half dome hike

Half Dome - cable assisted climb to the top

Hiking Yosemite National Park

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Summary:  Humorous, illustrated story about the author's first, solo, overnight, backcountry experience hiking Yosemite National Park.

includes hiking Half Dome and Cloud's Rest as well as stops at Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall with lots of great Yosemite photos (show trail map).

(please note: this is not a guide)


Half Dome, Yosemite National Park - 2005 photo

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My first thought upon driving into Yosemite National Park was "Ok, where's the visitor center/ranger station?"  It's somewhere between a 3 and 4 hour drive from the Reno airport to Tuolumne Meadows just inside the park's northeastern entrance.  It was early Monday evening and I was a little bit concerned that my tentative plans for beginning a backcountry hike the next day were about to change.  I wasn't sure what time the visitor center closed and I needed to talk to a ranger about the trip.  Specifically, I wanted to find out if my chosen route was a good choice and I also needed to pick up the backcountry permit which I had reserved and which was required for camping in the 'wilderness'.  Besides, I needed to use the bathroom.  I'd stopped at a gas station to top off the gas tank and fill the stove's fuel bottle; but that was a long time ago.  Anyway, I paid the one-time entrance fee of $20 (per vehicle, per week) and proceeded to look around for a place to pick up the backcountry camping permit.  There was a sign along the road that read something like "Backcountry Permits" so I followed the signs to a small booth occupied by a college student who would be working for a few more weeks until school started in the fall.  I later discovered that there were a lot of college students working there.  Kind of like a little community of them.  I talked with this dude for a while and told him I was thinking about hiking from Tuolumne Meadows to 'The Valley', spending one night in the backcountry.  I'd catch the bus in the valley the next day and ride back to Tuolumne where I had a camp site reserved all week.   He asked me what kind of shape I was in, what I wanted to see and proceeded to suggest a different route which sounded shorter, easier and better.  I was all for it.  He also suggested that I get up early, drive to the valley, park the car and ride the bus back up north to drop me at the trail head.  The bus schedule wasn't really compatible with my original plans. There's only one bus that runs from the valley to Tuolumne Meadows and it leaves at 8am.  By leaving the car in the valley and having the bus drop me off at the trail head, I could arrive back at the car anytime on Wednesday.   It's probably a good time to note that this was my first backcountry camping experience.  I hadn't done this type of thing before; let alone by myself.  I just thought, quit worrying, it's only one night.  What's the worst that can happen?  Even if you ran out of food and water you 'probably' wouldn't die.  I'd been camping with friends and done a fair amount of hiking so was pretty comfortable with the whole idea.  Until... the dude strongly suggested that I rent a bear canister.  I'm like, huh?  I'd always thought that hanging food from trees and using bear canisters was simply a safety precaution in the highly unlikely event that a bear was in this particular area of the vast wilderness.  Hikers rarely see bears.  People spend their whole lives and never get to see one.   This was news to me.  Ok, I'll rent the bear canister.  It was a big, heavy, hard plastic container within which I was advised to put anything that smelled...  food, deodorant, toothpaste, etc.  I was then to place the canister away from the tent at night.  Bears, he said, might kick it around like a soccer ball but they won't be able to get inside.  Just don't leave anything in your tent and you'll be fine.  The canister was about the size of my sleeping bag and I wasn't sure how I was going to carry it.  Ok, whatever.   I took the canister, backcountry permit, parking permit (to leave my car in the valley) & revised hiking route and left to find my Tuolumne Meadows camp site.  Along the way I decided to look around a bit first, buy some firewood and check out the visitor center.  The visitor center was a small gift shop type outfit with picture books and post cards employing more college kids.  I bought a few post cards and headed back towards the camping area.   I stopped at the convenience store/gas station on the way to buy firewood.  The store had just about anything you could possibly want.  Food, groceries, wine, beer, camping gear, souvenirs, etc.  I had stopped at a K-Mart on my way to the park and bought a cheap cooler, food, water, etc.  I could've bought everything here.  You could even buy hamburgers and other fast food. 

cover I used an older version of this book along with advice from rangers and friends to plan my trip.  It's an all around good reference and includes information about lodging, activities, hiking trails, camping and travel.  Follow the link or click the picture to buy it from Amazon.com.

I also used a topographic map by Wilderness Press while en route.  It's printed on plastic, waterproof material and contains a lot of useful information on the back.  This map can be purchased from Amazon.com at a lower cost than the Trails Illustrated maps. (click to buy it).  

Yosemite topographic maps can also be purchased from Trails Illustrated.  Online map.

I pulled into my campsite a short time later.  Complete with fire pit and bear box (big, locking metal box for food) this was where I'd spend Monday and Wednesday nights.  I'd succeeded in scattering all my food and gear all over the place when I decided it was time to find the restrooms.  I hurriedly put 'most' of the food in the box and locked down the gear I didn't want stolen (e.g. camera) and went to find the facilities.  They were nearby and it took me less than 10 minutes to return to camp to find a pseudo ranger (college kid) preparing to write me a ticket for leaving out a loaf of bread.  I apologized as she informed me that it was irresponsible to leave out food because the bears become accustomed to the hand outs.  The bears then begin to rely on the food left out by campers, can no longer find their own food in the wild, are no longer afraid of humans, become aggressive and have to be killed.  Ok... I won't leave food out any more.  Your not even supposed to keep food in your car.  Bears will rip the doors off of cars to get food.  Put food in the big metal box.  Okay, okay... I got it.

