Getting a permit for the Half Dome cables in Yosemite is like winning the lottery – literally!… It uses a permit lottery system rather than first come first serve, so you have to win the lottery to get the permit. And, YES YOU NEED A PERMIT to hike Half Dome.
This top section goes over how to get a day hiking permit, which is the most common way to hike Half Dome and below we have details about how to get a backpacking permit – since the application process is different for each.
Why Do I Need A Permit?
Well unfortunatley, just like every other amazingly beautiful natural attraction – these areas are getting overrun by people. Especially with the advent of social media, visitors to national parks have spiked and are at an all time high, thus the attractions within the parks are getting overly crowded.
The hike to Half Dome isn’t like just any other hike on any other trail in Yosemite. The last portion ascends up a sheer rock face with metal cables bolted into the rock to create “railings” for the hikers to hold onto and keep them from falling off.
In 2010, the number of people who were attempting this climb was reaching dangerous numbers with as many as 1,200 people per day giving it a try. That many people on such a steep, narrow, precarious path where if one thing goes wrong, you can literally fall of the side of the mountain and die, was cause for concern. So in 2010, the National Park Service started requiring permits for those who want to climb the cables.
300 permits are issued per day via a lottery system
Which has made this trek much safer, and at the same time, highly sought after.
Applying For A Day Hiking Permit
Unfortunately, there isn’t really a way around the lottery system, or even to really “cheat the system”, you just have to apply for a permit and hope you get picked like everyone else.
The lottery for permits usually opens during the month of March. This is known as the “pre-season lottery” and allows you to apply for a permit during the season when Half Dome is open (usually the end of May thru mid Oct. depending on weather). So you need to apply in March regardless of when in the year you want to do the hike.
The exact date that the preseason lottery opens varies – sometimes it’s March 1st, sometimes it’s March 13th. The application website will tell you the dates that the preseason lottery will be open if it’s not open yet.
Of the maximum of 300 hikers allowed per day, about 225 are for day hikers and 75 are for backpackers.
When filling out the application, you will have the option of choosing up to 7 dates in order of preference for when you want the permit. For each of those dates, you can apply for up to 6 permits (for a total group size of 6).
Submitting the application costs $10 regardless of the number of dates or people on each date that you are requesting.
Permits are not transferable. In the past, you and the other members of your group could have each submitted a permit with your name as the “team leader” on the application, and then another member of your party as the alternate (incase the team leader could no longer go). This was a great way for everyone in your group to apply for a permit, thus upping your odds, plus have extra security incase the team leader on the permit couldn’t make it, it would be ok since the alternate could take over.
But as of 2019, this is no longer allowed. Your name can only be on ONE PERMIT as either the team leader or the alternate. If your name is on more than one permit, even if in different positions, it will be discarded.
Everyone in your group can (and should) still apply for a permit individually which will increase your odds, but now you cannot list any other members of your party as an alternate on the application- if you do, those applications will be removed from the lottery . Which means, whoever get the permit better be going!
The trip leader listed on the application must be present at the sub-dome when the permits are checked.
or call 877-444-6777
Winners are notified mid April. If you have been selected for a permit, you’ll receive an email notification and will then have 2 weeks to pay an additional $10 per person that you are requesting permits for and confirm the permit. If the dates are not confirmed, the lottery will move on to the next applicant.
Permits are refundable if you cancel by 9 pm Pacific time the day before your hiking date or if the cables are not up on the date for which your permit is valid.
Tips For Winning The Lottery & Getting a Day Hiking Half Dome Permit
The only thing you can really do to try to increase you chances of getting a permit is to play the odds.
- Keep your group size small – if you are applying for a permit for one or two people, you’re going to have a better chance than a group of 6. If your application is picked but there are only 2 available spots left for that day and you have 6 people in your group, the lottery will move onto the next application for that day to find someone who can fill those 2 spots.
- Everyone in your group should apply – even if you can’t list anyone else as an alternate on the permit, having multiple entries will increase your odds.
- Apply for weekdays – Historically, Tues. and Wed. have the least number of applications at 8% of the total pool whereas Sat. has the most at 34%. Your odds of getting a weekday permit (success rate of 7%) are much greater than the weekend (success rate of 2%).
- Apply for after Labor Day – the number of permit requests are much higher during the “high season” of the summer and drop off dramatically in Sept. and Oct., especially after Labor Day when kids are going to be back in school and their parents will need to be back at home.
The Odds of Getting A Permit
The success rate of receive a permit has been going down year after year as more people are applying for permits. In 2021, there were almost 35,000 applications submitted during the preseason lottery. The success rate of getting a permit was around 10%, which is the lowest it has been for the past 10 years.
Here are some other useful statistics that I got from the NPS’s website.
The percentage of permit requests for each day of the week:
Dates with higher number of requests and lower success rates:
Dates with lower number of requests and higher success rates:
If You Didn’t Get A Permit, There’s Still Another Way!
There are around 50 permits per day that are available via a daily lottery. This is separate from the preseason lottery and are available based on the estimated rate of cancellation of permits. This number will vary and probably be less during the peak season, but it’s worth a try if you weren’t able to get a permit via the preseason lottery.
You would apply for the daily lottery 2 days before the hiking date and would then be notified that night. The application period is from midnight to 1pm Pacific. So if you want to hike on Sunday, you would apply on Friday before 1PM and get an email late Friday night telling you if you got a permit or not.
Daily lottery applications only allow a permit holder (no alternate). Daily lottery applications here – this is the same site as the preseason lottery application.
Applying for a Half Dome Backpacking Permit
The application process for backpackers is different than for day hikers.
There are less permits per day available for backpackers (around 75), but there is also less competition for those 75 permits. 50 are available by reservation, and 25 available on a first-come, first-served basis at wilderness centers a day in advance – which means you don’t have to deal with the lottery system! Just show up bright and early to get your permit.
In addition to the specific permit for the cables on Half Dome, you will also need a Wilderness Permit. The Wilderness Permit allows you to camp overnight in the wilderness and the Half Dome permit allows you to use the cables – they are separate permits for separate things.
You can apply for Half Dome permits at the same time as applying for your wilderness permit, just be sure to specify that you want Half Dome permits when you are applying for your wilderness permit. If there are permits available and if Half Dome is reasonably part of your itinerary, you’ll get a reservation that includes a Half Dome permit. Once you’ve gotten a permit this way, it will be valid for the entire length that your Wilderness Permit is also valid.
To apply for the Wilderness Permit you need to have already planned out your trip as you will need to enter:
- Hike Start Date
- Starting Trailhead
- 1st Night’s Camp Location
- Group Size
- Trip Leader Contact Information
- Hike End Date
- Ending Trailhead
Keep in mind that each trailhead has a quota of the number of available backpackers per day that can start at that location. Be sure to check the quota report which tells you which trailheads are full for which dates.
If you get the permit, there is a nonrefundable fee of $5 per person, plus $5 per transaction. There is no charge for denied requests.
If you have a wilderness permit, but didn’t get a Half Dome permit, you can try to get a permit via the lottery system described above (preseason or daily).
Hiking Without A Permit
You can hike everything except the cables without a permit – the permit is just for the cables portion of Half Dome. Depending on your route, anyone at anytime can hike The Mist Trail and follow it up to the sub-dome. From that point on however, rangers will be checking your permits. You need a permit to pass the sub-dome and climb the cables.
If you try to be sneaky and do it without a permit, if you get caught, you face a $5,000 fine and/or 6 months in jail – not really worth it.