The night is fading as we awaken, excited to finally start hiking the John Muir Trail. I slept like a log at the backpacker’s campground, but Jeffrey and Hari heard people chasing a bear away from the car campground. We eat a quick breakfast, break camp, don our backpacks and walk along the road to our official starting point, the trailhead at Happy Isles.
At the backpacker’s campground, getting ready to pack up and hit the JMT!
While not part of the official mileage, first we had to get to the trailhead.
We reached the trailhead took the obligatory starting photo.
The “trail” starts out as a paved, asphalt path due to the sheer number of people who head up this route to visit Vernal and Nevada Falls. Most of the other people on the path are day hikers, gawking at our packs and gear. We’re on an emotional high, as months of planning, training and preparation finally bears fruit.
As we climb higher, we hear and see the mighty falls, with Liberty Dome and Half Dome. The thought races through our minds — “We’re going to be up there later today?!”
We buzz along, taking photos and stopping for a snack at the top of Nevada Falls. Although we’ve been here before, it feels great to be back, this time on a bona fide adventure.
Above the falls, the trail climbs a bit more, finally leveling out along the headwaters of the Merced River. The John Muir Trail splits here. To the right, it runs close to the river through coarsely ground granite — difficult to hike in. To the left, it gets more sun exposure. Both lead the final mile to the campground at Little Yosemite Valley.
Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley
This map details our journey from Happy Isles to the Little Yosemite Valley campground.
At this point, we’ve hiked a modest 4.4 miles, but gained over 2,000 ft in elevation. We found a suitable campsite (don’t expect solitude — this campground is booked solid, and nearly as cramped as the backpacker’s campground in the valley), dropped our backpacks and stowed our food in the bear locker. We put together a slack-pack with water and snacks, and headed up Half Dome.
Little Yosemite Valley to Half Dome
After dropping our gear and setting up camp, we hiked this route up Half Dome and back.
Heading up Half Dome is a 7.2 mile round trip from Little Yosemite Valley, with another 2,700 ft of elevation gain.
We reached the shoulder, and climb the series of steep switchbacks with big steps carved into the granite. This section is a little gnarly, as one mis-step and you’re in for a nasty tumble. From the top of that, you actually descend to the saddle and the base of the cables.
While the practice is discouraged, it’s common to see a pile of gloves at the base of the cables. Pick up a pair and use them. I’ve seen the bloody hands of those who chose to skip using gloves, so either suck it up and borrow a used pair or bring your own.
Going up the cables is pretty simple and also pretty safe — as long as you use common sense. The two cables are elevated to “railing” height, and there are wood boards laid at roughly 12 foot intervals where you can stand on the steep granite and give your arms a rest. The dangerous part is that there are many other people going up and down these same cables, and each time you pass someone, the negotiation takes extra care. We made a point to stop at those boards when meeting someone coming down the cables.
Jeffrey and Hari were already at the top as Joan and I ascended the cables. About half way up, I heard Joan call out. She was feeling nervous and wanted to go back down. I came back down the cables to her and we talked through it. Finally, she decided to give it another try, with me right behind her. She made it!
The top of Half Dome is broad — about the size of a football field. You can wander around pretty safely as long as you’re careful around the edges. We enjoyed the views, took lots of photos, then headed back down.
Half Dome Tips
- Going down the cables, a lot of people get really uptight and nervous. What I’ve found works best is to face downhill and “walk” down Half Dome using my gloved hands as brakes. Instead of standing upright, my body is perpendicular to the slope. This seems a little unnatural at first, but gives you a lot of control and worked well for Joan, also.
- There’s no reliable water source between Little Yosemite Valley and Half Dome, so plan accordingly. Once you reach the saddle, you’ll have a lot of sun exposure and with the elevation and climbing, it’s easy to get dehydrated. We had about a liter each, and wished we could’ve had just a bit more.
Back at Little Yosemite Valley, we wandered down to the Merced and took a refreshing dip in the water. As we filtered water, we spied a deer and fawn casually crossing upstream. An idyllic scene.
Hari, Joan and I cooked and ate dinner. Jeffrey had a goal to hike up Cloud’s Rest in addition to Half Dome (insane, right?). The sun set and we began to get a little worried when Jeffrey didn’t show up. We checked with the rangers at the Little Yosemite Valley ranger station, and they basically said to wait. We actually had cell phone coverage up here (I’m on AT&T) and left him a voice message as well as a text. Finally about 9:30pm, Jeffrey made it back to camp. Yes, he climbed Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest on his first day of the JMT.
JMT Day 1 Photo Gallery
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Tomorrow, we head from Little Yosemite Valley to Sunrise.
Originally hiked on July 27, 2010.
Hey Jeff, nice write up!
Question: I am planning on doing JMT in July 2015. On my wilderness permit application, when I choose “Happy Isles>Sunrise/Merced Lake Pass-through”, it says no camping in LYV. I notice that’s where you camped first night, and I like this plan as I would also like to do Half Dome. Did this change? Or do you think it’s fine to choose a different trailhead on the permit (perhaps Happy Isles>Little Yosemite Valley)?
I can always call the park if you’re not sure. I was just wondering what you chose on your application.
Keep up the great blog!
Nevermind! I see your next post covers the great permit question.
Good trip. How did you manage your camera battery? Were you able to recharge it or just brought along a bunch of batteries?
Jeff Hester says
I brought an extra battery (I was using a Canon Powershot) and a charger. I was able to use the charger at Red’s Meadow and VVR to top off the batteries. As it so happened, my girlfriend had the same camera, so we were able to share batteries.
The Canon Powershot did a great job, and you can take a lot of photos on a full battery charge.
Whatever you are planning to take, I would get a good idea of how many photos you can take on a charge so you can budget your usage and/or bring sufficient spares or have a plan for recharging.
Did you have any apprehension about leaving your gear at LYV while you did the climb up Half Dome? I start my trip in late July and would hate to have my trip halted if my pack grew legs, but certainly would love to slackpack it up Half Dome if possible…
You misunderstand the term “slack-pack. You are conflating it with day-hike and/or day-pack. Slack-packing is to carry only a minimal amount of essentials but not your camping gear (like day-hiking) while making continued progress on a long distance hiking trail. Side trips such as a day-hike, even if you use your full backpack as your day bag do not qualify. It’s called slack-packing because you’re still effectively backpacking as you will walk closer to your destination but w/o carrying so much gear. Usually someone else who is not hiking will shuttle your camping gear to the next roadhead and/or meet you at a pre-determined location and drive you to the sleeping spot of your choice. The term was coined from the common practice and many opportunities for this on the Appalachian Trail.
Jeff Hester says
hate to run into crossroads on the trail. damn hyoh brother slack packing is simply not carrying your pack. when I thru hiked the AT I slack packed and carried water. day hike/ day pack slack pack definitions and so on and so forth nobodys got time for that. by the way jeff, real nice write up i’m going this fall
Did Jeffrey like Half Dome or Clouds Rest better? I plan on going the summer of 2017 and want to make one of these side trips.
would you recommend camping at little yosemite to someone who has NEVER backpacked before?
in good shape, but no experience.
Colt K says
For anyone who is worried about half dome…. don’t worry about it! I did it and I’m only 5. I hiked with my mama up to little Yosemite valley and stayed the night and then left for the giant rock in the morning. My mama made me wear a harness and clipped me into the cables so I would be safer but there were a lot of people up their doing it with out any gear at all. Best part…. there was still some snow up their to play in!
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