Backpacking to Half Dome: Which Trailhead Should I Choose?

By: Eric Meyer

There are many memorable peaks in Yosemite National Park, but none are more famous, storied, or inspiring than Half Dome. Hikers from all over the world journey to Yosemite just for a chance to challenge themselves on Half Dome’s cables. So what route is the best for backpacking to Half Dome, the Sierra’s most renowned dome? Read on to find out…

Half Dome cables viewed at sunrise
Half Dome and the famous cables

For many, the most obvious choice is to day hike to the top, a grueling 16 miles involving over 5,000ft of elevation gain and loss. This is a good option for those short on time (and who have been putting in big time on the Stairmaster), but our guides will tell you that there are far better ways to experience this milestone. When it comes to experiencing all that Yosemite has to offer, there’s no better option than backpacking to Half Dome!

Half Dome, Mt. Broderick, Liberty Cap, Vernal and Nevada Fall from Glacier Point
Half Dome and the Merced Canyon seen from Glacier Point

Starting in 2022, backpackers can begin their trip to Half Dome with any of 6 different trailhead permits: Glacier Point, Mono Meadow, Cathedral Lakes, Rafferty Creek (Tuolumne Meadows), Sunrise Lakes, and Happy Isles. Not sure which one to take? Read below for each trek’s highlights!

Glacier Point or Mono Meadow to Half Dome

Our guided Glacier Point to Half Dome trips are our most popular adult backpacking trips, and for good reason. It provides a shorter itinerary with mostly downhill hiking and covers the Half Dome-vicinity highlights along the way.

Starting from Glacier Point or nearby Mono Meadow is guaranteed to begin your trip with a bang. The view from Glacier Point is world-famous, with Half Dome proudly standing center frame and tantalizingly close. It’s a great way to get inspired for the trip ahead!

Hiking south down from Glacier Point provides ever-changing views of Half Dome, and soon the trail meets Illilouette Creek, babbling with crystal clear Sierra snowmelt. Our guides can lead you to a perfect, secluded camp with excellent sunset views of Mount Starr King and other hidden gems!

Half Dome, Mt. Broderick, and Liberty Cap with Nevada Fall waterfall.
Half Dome, Mt. Broderick, and Liberty Cap by Nevada Fall

Hiking the rest of the way towards the base of Half Dome, the views suddenly reveal Half Dome’s little sisters, Mount Broderick, and Liberty Cap, as well as the magnificent 594-foot Nevada Fall. Soon one arrives at the typical Half-Dome base camping spot, dubbed “Little Yosemite Valley,” which can serve as a great jumping-off point for sunrise or sunset summits.

Our guided trips typically cover this 20-mile route in 3 days, providing ample time to enjoy your trek to and from Half Dome and exit via the famous Mist Trail.

Cathedral Lakes

The perfect trip for someone looking to experience more of what Yosemite has to offer, including stunning alpine lakes and the enchanting Cathedral Range. This itinerary also provides the opportunity to attain a second glorious summit: Clouds Rest.

Yosemite Valley may attract global fame, but the Cathedral Range is arguably more spectacular, and certainly less crowded. Beginning the journey from Cathedral Lakes Trailhead allows one to experience alpine lakes and jagged peaks in a way that most visitors to Yosemite miss completely (at their loss). This itinerary’s first destination, Upper Cathedral Lake, provides the perfect introduction to such a landscape. Cathedral Peak and its spires became so jagged by sticking above the glacial ice that once scoured Yosemite’s landscapes. The lake itself is stunningly clear, pure snowmelt, and a perfect place to watch the sunset with the spires silhouetted.

Cathedral Peak at sunset.
Cathedral Peak at sunset

Traversing the range further on to Sunrise Lakes, one passes by the relatively unknown but absolutely awe-inspiring Matthes Crest, a mile-long fin of granite rising 2,000ft above the idyllic meadows around it. Nearby Echo Peaks, and the aptly-named Columbia Finger, also wow all who pass through – and to think, you’ll likely have this area to yourself!

