(Photo: Brian Fong/CAFM)
While the climb is the park’s most iconic and popular, overcrowding on the narrow, slick trail up the rock face had led to safety concerns and a number of deaths – some attributed to falls caused by back-ups on the safety cables. On peak summer weekends before 2010, Cobb said, nearly 1,200 people would climb Half Dome in a day. On average, during the weekends, there were 800-900 people a day on the dome.
“It was becoming one of our most popular hikes,” said John DeGrazio, founder of Y Explore – Yosemite Adventures, a tour company that leads hikes in the park. “It would have gone in that direction if the permit system hadn’t been put in place.”
The new permit system, Cobb explained, will aim to have 300 people a day on the dome – approximately 75 backpackers and 225 day hikers. (A permit is only needed for the last two miles of the trail, which climbs the rock face.) But, to achieve that target, park officials may adjust the number of permits actually granted.
“Every day we have a number of no shows and cancellations and people who don’t make it up the cables,” said Kari Cobb, Yosemite spokesperson. For instance, if there are consistently fewer people making it to the cables on Tuesdays, then the number of permits given out on Tuesdays might be increased.
But park officials and local tour companies say that they don’t expect a decrease in the overall number of tourists visiting the park. “There’s more to the park than just Half Dome,” said Cobb. A pilot permit system has been in place for the last three years and “we have not noticed any decrease at all in visitation” in that time, Cobb said.
Most of the permits will be given out in a lottery open from March 1 to March 31. Hopeful hikers can apply at http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/hdpermits.htm. New this year, there will also be at least 50 permits given out by lottery daily during the summer season. Those permits have to be applied for two days in advance and will vary depending on use.
One thing still to be figured out is how commercial tour groups, like Y Explore, will be treated in the process. A certain number of permits will be available for those companies, but that too will vary depending on use.
“It’s not 100% certain how the commercial groups are going to be seen,” said DeGrazio, who says he’s not sure how it’ll impact his tours yet.
Officials currently plan to have the cables in place from May 24 to Oct. 14. Those hiking without a permit could end up with a fine of up to $5,000 if they’re caught by a ranger. But, few scofflaws try the challenging hike.
“For those fortunate to get a permit, it’ll be a much better experience,” said DeGrazio, than the crowded trail before. “A true wilderness experience.”
And, for those not fortunate enough to get a permit, there are other hikes that are “equally impressive,” he said.