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New Permit Lottery for Yosemite's Half Dome Accommodates Short-Notice Climbs

The climbing cables on Half Dome in Yosemite National Park officially go up today. But what if you weren't able to snag a climbing permit reservation back in March? You have new hope: a 2-day-in-advance daily permit lottery system has been added for 2012.

Half DomePermits have been required to climb Half Dome since 2010 when Yosemite officials, as part of a long-range management plan for the popular and long-studied trail, decided crowds on the cable route (steep, narrow, slippery in places) diminished the experience and put climbers, particularly casual walkers with no hiking/mountaineering experience, at risk. For details, see the park's permit FAQs.

Permits and quotas are rarely popular topics, we recognize, but this last-minute daily lottery system at least offers a new wrinkle that gives people who are in or close to the park a shot at reaching the summit on short notice.

Based on conversations with phone reps at Recreation.gov (they're a helpful group; please be nice if you call), here is a look at how the permit system works in 2012:

Q: How many climbing permits are available each day?

 300 day-use permits for a day hike to Half Dome's summit, a tough, 16-mile out-and-back hike to the summit (8,836 feet) from the Happy Isles trailhead (4,035 feet). These advance-reservation permits were available March 1-31 via online purchase. Long-term permit reservations are no longer available.

Cables• 100 backcountry permits distributed to backpackers through Yosemite's wilderness permit system or at the Valley Wilderness Center near the park's Valley Visitor Center. New this year: Even backpackers whose itinerary includes a side trip to Half Dome must pay a $5 fee for the privilege of making the climb; see FAQ No. 4. Alas. Read more or call for details: 209-372-0740. (Just be aware that this is a busy number.) Bottom line: Everybody pays to climb Half Dome now.

• 50+ daily lottery permits—new in 2012. The number of permits varies by dates, depending on cancellations and the number of day-use permits originally issued in March.

Q: How do I make myself eligible for a daily lottery permit?

• Choose a climbing date. You can only apply for a daily lottery permit 2 days before that date. If, for example, you wanted to climb on a Saturday, you must apply on a Thursday. You'll find more details in "How does the timing work?" section below.

• Apply for a permit by either visiting Recreation.gov or calling 877-444-6777. At the website, in the Where? search box enter  "Cables on Half Dome." For the Interested in menu, select "Permits & wilderness." If applying by phone, when the automated program begins offering selection options, press 2 for permits and 8 for Half Dome permits.

• Applying for a daily lottery permit involves a nonrefundable application fee: $4.50 online, $6.50 by phone. This fee does not guarantee you will receive a permit, only that you are in the lottery. A permit, if awarded, requires a separate permit fee of $5. (Ouch; last year it was $1.50.) Total permit cost per person: $9.50 (online), $11.50 (phone). Boy.

Mist TrailQ: How does the timing work?

• Let's say you want to climb Half Dome on a Saturday. On Thursday, 2 days prior to that date, you have a 13-hour window—12:01 a.m. PT through 1 p.m. PT—to apply online or by phone for a daily lottery permit.

• In pursuit of clarity, let's use today's date. If you are reading this before 1 p.m. PT (4 p.m. ET) on Friday, May 25, you can apply to climb on only one date—Sunday, May 27. If Sunday is an acceptable choice, you would have to apply (online or by phone) before 1 p.m. PT today. If you do not apply by that deadline, your next available climbing date is Monday, May 28. Your application window for that lottery is the 13 hours between 12:01 a.m. PT and 1 p.m. PT on Saturday, May 26.

• To keep it simple, just remember this: If you want to participate in the daily permit lottery, always think 2 days ahead. In 2012, you have until 1 p.m. PT each day to apply for a permit to climb 2 days in the future. 

• Applying early does not improve your odds of claiming a daily lottery permit. Those awarded permits are chosen randomly from all applicants, regardless of when they submit their application. In other words, people who apply at 12:59 a.m. and 12:59 p.m. have equal chances of being chosen to receive a permit. It is a lottery.

Atop Half Dome• In our original example of applying on a Thursday for a Saturday climb, permit winners will be notified via email late Thursday night or by phone Friday morning. Online users could also check their account overviews at Recreation.gov for permit status updates. (A free account is required at Recreation.gov to apply online for permits.)

Q: Can I apply for a permit for a group?

• Yes, for up to a group of 6. A $5 fee is required for each person in your group, though only one application fee ($4.50 online, $6.50 by phone) will be assessed.

• You can include the name of an alternate group leader on your permit request in case you are unable to make the climb. Permits are otherwise not transferable.

Q: How do I prove that I have a permit?

• Lottery winners must carry some form of identification (such as a driver's license) to the base of the subdome on Half Dome's northeast slope. A ranger with a list of permit-holders is stationed there daily to check IDs. Phone reps at Recreation.gov tell me climbers do not need to present a permit printout; just carry photo ID.

(Note: Originally this post stated that hikers without a permit could hike to the base of the cables, but helpful reader Rick "Mr. Half Dome" Deutsch points out that the actual end of the line is the base of the subdome. So the we have updated our advice. Rick also suggests beinging a printout of your permit's confirmation email with you as backup validation of your permit-holder status.) 

Q: On Recreation.gov, when I view a 2-week span of climbing dates, each date shows an X and some numbers. What does all that mean?

TH sign• X means long-term advance reservations are no longer available.

• The number shows how many day-use permits are available for that date. Most dates exceed 50, meaning not all advance reservations were claimed for that date or that some climbers canceled their permits.

