How to Get a Last-Minute Yosemite Wilderness Permit Now

By Michael Lanza

You just decided you’d like to backpack in Yosemite this year and realized you’re months too late to reserve a wilderness permit. What now? As it happens, one positive outcome of the pandemic has been Yosemite National Park revising its procedure for obtaining a first-come or walk-in backpacking permit, making it possible to reserve a permit two weeks in advance—meaning you no longer have to risk traveling to the park, standing in line and hoping for Lady Luck to smile on you. Here’s how you can grab a last-minute permit for backpacking in Yosemite this year.

Little wonder that the nation’s third national park, designated in 1890, sees enormous demand for wilderness permits and that most available permits get claimed months in advance. Unquestionably one of the 10 best backpacking destinations in America, its sprawling backcountry abounds in classic High Sierra scenery: high passes overlooking a sea of rocky peaks, meadows alive with wildflowers, and too many stunning mountain lakes, creeks, and waterfalls to count.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


Backpackers hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.
Backpackers hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park. Click photo to read about this trip.

After numerous trips in Yosemite since my first more than three decades ago—including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog—my biggest lesson has been that every time I believe I’ve seen the best that Yosemite has to offer, I take another trip and discover I was wrong.

In fact, I have a permit reservation for another multi-day hike in Yosemite later this summer—because it’s impossible to get enough of this park.

A backpacker hiking to Burro Pass above Matterhorn Canyon, Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking to Burro Pass above Matterhorn Canyon, Yosemite National Park. Click photo to read about this trip.

How to Get a Walk-in Yosemite Wilderness Permit

Traditionally, Yosemite, like most large, wilderness parks, issued walk-in, or first-come wilderness permits only in person no more than a day in advance of starting a backpacking trip—and set aside about 40 percent of daily trailhead quotas for walk-in permits. Given the high demand for those permits in summer, they were hard to get and some people would be dissuaded from attempting it because of the uncertainty of success and the cost and time commitment to traveling there.

However, due to the pandemic, in 2020 the park began issuing walk-in permits online only and up to 15 days in advance through a rolling lottery—and has continued that policy in 2021. That enables backpackers who didn’t apply months ago to plan about two weeks out from a trip and arrive at the park with the assurance of having a permit reservation. The online permit application is otherwise the same form used for reserving a permit months in advance.

Find more information at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm.

Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.

 

The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park.
The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park. Click photo for my expert e-guide to this trip.

The most competition for permits—whether reserved or walk-in—centers on Yosemite’s core between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows, including Half Dome and the northernmost section of the John Muir Trail.

But a permit for other areas of the park is much easier to get, including the biggest block of wilderness in Yosemite, north of Tuolumne Meadows, and another large chunk of backcountry in the park’s southeast corner, south of Tuolumne and east of Yosemite Valley.

Frankly, it seems to me that this new system for issuing walk-in permits probably simplifies and eases that process for both backpackers and park rangers. I hope Yosemite keeps it in place and it becomes a template for other parks to experiment with.

I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip in Yosemite.
Want my help with yours? Find out more here.

 

A backpacker hiking to Vogelsang Pass in Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt hiking to Vogelsang Pass in Yosemite National Park. Click photo for the e-guide to “The Best Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

See my stories “The 5 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite,” “Best of Yosemite: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” and “Best of Yosemite: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite.” and my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”

See also my expert e-guides to three great backpacking trips in Yosemite and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan a Yosemite trip—including navigating the permit process to maximize your chances of success—or help you plan any trip you read about at The Big Outside.

Please share your questions or suggestions in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

Get full access to my Yosemite stories and ALL stories at The Big Outside, plus get a FREE e-guide. Join now!

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2 thoughts on “How to Get a Last-Minute Yosemite Wilderness Permit Now”

  1. So when you say last-minute backpacking permit, you mean not-actually-last-minute-at-all permit.

    Yosemite’s policy has GOT to go. This is public land and it’s ridiculous that I need to plan to go and backpack in our public lands.

    If you’ve ever been sitting somewhere bored on a Thursday at 10pm, drove to the park at midnight on a whim, slept in your car at Big Oak Flat until the ranger station opens, then nabbed a free permit for whatever trail hadn’t filled it’s quota, then found yourself eating leftover pizza for breakfast in a meadow with a sow and her cub, you would understand.

    Reply
    • Hi Joshua,

      No, there’s honestly nothing that would make me understand or agree with your argument. Eliminating backcountry permit systems in large, wilderness national parks like Yosemite would quickly lead to their overuse and decimation. That’s simply the reality of the world today. If you want to be able to drive somewhere at midnight on Thursday and expect to put your pack on and start hiking, there are public lands where you can do that—but increasingly, you’ll see more and more people out there and growing evidence of overuse and damage, from braided trails to severe erosion to even used toilet paper on the ground.

      If you truly cannot bring yourself to plan a Yosemite trip even just two weeks in advance, then only you will suffer the consequences of not being able to backpack in Yosemite. But that’s not the existence that most adults have. Most of us know what our work and personal schedules are going to be two weeks ahead—and even months ahead, which is the timeline to apply for an advance permit reservation in many parks—and for that enormous number of people, the ability to secure a permit reservation two weeks in advance represents a short-notice trip and an improvement over Yosemite’s previous system for walk-in permits. People with busy lives don’t often have the desire to drive to a park at midnight to sleep in their car in hopes of getting a walk-in permit to start a hike the next morning.

      And I wouldn’t recommend eating your pizza for breakfast in a meadow with a bear sow and cub.

      Reply