Hike Report: Half Dome’s Diving Board in Yosemite

half-dome-diving-board-yosemite-map

For today’s 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service, I wanted to share a hike I made over the weekend to the “Diving Board” in Yosemite National Park, a spot made famous by Ansel Adams’ “Monolith” photo. This location stands a stone’s throw from the face of Half Dome, offering a close-up view of that imposing mountain.

I first learned of the Diving Board from QT Luong’s blog, as he wrote about the location for his “Yosemite Unseen” series. That was nearly two years ago, and I was captivated by the idea, and just the general possibilities of backpacking. I told my hiking buddy, Bill McIntosh, about it and we put it our “list” (not an actual list–more a haphazard mental collection of places to go on whims based on weather).

A few months later, we randomly bumped into another photographer, Jeff Mitchum, who had done the hike and captured his own photo of Half Dome at Keyhole Arch in Big Sur. We picked his brain for a while about the hike to the Diving Board. During that conversation, it became patently obvious that proper conditioning and skill were necessary, and camping overnight in the spot would also be a wise idea. Jeff told of intense scrambling, hard-to-find cairns, and just general difficulties we’d encounter with the hike.

This really dampened our enthusiasm, as we realized the hike might be more unrealistic than we thought. Still, we couldn’t shake the fact that Ansel Adams had done this hike in the snow, and with a large format film camera. Of course, he had assistants with him and was probably part mountain goat, but still. It gave us some hope, but we knew we’d need to do a bit more planning and conditioning. The plan was to do the hike last summer, but we never found the right time, so last summer slipped into this summer. Then, the stars aligned last weekend.

Bill had been doing a lot of research on the hike, which doesn’t sound that bad on paper. Officially, the hike is only just over 12 miles roundtrip, taking around 6-8 hours up and 4-6 hours down. By scouting around some Yosemite hiking forums, he found an alternate route that could, potentially cut a couple hours off the hike if we scrambled up after Emerald Pool rather than going the long the long route around Liberty Cap and past Lost Lake.

I was a bit apprehensive of this, as the person sharing the info didn’t recommend it, warned that it should be done uphill only, and probably without a backpack. The only thing we seemed to hear, though, was that it would shave a couple of hours off the hike.

The Journey & Destination

Armed with that information and some rough GPS coordinates, I set out from home at 3:15 a.m. and met Bill at his place. We left Orange County at 4 a.m., and arrived in Yosemite Valley at 10:30 a.m. (after a stop for some Carl’s Jr: the official fuel of hikers everywhere). The Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Fall actually began a mile from the trailhead, as the parking situation is pretty bad at Yosemite in the summer.

From the top of Vernal Fall we continued around to the other side of Emerald Pool, and started our “time-saving” scramble up Mount Broderick. Those are most definitely air quotes around time-saving. As we scrambled up, there were multiple points where we had to reassess what was in front of us, backtrack, and slowly climb (literally, hand over hand) obstacles. It took a long time to go a short distance, and going this route with full camera bags our first time on this hike was a really dumb idea.

After an interminable amount of time, we finally met up with the Climbers’ Trail, which then met up with the Brush Trail leading to the Diving Board. I don’t want to fixate on this hike because I doubt my description of it would be all that exciting, but don’t assume that means it got easier. It remained slow-going, strenuous, and just generally dull.

We finally made it to the Diving Board at 6:15 p.m. That’s over 7 hours, and we went the “shorter” route. Once we saw the view, it was all worth it. Holy cow. 

This view easily qualifies as my favorite in Yosemite National Park, and that’s really saying something given that there are no shortage of amazing views. From the time we arrived, we’d have only a little over an hour until sunset, which seemed like a cruelly short amount of time given the effort expended getting up there.

I spent most of this time trying to figure out how I was going to photograph Half Dome and/or Yosemite Valley below. I hadn’t “pre-visualized” anything; there are a grand total of like 10 photos of this scene (most of the Google Image Search results for “Diving Board Half Dome Yosemite” actually are of Glacier Point or The Visor on Half Dome), all offering the same perspective, so it’s pretty difficult to do that until you get there.

I knew I wanted something original. It’s increasingly rare to shoot a vista as beautiful as Half Dome from the Diving Board and still be able to come up with something original. I had that opportunity here and did not want to squander it. I wanted something that showcased the plunge from the Diving Board to Yosemite Valley 3,500 feet below, while also featuring the towering presence of Half Dome. I found a spot that worked, set up, and sat there admiring the view as I waited for the light to get good.

