Yosemite Half Dome Backpacking

Half Dome, an 8,842-foot granite rock, is the signature landmark of Yosemite National Park. I set out with REI Adventures for a unique 4th of July weekend in California.

We began our trip by getting our bearings at Backpacker’s Camp in Yosemite Valley.  Since we would be packing in and out anything we needed for the trip including tents, purification methods for the water, cooking supplies, etc. we precluded dinner with a downsizing of gear ritual that all urbanites should try.  We took things from our packs like cell phones that would not get service in the backcountry anyway, deodorant that clearly would not be strong enough to cover up the lack of shower, extra socks and shirts that exceeded the “wear one, take one” rule, and little luxuries like a hairbrush amongst other “heavy” and not necessary items.

Hiking Yosemite
Hiking Yosemite with full pack

The next morning the climb started on the Mist Trail past cascading waterfalls to Little Yosemite Valley.

Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls from the Mist Trail

With full gear on our backs we hiked the dirt trail and walked up narrow stone paths and steps.  Ascending 2,000 feet a day seemed not quite so daunting when surrounded by so much natural beauty.  We established another backcountry campsite at Little Yosemite Valley.  The stream on the perimeter of camp coming from the Merced River supplied a swimming hole that was perfect for a refreshing cool off and foot massage.  Dinner was somehow satisfyingly good in the wilderness – a little pasta and a hot drink perched on a log was a perfect way to chill before hitting my book and sleeping bag.

Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” was the perfect reading material since she is taking us with her along the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) which here in Yosemite we are trekking for a few miles ourselves.

The load quite a bit lighter with just our daypacks, we headed out to climb to the top of Half Dome. ..

The trail continues, sometimes climbing quite steeply up a series of rocky switchbacks over the north quarter dome. There you’ll find a sign warning you about lightening strikes.  Obviously, a 5000 foot granite dome is a natural lightening rod and Half Dome does get a lot of lightening strikes during the summer.

Ready for the cable route
Ready to climb the Half Dome cables

The climb up the subdome can be strenuous and the altitude starts to bother people who live at sea level. All of a sudden you run into the infamous Half Dome cables. The last part of the trail is too steep to climb without hand support and the park service graciously maintains the cables up the last quarter mile to the summit. I’m told this section never gets steeper than 45 degrees, but you can judge for yourself because it felt a heck of a lot steeper than that at times when actually on it. I recommend that you bring a pair of gloves with grip to protect your hands, especially when climbing down because you must support yourself on the cables in between the wooden boards you can take rest on every 10 or 15 feet – and you are not clipped in.  Safe to say that you should never try this with even one drop of rain out there as it is a very “slippery” rock on a clear day with good treaded hiking boots in my opinion.

Half Dome Cable Route
Half Dome Cable Route before going up

Take plenty of time to explore the summit area. Sometimes you can see rock climbers making their way up the face of Half Dome.  I found out this is where the company NorthFace gets its famous name.  Some climbers have been known to climb the 5000 foot face in less time than most hikers.  The tip of the summit extends outwards some distance beyond the cliff face.  Climbers affectionately call it the “diving board” or “king’s chair”.

After lunch of a pita with peanut butter and jelly from a squeeze tube on the roof of Yosemite, we returned to our campsite.  The ritual of unpacking our food and other attractive items to wildlife from the “Bear Boxes” was entertaining for this New Yorker as usual.  Although we did find that there were bears on the perimeter of camp that night so I guess the boxes really are a must in this wilderness.

Lunch on Half Dome
Lunch on Half Dome at top of cable route

And finally the next morning we whipped up breakfast burritos with our extra food then broke camp and hiked out, enjoying the view from Yosemite Falls and detouring a bit to walk the John Muir Trail and avoid the crowds on the Mist.  A night in a small lodge within the park boundaries was perfect with a fancy meal and a hot shower at the Narrow Gauge Inn before an early ride to catch a flight back to the East Coast.

An amazing long weekend trip up one of the most stunning climbs in the country is just what we need sometimes to ground ourselves and our lives among the crazy careers we crave and use to support these endeavors.

On top of Half Dome
Patriotism on top of Half Dome
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