I finally got the tent set up and was ready to start a fire and make something to eat.  I pulled out the firewood purchased from the store.  Two boxes: one of hardwood that burns slower but longer and one of softer wood that's supposedly easier to light but burns faster.  Note:  in organized campground settings, you pretty much have to buy firewood because there isn't any laying around.  It's already been used up.  I struggled to start a fire.  I didn't have a camp axe to break the logs into smaller pieces and there was very little to gather as kindling.  I burned some paper and trash but pretty much succeeded only in creating a smoking piece of shit.  Ok, time to eat.  I'd bought some smoked turkey slices, chips and bread at the store.  Where's the bread?  Did the ranger confiscate it?  Did an animal (e.g. bear, raccoon) sneak off with it.  I have no idea.  All I know is, no bread equals slices of turkey and Nacho Cheese Doritos for dinner.  Not extremely satisfying; but I was hungry.

The travel alarm went off at 4:30am on Tuesday morning.  It had been a cold night.  I was pretty prepared; but one more layer of clothes and a warm hat would have been nice.  It was late August/early September and the temperature at the higher elevation of Tuolumne Meadows was dropping to freezing.  I remembered people talking in the convenience store about how cold it had gotten the previous night...  now I know what they were talking about.  I packed everything up and tried to keep everything organized in their proper stuff sacks.  Clothes in red, dirty clothes in red...  this became a problem later.  Toiletries in green.  Matches, knives, misc utility devices (silverware, garbage bags, etc.) in yellow.  I'd bought a couple of gallons of drinking water the day before, so I filled up the water bladders, ate some breakfast bars, had a diet Pepsi and threw everything in the car (except for some of the food which I left in the box).  I wanted to make sure that nobody took my camp site while I was gone so I put a little luggage lock on the bear box and tied a luggage tag to the outside.  I figure, if anyone wanted the food bad enough they could get it; but at least they know the spot's taken and that I was planning to come back.

Yosemite National Park - Tuolumne Meadows Landscape of Tuolumne Meadows    Show me the next picture

It's a 2 hour drive from Tuolumne Meadows to the valley and the dude told me I should leave no later than 6am to catch the 8am bus.  I left at 6.  The winding road runs through a variety of scenic areas (e.g. Tenaya Lake, Olmsted Point, etc.); but I was in a hurry.  Not far from Tuolumne I got to see a bear crossing the road.  Cool.  I eventually made my way to the backcountry parking lot, put everything in the backpack and walked down the road to catch the bus.   I purchased my ticket and waited for the bus to arrive.  I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the bus driver also considered himself a tour guide.  We got a really nice description of many of the parks features, it's history and a lesson about why naturally occurring forest fires are good and should be allowed to burn.  Without going into too much detail, frequent and smaller fires clear off the forest floor, don't harm the more mature trees and create a more livable habitat for animals.  Frequent, smaller fires prevent large, hot burning fires that kill the trees.  Riding the bus that morning were a couple of hikers who mentioned climbing Half Dome.  I was also planning to climb Half Dome.  They said it was really hard; but worth it.  Ok...  what's 'really hard?'  Can I do it?  What do you mean there's cables up the side?  What am I supposed to do with my backpack?  I can't just leave it somewhere, can I?  Hmmm.   Oh well, if they can do it, I can do it.

The bus backtracked the same route that I had taken to the valley from Tuolumne.  It pulled over several times to drop hikers at different starting points.  My chosen starting spot was the Sunrise trailhead about 3/4's the way back to my Tuolumne camp site.  My original route was to hike the John Muir trail from Tuolumne all the way to the valley.  Starting at the Sunrise trailhead is like taking a short cut to the cool stuff the on the John Muir trail.  In fact, the Sunrise and John Muir trails merge in time to include all of the sites that I wanted to hit.  AND the route is several miles shorter (yeah!).  The John Muir trail is probably the most popular trail in a popular park.  Named after influential naturalist John Muir, trail highlights include Clouds Rest, Half Dome, Nevada & Vernal Falls.  It extends for a total of 211miles including large sections of Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park to the north.

Show map.

I jumped off the bus and pulled my pack from the luggage area underneath.  I thanked the driver and began to wonder... what am I getting into?   At this point I noticed the smell of gasoline.  Oh, shit.  The fuel bottle leaked in my pack.  I haven't even started yet and am facing a pack full of contents soaked with fuel.  I pull the bottle out and immediately noticed the slick, coolness of gasoline on the bottle and my hand.  I had borrowed a pillow from the airlines to use on the trip.  It was soaked.  Luckily, the pillow had prevented my clothes and sleeping bag from getting wet.  Everything reeked but it was dry.  I threw the pillow in a nearby dumpster, put the fuel bottle in a water bottle holder on the outside of the pack and hoisted my barely used (and at this point unjustified) purchase onto my back and headed into the wild. 