About 30 minutes before sunset, I realized I was not going to get the photo I wanted, with the last light kissing the face of Half Dome. The cloud cover behind me was too thick. The shot I wanted would be dull without this, so my wheels started spinning. I realized that those same clouds likely meant a good sunset over part of Yosemite Valley, but in (mostly) the wrong direction. At the same time, it seemed increasingly clear the sky behind Half Dome would fizzle.

I kept shooting, but nothing I was shooting even remotely did justice to the scene above, below, and all around me. It took doing a quick iPhone pano to finally realize what should have been painfully obvious: this scene was begging for a panorama. In order to make that work without the ledge on which I was standing appear awkwardly in the frame, I had to move closer to the edge. Despite really enjoying hiking, I am a total wuss when it comes to heights–this made me really uncomfortable. Even though I was (probably?) totally safe, all I could think about was the rock below me giving way.

As official sunset time approached, the sky in the southwest was looking really good, as the sky behind Half Dome was looking worse. At this point, I was totally fine with that–as a finished panorama, I thought this could “work” and maybe the lack of sky behind it would even help Half Dome stand out? Just as we were about ready to call it, the color that was previously isolated to the southwest portion of the Valley started to spread.

It was as if the last breath of the setting sun blew color out across the sky, and for around 2 minutes, there was color across the entire sky, and a soft after-glow on the face of Half Dome. I could not believe it. And like that, it was gone. At this point, I should have been elated about the scene I had just captured, but I was intensely worried that I had screwed something up (a pano mishap at Death Valley’s Racetrack has made me uber-sensitive to this, I guess?). I’ve already kept you in suspense this long, so I’ll cut to the chase–there were no merging issues.

Here’s the edited photo (please view it large):

Without question, this is my favorite photo I’ve ever shot of Yosemite National Park, and one of my favorite photos ever. Part of that is the shot itself, but more is probably the effort that went into getting it. Since moving to California, Yosemite has been one of my photographic muses, and my batting average for the park has been pretty poor given how many visits I’ve made. I feel like this scene was vindication for that, almost as if I had been paying my dues with a lot of near-misses before being rewarded with something amazing.

We didn’t have long to revel in the joy of what we had just witnessed. Given the weight of our photography gear, water, and other supplies, Bill and I determined that we could not pack more and camp overnight. The added weight was just not feasible. That’s part of the reason why we chose this particular night, as it was a full moon, which would provide greater visibility on the hike down.

We moved quickly down the mountain, wanting to get out of the Brush Trail section before the last light of dusk faded. Nothing about this hike was particularly dangerous–you’d have a tough time falling and dying; at worst you’re probably going to end up with a broken ankle and maybe some cuts–but this section had the greatest potential for falling since it was hard to see through the bushwhack.

From there, we proceeded to the Climbers’ Trail, and tried to find the cairns we had passed on the way up. At some point, we realized that we were off our original trail and Bill had missed something that he dropped (that’s another story totally, and I’ll let him tell that if he wants). I scrambled back up to look for it, to no avail. Running low on water and late on time, we decided to continue pushing down the mountain.

This time, we decided to take the “standard” trail past Lost Lake and down around Nevada Fall. The route we scrambled up was simply too steep going down, particularly at night by only the light of our headlamps. Around Lost Lake, we were both out of water, which was disconcerting given how much hiking remained before we’d get to another source.

We finally stumbled onto a little creek, and filled up on water there. This was a huge relief, as I was becoming so fatigued and dehydrated that I didn’t know if going all the way to the base of Nevada Fall (where I thought the next water source was) would be realistic. From this point, we pushed on. Trail-finding was fairly easy at this point, as this is a well-worn trail that is regularly used to get up Half Dome.

Then we arrived at Nevada Fall, which is a fairly well-maintained trail, groomed with rocks. You’d think this would have been the easy “home stretch” but it definitely was not. It was after midnight at this point, and each step downhill sent pain shooting up into my knees. It didn’t help that this trail wasn’t nearly as easy to follow as it would’ve been during the day. I got lost at a few points as I thought the trail of rocks was heading one way, but really my “trail” was just random rocks.

Once we got near Vernal Fall, I went ahead of Bill to go get the car, and drive it up near the trailhead bus stop. I arrived at the car just after 2:30 a.m., moved it, and almost immediately fell asleep while I waited for Bill to arrive. I had been awake for nearly 24 consecutive hours and had hiked 17.45 miles–I was beat.

