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Why: This is the ultimate day hike — not just in Yosemite, but in all of California. The grueling trek to Half Dome is stunning from start to end: Along the way, you'll pass rushing waterfalls, towering granite cliff faces and quiet wooded dells, and possibly spot the occasional black bear. All of that culminates in a nail-biting final ascent up 400 feet of metal cables, a harrowing endeavor that will challenge your arm strength, endurance and nerves.
What: There are two main ways to summit Half Dome: the Mist Trail (14 miles round trip) or the John Muir Trail (16 miles round trip). When I did the hike last June, the plan was to go up the Mist Trail and down the JMT, but after hours of hiking, the thought of tacking on additional mileage — even if it was less steep — became less appealing.
Either way, you're looking at a gnarly 4,800 feet of elevation gain. For most hikers, the round trip takes 10 to 12 hours.
Hiking Half Dome involves a fair amount of logistical and physical advance prep.
First, you'll need a permit to climb the cables. There are two ways to obtain one: during the preseason lottery (apply online in March; learn your results in mid-April) or through a daily lottery during the hiking season, which typically begins around Memorial Day and ends around Columbus Day, depending on weather conditions.
A maximum of 300 hikers are allowed a day: 225 day hikers, and 75 backpackers. With tens of thousands of people applying, be prepared for disappointment: According to the National Park Service, the success rate last year for preseason lottery applicants was just 3.4% on weekends and 10% on weekdays; for the daily lottery, it was 12% on weekends and 31% on weekdays.
To get in shape for Half Dome, plan to do several training hikes in the preceding months — a loop around Runyon the week before isn't going to cut it. Wake up early, pack a backpack and get a feel for what it's like to be out on the trail all day. Good training hikes in Southern California include the Six-Pack of Peaks (Mt. Wilson, Cucamonga Peak, Mt. Baldy, San Bernardino Peak, Mt. San Jacinto and San Gorgonio). Build up your arm strength with weights and resistance exercises.
Bring a good pair of hiking boots, at least four liters of water, grippy gloves (although there is a pile of discarded gloves at the base of the cables), sunscreen, lunch, snacks, a flashlight or headlamp, mosquito repellent and a first-aid kit. Some hikers use a harness and clips to attach themselves to the cables, but most haul themselves up without.
Where: The hike begins on the valley floor. There’s a parking lot, or you can walk to the trailhead from the Happy Isles shuttle stop (about a half-mile away) or from Half Dome Village (about three-quatrers of a mile away). Note that shuttle service doesn’t begin until 7 a.m.
How much: It costs $10 to apply for a permit, and another $10 if you win the lottery. Park admission is $30 per vehicle for a seven-day pass.