National Parks are a popular summer destination, so planning a trip to one much less several requires meticulous and early planning. Ricardo and I started planning our trip in mid-February, which is a little later than advised. It gave us enough time to apply for hiking permits but we were behind on making camp reservations, particularly at extremely popular parks such as Yellowstone. Over the past few months, as we navigated permit and reservation processes, we learned some valuable lessons and picked up some tips and tricks.
In the second post of this series focused on preparing for the big road trip, I’m sharing things we learned about securing permits and making reservations. I hope our successes (and mistakes) help you plan your next adventure to a National Park or undertake a popular hike.
Our itinerary include many amazing hikes along the west coast! While many of these are open, we need permits for three extremely popular hikes (Mt. Whitney, Half Dome and the Wave Trail). The keys to securing these permits are early planning and flexibility, so I’ve already had to update my meticulously planned schedule several times already!
Mt. Whitney is one of the most popular hikes in the summer and requires a permit to hike between May 1st and November 15th. Permits are awarded by an extremely competitive lottery. Let me put this in perspective – in 2017, there were more than 15,000 applications but the Forest Service only awarded 2,250 (15%) overnight and 2,000 (20%) day permits. Predictably, the peak time to tackle this beast is between mid July and early September, when there’s little snow on the ground.
What do you need to know about getting a Mt. Whitney permit?
- Types of Permits. There are two types of permits, overnight and day use. With a day use permit, you have 24 hours to hike the 22 miles to and back from the summit. The overnight permit will be the number of days you requested to complete the hike. There are strict quotas on the number of permits issued per day – 60 overnight and 100 day use permits.
- Deadlines & Permit Process. The first step is to enter the lottery between February 1 and March 15. All permit slots are available to reserve during the lottery, so this is the best chance to get your preferred date! On March 24th, you’ll get the results of the lottery. If you won a permit, you can accept or decline it between April 1 and April 30th. If you received a spot and didn’t action by the deadline, the spot will be released to the public. If you didn’t get lucky, you still have two more chances to secure a permit! On April 1st at 10 AM, all slots that were not assigned during the lottery are up for sale online. This is competitive and the site gets overloaded, so be prepared at 10 AM on the dot! On May 1st all unclaimed and declined slots are available to purchase online. These slots are available starting at midnight, something we didn’t find out until the next morning. The third was the charm and we got our Whitney hiking permits during this time! There are still two more ways to snag a permit. You can purchase a cancelled slot, which becomes available almost immediately after the request is processed. If all else fails, you can take a chance on a next day permit (no shows and cancellations) at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center.
- Rules & Regulations. The Forest Service allows you to request up to 15 single or set of dates (if you are requesting an overnight permit). Submit only one application per group. If you submit multiple applications, you may pulled out of the lottery altogether! You must designate a group leader but you can also indicate two alternate leaders. Only the group leader/alternate leaders can pick up the permit before the hike, so this is really important! There are no refunds on the lottery or permit fees. If you have to change dates, you have to pay the fee for a new permit and it will be subject to availability.
What are some tips and tricks we learned about the Mt. Whitney permit process?
Request all 15 dates! This one seems obvious but I was so committed to our schedule that I only requested one set of dates for an overnight permit! I thought we had a good chance since were applying for a mid-September slot, which was after the peak season. In hindsight, if I’d requested alternate dates, I could’ve always declined them rather than having to settle for what was available.
Be flexible and persistent! I was extremely disappointed when I didn’t get a permit during the mini-sale. In fact, I felt so frustrated that I almost forgot about the sale on May 1st. This is the biggest lesson I learned about planning this entire trip – being flexible and persistent usually meant everything worked out in the end. For Whitney, we managed to get day use permits (rather than an overnight) ten days later than we had hoped for but if we hadn’t been flexible, we wouldn’t have had a permit at all!.
Hiking Half Dome is also extremely popular and it’s another permit that’s hard to get. As with other popular hikes, there is a preseason lottery for permits. Last year, the success rate for obtaining a permit for a weekday hike was 7% and 2% for weekend hikes.
What do you need to know about getting a Half Dome Permit?
- Types of Permit. To hike Half Dome, you need to get either a day hike or backpacking permit, with separate application processes. Yosemite National Park does have daily quotas for each permit (225 for day permits and 75 for backpacking).
