7 tips to obtain backcountry permits in Yosemite

Yosemite. It’s no secret that people from all over the world know about this gem and everyone wants a piece of the granite! What everyone doesn’t know is that getting permits for your favorite trails isn’t the easiest thing in the world. We wanted to write a guide to help you plan your future adventures to John Muir’s playground.


As an adventure company, it is not uncommon for us to hear the question, “You need permits to hike?!” The answer, yes and no. The frontcountry, aka day hikes in Yosemite do not require wilderness permits with the exception of Half Dome. If you want to get to the backcountry, aka overnight backpacking trips anywhere in Yosemite National Park, you need to obtain a wilderness permit. Obtaining a wilderness permit during quota season i.e. May-October can be quite the frustrating experience. You can apply for your wilderness permits 168 days in advance, your application is reviewed, and if your application is picked via the lottery, you will be emailed your wilderness permit reservation. (please note that the email you receive is NOT your permit. It is just a confirmation. You need to go to the Wilderness Permit office in Yosemite to receive your signed permit.)

Now, we said this experience can be frustrating…and it truly is as hundreds of people a day apply for trails that only allow a dozen or so backpackers to access each day. We wanted to give you some tips to help ease the frustration and help you get into the backcountry a little easier.

This was taken on one of those trails NOT featured on Instagram.

This was taken on one of those trails NOT featured on Instagram.

  1. Look for trails that aren’t the traditional starting trailhead. Happy Isles is the traditional starting point for the John Muir Trail and Half Dome, thus, it is by far the most popular trailhead in Yosemite. Applying for this trailhead is almost a guarantee that you wont get your permit request. Select trailheads like Glacier Point to better your odds at getting selected if you're determined to get anywhere near or outside of Little Yosemite Valley.
  2. Avoid the Instagram hotspots. I have yet to find a spot in Yosemite that was meh looking. Everything I have seen there, the dozens of trails I have been on, and the dozens of nights I have spent out there have been mind blowing. You wont find an underwhelming part of Yosemite. So just because some trail hasn’t been the go to Instagram location doesn’t mean you should avoid it. You’ll have greater chances with the lesser known trailheads and you’ll avoid some of the crowds.
  3. Have a smaller sized group. A group looking for 12 permits doesn’t have much chance of getting selected compared to a group looking for 4 permits.
  4. Apply everyday and be flexible with your dates. As an adventure company, we apply for permits the same way the public does. We apply everyday, hope for the best and take the dates we get. If you only want to go to Yosemite for your best friend’s birthday on 4th of July weekend and wont accept any other dates, well, you’re likely going to get shot down and probably wont be seeing Yosemite during the summer if you aren’t flexible.
  5. Don’t give up even if you didn’t get a reservation. You can always try your hand at getting a walk-in permit at the Wilderness Permit offices in Yosemite. Sometimes people cancel their permits at the last minute or they don’t show up for them. These permits are then awarded to those who stood in line early in the morning. We recommend getting to the office at least two hours before they open to help increase your chances of obtaining permits.
  6. Know that getting a wilderness permit is separate from the Half Dome permit. If you want to include Half Dome in your backcountry adventure, that is a separate permit and can be applied for on the same wilderness permit application.
  7. Fax your application vs. trying to apply by phone. In our experience we have had much greater success using the old school technology of faxing. Calling in has only led to a busy line and or immediately being denied a permit reservation request.

Super rad feature of having a wilderness permit: For years I had no idea about this epic deal with wilderness permits in Yosemite. Your wilderness permit includes the offer to stay in a backpackers camp the day before and the day after your wilderness permit dates! That means you can have a sweet campsite in the Yosemite valley even during the peak summer seasons! The cost for these backpacker sites are $6 per person per night and cash is the only accepted payment option for staying there.

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At this point you might be asking yourself “how do I apply?” You go to the Yosemite National Park Wilderness Permit website and the application and directions to submit the application can be found there.

We hope that this brief guide helps you obtain your permits for those epic backpacking adventures! Please remember that you need approved bear storage canisters in the backcountry and bear spray is not allowed. Also, please practice all Leave No Trace principles to help preserve this great national park.

- Chris Duarte