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Thru-Hiking the JMT: Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley, Plus Half Dome

Liberty Dome and Nevada Falls

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.

John Muir Trail Day 1
Distance: 11.6 miles
Cumulative Distance: 11.6 miles
Total Ascent: 5,000 ft
Cumulative Ascent: 5,000 ft
Harrison Map Sheet 13
GPX file
Our plan for our first day on the JMT is a fairly short climb to Little Yosemite Valley, where we will drop our packs and setup camp for the night. From there, we slack-pack to Half Dome and back. Half Dome isn’t officially part of the JMT, but we’re so close it seems a shame not to include it. And it will be a first for Joan, Jeffrey and Hari.

6:15 am - We're up! At the backpacker’s campground, getting ready to pack up and hit the JMT!

On our way to Happy Isles

While not part of the official mileage, first we had to get to the trailhead.

We reached the trailhead took the obligatory starting photo.

Happy JMT-ers

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?!”

Nevada Falls

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.

Download file: JMT-Day-1-data.gpx

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.

Download file: Little_Yosemite_Valley_to_Half_Dome.gpx
Half Dome Permits
Got permits for Half Dome?Because of the volume of foot traffic Half Dome gets, a permit system was introduced. When we hiked this, you were allowed to include Half Dome if you had a permit for the John Muir Trail.

Today  you must specifically request this as part of your wilderness permit if you plan to include a side-trip to Half Dome. See Half Dome Permits for Backpackers for details.

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.

A long, steep section of granite steps

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.

Half Dome Panorama

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.

Joan was feeling trepidation on the Half Dome 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!

Joan on Day 1 of the JMT
JMT-Joan“Even though we had trained extensively, I was nervous and not really sure what it would be like. Just walking to the trailhead along the road my pack felt really heavy! As the day went on, it got easier… until we hiked up Half Dome. It’s a tough hike, and I got really scared on the cables. I felt like I was holding up the line. When I made it to the top, I felt great!

“I was exhausted when we got back to camp, but felt like if I could do Half Dome, I could do anything.”

Hari on the Diving Board at Half Dome

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

Click on any photo to view a larger version. You can also leave comments on any photo.

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Tomorrow, we head from Little Yosemite Valley to Sunrise.

Originally hiked on July 27, 2010.

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