Lessons Learned?

If you’re reading this and thinking about trying the Diving Board hike, there are some lessons to be learned from our misadventure. The first thing we did that was really dumb was not staying somewhere in Yosemite Valley the night before the hike. I get the impression that the Diving Board is seldom-visited (no one else was up there on our visit).

The Half Dome hike is much more popular, and on our way down–particularly as we neared Vernal Fall, we saw a lot of people beginning the ascent to Half Dome. Starting the hike to the Diving Board makes infinitely more sense around 4 a.m. than 10 a.m. That way, you’d arrive to the sketchiest portion of the hike just as day is breaking.

Doing the entire hike in a single day, rather than camping overnight, might sound like a bad idea, but I think that depends upon the circumstances. If you don’t have heavy camera gear and are able to spread tents among multiple people, an overnight makes more sense. However, with just the 2 of us, a tent, additional water, etc., would’ve added too much weight on top of our cameras, lenses, and tripods. I do not believe we would have made the hike up with those additional supplies.

One thing I’d never do again is the Mount Broderick scramble shortcut. There’s a reason the trail takes a meandering route around Liberty Cap, and that’s because it’s necessary in light of the elevation gain. Only do this scramble if you’re really experienced, deranged, or both.

I don’t want to scare anyone away from doing the hike itself, though. I’ve done many hikes that I would consider to be more dangerous, particularly those with exposed cliffs. Aside from the Diving Board itself, there are zero places on this hike where you could plummet to your death. There are plenty of spots where you could fall and get hurt, but it’s not a hazardous hike in the traditional sense of the term.

Rather, you have to worry more about exhaustion or dehydration-related issues. It is an incredibly strenuous hike. If you are not in good shape and an experienced hiker, you’re going to have issues. I’ve done a marathon the day after doing a half marathon (the day after a 10K…the day after a 5K) and this was far more exerting than that. Still, it’s in no way a “scary” hike, if you’re worried about that sort of thing.

On the plus side, the hike to the top of Vernal Fall itself is fairly strenuous, so doing that first could be a good barometer of whether you can continue on to the Diving Board. If going to Vernal Fall doesn’t tire you out, you’re probably good to go. (Assuming proper supplies.)

As far as hikes go, I would say this is one that is more about the destination than the journey. With many hikes, the converse is true. This one had a lot of tree cover in spots that would’ve allowed a beautiful view. (The Mist Trail portion is undeniably beautiful, but you can do that without continuing to the Diving Board.)

With all of that said, it’s worth it. The view from the Diving Board is stunning, and thinking about how many sunsets and sunrises each year probably go “unseen” by human eyes from here while hundreds of people stand at spots like Tunnel View is something. I still have many (many) more hikes to do in Yosemite National Park, but as of right now, the view of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley has an inside track as my pick for the best view in the park.

Phew. That’s a long story for only one photo. (Sorta like the hike itself!) I hope it was worth reading. If you have any questions about the hike/experience/anything else, please post in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer!

Thanks for reading, and happy 100th Anniversary to our National Parks–America’s Best Idea! 

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19 replies
  1. Daniel
    Daniel says:

    Great hiking story. I’ve been to Yosemite many times and hiked Vernal falls each time. I’ve also been up to the little Yosemite Valley campground above Nevada falls. I can’t imagine hiking down that trail at night.

    Reply
  2. Alan Green
    Alan Green says:

    Spectacular shot! Coming down the Mist Trail with tired muscles is tough during the daytime, I can only imagine how tough it would be in the dark. However, the results of that shot looks like it was worth it.

    Reply
  3. William McIntosh
    William McIntosh says:

    So glad that your photo came out so well after all of that effort! Just to follow up, I noticed on more than one GPS track that the entire hike following the John Muir Trail was 16 miles round trip from the parking lot. If you subtract the 1.5 miles each way for us powering up the Mist Trail instead of the more mellow JMT, I guess it would be closer to your 12 or 13. Also…I think there actually are a couple of spots where someone could get hurt pretty seriously, but that person would have to fall in the right way I suppose. There were 2-3 very steep vertical climbs over which someone would get bashed up pretty badly if they lost their grip on the way up. Similarly, there were another couple of sections of trail where you would plummet quite a ways if you lost your footing. Nothing compared to the exposure if people chose to go the high route, mind you, but still something to consider. I was eyeing those sections very closely when I went back for my stuff on Tuesday. Either way, all of those trails could definitely be considered “strenuous” and people should definitely plan on a very tough hike which will also demand more water than they would normally plan for. But man. What a view. Easily my favorite photo adventure thus far. Thanks again for going back to look for my stuff! Glad we made it out with some shots after kicking this idea around for two years!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      It being officially 16 would make more sense, particularly since my Fitbit registered 17.45 miles, and usually it underestimates distance when steps are involved. The 12 mile number was just what I found elsewhere on the internet.

