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When you think of must-do activities in California, there is a good chance backcountry camping does not rush to the front of your mind, but it should. While the Golden State boasts the glitz and glamor of Hollywood and over 800 miles of beach-lined coast, drive 4-hours inland from San Francisco and you are at the trailhead of one of the best backcountry hikes the USA has to offer. The Half Dome Hike located in Yosemite National Park is famous for its near-vertical 400-foot final ascent which can be summited without climbing-equipment thanks to cables fixed to the rock-face. Although it is possible to complete the 17-mile return hike in a day (~10-14 hours), I definitely recommend to set up camp at Little Yosemite Valley Campground (situated 3.8 miles along the trail) the day prior to completing the summit.
You are required to get a Half-Dome permit to be able to complete this hike. Additionally, staying at a backcountry campground also requires a wilderness permit. These permits are limited and are handed out through a lottery system. If you are planning on camping, you will need to register more than 24 weeks in advance which is when the lottery is drawn. Some permits are reserved for day-hikers that can be obtained from 11am prior to the day of the hike on a first-come, first-served basis. Visit the National Parks Service website for more details.
To commence your hike, parking your vehicle at the Yosemite Valley Trailhead Parking next to the Upper Pines Campground. Follow the Happy Isles trail across the Happy Isles Bridge then turn right onto the Mist Trail. The Mist Trail follows the Merced River and is highlighted by the beauty of Vernal Falls, tall trees and rocky terrain. As you continue ascending, the trees thin out and spectacular rock formations become increasingly prominent. At the end of the Mist Trail you hit the John Muir trail: turn left to continue to the campground; or if you are up for a short detour you can turn right and walk 0.2 miles to see the spectacular Nevada Fall. This detour is certainly worth it, I personally chose to do it on my descent. After spending the night at the campground, commence the hike up to the Half Dome Summit where you are rewarded with some of the most spectacular panoramic views in all of Yosemite National Park.
This hike is strenuous and recommended for intermediate-to-advanced backpackers. You need to be prepared and pack well. Make sure you have a good pair of comfortable hiking boots that you have worn in. I also highly recommend bringing a pair of hiking socks for each day – I wore these ones from Smartwool for the first time and was impressed with them. Having a hiking backpack that fits well is essential in making your trip enjoyable – I learnt the hard way when I first started hiking. I use a North Face pack that I love, however my group had bags from Deuter and Osprey that they said were extremely comfortable too. For this hike you will want a 35-55L backpack (pack size dependent on your sleeping system, food and clothing volume). For your sleeping system you will need a tent (ideally an ultralight design), a backpacking sleeping bag rated for the weather and a good quality sleeping pad. Hydration is also critical to consider in packing – you will need a capacity of between 2.5L-4L depending on the weather. Don’t forget to bring a water filter so you can refill your bladder from the river at the campsite – I swear by Grayl’s Ultralight Water Purifier which is so easy to use and doubles as a 473mL bottle to add to your carrying capacity. Someone in your group will want to bring a backpacking stove as well if you want a warm meal (or drink!) – I have a Jetboil MiniMo which never lets me down. A group member will also need to bring a first aid kit (if it doesn’t come with blister band-aids be sure to add some). Once you get to the campsite, put your food in the communal storage lockers at the campsite to reduce the chance of attracting bears. At night you will need a quality flashlight and/or headlamp to get around. I prefer headlamps as they allow you to have full use of both of your hands in the dark. The only additional piece of equipment you will want to have to climb the Half Dome summit the following day are gloves for the cables. Usually there are pairs of used gloves at the base of the cables that people have left there, however I brought my own pair of Petzl climbing gloves which made the summit a lot easier on my hands.
Anyone that has done a backcountry hiking trip before will enjoy this experience thoroughly. Make sure you have the right gear and you will have a blast!