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April 8, 2011. Like you, I’ve seen pictures of it forever. So I thought I knew what to expect. Until I saw the real thing. Face to face.

It’s awesome. Not awesome like, your new hiking boots are really awesome, man. It’s what we used to reserve the word ‘awesome’ for. I was in awe. And I really wanted to get to the top.

I’m not one of those “because it’s there” kind of guys. I was thrilled to see Mt. Everest from the safe distance of seventy-five miles when I hiked in Nepal. But Half Dome just did something to me.

I’m not a technical climber, so I went from awe-struck to deeply disappointed in a minute. No way I could ever pull myself up to the top, clinging to a rope attached to a big nail someone hammered into the rock. Then somebody told me there was a way to hike up the back side. Takes some planning and some conditioning, but there’s a Way. And I lived to tell you about it.

If you want to burn through 5,000 – 6,000 calories in a day, this is the day hike for you. If you want to hike 16 miles, up 4,000 feet and back down, this is still the hike for you. And if, after you hike the first 7.5 miles, you want to pull yourself up 900 feet of cables to get to the very top – because it’s way too steep to walk or even crawl – this is your mountain.

But even if this sounds a little extreme, it still might be your mountain. Because it’s almost as spectacular from below as it is from up top. And now’s the time to plan your Spring, Summer or early Fall trip to Yosemite National Park. One of the best looking patches on the earth’s surface. There are dozens of cable-free trails. You can just walk.

If you go for it, or even just part of it, here’s what you’ll see along the Way. Be sure to take a look at the big, detailed Google Map I made for you. Zoom in – all the way in – for a 3D sense of the awesome terrain.

The Mist Trail to the waterfalls
Things get beautiful in a hurry here. You walk through thick forest along the Merced River for a mile or so, from the Happy Isles trailhead to the bridge below Vernal Falls. Where you pick up the Mist Trail. If you’re here in May or June, before the dry season, you may get soaked. I did.

The mist sprays you from Vernal Falls and, a mile later, from the more dramatic Nevada Falls. This is lush, overgrown terrain. It can be a little slippery, especially on the three hundred stairs that run parallel with Vernal Falls. But it’s too beautiful to miss. Just be careful.

There’s an alternate route, the John Muir Trail. It adds a mile and a half-hour to the hike up, so I took it on the way back down. I don’t mind climbing up wet steps; I avoid climbing down them.

At Nevada Falls, you’re 2.5 miles into it. And 1,800 feet up. Now you hike along the base of Liberty Cap, a sheer rock dome that would be a stunner if it wasn’t in Half Dome’s neighborhood. Then you’ve got about five miles out and another 1,400 feet up before you begin to ascend the Half Dome summit. You’re in dense red fir forest all the way.

Until you’re on bare rock. Totally exposed. Staring at a very, very steep series of switchbacks that you have to conquer before you even get a glimpse of “the cables”. If this is as far as you go, it’s OK. You’ve hiked seven miles and you have an amazing close-up view of Half Dome.

If you’re exhilarated by the view, you’re going to scramble up the switchbacks. Very carefully. Then you come out on the bare rock “shoulder”, the first level surface you’ve seen since you hit the trail. You’re legs are seriously relieved. For about five minutes.

Then they might be shaking a bit. If it’s you’re first time, you’re having a hard time believing you’re going to make it all the way to the top. That you’re going to pull yourself up the cables. Best not to begin thinking about how you’re going to get down.

Put on your gloves. Grab hold. Go. I really didn’t know if I could do it. My legs were in shape for the hike, but I wasn’t sure if my upper body strength training would do the trick. About a third of the way up, I realized I could do it. Didn’t even feel the last two-thirds. I was too excited.

When you get to the top you’re on top of the world. The top of Half Dome is one of the few places in the world you can walk to for a true 360-degree view. You see forever in every direction. You can go right to the edge – and it’s a knife-edge – but you’ll probably be down on your knees when you look over and straight down 4,000 feet to the valley floor.

You really want to stay a while, but you know you only have half a day left to get back. So after a few minutes of roaming, you walk over to the top of the cables. They’re scarier from up here. But you get a good grip and find a rhythm and a nice slow tempo. Fifteen minutes later, you’re back on level rock.

Eight miles to get back to the trailhead, but you just cruise. You’ve done the heavy lifting – and you were it. Now it’s all downhill. After you descend through the forest, you should take the John Muir Trail. Your legs’ll be tired and the Mist Trail is way too slippery on the way down.

Then you’re back on the valley floor looking up. It’s awesome from here, too. And if you were just up there, well, you’re awesome, too, man.

Cost-Benefit Analysis
Twenty dollars gets a carload into Yosemite. Twenty dollars for unlimited use of the most beautiful terrain in the world. For jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring scenery and exercise.

It’s a Better Cheaper 3-for-1. Hike in a beautiful place and get the health benefits of exercise; a free shot of Vitamin D; and, the added benefit of being in a green environment.

Yes, a landmark 2001 study in the Netherlands found “in a greener environment people report fewer health complaints, more often rate themselves as being in good health, and have better mental health” and “when it comes to health, all types of green seem to be equally ‘effective’”, whether it’s proximity to city parks, agricultural areas, or forest. Here’s the real kicker: a 10% increase in nearby green space was found to decrease a person’s health problems by an amount equivalent to a five year reduction in age. So spend as much time out there as you can.

Every Thing Is Everything
Results showed that most people were gaining weight gradually over time, with the average American adult gaining 1 to 2 lb per year … relatively small changes in energy intake and expenditure adding up to 100 kcal/day could arrest excess weight gain in most people.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Yup, knocking off 100 calories a day is enough to stop weight gain for most of us. That’s a brisk 15-minute walk. Hike Half Dome and make that feel like 15 seconds.

A study just published in the The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that adults in their 50s and 60s who walked 40 minutes three times a week actually increased the size of their brains’ hippocampus. That’s the area where memories are formed. And they performed better in spatial memory tests. Which means you’re less likely to get lost when you’re out walking.

It’s Always Something
No seriously cool rocks in your neighborhood? That’s OK. Map your own trail. In the city. In the country. In the U.S. alone, there are thousands of local, State and National parks. Use and support them.

While you’re walking, sip water frequently to stay hydrated. Not the expensive, environmentally unfriendly bottled water; filter and fill up at home, carry your own. Hiking, I wear my CamelBak backpack. Built-in water reservoir. Convenient in-my-face water “bite valve” never drips or leaks. Check out these handy 50- and 100-ounce packs. For something smaller, I use CamelBak‘s BPA-free bottle with that cool and highly functional bite valve.

This 16 miles is not like the 16-mile Walk That Ate San Francisco. Yosemite may be one of the most beautiful places on the planet, but you won’t find Farmers Markets or great pizza and dim sum joints along the trail. You carry what you eat. And when you’re carrying as much water as you’ll need to make it up and back, you don’t want to carry much.

To lighten my pack and make sure I had enough calories to burn, I brought along Energy Gel. It’s a high-carb energy thing that’s, well, goo. You squeeze it out of 1-ounce foil packets.

Yes, it works. Keeps you going. Adds little weight to your backpack. Takes up almost no space. But … it really doesn’t take great. I tried Chocolate Outrage, Espresso, Strawberry Banana and Lemon-Lime. If I had to do it all over again, I’d put some Peanut Butter & Grape Bread in my pack, too. Something that tastes like real food because it is.

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