Is This Yosemite Trail the Most Dangerous in America?

Photo by Oliver Plattner

If you Google the most dangerous trails in America, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a list that doesn’t include the iconic trail to the top Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. The trail is one of the most iconic in the country, but it comes with a high level of difficulty and danger.

Yosemite’s Half Dome is one of the most iconic rocks on the planet, and reaching its 8,836-foot summit is no easy feat. Despite an 1865 report declaring that it was “perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden by human foot,” George Anderson reached the summit in 1875, in the process laying the predecessor to today’s cable route.

If you take the Mist Trail to the top of Half Dome and back, you’ll be hiking 16 miles through wet and dangerous stairs, a dangerous trek up a steep granite face, and a grueling 4,800 elevation gain. Most would say the reward is worth the effort. Along the way, you’ll see outstanding views of Vernal and Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, Half Dome, and–from the shoulder and summit–panoramic views of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra.

Most hikers take 10 to 12 hours to complete the roundtrip trek, relying on flashlights in the early morning to get back before sunset. The most famous–or infamous–part of the hike is the ascent up the cables. The two metal cables allow hikers to climb the last 400 feet to the summit without rock climbing equipment. This is surely the most dangerous part of the trek.

Tragic Experiences

Since Yosemite National Park was founded, the trail to the top of Half Dome has been the deadliest in the park. There have been more than 20 deaths on Half Dome itself, and if you count the trail leading up to Half Dome, the number leaps to more than 60. The most common of theses deaths occur when people slip off the side of the ascent or descent in the cables section, but it’s not the only reason. Other deaths include heart attacks while climbing the cables, lightning strikes, failed base jumps, climbing accidents, and even a few suicides.

In 1985, five hikers defied weather forecasts and decided to attempt the climb in stormy conditions. They were blasted by lightning, killing two and injuring the other three. Three separate hikers died on the rock face in 2011, inspiring the permit system that now limits the number of hikers that can complete the hike in a day. The permit system made the hike safer by limiting crowds in the cable section, but it wasn’t full proof.

In 2019, 29-year-old hiker Danielle Burnett tragically fell off the cable section on Half Dome, falling to her death. According to witnesses, Burnett was within the cables when she began to slip on the somewhat wet rock, sliding past the other hikers as she eventually fell 500 feet off the side of the rock. Her story illustrates the danger for hikers even taking precaution in the cables section.

Tips For the Journey

Despite the danger of the hike, thousands of people reach the summit each year without incident. But there are a few details to consider when deciding if you want to embark on the arduous journey.

The hike is 14-16 miles roundtrip, with the first half almost entirely uphill (a total of 4,800 feet elevation gain). Hikers should seriously consider their conditioning before making the trek, especially considering the elevation as you get closer to the top. The hike should only be done between late May and early October when the cables are up. There are people who still complete the hike without the cables, but it is very dangerous.

Weather is also a very important factor when deciding to summit Half Dome. Any moisture on the rock wall can make it very slippery and dangerous. In fact, most deaths on the cable section of the hike occur when hikers slip down the rock, either from moisture or poor shoe grip.

Half Dome still remains one of the most iconic and thrilling hikes in America, but is it also the most dangerous? If you want to attempt the trek to the top of Half Dome, consider these tips.

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California

One Comment

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