“What?” I asked unable to contain my disbelief. After hiking 900 miles from the Mexican border to the edge of Yosemite National Park, I wasn’t going to be allowed to make the 20 mile detour down into Yosemite Valley to climb half dome. Apparently you need a different permit for that, the PCT permits don’t cover half dome or backpacking in Yosemite valley.
“If I’d known that I’d needed special permits for Yosemite and half dome I would have gotten them when I applied for all the other permits that I needed for the PCT,” I grumbled. It never occurred to me that the PCT would take me so close to the natural wonders of Yosemite without allowing me to actually go and explore them.
“If you had a JMT (John Muir Trail) permit, that would cover you for climbing half dome,” said my oh so helpful friend. That just seemed like the epitome of unfairness to me… The JMTers got to climb half dome, but the PCTers didn’t? Maybe it was just the calorie deficit from hiking the high Sierras finally catching up with me, but I was definitely getting cranky.
I’d climbed Mt. Whitney and done the majority of the JMT at that point… I’d just done an extra 700 or so miles through the desert that the JMTers hadn’t… How come they got to climb half dome and I didn’t? (The answer is probably that the JMT goes into Yosemite Valley while the PCT skirts the Valley and continues northwards instead, but that wasn’t making me feel any better or less grumpy).
I had never been to Yosemite and I was suddenly determined to figure out a way to visit Yosemite Valley and climb half dome as a part of my thru-hike… The permitting system for half dome seemed overly complicated and the more I learned about it the more impossible my quest seemed to be.
The only way you can legally do a day hike of half dome is through a lottery system. You have to apply for the lottery in the spring, well in advance of your hike, or apply online (two days in advance) for one of the daily lottery spots. Without reliable cell phone or internet service on the trail the last minute lottery didn’t seem like it would be a viable option and I was way too late for the spring lottery.
As I looked for another way to legally climb half dome I discovered a more obvious solution: I should get a wilderness use permit and an associated half dome permit. A wilderness permit would allow me to do an overnight hike from the PCT down into Yosemite Valley with a climb of half dome anytime in between. That was exactly what I wanted to do. It would be perfect!!!
I called the Wilderness Info Hotline (209-372-0826) from Mammoth Lakes and explained to them that I was a PCT thru-hiker and that I’d like a permit so that I could descend into Yosemite Valley via half dome. They didn’t quite laugh at me, but they did tell me that I needed to have figured out that I needed a permit and applied for it much sooner. There was no way I could reserve a wilderness permit for an itinerary that would reasonably include half dome less than two weeks in advance. The only remaining option for me to legally climb half dome was the first-come first-served wilderness permit and half dome permit.
The person on the phone explained to me that there were 25 half dome permits set aside to go with the first-come first-served backcountry wilderness permits and that they were distributed across the Yosemite wilderness offices. I could try to get one of those. “Half dome and the trails going into Yosemite are the most popular trails in the country, so it’s really hard to get those permits. Good luck,” she said apologetically as she hung up the phone. My odds for success weren’t sounding very good.
As I hiked over Donahue Pass and what I hoped were the last large snowfields of the Sierra I formulated a plan. There is a Wilderness Office at Tuolomme Meadows… I would get to Tuolomme and camp out at the Wilderness Office… Eventually I would be one of the first 25 people in the first-come, first-served queue. Based on the rumors about how crowded and crazy Yosemite was, I wasn’t sure how long it would take to make it to the front of that queue, but as a thru-hiker with no fixed schedule, I defiantly decided that I would just stay there as long as it took!
When I got to Tuolomme Meadows late on Thursday evening I was surprised to find the area nearly vacant. The campground wasn’t open for the season yet, and neither were the grill, the lodge, or the visitor’s center. The shuttles weren’t running yet either. The only things open were the wilderness office, the store, and the post office.
I woke up at dawn the next morning, like I usually do, and decided I might as well begin my siege of the wilderness office… I grabbed plenty of food, water, and warm clothes and headed up the road. When I got to the Wilderness Office I found a nice sign in the parking lot showing me exactly where the first-come, first-served line should form. There was no one else there.
I plunked down in front of the sign and settled in… It was going to be two hours before the wilderness office opened and five hours before first-come first-served permits would be released, but I didn’t have any other place I needed to be. I was a thru-hiker and I had a bag of food, fresh food that I’d gotten at the store and in the maildrop that had been waiting for me at the post office (including my grandma’s homemade donuts)… I was perfectly happy to just sit there and nap in the sun and eat.
I laughed as I thought about people that camp outside of stores waiting for Black Friday deals, or concert tickets, or autographs… That’s essentially what I was doing, except I was camping out waiting for permission to hike a trail. It seemed kind of absurd.
Eventually 8 am rolled around and the wilderness office opened for the day. I didn’t think there was any chance of getting a permit until 11, but I figured I might as well go in and talk to the rangers about what my best bet was in terms of trail heads and timing for the wilderness permit. I’d heard that if you start from some of the less popular trail heads you have a better chance of getting a permit.
Inside the permit office I explained to the ranger that I was a PCT thru-hiker, I wanted to hike into Yosemite Valley and climb half-dome, and that I could be flexible about all of the other details.
“When would you like to go?” He asked. “Anytime I can,” I replied hopefully… Not wanting to eliminate any potential options.
“Well, would you like to go today or tomorrow?” He asked patiently. “Ideally today,” I replied incredulously… Today was an option?! I hadn’t even dared to hope to get a permit to head out into the valley today.
“Which trailhead would you like to start from?” He continued. “Well, ideally I’d like to start from here,” I said, and then clarified, “from cathedral lakes, but I can be flexible.”
“No problem, leaving today, from cathedral lakes and ending in Yosemite valley. One night or two?” I thought about it for minute, “just one night, I’ll hike in over clouds rest today, climb half dome tomorrow morning, and then head out Yosemite valley tomorrow afternoon.” I may have intentionally emphasized half dome to make sure there was no ambiguity… My itinerary included half dome.
He nodded, “What kind of bear canister do you have?” I told him about my bear vault. “Where do you plan on camping?” I showed him the general area on the map between the trail coming down from clouds rest and the trail going up to half-dome… “Hopefully somewhere in there.”
“You know, that is the most problematic bear area in the park, and maybe in the entire country.” I asked if he had a recommendation for a different area to camp given my goals. “No,” he shook his head, “that’s a good launching point for half-dome, just be really careful about getting all your scented items into the bear canister for the night.”
He then asked me for my ID, my PCT permit, and $8 for the Half dome permit. I couldn’t believe it… After hearing over and over again that it was nearly impossible to get permits for half dome I was going to get one… And one that allowed me to climb half dome either later that same day or the following day, whichever I felt like!!!
I left the wilderness office, permit in hand and headed off into Yosemite… Now that I’d gotten the permit, the only thing I had left to tackle on my trip to the summit of half dome was my fear of heights…