Moral of the story:  make sure the fuel bottle o-ring is in tact and/or don't put the bottle inside the pack.

Day time temperatures were pleasant.  I had learned on previous trips that convertible pants - the kind that turn into shorts - are a good idea and that blue jeans suck.  It didn't take long before the pants turned to shorts and my lightweight fleece jacked was tied to the pack.  I was sweating my ass off.  My back wasn't getting much air due to the close fitting pack and was drenched.  A cool breeze made it chilly when I stopped to rest so I'd have to put on the fleece.  I found it helpful just to tie the jacket onto the outside of the pack so I could grab it anytime I got cold.  This was especially true on ridgelines where the wind was stronger.

The trail was well marked and it was a sunny day.  I would occasionally see other hikers and we'd exchange pleasantries.  "hi", "nice day, eh?"  "what a great view!"  My goal for the day was to hike to the top of Cloud's Rest then down to a stream and camp in between Cloud's Rest and Half Dome.  I passed water sources periodically and was never very low so water availability didn't seem to be an issue.  I had purchased several plastic water bladders and looped a hose around to the front of the pack where it clipped onto the shoulder strap.  An easily accessible compartment on the back proved very convenient for storing a couple of the water bladders.  I soon arrived at a pretty little lake on the route and decided to take a break.  I stopped and drank some of my remaining water then proceeded to filter water and refill the bottles.  A few minutes later a couple of California ladies strolled into sight.  I helped them filter water.  They were still wearing their packs and I was relatively well rested and mobile.  We then continued hiking together.  They were from L.A. and had started in Tuolumne the day before.  They were going to be hiking the same route as me but would be spending another night in the backcountry at a camping area between Half Dome and Nevada Fall called Little Yosemite Valley (you need reservations to camp there).  They considered my schedule pretty aggressive.   In retrospect, another night would have been a good idea.  My pace was a bit faster than the theirs and we became separated after a while.  I eventually closed in on Cloud's Rest.  The map indicated that the trail splits just before the peak.  You could go up and over the top or go around.  It looked a bit challenging with a pack so I decided to leave my pack on the ground, hike up to the top then come back, grab the pack and go around.  I scrambled over big rocks and along the ledge.  This part of the trail wasn't well marked.  I had some difficulty figuring how to get to the top without stranding myself on some ledge that went nowhere.  After some trial and error, I emerged up onto the top with beautiful views all around.  Tenaya lake was visible in the distance and in the other direction, a remarkable view of Half Dome.  A couple was sitting up on top in thermarest-made-chairs having lunch looking out over the lower lying areas with Half Dome in the distance.  El Capitan could be seen farther off.  It was a wonderfully clear day and the scenery is very unique.  Unlike the forests and mountains of Colorado, the Sierra Nevada's of Yosemite have substantial areas of exposed white granite.  Two of the most well known of these rock formations are Half Dome and El Capitan.  El Capitan rises 3600 feet straight up from the valley floor and is the largest single piece of exposed granite in North America (if not the world).  Looking across the wide open expanse from the top of Cloud's Rest, it appeared to be much 'whiter' (rockier) with less trees than other areas that I'd seen.  The rocky nature of the Nevada's higher elevations results in more vistas and viewpoints than in other more heavily forested areas.  Rivers, normally able to cut swaths through softer ground, tumble over the tall, rocky cliffs in great waterfalls.  6 of the USA's 11 tallest waterfalls are in Yosemite.  A similar concentration of large waterfalls can be found nowhere else in the country.  The forest thickens at lower elevations.  Earlier in the day, the bus driver passed around a flier indicating the locations of a number of forest fires (10-20) currently burning in the park.  All were controlled and intentional.  In areas closer to the fires, the views weren't as good due to the lingering smoke.  

Yosemite National Park - top of Cloud's Rest Top of Cloud's Rest    Show me the next picture

I walked around for a bit, enjoyed the splendid view and talked briefly with the couple at the top.  We took each others pictures and looked over at Half Dome.  How the hell am I going to climb that?  It looks like it goes straight up!!  I was informed that cables ran up the side and that you just couldn't see them from this far away.  Man, it looks like a bitch from here.  Turns out they were planning on climbing it the next day also.  I lingered for a short time longer then headed back to get my pack.  It was still there...  whew?!?  Like anyone would try to run off with it...  it's freakin' heavy (and getting heavier).   

I took a look at the map and noted a stream near where the trail splits for the out/back portion of climbing Half Dome.  I wanted to get to the stream, fill up with water and camp somewhere nearby.  My plan was to get up in the morning, eat breakfast, pack up and not have to go very far before starting the Half Dome ascent.  I was heading down the side of Cloud's Rest when I passed a group of guys placing big chunks of rocks next too each other in an effort to build stairs into a steep portion of the trail.  My unsubstantiated theory is that this helps prevent erosion caused by hikers sliding/stumbling down steep sections.  It's also safer.

