Standing like a sentinel at the head of Yosemite valley, Half Dome (2,694 m/ 8,839 ft) ranks among America’s most iconic mountains.
Name: Half Dome
Height: 2,694 m (8,839 ft)
Location: Yosemite valley, California, USA, part of the Sierra Nevada Range.
First Climbed: 12 October 1875 by George G Anderson.
Climb Time: 10-12 hours
Best Time to Climb: Late May to early October (least crowded from September onwards).
INTRODUCTION TO HALF DOME.
While far from the highest peak in the US, its unique shape, stunning pale granite and proximity to other famous landmarks such as El Capitan (2,308m/ 7,573 ft) makes it one of the best known, most visited and widely celebrated American mountains.
Appearing as if it was placed purposefully on top of the ridgeline, or poked through by some subterranean giant, Half Dome’s presence is like few other mountains. It’s curious form brings out intrigue in even the most stubbornly urban-orientated visitor, proffering questions about its formation and how it can possibly be scaled.
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As part of Yosemite National Park, Half Dome and its surrounding landmarks are visited by over four million visitors annually. Whether day hikers or wilderness adventurers, these visitors are well catered for in the villages, visitor complexes and campsites spread through the area.
- Find the book you need about for the Sierra Nevada; including hiking guides, climbing guides and fishing guides.
Half Dome and its surrounding area have plenty to offer with the possibilities for everyone from casual families looking for short adventures to experienced and motivated climbers looking for technical challenges. Planning is required to make the most of a visit though, with permits and popularity two of the other common factors that feature in a Half Dome visit.
Half Dome is a complete adventure; climbing it is, or surely should be, on every mountain enthusiasts bucket list.
HISTORY OF HALF DOME.
Half Dome’s name is less of a mystery or personal biography than some other mountains. It is named Half Dome simply because, well, it looks like half a dome! Simple, straight-forward, descriptive naming! The Native American name for the mountain is Tis-sa-sack means ‘Cleft Rock’, although another variation is Tis-se’-yak meaning ‘face of a young woman stained with tears’. This is a reference to the myth below.
The Ahwahneechee, who are said to have been led here by the Great Spirit, inhabited the area. This was a safe and well-protected valley far from the threats faced out on the plains and in the west. Theirs is a history of warfare, fear and eventual settlement. As it is documented as part myth and part fact, the telling of a ‘true’ history of this area and its peoples is difficult.
A Native American myth explains the formation of Half Dome, along with several other Yosemite landmarks. It says that, while fighting, Tesaiyac threw a basket of acorns at her husband. Acorns and other nuts were seen by Native Americans as an expression of the fruitfulness and vitality of North American wildlife, and so were very highly prized.
So, as punishment for wasting this bounty, the Gods turned both of them into stone. Tesaiyac thus became Half Dome and her husband became North Dome (2,299m/ 7,542 ft). The basket became, predictably, Basket Dome (2,320 m/ 7,612 ft) – though it was the mountain that was named after the myth.
So now Tesaiyac forever faces her husband and the upturned basket across Yosemite valley. It’s said that if you look closely at the north-west face of Half Dome, you can see her face with tears streaming (hence the name Tis-se’-yak).
Half Dome sits within Yosemite National Park, which was created in 1890. John Muir, the famous mountaineer, was instrumental in attaining this protective status for the area. The name Yosemite comes from the Native American work Yohhe’meti meaning ‘those who kill’. This was the name given to the tribe who originally inhabited the valley.
Once an established part of modern American culture, Yosemite National Park had another historical first: the first female ranger in the National Park Service, Claire Marie Hodges, in 1918.
GEOGRAPHY OF HALF DOME.
The shape of Half Dome is its signature feature. The intrigue it provokes in visitors leads to an echoing question to bounce off the walls of Yosemite valley: ‘How do you make a mountain like Half Dome?’
Made of granite, or quartz monzonite to be more precise, Half Dome formed several kilometres below the Earth’s surface as magma chambers cooled and slowly crystallised into rock.
This was then pushed up through the action of plates coming together and then, similarly to the rest of the Sierra Nevada range, as the eastern plate moved away from the western plate, a normal fault block occurred. For more information on this process, have a read about the Sierra Nevada.
