Sunrise on Half Dome – A four-day adventure in Yosemite’s backcountry

Re-visiting Yosemite Nationalpark this summer I wanted to see a little more than just the valley. So I talked my travel buddies into a four-days-backcountry-trek – including scary cables, obese squirrels and a sunrise to remember.

When I visited Yosemite Nationalpark the first time in 2014 I knew I’ll want to hike up Half Dome when I’d return there next time. So I was superstoked when this time the two friends I travelled with agreed to go on a little backcountry adventure. Since permits are hard to come by and we honestly couldn’t really tell how scary the cables up Half Dome were going to be, we decided to join a group trek, and signed up for the “3 Summits / 3 Sunsets” trek by Lasting Adventures. It turned out to be a great choice: the hikes were just about as strenous as we liked it, food was superyummy, our guides did a great job and our group was a lot of fun. So here is what our four days in the backcountry were like:

Day 1  – Mt. Hoffmann  (10’855 ft / 3309 m)
After a first nights camp down in the valley at Backpackers Camp we took an early bus up Tioga Pass Road and set off with hour packs (heavy with full gear plus bear cans with food for the next four days) at May Lake Trailhead.We walked up to May Lake and set up our first camp, which turned out to be the luxury version of camp, since there was still a flush toilet. The afternoon was spent with nice little stroll and scramble up Mt. Hoffmann: 3309 m and an amazing view of the valley, and of  the summits yet to come: Clouds Rest and Half Dome. On the way down we spotted what was probably the fattest marmot in all Yosemite. Too lazy to move away from the hikers or the cameras that not so little fellow just chilled out in the middle of the trail.
View of Clouds Rest and Half Dome from Mt. Hoffmann.
One fat little bugger of a marmot posing for the camera.
Back down at the lake we got to be impressed by our guides outdoor kitchen skills – especially since they prepared tasty chickpeas-curry especially for vegetarian me.
May Lake: First Night’s camp.
Day 2 – Sunrise Lake
Early start – and again the guides impress, since they brought along a proper coffee-making device and cooked breakfast burritos. We walked back down to Tioga Pass Rd and on to Sunrise Lake. It was a fairly easy walk through some beautiful territory. We arrived at the lake rather early, set up camp, hung out, swam, and did a little impromptu yoga as I tought my friends the bliss of pigeon pose after a days walk. We also got some more insights into the backpacking lifestyle as we got the “How to poop in the woods”-talk from our guides and realised that bear cans are just as much to guard your food from the many obese squirrels as they are to guard you from curious bears.
Sunrise Lake: Second night’s camp and perfect for a swim after a long day hiking.
Day 3 – Clouds Rest (9926 ft / 3027 m)
Early start and woken up with a treat: pancakes for brekkie. Off we hiked, on nice forest trails and then up a gradually harder and more rocky trail to Clouds Rest’s peak. The trail to me was quite scary at times, especially since I didn’t feel superstable with a 30lbs-load on my back. We all made it to the top though and the view over Yosemite Nationalpark was simply amazing! Yet apparently Clouds Rest was not for the scared of heights, as I had to find out. The summit platform is rather small and the slopes descend supersteep. Also sun exposure slowly took is toll, so after a few summit pictures, I made my way down to more even ground and some shade, while the rest of my group was happily lunching up on the peak, apparently oblivious to just how scary that tiny platform was.
Clouds Rest: Posing for the picture, while trying not to peek down too much.
Picture time on Clouds Rest, taking in the beautiful view of Yosemite Valley.
The descent took us through more forest with some great views of Half Dome and we eventually set up camp on a tiny site close to base of Half Dome. There was a tiny, icy cold creek, where we could blissfully cool our by then quite sore feet. We had a yummy dinner with tortellini and pesto (yes, I realise I mention every meal, but when you hike for several hours each day, yummy meals truly make happy campers), and then had a very early night soon after dinner, since we had to get up again at 2:30 am – which to me did sound nearly as frightening as climbing the Half-Dome-cables.
Sneak peek of the next days challenge: Half Dome.
Day 4 – Half Dome (8844 ft / 2694 m)
We actually did get up at 2:30, packed up camp, loaded up on coffee and the headed off, headlamps on. It was a silent walk through the woods until in the first morning light we reached the trailfork, where we left our packs and carried  on with only light daypacks with loads of water and some snacks. On to subdome we hiked, where we were greeted with some evil switchbacks until we reached the base half dome and were actually face to face with the infamous cables. And they did look scary. Superscary. No suspension bridge in Nepal and no ancient cable car in Ladakh has freightened me this much. But then again I didn’t walk this far in the middle of the night just to turn around. So “alright, let’s do it” it was. Up, up, up the cables I climbed, or rather hauled myself (Be sure to bring some gloves for a better grip!), not pausing and especially not looking down until after some 15 minutes I finally reached the rather spacious plateau just in time for a beautiful sunrise.
Shaky picture, just before we hit the cables (which are that greyish line up the slope). And yes it doesn’t look that steep. But believe me, it was.
The surprisingly spacious top of Half Dome.
Sunrise on Half Dome. There’s hardly a better way to start a day.
Well hello there, Yosemite Valley.

We took loads of pictures, peeked down the cliff, and then made our descent before the cables got really crowded. I was so jazzed about having made it up there and not having freaked out yet, that the descent was exhilarating but not so scary anymore. And the rest of the day was, though rather long, a piece of cake. We saw more obese squirrel while we waited for the rest of our group to descend subdome, then hiked to Little Yosemite Valley where we for the first time in three days enojyed the luxury of outhouses and had a last lunch by the river. Then half of our group took the steep Mist Trail past Nevada Falls. Those of us that have either already seen it or did prefer the route that was just a tad lighter on the knees took the John Muir Trail down, meeting the others at Vernal Falls. Suddenly facing the Valley crowds again was superweird, we felt like we accidentally got transported to Disney Land. We quickly went back to the parking lot, hugely enjoyed the first shower in four days and then to round the whole trip off indulged in yummy Pizza and Cappuccino at Curry Village. Best end to a perfect trip.

Shoutouts to Lasting Adventures, for putting together this great itinerary, to our amazing guides Peter Nocka and Brando Haven, for taking care of and putting up with us, and to everyone who was in our little trekking band of brothers – the three Swiss had a great time with you guys!

Backside of Half Dome, as seen from the John Muir Trail.

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