It was all downhill from the top of Cloud's Rest to my intended camping destination.  By this time, my pack was getting very heavy and pressed down painfully on my shoulders with every step.  It wasn't until later that I discovered a pair of straps near my shoulders which pulled the pack closer to my back and transferred much of the weight to my hips where it belongs.  Needless to say, I was already sore and putting on and taking off the pack was a real chore.  I was also starting to run low on water.  Ok, where's that stream?!   I had to keep going until I found water.  I encountered a muddy spot in the trail and eagerly assessed it until I decided that it would be impossible to filter the water...  keep going.   Man, my shoulders are killing me.  Step, ouch, step, oh, step, grunt, sweat, step, throb, grumble.  How much farther is it?

I finally passed some water traveling across the trail.  A small pool, about half the size of a football was on the uphill side.  I stopped and sat down letting the weight of the pack rest on the ground.   I slowly maneuvered myself out of it, loosening the adjustable straps to make it easier to take off and put on the pack.

I filled all of my water bladders (5 Liters) and was going to camp at the first sight of a suitable spot.  Forget the stream, I'm done.  The problem with this part of the trail was that I was still relatively high up and the sides of the mountains were pretty steep.  No clear, flat spots around.  I kept going.  Finally the ground began to level off and I found a spot that looked as if it had been used by a previous hiker.  This is it....  home for the night.

I sat down the pack and looked around for the best place to pitch the tent.  I found a reasonably flat spot clear of rocks and set it up.  I pulled out my Thermarest sleeping pad and rolled out the sleeping bag.  Fortunately, the tent and sleeping bag were at the bottom of the pack so didn't smell like gas.  However, my clothes smelled terrible.  I hung everything from a tree to air it out and thought about starting a fire.  There was plenty of wood laying around and it would've been nice; but I didn't want to waste any water trying to put it out later.  Plus, the rocks available to build a fire pit were big and heavy.  No fire.

I was eagerly looking forward to a dinner of hot instant mashed potatoes and ravioli.  I retrieved the stove and found a rock suitable to host my portable kitchen.  Now is probably a good time to mention that I hadn't used the stove yet.  In fact, I borrowed it from a friend and we'd worked quite a while to seat the seal that allows the pump to pressurize the fuel bottle.  The seal had kept coming loose thereby rendering the stove useless.  I kept my fingers crossed.  I sat on a log, pumped up the stove and tried to light it.  Nada.  Great!?!  Now I'm looking at a cold mashed potato shake for supper.  I retrieved my bag of utility items and began to disassemble the stove.  I found that a small hole allowing the fuel to reach the burner was clogged.  I cleared it with the wire inside a garbage bag tie.  Pretty handy, huh?  Anyway, I finally got the stove lit, water boiled and a hot dinner of mashed potatoes and raviolis in my belly.  A couple of things worth noting here.  First, don't fill the fuel bottle clear to the top.  It won't pressurize correctly and requires pumping very often.  A basic understanding of the sciences tells you that gases compress more easily than liquids... I must've forgotten.  A properly pressurized fuel bottle will burn more steadily for a longer period of time.  I found that I had a raging, noisy, intense flame for about 2 minutes and then I'd have to pump up the stove again.  It began to work better as I used up some of the gas.    Second, test the stove before you go.

After dinner, I zealously put all food and smelly stuff into the bear canister.  I found a spot to put the container underneath a bush in between a fork of it's roots.  This, I figured, would make it more difficult for a bear to run off with it.  It was starting to get dark, so I organized everything and was pretty much ready to crash when it hit me.  I have to go to the bathroom.  Great?!?  Without overdoing it here, I didn't much enjoy the actual act.  Not easy, but I did it and now I'm not afraid.  Just take plenty of toilet paper.  It turns out that I had plenty, but my margin of safety was pretty thin.

It was dark now.  Dark without a fire equals bed time. 

Until now I hadn't really thought much about being alone in the woods.  Now, with nothing to distract me, I began to think about all the wild animals and psychos that might be running around.  I'd brought along my cell phone and, surprisingly enough, it was working.  I took the phone for safety reasons in case I fell or something but it wouldn't be of any immediate help.  I had a small pocket knife and kept it handy but it was pretty worthless.  I also brought my pots and pans (cleaned of food) into the tent with me.  I'd overheard the staff at one of the visitor areas telling another camper to bang the pots and pans together to scare off animals.  Better safe than sorry.  I looked at my trail map for a while and thought about the next day's events.  I would proceed to the stream, fill up with water, hide the pack behind a rock then try climbing Half Dome. 

On the back of the map was quite a bit of information about the park including history, geology, camping regulations, tips, weather and "Animal Problems."  As my flashlight danced across the page I was somewhat comforted to learn that black bears are not considered to be especially dangerous.  They didn't eat people and nobody has ever died in Yosemite as a result of a black bear attack.  Whew?!?  The next paragraph was about Mountain Lions.  Mountain lions, it said, have been sighted with increasing frequency, eat people ("Unlike bears, lions may view you as food" ) and will stalk solo hikers.  Shit!!  It goes on to inform the reader how to survive the attack of a mountain lion.  First, avoid encounters with mountain lions.  Second, if attacked by a lion, fight for your life because it's trying to eat you.  At this point I was getting tired of reading and tried to go to sleep.  Every little noise seemed amplified.  I found myself being alarmed by even the smallest noise.  Eventually, I realized that I was overreacting and I fell asleep. 

