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Half Dome Trail, Yosemite, CA

2005-04-29 10 min read Great Hikes marco

{moszoomimglink:Nothing stops you for}Yosemite in the early summer is a wonderland of incredible beauty. The wildflowers are still in bloom, the waterfalls are strong and powerful, and the temperatures are high enough to allow for a quick dip in the water. What better time to explore a great day hike than this?

Driving Up

My friends deserted me when it came to going up the mountain. It didn’t sound like fun in their eyes: to drive up in the early morning, get to Yosemite and start a long day hike to the top of a mountain, then drive back in the night, fearing the weekend rush hour traffic?

It was 5:30 AM on the second when I started the car’s engine. Rolling out, excited about what was to come, and a little worried about doing it on my own. Would it be too much? Would I get bored? Did I really have everything I need?

The drive was uneventful. As I knew from a previous stint, most radio stations would either serve mariachi music or Christian Coalition fare. I had plenty time to concentrate on the hike itself, and on the provisions I would need.

From the Valley to Vernal Fall

{moszoomimglink:Rainbow at Vernal Fall} I had done the initial part of the hike over the Thanksgiving holiday last year. It was fun, but not really spectacular. I had the option of going on either side of the Merced river, and chose the right bank and its steeper but more scenic trail. After a while, you get to a bridge that allows for wonderful views of the Fall, which is where most hikers stop, in awe at such majestic beauty. Vernal fall in the fall was a bit anemic, made interesting only by the ice formations at its base. Now in June, it was a spectacular ribbon of water crashing unimpeded into an invisible basin.

After crossing the bridge, you ascend Mist Trail, named after the waterfall’s ever-present droplets. Soon it gets really slippery and steep, and I started wondering why the National Park Systems doesn’t have to put disclaimers left and right. Suddenly, the trail turns into a series of granite steps that wedge themselves between the water and the valley walls. I got drenched in the mist, but had enough luck to be able to witness a morning rainbow of amazing beauty.

Emerald Pool

{moszoomimglink:Standing on top of Vernal fall} The real surprise comes when reaching the top of the waterfall. The sudden edge pours an amazing amount of water down the steep granite wall, but the real beauty lies behind it. A gargantuan granite flat, U-shaped as all glacier valleys and smooth as only fantasies of rock can be, holds the water that will soon fall.

{moszoomimglink:Not supposed to hang out there} The top of the stairs leads directly to a perfectly smooth area, from which you can see the water toppling down. Behind it, a small cascade leads to a vast, green pool, whose sides are marvelously smooth again. At the end of the pool, the smooth rock forms a flat cascade through which the unruly waters of the Merced river occupy their temporary resting space.

Of all the places on Earth I have seen, none rivals Emerald pool in beauty. The atmosphere of serenity inspires awe and mystic thought. The rush of the cascading waters – both in and out of the pool – should make you worried; instead, it feels like the sound is shielding you from the frantic universe on both ends of the noise. The forest around the granite is cool and shady, and the location protected from wind and the inclemency of weather.

A dip in the pool would be nice, but the authorities don’t like that. I stopped only briefly, not knowing how much time it would take to get to the destination, and decided I would rest here on the way back. The trail now passed around Silver Apron, the apt name of the cascade that leads into the pool. It looks like a perfect water slide, and on a different day and in a different century I would have wanted an inner tube with me.

Little Yosemite Valley

{moszoomimglink:Nevada fall plunging} After the Apron, you cross another roaring cascade, ascend on the flank of a mountain and finally get to a valley. On your way you’ll pass gorgeous Nevada fall, a single leap of water of extraordinary elegance. Unlike Vernal fall, this one breaks in the middle, turning from a free fall to an assisted cascade. You will actually not get near its top or bottom, so you don’t have the same kind of intimate experience with it as you get with Vernal.

{moszoomimglink:Lake Merced in the sun}You pass a station and then the trail starts flattening. You have reached Little Yosemite Valley. A small lake marks where the Merced rests for a while before plunging again. Backpackers can stay in a reserved area, dominated by a gargantuan outhouse whose smell make you wonder whether anyone is really happy about its proximity.

{moszoomimglink:Will have to climb all of that} To my left, the mountain was looming afar. From here, Half Dome was more like a humpback whale waiting to be conquered than a mystic and unapproachable mountain. It soared, to be fair, 2000 feet above Little Yosemite; it couldn’t rival its own look from the other side.

Almost There Yet

The trail soon left the Valley and started ascending again. This time I could almost feel the draw of the mountain, despite the thick forest through which I was hiking. I had a quick pace, worried about the time it would take to reach the top. I would encounter and pass people who would chat with me for a while, then stop when they felt I was too fast for them. That’s how I met the family from Wisconsin that had never seen a mountain before, and the couple from Fresno that was looking for new meaning, and the four boys from Nevada that decided to run all the way to the top (they had given up long before reaching the top of Vernal fall).

