoughts and focus of the Half Dome hike were always on the cables up on top. As I stared at this giant granite mass in awe, I tried to envision in my mind how exactly we would get through it. In just a few minutes, I was about to find out!
We reached the base of the Subdome, and this was where a ranger stopped us and asked for our permits. After we showed them, the ranger took down the information and asked us to keep our food well packed, and not leave our backpacks unattended. Apparently, up on Half Dome, there are many chipmunks, or “micro bears” as she called them. They are quite aggressive when it comes to food, and have become rather unhealthy because of consuming too many human scraps. When the ranger finished giving us these instructions, she cleared us to continue our Half Dome hike.
We approached the trail leading up Subdome, and slowly started what looked like a grueling ascent.
I admit, I was a little nervous looking at the kids make their way up a series of switchbacks near gigantic drop-offs. I kept urging them to walk slowly and extremely carefully. If they slipped here, we would have a much bigger problem than a few cuts and bruises. The trail was so narrow and steep, we really couldn’t hold their hands. The kids however didn’t seem frightened even a little bit, and kept assuring us they were just fine.
We proceeded slowly up this enormous boulder, following more switchbacks, and steep stairs made of loose granite stones.
The Last Tree on the Trail
About half way up, we sat down and rested under the last tree that was growing up there. The views all around us were absolutely heart-stopping.
We were speechless, astounded, and a little nervous all at the same time. What stupendous insanity this was! After a few minutes of admiring this endlessly magnificent scenery, we got up, and continued our Half Dome hike. There were no more switchbacks or stairs, just open granite rocks. They had a grainy, non-slippery surface, which made them feel safer under our feet than they looked.
After a short while, we reached the top of Subdome without incident. As we reached this point, we stood at yet another bottom. This time however, it was the bottom of Half Dome’s colossal granite hood, and the infamous cables that lead to its summit.
The Cables on Half Dome
The view up here was completely overwhelming, and so was the sight of the tiny people crawling up and down along the cables. We looked up at the 400 or so feet of massive granite wall, and stood speechless for a minute.
Hubby and I agreed that we would give it our best efforts, but we would not compromise our safety. We each took a kid, and approached the cables. I began climbing up with our younger daughter in front of me, and hubby followed with our older daughter in front of him. The cables are attached to poles with wood two-by-four planks going across the path every six feet or so, giving some opportunity for brief rests with a small space to stand. The climb was VERY steep: 45 to 60 degrees straight up! To put this in a different perspective, for ski trails that are considered black diamond are at about 40 degrees and up. We all had very good hiking boots, but still found the rock to be surprisingly slick, due to the endless parade of climbers on the rock day after day, year after year. We had not brought gloves or harnesses, so we were trying to hold on as tightly as possible with our bare hands. This, combined with the steep climb and slick rock, made for a slow, difficult climb.
My younger daughter and I were in front, and continued pulling up the cables using a lot of upper body and leg strength. We hadn’t gone too far when a couple of oncoming hikers offered us their gloves so we could grasp the smooth metal cables more easily. Apparently, this is the practice here at the top of the Half Dome hike. People pass on their gloves when they finish using the cables to whomever needs them. We thanked these kind hikers, and offered the gloves to our kids. They took them, and continued pulling themselves up as best as they could.
Better Safe Than Sorry
My younger daughter who is very small and light was managing quite well. Even though her feet slipped and slid a little, she kept advancing. I did give her a few pushes here and there, but she held on tightly, and the wooden two-by-fours provided key resting points. We had climbed probably about two-thirds of the way to the top, and the incline became steeper. At the same time, there was a bit of a traffic jam on the cables with a long line of people in front of us not moving. It was at this point that our older daughter began really struggling. Pulling so hard on the cables requires a strong upper body, and it became difficult for her to even hold herself upright because gravity pulled her back so strongly. Combined with the slipping feet and increasing angle of climb, hubby made a decision to not proceed further with her.
He didn’t say much at the time, only that they wouldn’t continue. He then handed me his other pair of gloves. As much as I wanted them to make it to the top, I wasn’t going to try to push them to continue if he decided not to. I asked them to please stay safe on the way down, then put on the other pair of gloves, and continued the slow climb up the cables with our younger daughter. He later explained that he felt at that point like going on with our older daughter was simply not going to be possible.
On Top of Half Dome
As we continued our slow ascent, we met the same Amish family that we had seen earlier in the day. They were already coming down the cables, and the women still looked well put together and tidy. Honestly, their endurance amazed me! Not long after, the steep granite wall started to flatten out, which meant we were almost at the end of the cable section. As we took our last few steps, we saw a small group of people waiting for us to exit, so they could start going down. They all clapped and cheered when my little 8-year-old completed the cables! We made it! We were finally on top of Half Dome, one of the highest viewpoints in Yosemite Valley! It was 2:45 pm, and there was nothing left to climb. It would be all downhill from here for the remainder of our Half Dome hike!
Hungry “Micro Bears”
We found a nice flat granite rock on top of Half Dome and sat down to rest, rehydrate, and get some food. As soon as we opened our sandwiches, we saw a group of daring chipmunk “micro bears” run towards us, just as the ranger had said they would.
We were very careful not to leave any food scraps for them to munch on.
Cliffs and Drop-Offs
After we were finished, we packed everything and walked around a bit. The top of Half Dome was absolutely massive! It took us a good 7 or 8 minutes to go from one end to the other. As one would imagine, the panoramas here were beyond overwhelming, and the cliffs beyond hair-raising.