The uniqueness of Half Dome’s shape is the handiwork of huge glaciers, namely the enormous Sherwin glacier.
This glacier almost filled the whole of Yosemite valley, with only the very highest peaks like Half Dome avoiding being completely submerged. This glacier carved out the wide U-shaped valley we see today. It also took around 20% of Half Dome with it, leaving the sheer vertical drop of the north-west face.
This face is now very popular with climbers, but is in stark contrast to the other gently rounded sides (hence ‘dome’). The dome shape is a reflection of how complete an image of a magma chamber Half Dome is (or was), with the curved sides reflecting the natural subterranean circulation of molten rock before it hardened into granite.
That said, it is understood that it was never actually a perfect dome but always looked a little lopsided.
From the summit, it’s possible to stare back down Yosemite valley towards El Capitan to the west, or look to the south-east across Little Yosemite valley. Half Dome is enveloped by water, with the Merced river flowing along the west and south, and the Snow and Tenaya creeks flowing down from the north and east.
The iconic shape of Half Dome actually only stretches 415 m (1,360 ft) above the ridgeline. As such, Half Dome shares a similar ‘stand-out’ presence from the landscape to Uluru, the great mystery of the Australian outback; they both look as if someone came along and placed them there, perhaps just for fun!
WILDLIFE OF HALF DOME.
While the very top of Half Dome is almost entirely bare, the ridgeline and valley below are rich and diverse areas for flora.
Trees found at higher elevations include the western white pine, mountain hemlock and lodgepole pines, while the vanilla scent of Jeffrey pine bark can be smelled lower down. The most populated areas are found below 1,800m (6,000 ft) in the Lower Montane forests, which contain ponderosa pine, incense-cedar and white fir.
It is at this elevation that Yosemite’s famous giant sequoias also grow. The nearest to Half Dome are found in the Merced groves to the mountain’s south-west. Below, in the valley floor, meadow-like conditions offer colourful blooms of wildflowers throughout spring (the valley has at least 1,450 wildflower species ready to discover).
Common wildflowers include the scarlet monkeyflower, the mountain pride, the little elephant’s head and the snow plant.
There are over 400 species of vertebrates living in Yosemite, so coming across some sentient wildness is pretty likely near Half Dome.
You can’t miss the black bears in Yosemite and around Half Dome…or rather you can’t miss all the signs telling you about them. Between these and permit warning signs, you’ll never be short of the important information on this mountain!
Given the population of black bears in the area, and their willingness to scavenge the food straight from your backpack, heed the warnings seriously and make sure you and your group are clear as to the correct courses of actions to take should you see one.
Also found near Half Dome at lower elevations are mule deer. They depend on the meadow habitat at the base of the mountain and travel in herds; if you see one and you’ll probably see many of them!
Some other animals you might spot include the California ground squirrel, bobcats and the western fence lizard. Above or in the trees, listen out for the acorn woodpecker, and look out for the night-stalking spotted owl.
At higher elevations, yellow-bellied marmot and the white-tailed hare can be seen mainly in summer, while the Clark’s nutcracker and rosy finch are hardy enough to live above the treeline. The stunning blue-bellied Steller’s jay is also found high up the valley’s sides.
FIRST ASCENT OF HALF DOME.
In 1865, Half Dome was said to be ‘perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden by human foot.’ A decade later, the human feet of George G Anderson were the first of many thousands of feet to have since successfully challenged this statement!
On 12 October 1875 (at 3pm to be precise), Anderson reached the summit of Half Dome via the route that was the predecessor for today’s cable route. A local guide and ‘skilled outdoorsman’, he succeeded where others had only ever previously failed.
To climb the rock, he tried numerous methods (shoes, barefoot, sticky tree sap) but in the end used a more modern approach: hammering pins into the rock and attaching a rope (similar to lead climbing).
Afterwards, he used this route to create a sturdy and permanent rope route up Half Dome so other climbers could reach the summit.
Sandy Dutcher was the first woman to climb Half Dome later in the same year – and she did so wearing a long dress too.