"Stomp, STomp, STOmp, STOMp, STOMP!!!"  Something's outside, it's coming this way and it's big!  Oh Shit!  I'm history.  The headlines read:  "Solo Hiker in Yosemite Eaten by Bears and Mountain Lions."  It goes on to tell about my life, the history of animal attacks in the park and finally concludes that you shouldn't hike alone without a gun. 

Now would be a good time to note that hiking with guns is a controversial topic and in some areas it's illegal.  I'm undecided as to the merits of carrying firearms.

At any rate, I don't have a gun and my heart's racing.  I grabbed for my little pocket knife and was not at all reassured by it.  As the noise of big animal(s) came closer, I'd shout and bang the pots and pans together.   Bang, Bang, Bang, "Get outta here!!"  Kind of like you'd yell at a stray dog getting into the trash.  Good, they're going away.  Here they come again...  Bang, Bang, Bang...  "Go On!!  Get outta here!!!"   I'm guessing it was 2-3 bears; but I didn't see them.  I expected to hear them tearing at the canister, growling and fighting with each other over the food; but they didn't.  They went away.   It took me a while to get back to sleep after that but I managed.  I had survived.

The next morning I got up, looked around for bears, made breakfast, drank coffee and packed up all my stuff.  It wasn't as cold at night as it had been at the higher elevations in Tuolumne (elev. 8600').  The morning was cool but not cold.  I was soon ready to go.

I made my way back to the trail and began heading for the stream.  The trail splits beyond the stream.  One direction continues to the valley, the other to Half Dome.  As I made my way, I walked upon some deer grazing just off the trail.  They didn't seem to mind having their pictures taken so I snapped several before moving on.  I eventually reached the stream after passing some other hikers camped along the way.  I put my pack down and filled all of my water bottles.  Another hiker was doing the same.  We greeted each other and talked a bit.  I asked if bears visited his camping area and he replied:  "oh yeah, they come around every night about 30-45 minutes after you go to bed looking for food that you might have left lying around.  They don't stay long, just check things out and move on."   Yep, that's consistent with my experience.  He then went on to tell me about a hiking experience in Alaska.  They have Grizzlies.  Grizzlies don't run away when their scared, they attack.  We continued to have a very pleasant discussion about our different hiking adventures and things that we'd like to do in the future.  He headed back to his nearby campsite and I proceeded up the trail to Half Dome.  There were a lot more people on this part of the trail.  I continued climbing while searching for a place to hide my pack.  I had to come back this way and didn't want to carry the pack clear to the top and all the way back down.  I talked to others about hiding their packs and they all did it without being overly concerned about loosing stuff.   I found a good spot just a bit away from a burned tree by the trail.  I put the pack down and removed the top which converts into a fanny-pack.  I filled the fanny-pack with food, water and few other things, hid the rest of the stuff and headed out.  While I spent time hiding the pack, a couple that I'd passed earlier had passed me.  I soon caught up with them.  "It's about time you ditched that pack,  we were wondering if you were going to try and climb to the top with it."  "No."  I replied "just looking for a good hiding spot."  Seems as though they didn't waste any time getting rid of theirs.   

I soon passed a rather bedraggled looking young guy.  He was carrying a small bag, a big bottle of water and a tired look on his face.  I greeted him as I passed and kept moving.  Up, Up, Up.  Persistent, steady, climb, climb, climb.  The out/back portion of the Half Dome hike is 2 miles each way from the main trail.  Much of the hike is a long steady climb.  It's not until later that the earthen trail becomes stairs carved into the rock.   Signs along the route warn climbers about lightning.  Lightning frequently strikes Half Dome.  If a storm's approaching, don't climb it.  If a storm overtakes you while your on top, stay low & stay there (i.e. don't get near the cables).  Another sign talks about a rare species of salamander that lives on the top.  Don't mess with the salamanders.  My question:  how did the salamanders get there?  It's out in the middle of nowhere and a hell of a climb to the top.  Squirrels were up there too.  I didn't expect to see squirrels.  They must not be able to read the signs.

