There is no shortage of hiking guidebooks to Yosemite, that's for certain. Again, picking one is somewhat a matter of taste. The truth is, I usually choose my hikes by poring over maps, but there are a few books that are notable for their utility or interest.
Sharon Giacommazzi, Trails & Tales of Yosemite Yosemite and the Central Sierra
Trails & Tales is a trail guide for the Yosemite lover. On the one hand, I mean that in the positive sense. If you're really obsessed with Yosemite, its trails and its history, this is the book for you. Hands down my favorite. The only hiking guidebook that you can sit down and read for the fun of reading. On the other hand, if you're just interested in finding a scenic hike, it may not be the book for you. Each trail description consists of a short or long introduction explaining what makes the trail interesting. Usually it has to do with the human history that is revealed on the trail, more than the natural history, and the introduction can be several times as long as the trail description. The author has a long essay on the long-gone Hite's Cove mining town for the Hite's Cove trail and excerpts from John Muir regarding a hike to find one of John Muir's favorite spots and so forth. In other words, this book tells you the story of the trail, not just what you'll see there. As a historian myself, that makes this book far and away my favorite, but it might not be for everyone.
Suzanne Swedo, Hiking Yosemite National Park (2nd ed)
For a long time, Swedo's Hiking Yosemite was my clear favorite among the hiking guidebooks. It has a nice selection of trails, good descriptions and is well-organized. I particularly like the table she has that gives a quick overview of hikes by type and difficulty. Of course, it's not a complete guide to the trails of the park. It does, however, include some hikes of high quality that are on the borders of the park. All in all, I always find that this book just has a good "feel" to it and is probably my favorite straight-up trail guide though, as I say, every guidebook has something to recommend it. If you aren't really much of a hiker or you'll be bringing small kids along, you can also check out Swedo's more petite Best Easy Day Hikes. For a few dollars more, though, you can get the full guide which has the easy hikes and many many more.
Jeffrey Schaffer, Yosemite National Park: A Complete Hiker's Guide, 2nd edition
The only truly comprehensive guide to the hiking trails of Yosemite as far as I know. You have to watch out here as Schafer has three editions out. He has one that has selected popular trails, a first edition that seeks to include all trails in the park, and a second edition of the same. The second edition of the complete guide is the one to get. The first edition gives no guidance at all and doesn't have any "quick facts" so it's hard to really peruse and find something that will suit your fancy without reading the whole thing. It has good, but long and very dry descriptions (like mine!). The second edition has some added features that make it more like the Swedo guide, allowing for quick scanning and perusing, but has more thorough coverage within the park. The Schafer book, however limits itself to the park itself, so some high-quality outings on the borders are omitted.
Rick Deutsch, One Best Hike: Yosemite's Half Dome
Do you really need an entire guidebook for one trail that is only seven or eight miles long? Apparently so, as the folks at the Yosemite Mountain Shop tell me it's the best-selling hiking book in the store and indeed this book is now in its second edition. It has pretty much everything you might want to know about the Half Dome trail — sites and scenes, mileages, preparation, suggested gear, history, an associated mobile phone app and so forth. Everything except the required permit that is! Also, see Sönke's additional review in the comments below for his opinion of the book. My wife hiked Half Dome with a guy who also had great things to say about Rick and his book (but see my quibble about that later on, heh heh!)
But of course you don't need a whole book for this one hike and, if you're a fit person with outdoor experience, you don't need any book or map at all except what you get at the visitor center. The truth is that the Half Dome trail is a cattle train, with wide trails and, typically, people everywhere. Put it this way, the trail has bathrooms and a snack bar at the trail head, a drinking fountain at the 0.8 mile mark, and no fewer than three bathrooms along its seven miles. This is really not wilderness. If you are a competent mountaineer (i.e. can do roped climbing), you might even consider climbing Mount Starr King. It ain't Half Dome, for good and for ill. In any case, if you are fit and experienced, there's no reason to buy any book if you simply want to get to the top and see some scenery.
So why would you buy this book then? Having a book may, and probably will, enhance the experience. Here are some reasons why:
- You want to really know the trail and not miss any of the highlights. Rick lays out mileages, points of interest and so forth so you won't miss anything.
- You really aren't sure of what you're doing in the outdoors and you want guidance on gear, training and preparation.
- More generally, Half Dome is a major goal of their trip for many people and this is unquestionably the most thorough information on the subject, so it lets you make sure you're prepared before you leave home. Deutsch tells you pretty much everything you need to know in terms of how fit you need to be, what gear to take, and otherwise how to prepare. You may be spending hundreds or thousands of dollars and for a few dollars more this book might enhance the experience (that's my general argument about buying a few worthwhile books — they're cheap in the overall context of most trips).
- You need to get in shape. Keeping this book by the toilet will motivate you to get ready. I suspect it's often given as a gift to motivate someone who is dreaming of Half Dome.
- It has a picture of the last spring where you can fill up on water. This may seem like a small thing, but it can be damn hard to find that spring and on a hot day, you might be glad of it. Someday I'll put a similar picture up on the site, but for now, Rick's book is the only place I know of to find it.
So depending on your goals and your background you may or may not want to buy this book. If you're still having trouble deciding, you should check out Rick's Hike Half Dome website for lots more info on Half Dome, excerpts from the book and ways to meet Rick if you so desire (mostly in the San Francisco area).
I do have some quibbles. My wife once guided someone who had been prepared for the hike by Rick himself and had read the book, from whence he got the advice to just simplify his trail food by just carrying bars. He was awfully jealous when they got to the top and he pulled out his bars and my wife pulled out her pizza. He said "I'll trade you a bar for a slice of pizza." Generous soul that she is, she complied. Pizza is a much better trail food than bars and don't let anyone tell you otherwise! Try it sometime. Remember, bars=yuck, pizza=yum!
R.J. Secor, High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, Trails
Not exactly a "trail" guide as mostly this guidebook covers off-trail routes. But if you want to get off the beaten path and yet still have a little guidance, this is the book. If you think Yosemite is crowded, many if not most of the destinations in this book will lead you to parts of Yosemite where you will be entirely alone. Descriptions are minimalist and the book covers the entire Sierra, but there's simply no other book like it for the Sierra. Many Yosemite routes are documented nowhere else. The Secor book occuppies that often under-served middle ground between trail guides and technical climbing guides (though many of the routes are technical climbing routes). For the most part, Peaks, Passes, Trails just gives you an idea of how to find the route and no detailed descriptions. This book is for people who know how to use a map, travel cross-country without trails, be self-reliant and stay out of danger. If that's you, this book will give you lots to think about over a long cold winter.