Half Dome And Its Cables Listed On National Register Of Historic Places

Half Dome and its cables recently were added to the National Register for Historic Places. Top photo by QT Luong, www.terragalleria.com/parks, bottom photo NPS.

One of the most iconic spots in the National Park System is now officially an historic place.

Yosemite National Park's Half Dome, the trail that climbs its smooth shoulder, and the cables that line that trail were quietly added to the National Register of Historic Places a month ago.

No release of the listing was made by the National Park Service, and no explanation for the listing was given, though folks who have managed to negotiate their way to the summit of the granite dome no doubt won't argue with the decision. After all, they can now claim they've climbed a piece of history!

Not everyone approves of all that history. George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, told The Associated Press that the cables the help you up the final 400 ridiculously steep feet of the trail to the summit are not appropriate for a wilderness area, of which Half Dome is part of.

Park officials currently are finalizing a plan for how best to handle hiking traffic on the route to Half Dome. The Half Dome Trail Stewardship Plan Draft Environmental Assessment, which was closed to public comment back in March, has said limiting the daily number of Half Dome hikers to 300 "provides the best combination of accessibility to the summit, free-flowing travel conditions on the cables, which improves safety, and low encounter rates on the trail, similiar to use levels found on other high-use trails in Yosemite's wilderness and other wilderness areas."

Half Dome long has attracted throngs of hikers -- some experienced, some not, some well-equipped for the task, some not -- and at times there have been accusations that the heavy, unregulated traffic to the top of the iconic dome has played a role in some accidents on the dome's steeply pitched shoulder.

To give you an idea of how crazy it has been reaching the top of Half Dome, in 2008 there were days when upwards of 1,200 people tried to summit the dome, according to Yosemite officials.

Not everyone agrees the park should work to better manage the traffic on the trail. One comment received during the public review of the draft plan stated, "I disagree with limiting the number of visitors to Half Dome. Having to compete with a slot to hike an 18 mile trail to Half Dome makes Yosemite feel like Disneyland, and not a park."

Wrote another: "Yosemite is often referred to as the "Disneyland of National Parks" and no one hike supports that negative public image more than the Half Dome cables hike. This image clearly demonstrates that, even in the public eye, the pendulum has swung too far in favor of the interests of commercial exploitation and away from conservation and protection of land, watersheds, and of public safety. Let's take this opportunity to shift our learned perspectives and align our values with our management practices. The most beneficial option, by your own research, for all stakeholders is Alternative E."

Alternative E calls for removal of the cables.

Comments

The top of Half Dome has been an important "pilgrimage" goal for outdoorspeople for many, many years. The cables were there long before the Wilderness Act was passed and long before the route was overrun by hordes of hikers. To advocate for the cable's removal at this point seems to me to be too late.

I'm a very firm believer in formal wilderness. But areas need to be able to be managed in a way consistent with that designation. Half Dome seems to be an example of having tried something and then finding that it didn't work as expected. (There's nothing wrong with trying things -- that's how we learn!) But maybe now it should be considered that, given the long-standing presence of the cables, Half Dome wasn't appropriate for wilderness in the first place, and maybe Half Dome should be taken out of wilderness designation. It would be important for wilderness advocates to make this proposal, rather than anti-wilderness forces. The wilderness folks would show that they are willing to take a practical stance, even when it might go against their own perceived interest. But it's also an intellectually honest stance, which is in their interest as well.

Interesting comment by anonymous, ie, to eliminate the Half Dome Trail and cables from wilderness. It has been discussed many times over the years, and I am not sure I have any good answers except to say, once the wilderness designation might be changed, it does open the door to future development along the trail and to summit itself. There are proposals for two cables, one up, one down, restrooms would be needed to handle the additional hikers (human waste disposal already a big problem, even with composting toilets at the top of Nevada Falls and Little Yosemite Valley), potable water (and all that entails), would be an issue once wilderness designation is dropped, and at some point a decision will still have to be made on how many hikers a day can the trail handle (even with two cables) without significant improvements to the trail corridor itself. I personally think its better to keep the wilderness designation and face the unpleasant reality that we citizens understand that with the growth in population and the understandable popularity of the cables them selves, some limits will have to be implemented. At age 72 I have lived to see the growth in visitation in Yosemite, I do not find this objectionable but do feel that it carry's the price of some restrictions to areas where once there was not much visitation pressure. Back in 1960, I was a trails employee in Yosemite, one of our first assignments was to put up the Half Dome cables. Visitation was so light on weekdays, we could do the job easily in about 5 hours, nobody waiting at the shoulder. Times have certainly changed.

Listing the cables on the National Register is an Interesting development. That step would seem to make it much more difficult to remove the cables (or even redesign them) if such actions should ever be deemed appropriate in the future.

My comments were only in regard to Half Dome itself and the cables, i.e., a minimal exclusion. The rest of the trail up to the notch immediately before the cables should still be designated and managed as wilderness. Sorry if that wasn't clear.

I do think a third cable could be added for safety reasons. That actually is my main concern here, and that's why I think the history of its use is important. Half Dome seems to be a special case -- I would never advocate putting in cables or railings in a wilderness area that didn't haven't them before. Given the number of users (and with many of them being more inexperienced hikers, it seems), a third cable to create a second "lane" seems prudent. I do think that limits should be applied to the number of hikers, though I don't know what they should be. I am curious to see how the current lottery system is functioning with the changes that were made.

I see no need for the Park to improve water supply for hikers -- carrying sufficient supplies on one's own is part of of wilderness hiking. If human waste is an issue, then it needs to be dealt with anyway now, whether there's a wilderness designation or not. Maybe "daytrippers" ought to be made available for free or as part of a permitting fee, like with Mt. Whitney.

It's a complicated situation, with overlapping and conflicting priorities, but ones that are not necessarily repeated elsewhere. So I don't see it as setting a precedent for opening up other wilderness areas to development, nor do I see it as opening Half Dome itself up for much further "improvement" -- note the quotation marks ;-) .