Half Dome: Part Two

(Flip back to Part One of the story to see what you missed.)

Our plan for the hike was slightly different from the typical round trip for this hike. What’s usually done going up is taking the very popular and very scenic (and very steep) Mist Trail up to the top of Nevada Falls, then picking up the John Muir Trail to the Half Dome Trail the rest of the way. However, neither of us was in any mood to get soaking wet this early (the “mist” part of the Mist Trail is come by honestly), and neither of us was really in the mood to ascend the hundreds upon hundreds of stone steps that went up the trail. So instead, we planned to take the John Muir Trail up from the start—it would result in a slightly longer hike but, owing to the switchbacks on the John Muir (as opposed to an infinite series of steps), it would be a bit easier on the knees. Finally, following the usual, we planned to descend via the John Muir Trail as well.

Based on our readings and our own abilities, we were budgeting around 14 hours (round trip) for the 16-mile hike. We decided to get as early a start as possible, meaning the goal was to hit the Happy Isles trailhead not long after first light, somewhere around 5:30 a.m. or so. Given that we were now staying at the Wawona Hotel at the southern end of the park, we got a very early jump, as we knew that there was road construction between us and Happy Isles. So much for planning, though: The construction delays were actually worse at this time of day (night?), and we didn’t end up getting to the Curry Village parking lot til after 6:00. And from there it was still a short hike just to get to the trailhead at Happy Isles. OK, not a great start, as this now meant that we were going to be pushing darkness by the time we finished our hike.

But at about 6:30 a.m., we were finally off! And I swear, we promptly about turned around. The very start of the hike—just to get to the “real” trails—is all paved. (Yay!) But it is brutally hilly, especially for 6:30 in the morning. (Boo!) We were both thinking, as it turned out, that if this is what the whole hike was like, we were never going to make it. But we slogged on, and in what turned out to be very short order, we made it to the start of the “real” hike—the footbridge over the Merced River, taking us to the John Muir Trail.

And we’re off!

Once we started up the John Muir Trail, our initial fears turned out to be unfounded. Yes, the ascent up this part of the trail felt like one endless series of switchbacks, but no part of it was particularly steep. Not long along the trail, we caught sight of our eventual destination, as we were treated to grand views of the back side of Half Dome. And within a couple of hours, we caught sight of our first waypoint—the top of Nevada Falls. Knowing we were this close it gave us a little jump, and before we knew it, we were there. And let me tell you, it is quite a rush to be standing mere feet from where thousands upon thousands of gallons of water a minute go plummeting off the edge of a cliff.

Our first glimpse of Half Dome from the John Muir Trail.

Looking over the edge of Nevada Falls from a few feet away…

We took a short break for a quick bite to eat, and then we were off again. Immediately upon leaving the area of the falls, we were subjected to a short but rocky set of switchbacks, and after that… a break. For at this point, we entered Little Yosemite Valley, a dead-flat, mile-long stretch of trail along the banks of the Merced. Many people actually camp overnight here to make a shorter hike of Half Dome, in fact. For us, this served as a stop to refill our water bottles from a quiet spot along the river.

(Aside: If you’re going to make a day hike out of Half Dome, you simply must plan on packing a portable water filter/pump with you, as there is no way you can carry an adequate supply of water with you unless your idea of fun is hauling an extra 10 pounds of water with you for 14 hours. We had a Katadyn Hiker Pro with us, which allowed us to have to carry only two 1-liter water bottles each, as we knew there would be opportunities along the way to refill.)

The only downside to this stretch was that the trail was completely made of loose sand. In fact, it was like walking on a beach, and because of that, you lost part of your energy with each step just pushing off of the sand itself. But this is just griping—believe me, a flat stretch of trail was a godsend.

At the end of the valley, we split off from the John Muir and onto the Half Dome Trail itself. As with the ascent up the Muir, this part of the hike was just one switchback after another, none of it too steep in any one stretch but relentlessly uphill nonetheless. Partway up, another group of hikers (who had passed us awhile back) was stopped in the middle of the trail, and then we saw why: the trail was temporarily blocked by an unplanned visitor—a 4-5 foot long rattlesnake.

An unwelcome hiking partner.

Needless to say, all of us gave it a very wide berth. A little while later (relatively speaking—again, this hike was 7-8 hours long one way), we stopped for another refill of our bottles at an almost-hidden spring that our guidebook had filled us in on.

(Aside: If you’re looking for a guidebook to get up to speed on the Half Dome hike, I highly recommend Rick Deutsch’s One Best Hike: Yosemite’s Half Dome. We read it in the months leading up to the hike and carried it with us on the hike as an emergency reference as well.)

Up and up and up, until… more flatness, as we reached a shoulder giving us a grand view of Half Dome. But only a brief respite, for although we were almost at our destination, there was still one more major obstacle to overcome: the so-called Sub Dome and the brutally steep series of step-lined switchbacks up its side that many will argue (and that I will not refute) is harder than the ascent up Half Dome itself.

View of Sub Dome and Half Dome from the shoulder.

But overcome it we did. A quick jaunt across the saddle on the other side, and finally: touchdown.

Good lord, we have to climb that thing?

It was at this point that our collective common sense apparently decided to leave us for good.

(On to Part Three…)