As I passed the end of the stairs, the trail continued up and over a big, arching area of rock that ended at the last and most challenging part of the route...  the steep side of Half Dome strung with cables.  Two 1" cables were held waist level by poles placed in holes in the rock and spaced several strides apart.  Boards were anchored between the poles allowing footholds and places to rest.  I put on my gloves and began to climb; holding onto the cables and sliding my hands along as I went.  Step, step, step, rest on the board.  Step, step, step, rest on the board.  After 600' of climbing up the cables, I finally reached the end.  The ground started to level off and I proceeded up and onto the top to be rewarded with extraordinary views all around.  The view of the valley 5000' below was nothing short of incredible.  I was standing on the top of one of the most prominent features of the park.  Mt Lyell is the highest point in the park at an elevation of 13,114'.  Cloud's Rest tops out around 9926'.  The top of Half Dome is 8842' and offers rewarding views of both.   From the edge, you can look straight down a sheer drop off for 2,200 feet.  The ground then begins to slope outward, though still very steep, for another 2500'.  Adventurous hikers were walking clear up to the edge.  Other more cautious members of the crowd, like myself, would lie down on our bellies and scoot to the edge to have a look.  There are no hand rails.  A rock overhang in one area juts out over the edge.  With nothing directly underneath, it offers an exhilarating experience for those willing to give it a try.  I observed one guy lying on the rock looking over the side.  He stayed for a while then carefully made his way back to the relative safety away from the edge.  I had talked with him briefly on the way up. He'd noticed that the fanny pack I carried was from a Gregory pack.  He had the same kind.  I asked him about being out on the overhang.  He said it was cool but decided to move away after starting to get the willies.  The view was marvelous and I was trying to snap pictures over the side; but I too was suffering from a mild case of the willies.  

Climb to top of Half Dome

Hiking Half Dome - Yosemite National Park Hiking Half Dome - Yosemite National Park Half Dome - Hiking Yosemite National Park

  Show me the next picture      

The top of Half Dome is a very large and relatively flat expanse of barren rock.  I walked around for a while and sat down to enjoy the surroundings.  I ate some trail mix, took in the view then started down.  As I reached the top of the cables, I was asked by another hiker to take his photo.  He explained that a buddy of his had been to the top and had convinced him to see it for himself.  As evidence of his accomplish, his buddy required a picture of him at the top of the cables.   Of course, I obliged and he also took my photo.  

Hiking Half Dome - Yosemite National Park    Cables on top of Half Dome    Show me the next picture

The descent was much easier than the climb.  I managed to get down very quickly.  On the way, I met the California ladies and we talked about our experiences from the night before.  I offered words of encouragement for their impending climb then continued down.  I also met the couple with whom I'd talked on the top of Cloud's Rest the day before, they were very nice.   A bunch of people were now reaching the bottom of the cables and were on the way up.  It seems that I'd timed my climb to miss the throng of people now aspiring to reach the top.  A goal I had just achieved.  I was very happy.  

Hiking Half Dome - Yosemite National Park Descending the cables    Show me the next picture

I was back on the trail and descending at the same time as a man that I'd passed earlier on the way up.  We proceeded down together and met his wife who'd patiently waited while her husband climbed to the top.  They were a very nice couple from Tucson and were the one's who'd previously commented on me making the climb with my pack.  We talked as we headed down and went a considerable distance when we began to realize that things looked different.  We'd taken a wrong turn.   We turned around, went back the way we came and eventually found the right trail.  We continued chatting and eventually came to the point where I'd hidden the pack.  We separated with pleasantries.  I reattached the top portion of the pack, put it on and headed down.  I had a long way to go.  My goal was to hit Nevada and Vernal Falls en route to the valley.  I met the Tucson couple again where the trail split.  They were resting and eating a snack before heading a short distance to the Little Yosemite Valley camp sites to spend the night.  I said my good-byes and continued. 

From the top of Half Dome to the valley floor, it's a downhill hike.  It's almost a 5000' vertical change in just over 8 miles.  If you think it sounds easy, think again.  Normal strides aren't possible and the pack was still bothering my shoulders.  I never did weigh the pack but let me tell you, it was heavy.  It was now late morning and I began to pass a new breed of hikers on their way up.  The others that I'd passed earlier had camped somewhere close by.  These new folks were coming up all the way from the valley and some looked wrecked.  Most were novice explorers that hadn't done anything like this before.  Hey, I've been there.  Unprepared and ready to puke your guts out.  Live and learn...  it's worth it.  The bedraggled looking fellow that I'd passed on the way up, caught me on the way down.  He was now a happy, bedraggled fellow.  He'd hiked all the way up from the valley and would hike down the same day...  that's 10000' feet of vertical in 16.5 miles round trip.  That makes for a long day.  He was a college student from California on his way home to Pittsburgh.  He'd just decided to stop off in Yosemite for the day and do a little hiking.  He picked a good one.  We continued all the way to the valley together.  We passed through Little Yosemite Valley as we continued along the trail.  The trail has been extensively used from here down to the valley and has been hiked so frequently that in places it was like walking on a dry, sandy beach.  You'd step forward, and while your weight moved over the top of your foot, the ground underneath would shift.  You use a lot of extra energy walking on this stuff. 

As we approached the top of Nevada Fall, you could hear the sound of rushing water.  Late August in Yosemite is pretty dry.  Fed by snow melt throughout the spring and early summer, all the snow had long since melted and a few of the water falls were either dry, or barely misting.  Fortunately, Nevada and Vernal falls still had substantial amounts of water pouring over their rocky tops.  Observation areas on either side of the flowing stream allowed visitors to look over the side of Nevada Fall to see the water plummet 594 feet.  Very nice.  It must be something to see the full force of the spring flow go over the top.  This is where the hike gets tough.

