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 late in reserving 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.


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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—many of them during 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.

See 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.

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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

The best way to get a Yosemite wilderness permit for any backpacking trip in the park is by applying for one through the weekly lottery at recreation.gov/permits/445859 up to 24 weeks (168 days) in advance; the park makes 60 percent of permit reservations available through that system, until May 14.

Traditionally, Yosemite, like most large, wilderness parks, also 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 many people would naturally be dissuaded from attempting it because of the cost and time commitment to traveling there and the uncertainty of success.

A backpacker hiking Indian Ridge, overlooking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking Indian Ridge, overlooking Half Dome in Yosemite. Click photo to read about “Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Backpacking Trip.”

But for 2022, the park is issuing 40 percent of wilderness permits online from seven days to three days before the trip start date, also at recreation.gov/permits/445859. That enables backpackers who didn’t apply months ago to plan a trip about a week out from a trip and arrive at the park with the assurance of having a permit reservation.

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.

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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.”

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 emulate.

See all of this blog’s stories about backpacking in Yosemite, including “The 7 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite,” “Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite,” “Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Backpacking Trip,” and my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”

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

  1. I must say I am impressed by your faith in the new walk-up procedure for securing backcountry permits to hike in and around Yosemite Valley.

    It had been my practice for securing a permit for the last 25 years to use their walk-up permit procedure. I was always successful in securing my single-person permit with this method and, I, of course, loved it. With the new procedure, I have no luck using their .gov site as permits fill up in minutes in summer. I do not understand how you have been so successful with this method! Is there something I am missing? Can you suggest some help! I would greatly appreciate it.

    Thank You,
    Tess Barker

    Reply
    • Hi Tess,

      I can understand why some backpackers liked the previous system for getting a walk-in wilderness permit in Yosemite by just showing up no more than a day before you want to start a trip: If you have the flexibility to do that, there was less competition for those permits than there likely is with the new system, which allows people to reserve a walk-in permit in advance. Being able to plan in advance instead of going to Yosemite and hoping for the best would appeal to more people. I suspect that’s why you’re having less luck. I’ve gotten walk-in permits under the old system but not very many times because, like many people, I usually didn’t want to spend the time and money to travel there without certainty of having a permit.

      While the new walk-in permit system provides a much shorter advance-planning time period, it still allows applying online in advance of your arrival, so it’s similar to the standard advance-application system in that the most popular trailheads get booked very quickly. But less-popular trailheads often have availability. You can check which trailheads have availability in real time when applying for a walk-in permit; I suggest having some routes and park areas in mind before you begin the application process.

      My honest answer is that I’m familiar enough with Yosemite to know which trailheads have less demand and still provide a great backpacking experience. That’s how I often succeed at getting a permit reservation, whether several months in advance or a new walk-in permit. I’ve also helped many readers get a walk-in permit in Yosemite through my Custom Trip Planning.

      Thanks for the question and good luck to you.

      Reply
  2. 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