Matthes Crest
Matthes Crest

Hiking past Sunrise Lakes brings you to the ever-narrowing ridge of Clouds Rest. This neighboring summit to Half Dome often gets overlooked, but the panoramic views from the top are absolutely stunning. Some can be intimidated by Clouds Rest’s final ridgeline, referred to as the ‘backbone.’ Here, one can either face their fears or choose to detour around and gain the summit on its other side. From the summit of Clouds Rest, Half Dome beckons! A set of binoculars or sharp eyes can help you spot hikers on the Cable Route. Hike onward to join them!

A family smiles on the summit of Clouds Rest with Half Dome in the background.
All smiles on the summit of Clouds Rest with Half Dome in the distance

Our trips typically cover this 29-mile route in 4 days, allowing plenty of opportunities to explore lakes and mountain peaks.

Rafferty Creek

This trailhead allows backpackers to travel through Vogelsang and the Merced River Canyon on their way to Half Dome, making for a more secluded wilderness experience at no sacrifice to natural wonder. 

The Rafferty Creek trail brings one past verdant alpine meadows to Vogelsang, an area renowned for its beautiful lakes and tranquility. Places like Boothe and Fletcher Lake have a wonder about them that is better experienced than described and is many of our guides’ favorite areas in all of Yosemite, without being able to fully put into words why. Perhaps it’s captured in the name: “Vogelsang,” which means “Bird Song” in German – an ode to the lush and peaceful aura the place radiates.

Girl swimming at Fletcher Lake
Taking a refreshing dip in Fletcher Lake

Continuing past the stunning Emeric and Babcock Lakes brings backpackers to the Merced River Canyon. We offer a “Hidden Yosemite” trip in the northern part of the park, but if Half Dome wasn’t included, our guided trips along this part of the Merced River might claim this moniker. How can a place so absolutely stunning and so close to Yosemite Valley be so infrequently traveled? Towering granite walls soar some 2,000ft overhead on either side. The glistening Merced Lake provides a perfect spot for swimming and midday relaxation. Numerous waterfalls cascade down to meet the roaring Merced River, which eventually feeds the famous Vernal and Nevada Falls. All of this, far away enough from the lights of civilization to have shooting stars soothe you to sleep. This is what backpacking is all about!

Two hikers look into the distance in Merced Canyon.
Merced Canyon with Half Dome in the distance

Oh, right, and you were here to hike Half Dome too! Our guided trips cover this 35-mile route in 5 days, allowing time to fully enjoy the area as well as summit Half Dome as icing on the cake.

Sunrise Lakes

An alternative starting point to Cathedral Lakes, with a shorter itinerary and the summit of Clouds Rest.

Just as with Glacier Point, starting at Sunrise Lakes Trailhead begins your trip with a bang: Tenaya Lake. This lake is one of the most beautiful and largest in the park and makes for a perfect picnic spot. Additionally, Tenaya Lake is right off Highway 120, so it is accessible without needing to backpack to it! This trailhead also allows for a summit of Clouds Rest, a worthwhile objective.

A boy balances on a log at Tenaya Lake.
Having a zen moment at Tenaya Lake

Happy Isles

The shortest approach to Half Dome and also the most difficult permit to obtain.

If Half Dome is your objective but hiking it in a day seems overwhelming, Happy Isles might be for you. This trailhead takes you up the famous Mist Trail, passing by Vernal and Nevada Fall along the way. Little Yosemite Valley is the place to set up camp for the night, along with handfuls of other hopefuls. What is the price to pay for the shortest route? LOTS of people every step (and there are a lot of them!) of the way.

Backpacking is, without a doubt, the best way to experience Yosemite National Park. No matter which path you choose in your backpacking journey to Half Dome, you’ll be certain to have a wonderful and adventurous time. For more information on how you can join us on one of our guided backpacking trips, visit our website. We take care of all the permits, gear, logistics, and delicious meals along the way!

Note: These are sample itineraries only, and one can hike any route they please on their way to Half Dome so long as they begin their trip from one of the six approved trailheads.

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