- Deadlines & Permit Process. To get a day hike permit, you have to enter the preseason lottery between March 1 and March 31. The results of the lottery will be available in mid-April. To backpack this hike, you need to apply for a wilderness permit and specify you will be hiking Half Dome. The daily quota for this permit is 75 but only 50 can be reserved ahead. The remaining 25 are available one day in advance on a first-come, first-served basis. Wilderness permit applications can be submitted 169 days (24 weeks) ahead of your start date via fax but the deadline for the wilderness lottery is 7:30 AM (PST) 168 prior to your start date. The results of the application will be available within 24 hours. Phone reservation requests are processed after the lottery. If you aren’t lucky enough to get a permit during the lottery, you can try to snag one of the approximately 50 day hike permits available each day through the daily lottery. To get one of these permits, you have to submit an application between midnight and 1 PM two days prior to the hiking date and the results will be available that night.
- Rules & Regulations. For the day hike lottery, each applicant can apply for up to six permits and seven potential dates. Each team leader can only submit one application. If there are multiple applications, all of them will be excluded from the lottery. However, a different person in the group can submit a separate application. You have to designate a trip leader but you can also specify an alternate leader (and cannot be changed after the application is submitted). One of these individuals must be present at the base of the subdome where rangers will check permits. Each person in the group can apply for a permit. Similar to the day hike lottery, wilderness permits also require you to designate a team leader and you can specify an alternate leader. You can only submit one application per day/per group. If there are multiple requests, the application will be excluded from the lottery.Hikers must pick up their issued permits by 10 AM the day of the hike at any permit station. If you’ll be arriving later, you can ask the permit office to hold the permit for a late arrival. Otherwise, the reservation will be cancelled.
What tips and tricks did we learn?
We applied as a fairly big group (four permits) for the wilderness permit but we looked at the statistics from last year and picked a weekday that was outside the peak dates. I’m not sure if the wilderness permit lottery gave us a small advantage since the lottery is held among a smaller group of applications. I think mostly luck was on our side for this one!
Of the three popular hiking permits we competed for, permits for The Wave Trail was the hardest by far. First, there are only 20 permits available for each day and only 10 can be reserved in advance through a lottery. Despite the small number of permits available, the Bureau of Land Management, which processes permits, receives hundreds of applications for those 10 spots, so the chance getting this permit is only 4%!
What do you need to know about permits for The Wave Trail?
- Deadline & Permit Process. There is only the option of day hiking this 5.2 mile long trail, so there’s only one type of permit. However, there are two different processes for getting a permit. For those that need to plan in advance, you can compete for one of ten slots available for advance registration. The lottery opens four months in advance of the month that you plan to hike and it stays open for the entire month. For example, if you are planning a hike in April, you can submit an application between December 1 and 31. The results are available on the first day of the following month (e.g. January 1). If you’re application was successful, you’ll receive the permit and directions to the trail head 4-6 weeks after you pay the permit fee.The remaining 10 slots are reserved for a daily walk-in lottery. To get a permit through this process, you have to show up in person at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center between 8:30 AM and 9:00 AM (MST). The lottery will be held at 10:00 AM. You can request a same day permit, in the off chance not all permits were issued the previous day.
- Rules & Regulations. Groups are limited to six people and you can only submit one application per group. You can select up to three dates per application. You are not limited to a certain number of trips a year but you are limited to one trip per month. If you need to make changes to an existing reservation, you will be charged a $30 fee and are subject to available hiking slots. Neither the application nor the permit fee are refundable.
What tips and tricks did we learn through this process?
We’ll know the results of our application on June 1st but we did learn that this is one of the permits that’s better to submit on the last day. At the bottom of the online application, there’s a running tally of how many permits have been requested for each day and they’re ranked by the most to least popular request dates. We made the mistake of submitting our application on the 1st of the month and the dates we requested have gone from least popular to among the most requested. As with other permits and reservations, being flexible and persistent is the key to getting a permit for this great hike!
Worth noting – you can usually exit Mt. Whitney if you backpack in via the PCT or some other trail on the back end!
You’re absolutely correct! Because we had a car and a tight schedule, we didn’t really look into this option. In the future, if I don’t secure a lottery spot, my plan is to either hike to Whitney via the High Sierra Trail or JMT.