CLIMBING UP HALF DOME.
Given the type of route that Half Dome presents, there is one commonly-used route up and down and then a plethora of more challenging, technical approaches.
The common route involves cables, a distance of 22.5-26 km (14-16 miles) and an elevation gain of 1,443m (4,734 ft). So while it is very popular, it is also not for the faint-hearted.
- Find the book you need about for the Sierra Nevada; including hiking guides, climbing guides and fishing guides.
The typical Half Dome hike is a well-marked trail that follows the John Muir Trail (JMT) for the first 6.2 miles before turning up onto the Half Dome summit trail. Typically, this route begins at the Happy Isles trailhead at 1,251 m (4,105 ft) and heads up the Merced river.
From here it heads up to the top of Vernal and Nevada falls, the spray from which gives the Mist trail its name. Then you head passed Liberty Cap to the west then through Little Yosemite valley.
After climbing out of the valley, you leave the John Muir Trail and head north-west before cutting back south-west and onto the infamous cable section that challenges you all the way to the summit of Half Dome. Gloves are a recommended piece of equipment for this ascent, to avoid the inevitable scrapes and blisters from the metal cables.
Note that the descent is not much faster than the ascent, so aim to summit by 1pm. If you’re not turning back towards sea level by 3.30pm, even on a very long summer’s day, you may well get caught out when the dark closes in.
For the most part, the route back down is the same as the ascent. Variations in the lower sections are also possible but not necessary. Allow plenty of time to complete the adventure in daylight, though carrying a head torch is another smart choice.
The cables, which cover the last 250 m (820 ft) of the ascent, are not present year-round. Weather permitting, they are put up around Memorial Day (last Monday in May) and taken down around Columbus Day (second Monday in October).
When they remain during the winter, climbing is not recommended as ice and snow make the route very treacherous and one slip could lead to a thousand-foot unchecked fall!
Given its popularity, there are many personal accounts of the Half Dome hike out there. Here is a selection of the best (or most entertaining!):
Whenever you wish to go, you’ll need a permit.
Given the popularity of these, it is best if you plan ahead – way ahead. The majority of a year’s permits are given out in a lottery during March of that year. While some are still available nearer the time (two days out and the day before), if the Half Dome route is one you want to do, it’s best to get in early.
(Note that this only applies to the Cables Route; other routes don’t require this extra permit.)
As for technical climbs, these have been added from the late-1940s onwards, with many being created during the US climbing boom during the 1970s and ‘80s. The two most popular routes are Snake Dike, which climbs up the south-west face, and the Regular NW Face, created in 1957. The most recent additions came in 1999, called: White Trash Vacation, Solitary Confinement and Repo Man.
Be aware that during thunderstorms, Half Dome is regularly stuck by lightning. Equally, come summer, the sun hitting and bouncing up from the pale granite can be very intense.
So ensure you always go suitably prepared for a strenuous climb up the cables, with sun cream, sufficient water (there is none after the first 1.5 km of the trail) and if there are weather warnings or you see black clouds approaching, turn around and head back down.
INFORMATION ON TREKKING AROUND HALF DOME.
With 800 miles of designated trails through the Yosemite National Park, it’s fair to say that this is one area in which you’ll be spoiled for choice! Over 50,000 hikers a year decide to tackle multi-day hikes, staying in the one of the many campsites dotted through the area or out in the wilderness (permit required).
Through the length of Yosemite valley are a number of waterfalls. These can be viewed from below, above and many have trails that criss-cross the valley alongside them. Some of the popular waterfall trails are the Vernal and Nevada Fall trails, and the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls trails. These have options ranging from easy to strenuous challenges.
The routes up to Glacier Point are also excellent. While this landmark can be reached by cars and public transport, offering an easy, short hike, taking routes up from Half Dome village, or across from Half Dome, are arguably far more rewarding.
To avoid the crowds of Half Dome, a hike or climb up North Dome is an excellent alternative. Lying on the north side of the valley, and offering excellent views of Half Dome, North Dome allows for a range of visitors. It ranges from Class 1 family ascents (North Dome trail) to highly technical climbs (various).