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.
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.
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 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.
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.