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Trail of the Week: Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

One of the most iconic trails in the United States is a great challenge for runners—with great rewards.

Our Trail of the Week feature is made possible through a partnership with Trail Run Project.

Perhaps one of the most famous routes in the United States, trail runners (and many, many hikers) often take the trail from the Yosemite Valley floor up to the summit of Half Dome, one of the iconic features of Yosemite National Park in California.

First thing’s first: This is a hard trail to run at a good pace, for a number of reasons. One, it’s a steady elevation gain of about 4,800 feet over the course of eight miles to the top, on rugged terrain. Secondly, this is one of the most famous hikes in the U.S., and there will be hundreds of others on this trail with you, especially on summer weekends. The trail is so popular that the National Park Service now requires permits seven days a week while the cables are up during the summer months.

But this is still a bucket-list route for trail runners due to the challenge and unbelievable amount of beauty that awaits. Along the way, you’ll see outstanding views of Vernal and Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, Half Dome, and—from the shoulder and summit—panoramic views of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra.

Most people take 10 to 12 hours to hike to Half Dome and back; some take longer. If you plan on running during the day, it’s smart to leave around sunrise (or earlier) and then have a non-negotiable turn-around time. For instance, if you haven’t reached the top of Half Dome by 3:30 pm, you’ll turn around. Check for sunrise and sunset times before you run. Regardless, each person should carry a flashlight or headlamp with good batteries (runners commonly struggle down the trail after dark because they don’t have a flashlight). Although the trail is well marked, you should be prepared with a good topographic map and compass and know how to use them.

Most people begin the run from Happy Isles (shuttle stop #16), which is about a half-mile from the trailhead parking lot or about 3/4 of a mile from Curry Village (parking available). Shuttle service doesn’t begin until 7 a.m., so if you’re arriving prior to then, you can walk on the road (closed to all but authorized vehicles) from either parking area to the trailhead.

Start the journey on the John Muir Trail: Happy Isles to Half Dome Trail. You can either stay on the JMT all the way to Half Dome Trail for a longer but mellower run or turn left onto Mist Trail after one mile. This route follows Mist Trail for an up close and personal view of Vernal and Nevada Falls. Eventually, you’ll merge back onto the JMT. After just over 5 miles, look for the Half Dome Trail to branch off to the left.

The trail steadily climbs to the north-northwest through the forest for roughly a mile before turning west and then southwest toward Half Dome. You’ll eventually emerge from the tree-cover onto solid granite and begin ascending a steep series of switchbacks to a saddle below the cables.

The most famous–or infamous–part of this trail is the ascent up the cables. The two metal cables allow hikers to climb the last 400 feet to the summit without rock climbing equipment. Since 1919, relatively few people have fallen and died on the cables. However, injuries are not uncommon for those acting irresponsibly.

The Half Dome cables usually go back up the Friday before Memorial Day (conditions permitting) and come down the day after Columbus Day.

Need To Know

Bring well broken-in boots or shoes with good ankle support and good traction. Some of the most common injuries Half Dome runners suffer are blisters and ankle injuries; good footwear is the best way to prevent these problems.

Many people find gloves helpful on the cables. However, if you bring your gloves up, pack them out. Hundreds of pounds of rotting gloves otherwise accumulate.

The only treated water on the trail is available (summer only) at a drinking fountain at the Vernal Fall Footbridge (less than a mile from the trailhead). Merced River water is available up to Little Yosemite Valley, however you should treat this water by boiling, using iodine, or using a giardia-rated water filter. Drinking untreated river water may cause significant illness.

Runner Notes

Although this trail is technically “runnable,” you’d be hard pressed to keep good pace on this trail due to a host of factors.

  • This is an ICONIC trail. You’ll be “running” with hundreds of your closest friends on the way to Half Dome.
  • The grade during the final approach to Half Dome is incredibly steep and a fall could bedeadly

The Data

Miles: 14.5

Runnable: 72 percent

Singletrack: 90 percent

Average Grade: 12 percent

Max Grade: 69 percent

Total Ascent: 4,709  feet

Total Descent: -4,708 feet

Highest Elevation: 8,599 feet

For a closer look, check out the interactive map, data, photos and virtual run simulator courtesy of Trail Run Project: