The first major Western national park I backpacked in was Yosemite. I wanted to begin exploring America’s big, iconic wilderness parks—and like a lot of backpackers, I thought: Where else would I start but Yosemite? The name alone conjures mental images of walking for days through wild backcountry sprinkled with shimmering alpine lakes, granite walls, and high passes and summits overlooking a sea of jagged peaks (which, it turns out, is accurate).
Today, after many return trips throughout Yosemite, I’ve learned that one can spend a lifetime wandering the more than 700,000 acres of wilderness in America’s third national park and not get tired of it.
But what do you need to know about taking a Yosemite backpacking trip? This article will answer all of your questions on how to go about planning and executing what is unquestionably one of America’s 10 best backpacking trips—including tips on obtaining a wilderness permit that can be very hard to get. The information to follow draws on my numerous trips backpacking, dayhiking, and rock climbing there over more than 30 years, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor with Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
See “The 8 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite” and all stories at this blog about backpacking in Yosemite and in the High Sierra. Most of those stories require a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full, including my tips and information on planning each hike. See also my expert e-guides to three great multi-day hikes in Yosemite and other parks, including “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”
I’ve helped many readers plan backpacking trips in Yosemite, on the John Muir Trail, and throughout the High Sierra, answering all of their questions (and many they didn’t think to ask) and customizing an itinerary ideal for them. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you and read scores of comments from readers like you who’ve received my custom trip planning.
Click on any photo below to read about that trip. Please share your questions, personal stories, or tips about backpacking in Yosemite in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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First: It’s Not as Crowded As You Think
Yosemite will far surpass your expectations in many ways—and it can blow up the stereotype of hugely popular national parks. The first is the notion that it’s overrun with people. I can speak to that question from deep personal experience: I’ve hiked many days there, during the peak season, encountering few other people.
While certain spots and trails get insanely busy at times—think: Yosemite Valley, the Mist Trail, Half Dome—most of the park’s backcountry offers a surprising amount of solitude. The truth is that only about 10 percent of the park’s 750 miles of trails accounts for about 80 percent of all trail use: mostly the John Muir Trail from Happy Isles to Donohue Pass, Little Yosemite Valley (which alone accounts for almost 20 percent of backcountry use) and the Sierra High Camps loop. And the average length of backpacking trips is just two nights.
Consequently, as a career backcountry ranger in Yosemite once told me, “There are areas of the park where you will see very few people.”
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How to Get a Yosemite Wilderness Permit
As in most mountainous Western national parks, Yosemite permits are in high demand for dates in July, August, and September. First key step for success: Know when to apply for a permit reservation. Fortunately, Yosemite established in 2022 a sensible and user-friendly system created to handle and spread out enormous demand.
Yosemite issues wilderness permits based on daily trailhead quotas (with special rules for the John Muir Trail) through a rolling lottery that provides weeklong application periods.
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Apply up to 24 weeks in advance and you are notified of whether you get a permit reservation within two business days after the lottery closes. Thus, if you strike out in one lottery period, you can apply in any subsequent lottery period.
Sixty percent of permit reservations are available by lottery at recreation.gov/permits/445859 beginning at 12:01 a.m. Pacific Time on the Sunday up to 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the date you want to start hiking, with the lottery for each specific window of dates closing at 11:59 p.m. the following Saturday.
For example, to start a trip between Aug. 6-12, 2023, you would have submitted your application anytime between Feb. 19 and Feb. 25, 2023, and would be notified of the result by 5 p.m. Pacific Time on Feb. 27 and must accept it by March 2 or forfeit it. The weekly lottery ends in mid-May. (Note: The park will update its permit window dates for 2024 soon.)
Forty percent of wilderness permits become available for reserving at recreation.gov/permits/445859 starting seven days and up to three days before a trip start date. See “How to Get a Last-Minute Yosemite Wilderness Permit Now.” Find more information at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm.
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Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my stories “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
See these articles at The Big Outside that may be useful for a Yosemite hike:
“Bear Essentials: How to Store Food When Backcountry Camping”
“8 Pro Tips For Avoiding Blisters”
“How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be”
“12 Expert Tips for Finding Solitude When Backpacking”
“How to Plan Food for a Backpacking Trip”
“10 Pro Tips For Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag”
“5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking”
See all stories with expert backpacking tips at The Big Outside.