Your Ultimate Guide to the Half Dome Lottery

Hiking Half Dome is a dream that should not be missed!  Making that dream become reality takes planning.  All hikers wishing to complete the Half Dome hike to the summit (therefore using the cables) must participate in the Half Dome Lottery secure permits.  In this post, we’ll discuss what a permit lottery is, what two types of lotteries are offered for securing Half Dome permits, details such as costs and choosing dates, and how you can maximize your chances of getting a coveted permit.  Read on for all the details you need to know!

First view of gray smooth rock face of Half Dome from the forest at the top.  This is what you will see before the rangers check for your lottery permit.
First views of Half Dome up close.

Hike Overview

This is a once in a lifetime hike!  During this incredible adventure, you will see stunning waterfalls, pass through serene forests, climb endless amounts of stairs, and take in views in every direction.  This hike is 14 to 16 miles depending on the exact route taken and has a momentous 4800’ of elevation gain.  All of this adds up to an incredible experience that you will always remember.  

To get all the details and my tips for hiking Half Dome, check out the full blog post here before planning out your permits.  https://expeditionswithevelyn.com/tips-for-hiking-half-dome/ 

A hiker stands on wet granite steps supported by a trekking pole.  Mist from a waterfall speckles the camera lens.
Loving life on the Mist Trail.

What is a Permit Lottery?

A permit lottery is a way to manage the volume of hikers with access to a specific trail by limiting access to hikers who register for hiking permits.  Applicants are then randomly selected to be awarded hiking permits for specified dates.

These lotteries help to protect fragile ecosystems and culturally significant areas by ensuring that the capacity of visitors is kept at manageable levels.  This is important for preventing trail erosion, protecting local plants and wildlife, and preservation of cultural and historic sites.   For Half Dome specifically, the lottery is also essential for ensuring safety by limiting the number of potential hikers that could be ascending or descending the Half Dome cables.  This section of the hike is more dangerous if overcrowded.

Half Dome Lottery Details

There are two ways to apply for a Half Dome permit – in advance through the Preseason Lottery and in person for the Daily Lottery.  There are also two different ways that you can do this hike – one day as a day hiker or in two or three days as a backpacker.  The permits needed vary depending on your choice.

A total of 300 permits per day are issued.  Of those, 225 are issued via the Preseason Lottery and 75 are saved for the Daily Lottery.  These permits are specifically to ascend the Half Dome cables.  The cables are typically up around late May to early October but this is weather dependent.  For 2021, the tentative dates are May 28 to October 12. 

Steel cables laid into metal poles on the steep granite rock face.  The permits from the Half Dome Lottery are to ascend the cables.
Going up…

Half Dome Lottery Types

Preseason:

Participants register online.  You select up to seven potential dates for your hike. For Half Dome, this registration window is from March 1 to 31 (Eastern Time), via www.recreation.gov. Applicants will be notified of the results via email in mid-April.  Results are also  accessible via the recreation.gov website.

Daily:

Approximately 50 permits are made available for the Daily lottery each day.  Register online via www.recreation.gov between midnight to 1PM Pacific Time (PT) two days prior to the desired hike date.  This means that if you wanted to hike on Thursday, you would apply on Tuesday and then receive an email Tuesday night.  Requests can also be made by phone at (877) 444-6777 from 7AM to 9PM PT.  

Permit Types

Day Hiking permit: 

Within a Preseason application, multiple dates can be selected and ranked in order of preference. Everyone wishing to ascend the Half Dome cables must be included on a permit.  

Up to six people can be covered under one permit.  During the application process, the applicant must name a Permit Holder (themselves) and an Alternate Permit Holder (Name and Email Address).  It is important to note that both the Permit Holder and Alternate Permit Holder can only show up on one preseason application per year.  If the same names are on multiple applications, those applications will be invalidated and canceled.  Alternate Permit Holders must also create a Recreation.gov account. If a permit is awarded, there are additional next steps to complete in the website to finalize their role shortly after the permit is awarded.  

Note: Only a primary Permit Holder is listed for the Daily Lottery.  

Wilderness Overnight Backpacking permit: 

To do this hike as a backpacking trip, obtain a wilderness permit in advance. This should include a night or two of camping a Little Yosemite Valley Campground. There is a separate registration system for Wilderness Permits. When registering for your Wilderness Permit, you specify where you would like to camp and then have the option to request Half Dome permits with your Wilderness Permit request.  See the Useful URLs for the link.  I did the hike this way and loved it!  This was the perfect option for me in September since I hike at a slower speed and there was less daylight.

