By now, we all know: Our national parks are popular. The year 2019 was the fifth consecutive year that National Park Service-operated lands topped 300 million annual visits. Yosemite National Park is no exception. After wildfires caused a drop in visitation to the park in 2018, Yosemite saw a big boost in 2019; its 4.4 million visits last year were enough to edge out Yellowstone and make it America’s fifth-busiest national park.
But unlike Yellowstone, at Yosemite visitors often are hemmed in by 3,000-foot-tall cliffs and granite domes. The place could easily feel overrun by climbers, campers and day-trippers if no protections were in place, and permitting is one way to help regulate the crowds and reduce human impact on trails and other areas. Paperwork can be a hassle, but if you know how the rules work, it can be much easier to navigate Yosemite’s permit system. Although the coronavirus pandemic has made a visit to Yosemite more challenging in some regards, it has also made some aspects of trip-planning easier.
Yosemite Park Entrance Fees
Most vehicles must pay a $ 35 entrance fee, good for seven days. If you live nearby, you can snag a $ 70 annual pass, which pays for itself after two trips. But if you spend much time at all on federal lands, consider picking up the America the Beautiful Pass. The $ 80 annual pass covers entrance and standard amenity fees at more than 2,000 federal parks and recreation sites, making it one of the best bargains in the outdoors. Seniors (age 62 or older) can get the same pass for $ 20, or they can spend $ 80 to buy a lifetime pass. Meanwhile, 4th-grade students, military personnel and their dependents and those with disabilities get a pass for free.
You can buy any of these passes online or at a park entrance station year round. During high season, which typically runs from late May until early October, the Yosemite visitor centers in Oakhurst, Mariposa, Groveland and Lee Vining also sell passes.
Pro tip: If you plan on visiting during peak season, especially later in the morning or on a weekend, buy your pass ahead of time. Sometimes the rangers will sort vehicles with passes into a shorter line.
COVID-19 UPDATE: During the coronavirus pandemic, you also need some form of entrance reservation to access the park. If you already have a wilderness permit, campground reservation, Half Dome permit or another lodging reservation, you’re all set. If not, you’ll need to pick up a Day Use Reservation from recreation.gov. (It’s $ 2 if you already have an America the Beautiful Pass or another pass, but it’s free and included in the price of the seven-day entry fee.) Though it’s called a day use reservation, it lets you enter the park for seven days. Roughly 80% of these reservations disappear even a month ahead of time, while the other 20% are available two days in advance.
Overnight Permits in the Park
Front-country camping in Yosemite is similar to that at most national parks. Depending on the time of year, most of the 13 campgrounds require a reservation through recreation.gov. Use the table here to see when reservations are made available. Then book as early as possible on the first day, starting at 7am PT. If you’re planning on camping in the park between May and September, be aware that campsite reservations usually fill within minutes on the day the system opens. If you don’t snag a spot, keep checking. Cancellations are common. You could get lucky.
Pro tip: Certain campgrounds operate on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s not guaranteed, but if you don’t land a reservation, you can show up and hope luck is on your side. Click here to see the park service’s guide to first-come, first-served camping in Yosemite.
COVID-19 UPDATE: All first-come, first-served campgrounds are temporarily closed.
Backcountry Camping Permits
If you plan to spend the night in the backcountry, you’ll first need to navigate Yosemite’s wilderness permit system.
Your first step is to decide where you want to begin your overnight hike. Yosemite issues permits for specific trailheads on specific days, rather than for individual campsites. If you are looking within 24 weeks of your trip, check out the Trailheads Report. If a date is listed for a particular trailhead, that means there are no more reservations available for that trailhead on that day. But fear not: You still have options. The first, obviously, is to choose another date or trail. Or you could try for a first-come, first-served permit (see below).
If another permit appears available, you can apply online as early as 24 weeks plus one day ahead of your start date, and as late as two days before departure. Each reservation costs $ 5, plus an additional $ 5 per person.
Permits go fast, though, so your best chance to land your dream trek is to apply for a permit reservation online 24 weeks plus one day ahead of your start date. If the system receives more requests than it has permits, the park service holds a raffle the next day to determine who receives one.
If you land a permit, pick it up the morning of your trip before 10am at any permit-issuing station:
- Yosemite Valley Wilderness Center
- Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center
- Big Oak Flat Information Center
- Wawona Visitor Center at Hill’s Studio
- Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station
- Badger Pass Ranger Station
Didn’t score a reservation? The park service dispenses 40% of each trailhead’s permits on a first-come, first-served basis. You can pick these up at a permit-issuing station beginning at 11am the day before your desired start date. So, if you plan to start hiking on Friday, get in line before 11am on Thursday.
As you’re preparing for your trip, our Yosemite backpacking packing list can be a great starting point.
Pro tip: The issuing station closest to each trailhead gets priority for that trailhead.
COVID-19 UPDATE: The 40% of permits normally given out on a first-come, first-served basis is available online through a lottery, two weeks in advance. You can apply 15 days ahead of your planned start date but no later than nine days ahead of your trip. None of these permits are available in the park.
Half Dome Permitting
Want to hike Half Dome? You’re far from alone. As a result, Yosemite’s most sought-after hike requires a unique permitting system. The Half Dome hiking season typically runs from the Friday before Memorial Day in May through mid-October. The park limits the number of hikers to around 300 people each day.
Most of the permits—225 per day—are released in spring. Hikers can apply anytime online or by phone in March and will hear back in mid-April whether they received one. (One applicant can apply for permits for up to six people for a specific date or range of dates.) Another roughly 50 permits are available two days before the day of the hike. So, to hike on a Saturday, apply on Thursday. You’ll hear back on Thursday night.
Pro tip: If you have some flexibility for your hike, and want to give yourself the best odds of getting a permit, check out these graphs, then choose the least-popular days to apply.
Regardless of your approach, applying costs $ 10 (nonrefundable) and it’s another $ 10 per person to buy the permit if you get one.
Backpackers who will be in the area of Half Dome and would like to tack on a climb can request a permit when they apply for their wilderness permit, rather than through a separate process.
John Muir Trail Permitting
Hikers looking to trek the 211-mile John Muir Trail (JMT) from Yosemite to Mount Whitney need a special permit to hike over Donohue Pass, of which only 45 are available daily. There are also only a few trailheads permitted to access the JMT including:
- Lyell Canyon
- Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley
- Happy Isles pass-through
- Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley
- Sunrise Lakes
Between December and March, JMT hikers can apply online. After that, the regular Yosemite wilderness permit system kicks in, so prospective hikers need to follow the same 24-weeks-plus-1-day system required for the regular overnight raffle.
Pro tip: Planning to hike the John Muir Trail? Check our JMT packing list.
REI Adventure Travel is a leading provider of small group active trips that explore more than 20 national parks, including Yosemite National Park. For the latest on the co-op’s departures to these iconic destinations, visit REI.com/adventures and see the COVID-19 update.
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