The last 3.4 miles from the top of Nevada Fall to the valley were the most challenging.  Lot's of stairs and I was tired.   Stair-stepping switchbacks led from the top Nevada Fall until the slope began to level off.  Beautiful views of the front and sides of Nevada kept hikers company on the way down.  The trail continued down to the top of Vernal Fall.  An observation area, similar to that at Nevada, lets observers catch Vernal's 317' drop.  The trail continues down stairs with cliffs on one side and the rushing water on the other.  This portion of the trail is appropriately named the Mist Trail.  Clouds of mist float throughout the area and hikers in the springtime are warned about getting wet.  Continuing down the trail along the side of the cliff, rainbows arch through the mist as you look back at the waterfall.   

Waterfalls - Vernal and Nevada - Hiking Yosemite Mist Trail: including Nevada and Vernal Falls    Show me the next picture

We continued down to the valley and I became more and more encouraged upon seeing throngs of the unprepared hikers venturing up.  More people on the trail equals close to the end.  I enjoyed hiking with my college student friend.  As we stood at the bus stop along the road, I took my pack off and sat it on the ground.  Yeah, I did it.  The bus soon came around to pick us up.  Tourists riding the bus enjoyed the novelty of seeing backpackers coming in from the wilderness.  I sat down in the comfortable bus seat and waited for my stop at Curry Village, a camping area complete with souvenir shops, grocery stores, restaurants, etc.  The bus dropped us off and we went into one of the shops.  It was early evening and I wanted to pick up a few souvenirs.  Oh, a Half Dome hiker button... gotta have that!  T-shirts and postcards, had to get a few of those.  I walked out of the store and wished my new friend the best of luck.  I then headed for the car.   I took off the pack, and got out my tennis shoes.  I didn't have any blisters - a pleasant surprise, but was really happy to get the boots off.  As I sat against the trunk of the car, a couple of climbers walked by.  They were carrying long strands of climbing rope and had been on a hike to scout a climbing route up the face of Half Dome.  Cool.  I loaded everything up and drove around a little.  It was getting dark so couldn't see much.  I was also looking for a camp ax with which to chop some of the large pieces of firewood I bought into smaller pieces of kindling.  They didn't have them anywhere.  I suspected that they'd have them back at the Tuolumne camp store but I wouldn't make it before they closed.   So I stood in front of the multiple newspaper vending machines trying to figure out which paper would be the biggest.  I bought 2 or 3 newspapers with the full intent of burning them.  I was going to have a fire this time damn it. 

It was dark now so I began the 2 hour drive back to my reserved Tuolumne camp site.  It was colder there.  Tuolumne Meadows at 8600' is about 4000' higher than the valley floor.  The drive was uneventful and after arriving I set up the tent and started a fire.  The fire was nice and warm.  The fire pit had a cooking grill that you could flip over the fire so I opened up a can of chili and sat it over the flames to warm.  It was soon ready to eat.  Chili wrapped in tortillas is good.  I also had some more Doritos and maybe a turkey sandwich (I also bought bread at the store).  It was now Wednesday night.  I had originally planned to camp on Thursday night and get up really early Friday morning to drive back to the Reno airport.  I decided that I'd have to get up REALLY early if I camped to catch my flight so I changed the plan.  I'd get up Thursday morning, drive down the valley to check out the sites then drive back to Reno and check into a hotel that night.  I could sleep later and clean up before getting on the plane. 

One of the guys on the top of Half Dome recommended visiting Glacier Point.  I also wanted to see a sequoia.  I got up Thursday morning and made some coffee and breakfast.  I've now become adept at using the stove.  I made a couple of sandwiches to take along for the trip then walked over to greet my neighbors.  They were from England and on extended holiday.  They had already been in Yosemite for a couple of weeks and were planning to stay a few more.  I offered them the remainder of my fuel, some bananas, hamburger, bread, remaining fire wood etc.  They were thrilled.  Fresh food is a luxury.  A hikers diet consists mostly of lightweight dry foods supplemented with some canned foods.  For example, ramen noodles and canned chicken.   If you're near your car, you can have just about anything; but not hiking in the woods.  While my neighbors had their car handy, they were college students on a very strict budget and were loving the idea of hamburger and turkey. 

I soon headed for the valley.  My intent was to drive to Glacier Point and then hit the Tuolumne Grove of giant sequoias on the way back.  It's a smaller grove than Mariposa, less visited but on my route.  It took me a couple of hours to get to the valley.  I stopped along the way to get a picture of El Capitan.  On the bus ride up to Tuolumne, the driver had mentioned that a climber, paralyzed from the waste down, had just climbed the face (3600').  Incredible.  Shortly after my visit, I learned of  parachutists jumping off the side.  This apparently happens a lot but had recently come under fire from park authorities for being unsafe.  In protest of the crack down, a group of base jumpers made the leap.  One of them died. 

