The California Bucket List: Your daily guide to the best adventures and experiences in the Golden State

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High Sierra

Stand atop Yosemite's most famous icon with a hike to the summit of Half Dome

Half Dome cables, 2015. (Marc Martin/Los Angeles Times)
Half Dome cables, 2015. (Marc Martin/Los Angeles Times)

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.

Half Dome cables, 2015. (Marc Martin/Los Angeles Times)
Half Dome cables, 2015. (Marc Martin/Los Angeles Times)

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.

Info: Half Dome Permits at Yosemite National Park

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