Since we were higher than almost everything else in Yosemite Valley, it was hard to take pictures unless we went close to an edge and pointed the camera down. I tried my best to take my photos at a safe distance.
My younger daughter and I enjoyed looking at the transcendent views for a bit longer, and asked a young Scottish lady to take some photos of us together. Then, we decided it was time to head back down the steep granite wall.
The Long Journey Home
We got to the cables, put on our gloves, and slowly began the long journey home. I went first, and my daughter followed.
We tried facing downhill, but after a few steps decided it would be easier to descend while facing the rock. It turned out that coming down was actually much easier than climbing up. We carefully slid and stepped down from ledge to ledge, moving at a good pace.
About half way, we met a lady who was trying to go up, but seemed completely panicked because her shoes were too slippery. I tried to give her a hand, and help pull her up, but she decided it was best to just go back down.
We waited for her a little bit, then continued descending the same way. Pretty soon all of us reached the bottom of the cables unharmed.
Passing on the Gloves
My younger daughter and I continued down Subdome, which also turned out to be easier this way.
While walking, we saw a small group of young people coming up. They, too, stopped us to ask how old my daughter was, and were astounded she made it this far on the Half Dome hike. They also happened to need gloves for the cables, so we passed our two pairs on to them.
Shortly thereafter, we came to the bottom of the Subdome, and happily reunited with hubby and my older daughter. It was 3:30 pm, and we were all excited to be together again.
All four of us started walking on the already familiar trail, satisfied with what we had accomplished.
Tired Muscles and More Decisions
It was on the way down that the fatigue really caught up with us, especially the kids. Our leg muscles were tired, a little shaky, and they weren’t holding us as well as we might have liked them to. My older daughter slipped a couple of times, and this really aggravated her mood. Fortunately hubby came to the rescue, distracting her with a conversation about one of her favorite computer games called Roblox, and perhaps a promise of a few Robux once we made it down. We continued down through the forest without any major incidents, except for a bit of whining. We descended through the forest down into Little Yosemite Valley, which gave our legs a little break, since the path was mostly flat.
Mist Trail or John Muir Trail
Further along the Half Dome hike, we proceeded to the area above Nevada Falls where several trails converge. We took a short break here, and contemplated which way to go. There were two options: Go back down on the already familiar Mist Trail with the steep, wet stairs, or take the rangers’ advice, and hike the John Muir Trail. It wasn’t an easy decision. On one hand, the sun was getting lower in the sky, and the John Muir Trail would add a couple more miles to our Half Dome hike overall. On the other hand, our legs and bodies were probably too tired to get us all safely through the wet stairs on Mist Trail. After weighing both alternatives, we decided to take the unknown, longer John Muir Trail.
The Beauty of John Muir Trail
We followed the signs in the right direction, and soon found ourselves at the very top of Nevada Falls. It was a truly wonderful area of open space, trees, water, and the giant granite dome Liberty Cap.
We crossed the Merced River on a bridge right over the top of the waterfall, and despite feeling exhausted, found the energy to admire the stunning beauty all around.
We continued along the Half Dome hike, focusing on making good time. We still had about four miles to go, and the sun continued to go down rapidly. The next part of the trail was a beautiful balcony along the side of the granite wall of a mountain. Here, we caught gorgeous views of Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls, which were now behind us.
As we continued moving as fast as we could, we kept hearing more and more complaining coming from the kids. Their legs and feet were hurting, and we had just run out of the last of our candy, food and water. These last two miles may have been the toughest. Exhaustion was setting in, we were all thirsty and sore, our feet throbbed, and we faced an endless series of long switchbacks through a forest. We tried our best to distract the kids, and we stopped frequently but briefly to rest along the way.
Final Efforts in Racing the Sun
After what felt like the longest switchback section ever, we finally arrived at the same water station we saw in the morning when we started our Half Dome hike. It was truly a wonderful sight after all these hours! We stopped for a little bit, filled up our backpacks with water, and washed our faces. The kids seemed considerably more content, and we were all ready to finish our quest. There was very little light left in the sky when we started walking down the final paved stretch of the trail. About 20 minutes later, as darkness covered the mountain, we turned on our flashlights, and made our way down the last bit to the trailhead and nearest shuttle stop. It was about 8:45 pm, which put our total hiking time for the day at approximately 15 hours. Thank goodness the shuttle in Yosemite Valley was still running, and we didn’t have to walk another extra mile back to our car! While we were sitting at the shuttle stop, I glanced at my Fitbit, and I immediately knew I had broken all of my previous records!
It felt like we waited for the shuttle forever, but when it finally came, it was a celebration! We got in and plopped on the seats completely exhausted, but fulfilled. The shuttle took us to our stop, and we managed to find our car in the dark pretty quickly. We got in, and headed out of the park towards Oakhurst. The kids fell asleep in the back seat almost instantaneously. When we got back to the house around 10:45 pm, it was too late and we were too tired to worry about a proper dinner. We dressed the kids for bed, as they were too wiped out to do it themselves. Then, we shut the lights in their room, and let them sleep. Hubby and I followed shortly thereafter. As we lay in bed with aches all over our bodies, we knew we were leaving behind one of the most extraordinary days of our lives! It was a day that we as a family would never ever forget!
Join us again as we continue our California adventure with a road trip to San Francisco.
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