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The Other Way In

Hike to life-list hot spots without waiting in life-list lines. These under-the-radar trails deliver everything but the crowds.

Half Dome
Yosemite National Park, CA

X    Trade route Half Dome Trail from Happy Isles
→   Sneak route John Muir Trail from Cathedral Lakes trailhead
Key stats 23 miles, 3,200 feet of gain
Off-radar cred A backpackers-only permit system for Half Dome’s Cable Route

Here’s all you need to know about the popularity of the standard route up Half Dome: In 2011, the park sold all of the permits for May and June weekends in just five minutes. Think weekdays offer a respite? Those went in 23 minutes. Do Bieber tickets even sell as fast? But happily, there’s a bureaucratic loophole just for backpackers: If you plan to make Half Dome part of an overnight hike, you can score a permit for the Cables Route when you get your wilderness permit. Take the “back way” from Tuolumne Meadows via the John Muir Trail on this 23-mile overnight shuttle hike (bonus: plenty of downhill), and end your long summit day in Yosemite Valley. You’ll have company on the two-mile spur to Half Dome itself, but you can avoid the masses by using your backcountry launching pad to get a head start (you’ll be six miles closer than dayhikers starting at Happy Isles). 

Do it From the Cathedral Lakes trailhead, hike the rocky JMT through pine forest past the jagged granite sentinel Cathedral Peak. Go over 9,680-foot Cathedral Pass at mile 3.8, then descend through tree-ringed Long Meadow and past the cabins of the Sunrise High Sierra Camp. At about nine miles, you’ll begin a series of switchbacks that drop 500 feet. After the descent, look for good camping in established sites along Sunrise Creek. Next morning, get up early for your bid on Half Dome. Cache packs at the JMT/Half Dome Trail junction and finish the two-mile, 1,800-vertical-foot climb up the Half Dome Trail to the summit. (Pack durable gloves for the cables, and don’t attempt the ascent if the rock is wet.) Photo op: Head over to the Visor, the overhanging granite perch above Half Dome’s northwest face, with the granite buttresses and waterfalls of Yosemite Valley below. From the summit, you’ll drop 4,800 feet over eight miles to the Happy Isles trailhead.

Get there Park at the overnight parking lot behind Curry Village, then catch the Tuolumne Meadows Hikers Bus at Curry Village at 8 a.m. to reach the Cathedral Lakes/JMT trailhead by 10:20 a.m.
($15/person; reservations: 209-372-4386).
Map Buy the BACKPACKER PRO MAP
Permit Required. Wilderness permits: $5 + $5/person. Reserve starting 24 weeks in advance (ask for dispersed camping along the JMT from Cathedral Lakes trailhead). Half Dome permits: $5/person, given upon request to those whose wilderness permits “reasonably include Half Dome as part of their itinerary.” Contact (209) 372-0200; nps.gov/yose

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