Getting a Yosemite Permit in 3 Steps
Plan your trip.
Decide what dates work for you, and make several backup plans. If at all possible, be flexible on both your dates and your trail heads. Determine how many people you want to bring with you, in an ideal world, and determine the minimum acceptable number of people to have on your trip. I recommend using Tom Harrison's Yosemite High Country Map as a trip planning tool, and while on trail as a navigational tool. They are available on Amazon. I have also seen them in the Yosemite permit station for purchase in the past.
The reservation system is in place for the back country May 1 through October 20. If your planned departure dates fall within this time you will need to apply for a permit 168 days prior to your desired departure date, the button below will take you to the reference sheet Yosemite National Park provides to determine when the reservation window opens. For example, if you would like to have a permit for July 19th, you will need to fax your permit application on January 31, or call in February 1.
Apply for a Permit
Be sure to apply on the first day of the reservation window (see 168 Day Reference sheet to help determine when this is). If you miss the first day of your application window, check the full trail heads report, and try to call the permit station rather than fax or mail your application in. This way you will be able to talk to a ranger. Make sure to familiarize yourself with your trip options, and be prepared to call dozens of times. Set aside a half hour or more to call, and don't give up when you hear a busy signal, just hang up and call again. Have a credit card on hand. A permit fee is $5.00 per permit, plus an additional $5.00 per person. If you are hiking by yourself the permit fee will be $10.00, if you are hiking with one other person the fee will be $15.00, etc. If you are applying for a Half Dome permit in addition to a back country permit, these are $8.00 per person, but you pay for them when you pick up your permit, so it will be a separate transaction.
If you aren't successful for your first dates, try again. While it can be difficult to get more popular trail heads, especially for groups, there are many trail heads that will not fill their quotas until well after the reservation window opens. Flexibility is key!
Pick Up Your Permit
You must pick up your permit in person, and the person picking up the permit must be the person who's name is on the permit. This is to prevent people from scalping the permits, it's a pretty good system, even if it can be inconvenient. You may pick up your permit at any of the permit issuing stations if you have a reservation. You can pick up your permit starting at 11 am the day before your permit, until 10am the day of your permit. If you will be picking up your permit later than 10am the day of your permit be sure to call the permit office so they don't give your permit away. If you don't call and you don't show up by 10 am your permit will be given away as a walk up permit.
Walk Up Permits
If you are unsuccessful getting a permit through the reservation process, don't lose hope. Yosemite National Park reserves ~40% of their permits for "walk-up." These permits are first come, first served, and the line can start forming the night before, so if you are trying to get a permit for a popular trail head, here are my tips for you.
- The smaller the group, the more likely you are to get a permit. Many times I have been able to get a permit because I was a "party of one."
- Get in line as early as you can, the permit office will open at 9am.
- Go to the permit station closest to your desired trail head. If you want to hike out of a trail head closest to the Tuolomne Meadows Wilderness Center, but you line up for a walk-up permit at the Yosemite Valley Wilderness Center, everyone in line at the Tuolomne Meadows Wilderness Center will be "ahead of you" in line for that permit. When you get to the front of the line the ranger issuing the permit at the Yosemite Valley Wilderness Center will call the Tuolomne Meadows Wilderness Center, the ranger at the Tuolomne Meadows Wilderness Center will ask everyone in line if they are trying to get the permit you want, if any of them are, you are out of luck. You can check which permit station is closest to your trail head by clicking the button below, the nearest station is noted in parentheses. This link will also show you how many permits are available for the walk-up permits, and how many are available for reservations.
Backpacking Permits in Yosemite National Park, my 2 cents
Backpacking permits in Yosemite National Park are notoriously a huge pain to get, and you can't even do it online. Yeah, that's right, in the year 2017, the park's preferred method of applying for a wilderness permit is the fax machine.
However, as of 3/1/2017 I have a zero percent success rate faxing in permit applications. It's hard to tell if my faxes just aren't getting through, or if I just haven't been lucky enough to get a permit. For this reason, my preferred method of getting a permit is via the telephone, or by mailing in an application.
Be aware that you should apply for your permit as close as possible to the first day of the reservation window for your hike. Many trail heads fill up before the permit station even begins taking phone calls.
Be warned, if you are calling in, it will likely take several tries (dozens of tries) to get through and avoid the busy signal. I like calling in because I am generally not going for the difficult to obtain permits, such as Happy Isles to Little Yosemite, or Cathedral Lakes. When you are looking for a less crowded trailhead, I find it easiest to simply talk to the ranger. Have a plan A, a plan B and a plan C at the very minimum.
Most of all be patient. There are thousands of people trying to get a permit for Yosemite back country every day. They won't all succeed. It may take several tries for you to get your permit, depending on the trail head, it may take several years. If your plan falls through, think about trying a trip outside of the Park, there are thousands of miles of beautiful trail in the Sierra Nevada, many of them just as beautiful, and far less traveled than those in the park.
I am still trying to figure out how to get a faxed permit application through, so that when I apply to hike the JMT in 2018, I can get my name in the lottery, however for now, I find the phone to be by far the most reliable.