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Wide White: Half Dome's cable permit policy

Friday, December 17, 2010

Half Dome's cable permit policy

NOTE: Full photo essay of the Half Dome hike up the cables is at the bottom of the post.

Half Dome from Glacier Point, 6/10/2007

I've made the infamous Half Dome hike up the cables 3 times, twice while I worked in Yosemite National Park and once on a return visit with Jamie. It's a hike I plan to take my kids on one day. There's something awe-inspiring, conquering, and breath-taking about the hike and the end result that keeps drawing me back.

The hike is 17 miles round-trip and ends with a treacherous route up the side of the mountain that is only navigable with the assistance of cables. The elevation change from the floor of Yosemite Valley to the top is nearly a mile. The view at the top is what you see in the banner image at the top of this blog (a full photo of that image is included below).

In spite of the difficulty and danger of the hike and the 400-foot stretch of near-vertical cables, the hike attracts thousands of people each year with very few deaths (see a list of accidents on the cables). However, in spite of their strong safety record, the National Park Service has long been concerned with safety on the dangerous cables.

This year the National Park Service instituted an interim permit program. Anyone hiking to the top of Half Dome on weekends and holidays had to have a permit. The National Park Service has now announced that this permit will be required for all hikes to the top of Half Dome starting in 2011.

The announcement notes, "The permits are free, however, there is a non-refundable $1.50 service charge for each permit obtained." Yeah, that doesn't look free to me either. If I'm paying for the service to get the permit, I'm paying for the permit. Just call it what it is and we'll avoid any confusion.

The permit will likely pose a few problems.
  1. Permits will not be sold in the park. They're only sold through the National Recreation Reservation Service.
  2. Permits aren't sold until 2-4 months in advance. This poses a problem for anyone trying to plan a vacation in advance.
  3. Due to the permit requirement, people who are just considering climbing the cables will likely secure "just in case" permits. While those permits are made available again upon cancellation, if those people decide not to go but don't actually cancel, there's no way for the Park Service to know so the NRRS can make those permits available again. And while canceled permits are available until midnight the day before their date, they're still only available through the National Recreation Reservation Service, not in Yosemite. The fact that weekends last year averaged just 301 hikers a day up the cables according to the 2010 NPS Half Dome Trial Visitor Use Monitoring Report shows that there were many days with far less than the 400 allowed hikers actually climbing the cables.
  4. Permit enforcement is unclear. Presumably rangers are stationed at the cables on a sporadic basis, similar to traffic law enforcement.
  5. 400 permits are made available for each day, but only 300 of those are for day hikers. Additionally, while the average number of hikers on a weekday is around 400, that number normally would double to 800 on the weekends. There will obviously be tremendous demand for weekend and holiday permits. There will likely be a number of people who will try to make the hike anyway due to the once in a lifetime opportunity for first-timers or nostalgia and tradition for old-timers.
  6. The permits are for the entire day, so there's nothing to prevent logjams during the middle of the day when the cables are already the most jammed. By my estimation, at an additional 100-200 permits could be made available if they were specifically designated as early morning permits that required the permit-holder to be off of Half Dome by 10:00 or 11:00. I've been on the cables around noon on July 4th, without question one of the busiest - and probably the busiest - day of the year on Half Dome. It was busy but definitely safely navigable. Additionally, I've been on top towards the end of the day (when the photos below were taken) and the cables were virtually empty.
I support managing human impact on nature and regulations are sometimes necessary for that purpose. However, moving to a system that isn't controlled within Yosemite National Park will be tough to explain to park visitors, especially those who've been coming back for years. We need to do everything possible to encourage more people to spend time in our national parks and I'm not sure this will help.

If you happen to find yourself out of luck for the Half Dome hike, I'd like to suggest Cloud's Rest instead. It's about 5 miles shorter, 2,000 feet less in elevation change, and rises 2,000 feet above Half Dome. The views are arguably better, it's easier (though still challenging), and there are no cables to deal with. You'll start from the Sunrise Lakes trailhead in the parking lot near Tenaya Lake.

