Quarter Dome

Half Dome – Yosemite Musing

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Sub Dome is the bump on the right

     Today we talk Yosemite nomenclature. When many people go up the final rise just before Half Dome, they look at Sub Dome and think it is called “Quarter Dome.”  Heck, I did too. Makes sense…you go up the quarter to get to the half, right? The truth is that there are a cluster of smaller domes below Cloud’s Rest.  These domes were clearly under the glaciers and were carved by the action of the ice grinding slowly away at the granite. If you have a good topo map, this terrain is labeled “quarter domes.” They are hard to get to. The Tenaya Canyon is treacherous and not recommended for hikers. The smooth granite and steep banks make this a dumb move.

     When I wrote my award worthy book, I queried the Wilderness Rangers on this. They call it “Sub Dome”. But it isn’t labeled on any maps I’ve seen. Guess you can’t name every pebble in the park. It is important to be consistent, for emergency rescue if nothing else. Hate to send a rescue team to the real quarter domes because you thought the route up to Half Dome was called Quarter Dome. So spread the word – it’s Sub Dome, not Quarter Dome. Other names I’ve heard are Devil’s Staircase or the Grand Staircase or the shoulder or the Knee Grinder. It’s a man-made switchback  built in 1919, that goes up 400 vertical feet and is often not even mentioned in talks about Half Dome. The steps are narrow and I contend that it is can be as hard as the actual cables in difficulty. They were actually “improved” in 2005 and the route was often closed on weekdays. Honestly, I could not tell the difference. I highly recommend hiking poles to go up and down. If one was to fall I think the odds are great here. Be careful.

Unrelated thought worth quoting: “The warden threw a party in the county jail. The prison band was there and they began to wail. The band was jumpin’ and the joint began to swing. You should’ve heard those knocked out jailbirds sing.” – Jailhouse Rock, Elvis Presley

*MrHalfDome – Rick Deutsch – www.HikeHalfDome.com


20 Responses to “Quarter Dome”

  1. Norman S Says:


    Misnaming or misidentifying geological features in Yosemite is an ancient and honorable tradition going back to the Mariposa Battalion. As has been frequently noted, Nevada Fall and Vernal Fall do not end with an s, but even High Sierra trail signs have, in the past, included one. And the ‘visor’ at the top of HD (aka King’s Chair or Throne) has also long been misidentified as the Diving Board.

    What has always confused me was why Francois Matthes, the early Yosemite geologist, named the two glaciated domes midway between Cloud’s Rest and HD on the south wall of Tenaya Canyon – Quarter Dome. If there are two, why leave out the s?

    As you noted, Devil’s Staircase, Grand Staircase and Knee Grinder have been alternate names for Sub Dome. Note, however, that ‘Sub’ is itself a nickname. It’s short for subsidiary; meaning to serve, to assist or supplement, auxiliary or secondary. To some extent, Sub Dome’s role in assisting hikers to the cable section gets a little lost without the longer and more formal designation.

    Before the steps were carved out in 1919, some writers referred to what we call Sub Dome as the ‘saddle’. The saddle today, of course, refers to the shoulder of the main dome – a section that’s slightly depressed. Which image is more appealing to you; putting the saddle on a section that is rounded like Sub Dome as was done in the past or on a slightly depressed section as we do today. The latter brings to my mind the image of a sway back horse.

    Lastly, here are other names found that have been used for Sub Dome

    1. Satan’s Staircase. It’s a play on the Devils Staircase but has the nice double s sound.

    2. Camel’s Back

    3. The Rock Stairway

    4. Stairway Dome

    5. Mist Trail 3

    6. And the ever popular, ‘&*#$%’.


  2. Norman S Says:

    Mea Culpa. My topo map lists the true Quarter Domes – with an s. The mistake I made was quoting an article, not a primary source, which (mis)attributed the singular version of the name to Matthes.

    So in fact, calling the Park Service to tell them you’re at Quarter Dome and need help is telling them to go somewhere that doesn’t exist – not someplace further up the canyon that is spelled with an S.


  3. Sönke Says:

    Isn’t it “Clouds Rest”?! ;))

    • mrhalfdome Says:

      OK, let’s not turn this erudite blog into a spelling bee.. YES, it’s Clouds Rest…. I often put little apparent errors in to see who’s really reading the blog and comments. :>)

      Sonke and Norm both can erase the blackboards at the end of class.

  4. Roberto Hernandez Says:

    Curious, how many steps are carved into the subdome?

  5. Norman S Says:

    Why do I have to erase the blackboard at the end of class?
    I didn’t point out the Clouds Rest spelling error. Sonke did.
    I fell on my sword to protect you and spelled Clouds Rest the same way you did. I don’t think it’s fair.


    • mrhalfdome Says:

      Mister S.

      You questioned the Jedi master’s knowledge of the Quarter Domes. For that you can also sweep the floors! And for insolent demeanor – detention for 3 days.

      And for another thing – seasoned Half Dome fans know that many silly vernacular names for things don’t carry water. The Visor is the Visor – The Diving Board is where Ansel Adams too his pix near the eastern base of the slope of HD – near Snake Dike.

      And Webster, SUB can also mean UNDER – as in submarine….Under the water. Ergo, Sub Dome is under the main Dome. Make it 5 days in detention.

      Ipso facto hominum gloria – Nobis, Nobis; Sunt!

      Mr HD

  6. Maureen Lahiff Says:

    nice photo!

    from a trail or flying?

  7. Norman S Says:


    There are slightly more than 400 rock steps.

    • mrhalfdome Says:

      I’ve never counted the Sub Dome steps. There are too many unevern steps…so what is a “step?” Anything over 3 inches??? Then when the formal steps end…do we count human strides as a step? Gee, I gave up caring about that…it’s about 400 vertical foot rise.

  8. Norman S Says:

    You might mention the ‘sub dome scramble’ that occurs when the formal steps end. My first reaction was, How did I miss the rock trail?

    That was the one time I found the poles more a hindrance than a help. I held on to them with one hand as I made my way towards a Jeffrey Pine near the summit..

    • mrhalfdome Says:

      Is that like the “cables cha-cha???”

      Whatever it take to get up and down.

    • Dean Says:

      “You might mention the ‘sub dome scramble’ that occurs when the formal steps end. My first reaction was, How did I miss the rock trail? ”

      That’s what I like to call “Dean’s Pause”…first time up I got a bit of the vertigo there, couldn’t work out where to go.

      • mrhalfdome Says:

        Seems simple to me…just keep going to the highest point!!

        And Norm – my poles hep me greatly getting up the upper 1/4.

  9. Norman S Says:

    I don’t doubt if I had your strength (or a goodly percentage) and multiple summits – it would seem straightforward. But encountering this section for the first time, it’s a surprise and there were a few moments when the mental armor wore thin. As for being able to use the poles ‘getting up the upper ¼”. – I’m guessing that as one heads up, veering to the right (East) may be a better route.

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