A day use permit from the Half Dome Lottery for the cables in 2017
Day use permit for cables from 2017 as a reference.  Some fees, policies, and processes may have changed.

Costs (for day hike permit):

  • A $10 Application Fee is due upon registration.  This is per application.  It is not refundable. 
  • When permits are awarded for the Half Dome Lottery, there is then a $10 fee per person per permit.  Refunds are issuable under two conditions: If the cables are not up for the date your permit is issued OR if you cancel by 9PM PT the day before your permit date.

Choosing your dates:

During your registration, you will have the option select up to seven dates and rate them in order of preference. There are several factors to consider when determining your ideal dates.  These include:

  • Your personal schedule – Is there a certain time of year that is best to take time off due to work commitments or avoid due to personal commitments?  Check your calendar first to determine your general availability. 
  • Weather – The cables usually go up in late May/early June and come down in early to mid-October.  If you have permit dates around these times, there is a risk that the cables may not be up yet or may no longer be up due to winter weather.  Additionally, wildfires can occur at any time but are most prevalent in the late Summer and Fall.  In certain situations, the park may close due to fires or the air quality may be so poor that a hike like this would be very dangerous.
  • Crowds – There are more permit requests for the summer months and for weekends.  Saturdays in the summer are by far the most requested days.  These dates will have more crowds on the trail. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays have the fewest requests for permits.  Crowding makes a difference in the overall experience and time spent on the cables to reach the summit.
  • Daylight – You’ll need to factor in the amount of daylight you will have during the dates you choose.  You will have more time to complete your hike in daylight in the middle of summer than in late fall and will need to plan accordingly.

This page from Yosemite’s website takes all the guesswork of the date research by giving you data regarding requests by day of the week and by date from 2020.

https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/hdpermitsapps.htm 

The Merced River calmly flows through the forest as the sun rises through the trees illuminating the rocks on the river bank.
Peaceful scenery behind Little Yosemite Valley Campground. 

How to maximize your opportunity

  • Research: Investigate the times of year you will want to go based on weather, crowds, and chances of getting a permit.  Take into consideration wildfire danger and thunderstorms – both of which could cancel this hike.
  • Be prepared:  Set up your profile register in advance, so that when the date comes you are ready to go.  Know you which dates you will be selecting, how you will rank your preferences, and who you will be naming as Alternate Permit Holder.
  • Be flexible:  If your schedule allows it, check the calendar to see what dates allow the best chance of getting a permit during good weather.  
  • Mark Your Calendar:  Know when the Half Dome lottery opens and when to expect results.

You Won the Half Dome Lottery! Now What?

Either the Permit Holder or Alternate Permit Holder must be present with the group at the base of the Subdome to present the permit and a photo ID to rangers.

The permits do not include any lodging in or near Yosemite, you will need to make those arrangements if you have not already.  For the day before and after your hike, I highly recommend staying IN the park, preferably as close to Yosemite Valley and the trailhead as possible.

Check out my other blog post for more details about the hike itself if you need information on what to expect and how to prepare.  

Vernal Fall crashes over a sheer cliff spraying mist onto the mossy green rocks below.
Vernal Fall is a highlight at the beginning of this hike.

Half Dome Lottery Highlights

Conservation Considerations

To help protect the environment around this popular hike, you can help by staying on the trail, making sure to pack out all of your trash (especially little things that could fall out of your pockets), and respecting wildlife.

Expeditions with Evelyn Exclusive

Some other extremely popular hikes require hiking or backpacking permits that follow similar lottery processes.  These include:

  • The Wave (Coyote Buttes, North, Arizona)
  • The Enchantments (Washington)
  • Havasu Falls (Havasupai Reservation, Arizona)
    • Message me if you’d like details on this hike or the permit process in general.  Due to COVID, visitation is currently suspended.
A female hiker in a black visor and black shirt smiles with a waterfall and domed mountain in the background in the fading light.
Returning via the John Muir Trail. Exhausted and happy!

Half Dome Lottery Final Thoughts

Are you planning to apply?  Do you have any questions before you do?  Let me know in the comments below.

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