Cloud's Rest is behind Half Dome, to the left, 6/10/2007

Trust me, you won't be disappointed with this hike. If you really want to make it memorable, start at around 1:00 AM under a full moon and go up there for the sunrise. You won't even need a flashlight or headlamp for much of the hike and the view is nothing short of spectacular. Just be quiet when you get to the top as you can expect to find people sleeping in their tents, perched along the Cloud's Rest ridge at over 10,000 feet.

Here's a series of photos showing the cables and the views from the top of Half Dome. If you can't make the hike happen, hopefully this gives you a small taste.

The approach to Half Dome: switchbacks then cables, 6/7/2007

The switchbacks... 6/7/2007

The cables... 6/7/2007

The cables... 6/7/2007

Last chance to back out, 6/7/2007

Smiling nervously, 6/7/2007

On top of Half Dome, view of Yosemite Valley & Yosemite Falls, 6/7/2007

On top of Half Dome, the Sierra Nevada range, 6/7/2007

Tenaya Canyon from the top of Half Dome, the banner image for this blog, 6/7/2007

Yosemite Valley. Yes, people stand on that ledge outcropping. I sat on it in 2005. 6/7/2007

You could play football on top of Half Dome, 6/7/2007

Tenaya Canyon, with Cloud's Rest on the right, 6/7/2007

Close-up of Cloud's Rest (right) and Cathedral Peak (left), 6/7/2007

Heading back down the cables, 6/7/2007

Heading back down the cables, 6/7/2007

Last stretch of cables, 6/7/2007

Hiking down, the view back, 6/7/2007

One last shot with Cloud's Rest in the background, 6/7/2007

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Anonymous Bill Roehl declared,

Stunning view and while I'd love to do it I just couldn't. I am paralyzed by fear of heights--even ladders more than 5 or 6 rungs. An irrational fear to be sure but one I really have a hard time overcoming.

Beautiful pics Joey.

12/17/2010 6:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous declared,

I'm with Bill, I'm afraid. We climbed Moro Rock at Sequoia, and Ben had to do the last leg without me. I literally sat down and had a little cry, and he picked me up on his way back down. Just looking at your photos made me queasy! I have tried and tried to conquer this fear, but no matter how many tall things I climb, I still can't.

12/17/2010 2:24 PM  
Blogger Joey declared,

I enjoy climbing things so I had a blast. Jamie had some difficulty though, as have some of my extended family members who I took up there with me in 2005.

I did it before the posts were in, so it was just cables attached to the rock with nothing else to support you (no 2x4's or posts). Looking back on it now, it was pretty insane.

12/17/2010 2:58 PM  
Blogger Simply Theresa declared,

Wow. What time of day did you summit in 2007? Definitely not crowded then!

Interesting that you suggested Cloud's Rest. Lots of people are doing that. I wonder if that trail will start seeing TONS more traffic now that this permitting system is in place. It's an awesome hike, with a spectacular view that INCLUDES half dome...

12/21/2010 2:35 PM  
Blogger Joey declared,

@Simply Theresa, it was late, around 4:00 PM if I remember correctly. We were definitely some of the last up there. It was dark by the time we got to the bottom. We started somewhere between 7 and 8 but took our time.

As for Cloud's Rest, I was just asked today how busy it is during the day. Since I headed up at midnight I have no idea how crowded it gets during the day. Regardless, I really think the view from Cloud's Rest is far better than that of Half Dome. I'll still probably do Half Dome again because there's something about saying you were on top of it that's pretty cool, but it's not because it's a superior view. Half Dome also has the hike up Vernal and Nevada Falls, though that's a brutal hike and I really love the peacefulness and relative ease (still difficult, but nothing like the Mist Trail!) of the hike up to Cloud's Rest. My photos from Cloud's Rest were on 35mm but I'll have to scan them and post sometime.

12/21/2010 2:44 PM  
Blogger rachel declared,

OK. I have GOT to hike that thing. I HAVE TO!

That is going on my bucket list. Which means I'll have to start one...

12/30/2010 11:00 PM  
Blogger Joey declared,

Rachel, we made the trip out there this summer when the twins were 5 months old. We didn't do the hike to the top, though we did hike up to the first waterfall along the same route. I suppose you could say that I'm biased since I did work in Yosemite for a whole summer, but in fairness, I've been to all 50 states and almost every major national park and Yosemite is my favorite. It's well worth a spot high on your bucket list!

12/30/2010 11:48 PM  

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