Last Minute Campsite and Wilderness Permits
Typically campsites and popular wilderness permit reservations fill up fast, but if you didn't win the lottery for Half Dome, are a little late on opening day to reserve campsites at Upper Pines in Yosemite, or just have a spontaneous urge to hike to Big Pine Lakes (North Fork), don't sweat it, there's hope!
Just days before my ideal trip dates, I scored an overnight permit to Mt. Whitney in July 2017, and campsites for Friday and Saturday night in Yosemite Valley in May 2018. Here's how:
Tip 1: Keep checking
There are always last minute cancellations... someone got sick, changed their mind, whatever the reason, people end up canceling their permits or reservations.
In my case on Mt. Whitney in 2017, someone had a group of seven people and two ended up not being able to go at the last minute. So the group released the two permits at the same time that I checked. I met this group on the trail, and when we got to talking, realized I had taken one of their released permits. Huge thank you to that group leader!
Similar situation for scoring Friday and Saturday campsite reservations in Yosemite in 2018. I checked every few hours for days leading up to the weekend I wanted to go. I ended up getting a campsite for Saturday night on Wednesday around 11:00am, and a campsite for Friday on Thursday at 7:00am. I checked minutes before that Thursday and got nothing, but refreshed and got a campsite!
Stay persistent and keep checking.
Tip 2: Be flexible
Be flexible on the dates if you can, it’s often easier to get weekday reservations than weekend ones. But if you’re a weekender and Friday through Sunday are your only hope, be flexible on routes and locations.
Scoring your first choice campground might be ideal, but look at other nearby campgrounds. See what’s open. If you’re going to a National Park, see what campgrounds on the outside of the park are open (but keep checking inside the park too, you might get lucky). You might also get Friday night at one site and Saturday night at another. It’s a hassle, but hey, you have a campground! My last minute campgrounds in Yosemite were at different locations, Friday night was at North Pines, and Saturday night at Upper Pines.
If you’re looking for wilderness permits, see if there are other permits to start on a different trail that links to the trail you wanted to hike. In the Sierra Nevada’s permits are issued by a quota for a number of people starting on a particular trail on a given day. More popular trails like Mt. Whitney from Whitney Portal or the John Muir Trail from Happy Isles might be full, but there are other trails/routes that are less popular that might have openings.
Getting last minute permits or campsites requires some scavenging and researching.
Tip 3: Walk-ups
Walk up permits are great if you check first thing in the morning. You just walk up to the campsite or permit office first thing in the morning and check if they have availability. During the busy season, I suggest getting their early to increase your chances.
I have gotten a last minute campsite at Big Pine Lakes, near the trailhead, on Labor Day weekend. As I was driving up to the trailhead, I stopped by a campsite and asked the ranger there if he had availability, and sure enough, he did!
Most campsites and permit issuing offices always leave a select number of campsites and wilderness permits for walk ups. There are also campsites that are specifically reserved for walk-ups only, like Camp 4 in Yosemite. Just get there early!