Hiking Half Dome in the shoulder season

Hiking Half Dome in the shoulder season

In the spring Ryan and I were thinking of hiking Half Dome while the cables were still down. Starting around March we were checking the reviews on AllTrails to see if people were able to do it. For a bit there were a bunch of reviews from people who attempted it but the cables were covered in snow. Sometime in April we saw a review from someone who successfully climbed Half Dome so we decided to go the week after.

Kind of dark but the sky is barely pink
First light of sunrise

Apparently Ryan is accustomed to driving to Yosemite the night before to start the hike at 4:30am instead of camping in the area. So we left at around midnight and got to Yosemite at 4ish. One annoying thing about doing a drive in the middle of the night is that there are no restrooms open anywhere along the way. I think we ended up finding a gas station that happened to have port-a-potties in the parking lot for some reason.

We started the hike at about 4:30. It was still dark. The section through Vernal Falls was misty, which was very cold. Other than that the Vernal and Nevada Falls section went by quickly, maybe because we couldn't see anything. It became light sometime when we were past Little Yosemite Valley.


The section from Little Yosemite Valley to the subdome is distance-wise about half of the hike and a steady uphill.

Bristly pine trees on bare rock trail, Half Dome is in the back
View of Half Dome from right before subdome
Yosemite granite mountains
View from subdome

Once you reach the subdome the trail becomes steeper and rockier, and the trail is marked by cairns. I think we got lost a little bit going up because the trail was steeper than I wanted it to be but we found the correct path when going down. For some reason it's always easier to find the trail while going downhill.

We're actually on a big granite rock now, some cairns, and Half Dome is just peeking out over the rock
View from the subdome

We reached the bottom of the cables at around 9am. One group was coming down the cables before we started up and another group was right behind us. To go up the cables you need a climbing harness and two prusik loops with carabiners to connect them to your climbing harness. More details about going up the cables at the bottom of this page.

Straight on view of Half Dome, cables lying on the rock, little patches of snow on the side
Half Dome cables
Me looking back while hanging off the cables

I think the hardest part going up was the fact that the cables are heavy and you're tied to them with a short loop so you have to walk sort of bent over and holding up the cables. It is steep enough that I would not have liked walking up without the prusik thing and I have no idea what it's like walking up normally when the cables are up.

It's a big round flat topped rock, one side of it is completely covered in snow
Top of Half Dome

According to the timestamps on my phone the next photo I took from the top was at 10:30 but 1 hour 30 minutes sounds like a long time. We did take a while to rest at the bottom of Half Dome and put on the climbing harnesses and whatnot, though, so maybe.

Ryan standing on one of the rock ledges that protrude from Half Dome

We spent a bunch of time at the top. There are these two ledges that look cool to take pictures on.

Standing on the other rock ledge.. they look like they're made of a bunch of flat slabs stacked together

For lunch we brought one of those Safeway bread loaves and a small bottle of olive oil packaged in an old to-go Sake bottle. We also brought some sort of cake dessert thing from Safeway.

Holding a plastic tube bottle of olive oil and a loaf of bread
Big view, people are standing at the top of the cables
Looking down the cables

I went down the dome by facing up the mountain and sliding the prusiks as I walked down. You can also walk down facing forward.

Lots of white water falling down a granite cliff
Nevada Falls

We took the Mist Trail on the way down and this time we could actually see the waterfalls as opposed to on the way up.

River right before the top of the falls, water is very white
Top of Vernal Falls
Much water in Vernal Falls, and rainbow in the bottom right corner
Vernal Falls

Logistics of going up the cables

The main advantage of hiking Half Dome off season is that it's much less crowded and you don't need a permit. Recently it's become very difficult to get a permit. The Half Dome season goes from end of May to mid-October, usually. During the season the cables are held up with poles to make handrails and there are periodic wooden plank steps. Otherwise the cables are just lying flat on the rocks. There are a few months where it's possible to do Half Dome outside of the season because it becomes difficult/impossible with snow.

Blue carabiner with a prusik loop tied to the cable
Prusik loop

If you have a proper system for going up the cables then the cable part seems very safe, possibly safer than when the cables are up because you're tied in. Things you would need are

  • a climbing harness
  • two prusik loops (something like this or make one by tying utility cord into a loop)
  • two carabiners
  • gloves (because the cables can be poky)

At any given point you have one prusik loop on the cable. The second prusik loop is for the places where the cable is bolted to the rock and you have to untie and retie your loop. This way you are never not connected to the cable.

On the way down I made my prusik loops with two loops instead of three to make it easier to slide the prusik down the cable. Technically you're probably not supposed to do this but at least for me the knot with two loops seemed to have more than enough friction to stop a fall.

Climbing with prusiks was also nice because at any point you can just lean back and rest.