      Now that we’ve crossed this one off the list, I’m starting to think that this scene would look really good in the snow… 😉

      Reply
      • William McIntosh
        William McIntosh says:

        Maybe not in the dead of winter with 15 feet of snow, but it’s got me thinking about late Spring. Even though it was longer, that back route around Lost Lake was SO much easier. Although I don’t even want to think about how hard it would be to get up those couple of spots when they are covered in ice and snow. Yikes.

        Also thinking about that Winter trip to Glacier Point. Hmmmm….

        Reply
  4. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Hearing about the adventure was fun. Going down after dark sounds challenging – gravity is helping, but footing is trickier.

    If I can ask, since you were already doing a panorama, why did you choose to use a fisheye as well?

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I used the fisheye because moving around the ledge where I was perched was tricky with the ultra wide angle, and none of my panos with that would line up properly in Photoshop when I tried the merge on that.

      I was worried that might be the case, so I alternated between the fisheye and the 14-24 in the field, and it paid off. In post, I de-fished the fisheye shots, and they merged without any issue. I lost some sharpness as a result, but I think the pano really helps make this shot, so that’s a trade I’m willing to make.

      Reply
      • Kevin
        Kevin says:

        Thanks for the explanation. I’m surprised that a fisheye can line up with a pano, let alone better than regular wide-angle. But I’ve only tried one or two panos in my life. Interesting.

        Either way, that’s definitely a picture that should be on the cover of a coffee table book about Yosemite.

        Reply
  5. Mike D
    Mike D says:

    The story is equal parts intense and full of intrigue. I’ve hiked the trail to Vernal Falls and have to say that while I think I’m in shape the older I get the harder it is to these somewhat mild hikes. I have seen videos of the people using the “ropes” to climb the backside of Half Dome but this image you’ve captured is nothing short of spectacular. This is easily goes to the top of your already incredible images for me. One because I love Yosemite and know of its many offerings. I thought being at Glacier Point in the dark was incredible but after seeing this and knowing you hiked down the other trail in the dark is somewhat frightening and amazing to me, let alone with gear. Sometimes I think your one part crazy, one part genius, and another part madman. Well done.

    Mike D.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      “one part crazy, one part genius, and another part madman”

      Ha, thanks, I guess? I’m actually half man, half bear, and half pig. I roam the earth attacking humans for no reason at all. 😉

      Reply
  6. Kayla
    Kayla says:

    Love the photo and all the work that went into it makes it even more special. How does Sarah cope with your hiking escapades? I nearly have a heart attack reading some of the things you do. A disclaimer though, I’m not cut out for serious hiking. After leaving a trail and not realizing until I went too far to safely turn back, I know to stick with worn dirt paths in the woods.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I think Sarah and my mom handle it about the same way: not exactly thrilled that I go on adventures like this, but understanding (to a degree?) that this is the way I am.

      Reply
  7. George Potter
    George Potter says:

    Great story and an incomparable shot. You seriously earned that photo.
    Rereading The Camera, The Negative, and The Print has left me convinced that sheer force of curmudgeonly snark propelled Ansel Adams along.

    Reply
  8. Michael Rasmussen
    Michael Rasmussen says:

    Amazing shot. Definitely a reward for what sounds like a lot of dues paid. A DSLR/tripod in the backcountry is a tough balance. Would it have been possible to base camp halfway down and only take your tent to the top of vernal? I can’t find the trail on the topo map, but seems like a drop at Little Yosemite Valley campground before turning towards liberty lake would be feasible, then you have a bed waiting for you around 10 PM instead of 2.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Yeah, we definitely could have camped at a midway point and not done the entire hike in a day. That’s probably the most reasonable option, and would’ve been more pragmatic than what we did.

      Reply
      • Marc McNally
        Marc McNally says:

        You could camp at Little Yosemite Valley and easily day hike to the Diving Board if you are so inclined to attempt this one again. It would require a Wilderness Permit, but would be the easiest method by far.

        Reply

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