Because Yosemite is so very popular, planning ahead is a necessity. This is particularly true if you wish to spend the night in the park. During the main summer months of June through September it can be very crowded there. Most of the main campgrounds in the park require reservations well in advance. Even for people, like myself, who wish to sleep in the backcountry reservations are still a necessity. Yosemite requires all backpackers to have permits for overnight stays. They limit how many hikers can depart from and camp from each of the major trailheads. In the busy summer months and from the popular trailheads these permits can go quickly. Ambitious hikers wishing to go up Half Dome will, surprise, surprise, also need a permit for that. Though, this last one probably exemplifies the necessity of all these permits in the first place. With a simple web search you can find pictures and videos of what the cables route on Half Dome looks like when it becomes overcrowded. In short, it gets downright dangerous. Though the whole reservation thing does complicate the process, it is in the end a necessity and a good thing for the preservation of these natural beauties.
Reservations, When Should I Start?There are two key time windows you need to be aware of. One relates to the campgrounds in the park which may be useful before and after hikes. The other relates to the wilderness permits. This is what the reservation windows look like:
- Campground Reservations open up 4-5 months ahead. Visit the NPS page for this for more info: Campground Reservations
- Wilderness Permit Reservations start exactly 168 days (24 weeks) from the date you wish to depart
What About if I'm Last Minute?
So what do you do if you’re throwing this together last minute? Or maybe your plans change as ours did in 2011? Or maybe you didn’t get the reservations you wanted. Well, thankfully Yosemite is also flexible and there are ways to get help.
In regards to campgrounds, some of the most popular ones in the valley will likely be filled up already and you probably are out of luck. However, Yosemite has a number of campgrounds that are first come-first served. This allows visitors the ability to decide at a whim to make the trip to Yose for the weekend. They have an excellent page, click here, explaining which camps are available in this way.
If you're hitting the wilderness, you're also in luck. Each trailhead requiring Wilderness Permits actually has two quotas. One limits the number of reservations ahead of time. The other is a first come-first served quota. If you didn't get the reservation you wanted ahead of time you still have hope. It also fits in with the flexibility that is often necessary due to weather or other affects on travel plans. This quota information and more about the trailheads can be found on the excellent Trailhead Information page.
If you're looking to go the first come-first served route here is one bit of information you'll need to know. Yosemite starts releasing the FC-FS permits at 11am the day before your intended departure. If you're desperate for that change in plans, or a permit in general, its worth working this option in.
One last ditch effort is to show up at the Wilderness Permit office(s) at 11am on the day of your hike and hope that a reserved permit was not picked up. They will start to release these (and it really does happen!) for other hikers to take advantage of. Moral of the story: hang in there, there's always hope!
How do I Check Availability?
So I'm already in the 168-window, but I still want to try for a reservation on a wilderness permit for my intended hike, where do I start? Yosemite Park Service has a report that gets updated periodically which will show potential hikers what trailheads and dates have already hit their initial quotas. Some of the more popular trailheads like Cathedral Lakes, Happy Isles,
and Glacier Point have most of their trails filled up for the entire summer within the first day or two of reservations. But, since Yosemite is such a large and amazing park this just means you have to get creative and find another possible route to travel. In 2011, as our plans changed we ended up going the route of backpacking less and simply using a campground to sleep. This led to longer dayhikes for our plans.
The Trailhead Reservations Report can be found by clicking the link in this sentence.
How do I go about making that reservation?
They allow you to start sending FAX applications at 5pm the day before your permit window opens. They also note how the order the FAXes are received, before the 7:30am window opens has no bearing on which permit requests are granted. It is also noteworthy that the FAXes are handled before phone call requests which emphasizes the preference of FAX-ing. There is a cost involved in the permit process but it is relatively small. They charge a $5 fee per permit as well as a $5 per person fee.
For more complete information and an up-to-date link to the actual application here is the NPS page: Wilderness Permit Reservations.
I have my Itinerary and my Reservation, now what?You're in luck, now its time to show up and have fun! Well almost, if you have months or even weeks to go you're probably going to be training and getting your gear planned out. You'll also need to plan out getting things like your permit and bear canisters picked up.
With your permit reserved you still need to pick it up upon arrival in Yosemite. This can be done at any of the wilderness permit issuing stations location throughout the park. Yosemite has a good Wilderness Permit Stations page highlighting their locations and other information. I will share more about this and all the other fun planning that goes into the last stage of Prepping a Yosemite Hiking Trip in the next and final installment of this series.