Half Dome hikers need to win permit lottery

Measures in place to limit use and prevent passes from being scalped.

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 25, 2012 

When you think of the final 400-foot ascent of the Yosemite Valley's Half Dome Trail, what words come to mind? "Majestic?" "Breathtaking?" "Crowded?"

How about "expensive"?

Last year, visitors paid as much as $100 to hike the famous trail.

Over the past two years, to address dangerously overcrowded conditions, park officials have cut in half the daily number of Half Dome hikers by instituting an advance-sales permitting process.

After officials capped Half Dome hikes at 400 people a day, some abused the system by scalping the $4.50 tickets.

This year, the permitting process will continue with a few changes to curb the resale of tickets.

"To help make the system fair and to limit scalping, we are implementing the lottery system," said Kari Cobb, park spokeswoman. "So everyone puts in at one time, and then in April we send notification to tell people if they were successful."

Starting in March, people will be able to throw their name -- and an application for up to six guests -- in the digital hat for a nonrefundable fee of $4.50 online and $6.50 over the phone. If selected, a $5 fee is charged for each person in the group. The per-person fee is refundable if the trip is canceled two days in advance.

Under the new rules, the "trip leader" can't sell or give his ticket to anyone else.

Using a smart phone, park rangers, stationed at Subdome, will check a trip leader's ID and the approved number of guests he has before allowing a group to proceed up the rock.

Rick Deutsch, Yosemite enthusiast and author of the "Mr. Half Dome" blog, has been following these issues closely. Last year, to his frustration, his moniker was used by at least one scalper.

He said he approves of the lottery system but hopes park officials will continue to work out the details. "It's hard to assume a party of six is all going to hold hands and show their permits at Subdome," he said. "Some people are going to rest more. And other people are going to want to go faster."

A limited number of permits will be available on short notice through an online application lottery, which will grant same-day results two days in advance of the hiking date.

Hikers applying for backcountry wilderness permits also can stipulate they would like to include the Half Dome hike on their trip. Up to a quarter of the total day-passes will be reserved for these multiday backpackers.

"You have to have an itinerary that reasonably includes Half Dome," Cobb said. "And our wilderness ranger will look over the application and determine whether a permit is appropriate for the hiking itinerary."

In coming years, competition for permits could get even steeper.

Recently, park officials released for public review an environmental analysis of the effects of allowing various numbers of daily hikers on the Half Dome trail.

Park officials endorsed a draft proposal to reduce the number of visitors to 300 per day, stating on the park's website that the stricter limit "provides the optimum visitor experience while protecting wilderness character along the trail."

However, officials are considering several options, including the current cap of 400 people a day, Cobb said. "The Half Dome hike is the most popular hike in the park," she said. "Because of its popularity, we've seen cases of concern for safety. By implementing a permitting program, we not only are providing for the safety of our visitors, but also providing a genuine wilderness experience."

The comment period for the Yosemite Half Dome Trail Stewardship Plan ends March 15. Individuals can read the document and submit their opinions and insights at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/halfdome.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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