It’s that time of year when people are getting bad news: no matter how many times you apply for a reservation for a wilderness permit, the hiking gods seem to be against you. That can be discouraging but, remember, there is another way. Forty percent of the quotas for each trailhead are held for people who “walk-up” to the appropriate Wilderness Center the day before they want to begin hiking. If you are willing to suffer a bit, you can win at this game and secure the permit you want.
The first question is this: are you hiking alone or with someone? Alone is the toughest (you’ll see why), but if you didn’t possess a certain amount of toughness you probably wouldn’t be interested in the hike.
Step 1: before you leave home, grab a 3 x 5 card and write your name on it in large print, with a felt marker. Really…trust me on this. Stick it in your wallet.
Step 2: get to Yosemite Valley as early as possible and go immediately to the Wilderness Center. (This assumes you are trying to start in the valley; should you want to start from Tuolumne Meadow, the same steps apply—only to the Wilderness Center at TM.) Tell them you want to hike the JMT and ask if they have any permit which will get you on it. I’m always amazed by the number of people who manage to get a permit this way, usually because someone has canceled. If that fails…
Step 3: ask several people who work in the Wilderness Center how the lines have been in the morning, and how early people have been lining up. I wouldn’t put a TON of stock into this, but it’s good way to establish a minimum. If, for example, you’re told that there are always twenty people by sunrise, arriving at 8:00 a.m. is probably not going to work. Also, find out when the center closes (it sometimes varies).
Step 4: walk or take the shuttle to where you are going to stay that night (campground, Curry Village, Lodge, Ahwahnee) and get settled in.
Step 5: return to the Wilderness Center just before closing and ask again. Someone may have canceled.
Step 6: Here’s the tough part: decide when you are going to get in line. The last time I did this I got there at 2:50 a.m. and was the first. The second person arrived at 3:01 a.m. By sunrise there was more than a dozen. With the popularity of the JMT, the earlier the better. My advice would be, if you are traveling alone, buy a cheap folding chair at the valley store, get a good book (and a book light), and get there as early as you think you can tolerate. It will be a nuisance, but here’s the thing: you will have forgotten all about your unpleasant, sleepless night by the time you get to Nevada Falls. You want to be the first in line. (If there are two of you hiking, split the duty, and get there no later than 10:45 p.m. the night before.) A couple of other tips: time it so you arrive at 45 minutes after the hour. Most folks are going to plan to arrive on the hour. By getting there fifteen minutes early you can get ahead of everyone who shows up fifteen minutes later. Second, if you’re alone, be careful not to OVER hydrate (at least until someone else shows up to hold your spot while you take advantage of the rest room).
Step 7: When the Wilderness Center opens, talk to the person behind you and tell them you are going to step into the center for a moment. You might even want to talk to the person behind the person behind you so that everyone knows you are not abandoning your spot. Then, go into the center and speak to one of the Rangers behind the counter. Explain to them that you have been in line since midnight (or whenever), that you are first in line, that you are waiting outside until 11 a.m. (When they start handing out permits) so as to not take up space in the center, but that you don’t want anyone cutting in line in front of you. Find an appropriate spot on or near the counter, and say,
“If you don’t mind, I’m going to leave this card [the aforementioned 3 x 5 card described in Step 1], with my name on it, right here, and then get out of your way. Thanks!”
Turn and walk out of the center. I’ve never witnessed someone cutting in line, but I’ve heard that it happens. Be on lookout for guys who wander in at 10:45, loiter for fifteen minutes, and then walk up to the counter for a permit.
Step 8: when you get to the counter, know what you want. There will probably be 2 or 3 Rangers talking to hikers at the same time, handing out permits. You don’t want the more decisive person behind you to use up all the LYV Pass Thru quotas while you are dilly-dallying.
Keep in mind that if you get in line Tuesday night at 10 p.m., for example, it will be for a permit that gets you on the trail THURSDAY morning. At 11:15 Wednesday morning, when you leave the Wilderness Center with exactly the permit you want, you still have the rest of the day to recuperate from your overnight adventure in sleep-deprivation.
If you follow this plan, there are only two ways you are going to fail to get a permit:
1. An unforeseen problem that is affecting everyone near that trailhead (e.g., a fire, a government shutdown, etc.).
2. You didn’t get there early enough (or were caught sleeping at the center by the wrong Ranger and were tossed out of line).
Good hiking, Ray