• When I published this post a little before 10 a.m. PT Friday, on Recreation.gov I saw 79 permits were available for Sunday and 99 for Monday. When I checked on Thursday, I saw 10 permits went unclaimed for Friday (May 25). So this indicates that odds of scoring a daily lottery permit might be good. You just need to be close to the park so you can be in Yosemite and ready to hike on the day of your permit. Note: Be ready to hike early. From personal experience I can assure you that early starts yield a more enjoyable hike.

Q: If I don't plan on attempting the summit, do I need a permit to hike to the base of the cables?

• No. It's a great hike by itself (I suggest going up the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall and down the John Muir Trail), but the grunt to the summit is a grand payoff.

Q: How do I prepare for the hike?

• The park offers an excellent online overview, which includes a worthwhile instructional video. My only quibble is the presenting ranger claims it's a 14-mile round trip. It's 16-plus, if the trailhead sign (shown above) is to be believed, which I think it is. 

• If you're a Half Dome newbie, you really should watch that video. (Click the bandwidth best suited for you.) Please realize this hike is long and includes some physically demanding uphill sections. Be prepared.

For a more contemplative perspective of Half Dome and its great allure, check out this presentation by Yosemite videographer Steve Bumgardner for the distinguished Yosemite Nature Notes short-film series: 

What's your favorite Half Dome story?

All photos © by T.D. Wood.

Posted on at 5:44 PM

Tagged: Climbing, Half Dome, Yosemite, cables, national parks and permits

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benjizimmerman

Thanks for posting this thorough explanation. I haven't been to Yosemite since 2006, so I was unaware of the permits required. I have hiked Half Dome 4 times, every time leaving at midnight and waiting at the summit for the glorious sunrise. On 2 of the hikes I didn't see a single person on the mountain until I was already down near the Little Yosemite back country campsite. On the two other occasions i ran into a ton of inexperienced and unprepared hikers on their way up.

I look forward to applying for a permit for another hike in the future. I am assuming it is still required for those of us that are on and off the mountain even though there are little if any hikers around.

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T.D. Wood Staff Member

Hi benjizimmerman,

Thanks for sharing your experience and observations. You are correct in your assumption. Everyone, including backpackers, is required to have a permit for ascending Half Dome, and even backpackers, starting this year, will need to pay the $5 permit fee. Such is life in the new economy.

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MrHalfDome

T.D. - Great summary.

One item, the Ranger checking permits is at the base of Sub Dome, not at the base of the cables. So you cannot go up Sub Dome without a permit. You can't even tell them you are NOT going to climb up the cables - just to look at the cables.

Everyone in the party must be with the TRIP LEADER when they arrive at the Ranger. Due to a mess-up at recreation.gov, the Alternate's name is NOT on the official permit - so I suggest everyone carry a permit AND the confirming email (that does show the alternate).

Also, worth noting - if your party tries to "game" the system for the 2-day permits by having many apply, if you all win, you will all be charged $5.00 for each permit AND cannot be refunded, since you are within the 2-day window. I agree, there should be a lot available due to cancellations and weekday odds are the best.

You may want to refer folks to my book (that REI sells) "One Best Hike: Yosemite's Half Dome." I just released the 2nd Edition and it is killer.

Rick Deutsch
Mr Half Dome

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T.D. Wood Staff Member

Hi Rick: Thanks for providing your input and clarifications. I've made a change to my copy above regarding the subdome cutoff point for hikers without permits. I also think it's a good idea for hikers to carry a printout of your confirmation email up to the cables, and it's a good tip for everyone in a group to stay connected with the trip leader when you reach the subdome to have your permits verified. This is all good info to know.

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sarah95mel

I hiked half dome for my 13th birthday and for my Dad's 40th, we have the same birthday. It was my Dad, my Uncle, and I that did the trek. Both my Dad and my Uncle are experienced hikers and I loved the pace we went, hiking to Little Yosemite on day 1, Half Dome on day 2, which was the actual date of me and my Dad's birthday, and back to the valley on day 3. Being only 13 it was an amazing experience! I remember thinking the stairs would never end on our way up to Little Yosemite. On our birthday we planned on celebrating on top of Half Dome, my Dad wanted to be "on top of the world" when he turned 40. Half way up the cables I was so scared and I froze and didn't want to go to the top. Unfortunately I never made it to the top and I still kick myself for not pushing myself through the fear!

Either way the 3 days was amazing and it's still a very beautiful from the base haha. One day I'll make it up there! And I will have all my correct permits :)

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T.D. Wood Staff Member

Hi Sarah: Don't feel badly about getting spooked on the cable route. It can be intimidating for first-time visitors. Here are 2 tips that can boost a hiker's confidence when climbing the route: 1) Wear footwear that has good traction. Sticky soles are much appreciated on the route's steeper sections, particularly when descending on some well-worn spots where the granite has become slick; 2) Bring heavy-duty gloves that have a tacky/sticky palm. They enhance your grip on the cables. Best wishes on your next attempt.

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pika

It's 14 miles via the Mist trail, which is the way a majority of folks go. It's 16 miles via the Muir trail, which is what the sign refers to. The mileage isn't nearly as important as the elevation gain...

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T.D. Wood Staff Member

Great to know, Pika. Thanks for the clarification. For those with the energy and ambition, I suggest going up the Mist Trail and down the Muir Trail. The view of Liberty Cap and Nevada Fall in afternoon light is worth the extra distance.

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