{moszoomimglink:The fractured top}The higher it got, the more the anticipation became unbearable. All of a sudden, I would get a glimpse of the trail from a distance: you would see it crawl on the side of the mountain, like an ant trail to a cookie jar. To the right of the trail, the mountain looked like sheets of grey paper peeled off partially to form an eagle’s beak.

Suddenly, the trail turns flat and you gain a view of Yosemite proper. The vertical wall that forms the North-West side of Half Dome is particularly impressive from here, dropping in the morning darkness to the very floor of the valley. The forest thins out, and only a few trees stand in the way of the granite top.

{moszoomimglink:More steps to the top} From here, you see the first obstacle: a steep mountain side that is passable only by virtue of steep granite steps. While we would climb, everybody would chat about their first experience on Half Dome, or pass along tips to novices like me. It seemed that most had done the hike in the past, and to some it was a mystic experience to be repeated each year. Joline (from Modesto) said she always came the same weekend each year, and didn’t think she’d like to miss it ever.

The Final Ascent

{moszoomimglink:A mountain of gloves} A small plateau concludes this final trail portion of the hike. The treeless ridge ends in a saddle, from whence Half Dome proper rises almost vertical again. The famous steel cables are getting closer. Beneath them, a pile of old gloves for people that didn’t take any with them – the ascent is impossible without.

{moszoomimglink:Steeper than it looks} I didn’t think it would be so hard. Climbing up requires a lot of strength and the willingness to be optimistic. For a certain amount of time, the wall is almost vertical, and the only thing holding you from falling is the set of cables, and the occasional wooden planks between them.

Getting higher and higher, the slope gradually flattens and it doesn’t feel as scary any more. Towards the top, a plaque warns in English and Spanish about the dangers of thunderstorms. From there, it’s an easy path to the top, swarming with people of all ages, genders, and proclivities.

The Top of the World

{moszoomimglink:The other side of the dome}First things first: the top is a let-down. The two most spectacular things in Yosemite, the waterfalls and Half Dome, you can’t see from here. The top itself is fairly flat and unremarkable, and the views are the same you would get anywhere else around.

Consequently, people do strange things when they reach the top. Most had breakfast or lunch; some were hanging out, tanning and resting in the sun; the younger crowd dared each other to stand, crawl or sit on the ledge. I sat down with a bunch of blond kids from Tennessee and shared my soy nuts, to which they commented they thought only cows eat soy.

I finished my water quickly, and by the time I was ready to leave, I knew I would soon need more. I realized painfully why most people had Camelbacks with them, and why a single quart doesn’t do the trip any justice. Don’t forget to pack a lot of water with you, or the trip will be a living hell!

The Way Down

{moszoomimglink:Enjoying a lunch break} Kevin, the oldest of the Tennessee boys, asked for a picture with his girlfriend. I took the occasion, said good-bye and started my descent. I looked with suspicion at the thunder cloud forming to the East, but it seemed unlikely to stir up enough danger.

The cables were fun to ride on the descent. Even more fun was to see the huffing and puffing of all the guys I had passed on my way up. The running boys from before were unhappy to see me, especially because it took them a long while to reach from pole to pole and they were feeling surely less than athletic at this point. I, instead, jumped and leaped and frolicked on the way down, telling everyone they were ‘almost there’. I dropped the gloves on the pile and skipped steps over the ridge.

{moszoomimglink:Looking East} The missing water created a sense of urgency. I had to get down soon, or I would be terminally dehydrated. Frankly speaking, at that point I had enough of the beauty and I was looking for no more than a quiet spot where to rest and read my book. Too bad it would take another hour to get there.

By the time I had reached the Merced, I could have done entirely without Yosemite. At the ranger station, I filled up with river water almost to a burst, and thence was happy with the world at large again. The river was surprisingly warm, swimmable almost, unlike my dreams of icy snow meltoff.

Emerald Pool Again, Then Home

{moszoomimglink:Wild water and small human} I knew my next destination: get to the Silver Apron and hang out there. Which is exactly what I did, in the company of a half dozen dozers like me. I got the food out, read my book, dozed off and watched people sit around. A single tall guy started taking pictures of everything, caught between meditation and frantic scramble. Otherwise we were all mellow and happy. No chatting, no sharing, this was a quiet crowd.

From there to the fall, from there to the trail, from there to the bridge, from there to the car.

A quick stop at the Yosemite Village Store, to buy a few travel essentials, and then heading home. I left at 5:30, started hiking at 9:30, got to the top at 1:30, was at the car at 5:30. By 9:30, I was at home again. It was very intense, but with the right friends, this would be the best day trip on this planet!

All pictures in this sections from the corresponding {moszoomalbum:2004-06-20 Half Dome Hike}