I proceeded en route to Glacier Point when I ran across a view just on the outside of the Wawona Tunnel curiously enough called Tunnel View.  Wow!  I had lunch here.  Lots of people and tour buses but a fabulous view with El Capitan rising on the left, Bridalveil Fall on the right and Half Dome in the middle in the distance.   Along the route there were several other turnoffs and viewpoints to be enjoyed.  Several short hikes also sounded great but there wasn't enough time.  After several stops and beautiful views I arrived at the Glacier Point parking area.   It was everything I'd hoped.  From this viewpoint I could see my entire hiking route from the previous 2 days.  From left to right, from farthest to closest: Cloud's Rest, Half Dome, Nevada and Vernal Falls.  Neat.  I took a lot of pictures.   

Tunnel View and Glacier Point 

Yosemite National Park - Tunnel View  Yosemite National Park - Glacier Point        

Show me the next picture

I headed back into and through the valley.  Other sites in the valley that I wanted to see included the Ahwahnee Hotel (I drove by but didn't go inside) and the Ansel Adams gallery (I have a couple pictures).  I'll go back someday.

The roads in and out of the valley are one-way, multi-lane affairs.  The in-route is on the other side of the Merced river from the outbound portion.  I was on my way out of the valley when I saw a group of cars parked along the road so I stopped to have a look.   Of course, the view was fantastic.  I took a couple of pictures and moved on.  I was at a friend's place later and saw a painting of what I'd seen at that viewpoint.  Cool.  I also knew that one of my Ansel Adams photos was taken in Yosemite and was keeping my fingers crossed that it was Half Dome (it might also have been El Capitan, I wasn't sure).  It was Half Dome with the moon rising in the background.  Cool.  I climbed that.   

Yosemite National Park - Yosemite Valley View along the road out of Yosemite    Show me the next picture

My final stop in Yosemite was the Tuolumne Grove of 25 giant Sequoia's.  It's a smaller grove than Mariposa (w/500 trees) but it was more convenient and I really just wanted to see one.  I parked the car and began the easy 1-mile hike on a paved trail.  There's a rich history behind the giant trees which I can't even begin to explain.  The Redwoods are taller (but skinnier) and the Bristlecones are older (but smaller) yet the Giant Sequoias are the largest and heaviest living thing ever to appear on the planet (6100 tons).  They can live to be over 3000 years old.  I was in awe.  I really wanted to take a pine cone; but we were encouraged not to disturb the environment so I didn't.  Surprisingly enough, the pine cones are about the size of a golf ball.  In contrast, the cones of the smaller Sugar Pine can be as large as a hiking boot.  I continued on the trail eager to see one of the trees.  Is that one?  Nah.  Hmmm.  That could be one...  maybe not.  After this initial questioning of each large tree I saw, it became immediately obvious that you'd know them when you saw them.  They completely dwarfed the other trees.  They're so tall you can't get them into the frame of any meaningful photograph.  Thus, any photo you see of people beside the tree will include only the bottommost portion.  As I walked around, everyone seemed to be in awe of the large trees.  Everyone, including myself, was very quiet and respectful.  I'm not sure exactly why, it just seemed to have that affect on people.  

Giant Sequoias - Yosemite National Park Tuolumne Grove

I left the grove of Sequoias with the feeling that I'd seen something very special. 

I drove back up through Tuolumne and headed for Nevada.  I was running low on gas but gas in California is substantially more expensive than in Nevada.  I bought enough gas to get me to Nevada then filled up at a smaller town along the way.  Carson City is reasonably close to the Reno airport and I thought it might be a cheaper place to stay.  I stopped at a convenience store and asked about reasonably priced rooms at a hotel/casino.  I could've stayed at a Super 8 or Motel 6 but wanted the Nevada experience.  The attendant recommended a place so I went.  It wasn't anything special but I was glad to have a chance to take a shower and get cleaned up.  I went down to the restaurant and ordered biscuits and gravy, lasagna, etc.  The waitress couldn't believe I had eaten so much.  It was my first meal back in civilization and I was starving.  I went to bed shortly afterward.  The next morning I got up, ate breakfast at the restaurant and headed for the airport.

The trip was great.  The weather, albeit a bit cold, was perfect.  And I learned a few things along the way...  I know that I can spend the night in the backcountry by myself.  I know that trips like this (even alone) offer tremendous rewards. 

There's so many beautiful and remarkable things to see and experience.  I can't wait to try it again.  

Books, Maps & Gear

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cover I used an older version of this book along with advice from rangers and friends to plan my trip.  It's an all around good reference and includes information about lodging, activities, hiking trails, camping and travel.  Follow the link or click the picture to buy it from Amazon.com.

I also used a topographic map by Wilderness Press while en route.  It's printed on plastic, waterproof material and contains a lot of useful information on the back.  This map can be purchased from Amazon.com at a lower cost than the Trails Illustrated maps. (click to buy it).  

Yosemite topographic maps can also be purchased from Trails Illustrated.  Online map.

Click the graphic above to see more books about Yosemite.


Click here for a sample 3 season backpacking checklist.

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Thank you for visiting.

Story and photos by Kevin Venator

Travel took place  Monday, Aug 30 - Friday, Sept 3, 1999


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Disclaimer:  information provided in good faith with no warranty or obligation attached.  Be prepared for your adventures. 

Your safety is your responsibility.  Explore with respect.

America's Wonderlands

Copyright 2002 K. Venator