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HIKING: YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

Conquering Half Dome, Without Rock Climbing

May 23, 1999|JOHN McKINNEY | John McKinney is the author of "Day Hiker's Guide to California's State Parks" (Olympus Press, $14.95)

To the non-climber of yesteryear, and even today, Half Dome can seem impossible to ascend.

In his 1870 "Yosemite Guide-Book," California's leading geologist, Josiah Whitney, pronounced Half Dome "perfectly inaccessible." First to surmount Half Dome was George Anderson, who in 1875 doggedly drilled his way to the top--securing eye bolts every 5 feet or so, standing on the last bolt while drilling the next. John Muir followed fast on the heels--and eye bolts--of his fellow Scot.

Today, Yosemite National Park's icon summit is scaled by rock climbers using several routes. And Half Dome can be conquered by the experienced day hiker too.

The very long hike begins in Happy Isles, where the John Muir Trail begins. Past Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall you climb, then on through Little Yosemite Valley.

The final assault on the summit requires climbing at an almost 45-degree angle up slick granite with the help of twin cables that hikers grip to haul themselves to the top. The acrophobe and the out of shape should hike elsewhere. Even the most experienced hiker should remember that midafternoon summer thunderstorms in Yosemite are common. The last place you want to be in an electric storm is atop Half Dome, forced to make a hurried descent over slippery rock while holding onto wet metal cables. Get an early start on this trail.

Directions to trail head: Leave your car in the large lot at Curry Village. Take the shuttle bus to Happy Isles. If you're getting an early start (before shuttle service begins at 7 a.m.), you must hike up-valley about 0.8 mile from Curry Village day-use parking to Happy Isles along the shuttle bus route. This increases your hiking day to 18 miles round trip.

The hike: Beginning at the Happy Isles-to-Mt. Whitney John Muir Trail, hike along the Merced River. You soon cross the river on a wide bridge to a paved pathway.

One mile along, cross the river again below Vernal Fall and reach a fork. Two trails climb to Nevada Fall. Mist Trail shaves almost a mile from the distance but is a strenuous, stair-stepping route. The right fork--the JMT--makes a more moderate ascent via well-engineered switchbacks.

The Muir and Mist trails reunite 2.7 miles from Happy Isles. At the 4.5-mile mark, the trail divides again (the right fork leads to a campsite), then reunites again.

A bit more than six miles out, bid adieu to the JMT and bear left on Half Dome Trail. About three-quarters of a mile from the top, you begin the final ascent, first climbing granite steps, then topping a minor dome before descending briefly to a saddle, where you find the cables. Get a grip on the cables and climb to the top.

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John Muir, Half Dome Trails

Where: Yosemite National Park

Distance: From Happy Isles to Half Dome summit is 16.5 miles round-rip with 4,800-foot elevation gain.

Highlights: Awesome 360-degree views, trip of a lifetime.

Degree of difficulty: Strenuous

Terrain: Yosemite's landmark rock.

For more information: Yosemite National Park, P.O. Box 577, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389; tel. (209) 372-0200.

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