If you are thinking about a backcountry hike in one our National Parks in 2016, now is the time to be preparing to get the necessary permits. Out of all the things we have had to plan and learn in order to make a backpacking trip happen, permits by far have been the most frustrating and difficult. Without a permit, you will not be able to camp in the backcountry, and in some cases, you will need a permit just to do certain day hikes (The Narrows top down in Zion and Half Dome in Yosemite, for example).
Generally, the busier and more popular the park, the earlier you need to apply. Yosemite starts accepting permit reservations 6 months prior, and Zion starts 3 months prior. Check the park you intend to visit for their specific reservation windows. Bookmark the reservation calendar, you will need to reference it a LOT.
When we were planning for Yosemite, all of our planning revolved around us getting the permits we needed. Without knowing if we had a permit or not, we could not book flights, hotels, rental cars, etc. So the permits became the hinge around which everything else revolved.
In order to start applying for permits, we needed to plan a route. We had a pretty good idea of where we wanted to go, but then we had to cross reference that with the trailhead maps to see which trailhead would grant us the necessary permit. Then we needed to come up with backup plans and trailheads. To give you an idea of how it all goes down, here’s a chronological summary:
- Order hard copy map to plan routes
- Compare chosen routes with the Trailheads Map
- Check the Trailhead Information page for more info and to double check we had the correct trailheads listed
- Fill out the Reservation Form along with second and third choices listed
- Fax in the reservation form on the earliest date permitted
- Wait for the email telling us whether we got the permit
In every case, we did NOT get the permits we applied for. I applied over and over and over again, for different dates, different routes, etc. We would check the Full Trailheads Report religiously and reapply for trailheads that appeared to have permits still available. Each time we were denied. Each time, it was back to the drawing board to figure out what might be successful.
Finally, it reached a point where we had to make a decision. We started to give serious consideration to trying to get walk up permits. We needed to book flights soon. We had already booked a bunch of hotel reservations, based on a few different itineraries, knowing we could cancel the ones we didn’t need up to a week before the trip. I started trolling the internet for tips and strategies on how to best obtain a walk up permit. That became our new plan A. Because most trailheads have a walk up quota of around 40% of the total permits issued (60% are for reservations), we figured our chances of getting one of our top three were good if we could get a good spot in line.
Walk up permits come with their own set of challenges. Basically, you wait in line in the middle of the night for the Ranger Station to release walk up permits at 11am for the following day. So that means basically an entire wasted day and no sleep in order to get a permit. Kind of frustrating when you are flying across the country and time is already limited and you really want to make the most of every day you have. At this point in our planning, we were so frustrated that we were basically willing to take ANY permit they would give us and we would figure out a route based on where we started. We adjusted our mindset to one of making an adventure out of it and kept reminding ourselves that it’s Yosemite, there ARE no bad trails.
We opted for Tuolumne Meadows over the Yosemite Valley location because we felt it would probably be less crowded and less competitive. We actually considered splitting up and hitting two different ranger’s stations to increase our chances, but based on my internet research, I found out it probably wouldn’t help and the logistical nightmare of being 2 hours apart with no cell service was not worth the tiny chance that we were improving our odds. In the end we decided to stick together and take whatever we could get.
The day of our trip rolled around, and we headed to the airport. We were supposed to get into San Francisco around 10:30pm. We figured by 11:30, we would have our rental car and be on our way for the 4 hour drive. That would put us at the Ranger’s Station in Tuolumne Meadows by 3-4am. Life has a funny way of turning your plans on their head, and our flight was delayed by over 2 hours. We finally got into SF at nearly 1am. We got in our rental car and hit the road.
There’s no easy way to Yosemite from SF. It’s a lot of windy roads with more turns than you would expect. Add to that the fact that it was the middle of the night (and around 4am our time) and you can imagine how we felt. We needed to stop at a Wal Mart on the way for fuel for the stove since we couldn’t bring that on the plane. We picked up a few other items there and kept on driving.
We arrived at the Ranger’s Station at around 5am to find there was a line of people already waiting. We got in line and tried to stay warm. The people in line in front of us (and soon enough behind us) were friendly. We met a med student and his meteorologist girlfriend, a guy from Santa Cruz who was spending a couple days hiking while his wife was on a business trip, a woman who was hiking part of the John Muir Trail (JMT) solo and meeting her girlfriend up the trail a bit, and others. Mike managed to make conversation with a guy who was one of the first in line who volunteered that he worked as an intern for an outfitter and he was there to get all the permits. Obviously, this did not sit well with Mike or anyone else in the group. We soon found out he was only after JMT permits, which didn’t affect us but affected others in line. Those most affected quickly devised a plan to work together with the people in front of the outfitter guy to get enough permits for them to be able to hike. This resulted in total strangers basically committing to backpacking together for an extended period of time. While I love the camaraderie and teamwork that I have witnessed in the backpacking community, I feel sad that people had to greatly change their plans due to a convoluted permit system. I have seen other permit systems that give outfitters or tour companies separate permits that they obtain through a different system, so it doesn’t affect people who are traveling on their own. This seems like a much better solution. So for all you JMT hikers out there, be aware of this possibility if you are seeking walk up permits and be prepared to think outside the box. Needless to say, I was just glad that the idiot intern’s plans weren’t going to affect us, as I was pretty tired and didn’t feel much like burying his body that day.
I went and got hot cocoa and breakfast sandwiches when the Tuolumne Meadows Grill opened at 7am. Mike was sweet enough to stay in line in the freezing cold while I drove around and took some pics and enjoyed the warmth of the car. Finally the rangers came out around 9am and let us know that if people wanted to get same day permits they would be releasing those soon (if someone hasn’t picked up their reserved permit, they become available). We had a quick conference and decided to go for it, because otherwise we would have to wait till 11am to try for permits for the next day. We figured we would try for same day and if that didn’t work, we would still have a shot at tomorrow’s permits. The biggest issue was that we were so tired and we knew a same day permit would require us to forego our hotel stay and hit the trail that day. We felt that if we could get our first choice in a same day permit, it would be worth it.
We were fortunate enough to get the permit we wanted for Rafferty’s Creek trailhead. After a speech from the ranger about the rules of the trail, we left, permit in hand. We needed to get cleaned up, rested up, and pack our gear in time to depart that day. We were exhausted but knew that we didn’t have to go far, we just had to start. All in all, the trip ended up being everything we wanted it to be. It was challenging, unrelentingly beautiful, and worth every minute of lost sleep. In an ideal world we would have had our permits in hand prior to our trip, but as we talked about previously, part of a successful and happy backpacking trip is the need to be flexible.
In our case, there really wasn’t much we could have done differently, but each step along the way gave us new bits of information for our next time. Plus, next time we plan to hit parts of Yosemite that are not nearly as popular, so hopefully we will have no trouble getting permit reservations, making planning the rest of the trip just a wee bit smoother. The moral of the story, is don’t give up!
Please feel free to post questions, tips, or comments about permitting in the comments section!