Yosemite to keep Half Dome limit on hikers

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 7, 2013 

Under a recently approved plan, Yosemite National Park officials announced Friday a new policy to maintain roughly 300 people a day on the park's popular Half Dome trail.

The move concludes a three-year effort to put in place a Half Dome Trail Stewardship Plan aimed at improving the safety and "wilderness experience" of the hike.

The final plan makes one final distinction from an interim plan, which has been evolving since 2010.

Last season, park officials issued 400 permits a day.

Under the long-term plan, officials decided to allow that number to fluctuate to accommodate for cancellations, no-shows and the percentage of people who don't finish the hike.

"We're managing based on the number of people," said Kari Cobb, a park spokeswoman. "If we have to give out 500 permits, that's what we'll do. If we have to give out 350 permits, that's what we'll do."

Reserving the right to tweak the number of daily permits allows the park to responsibly maximize the number of people who get the opportunity to hike Half Dome, she said.

"It's not fair if we have only 200 people per day, she said. "We know a safe level is 300."

For years, the Half Dome Trail had been overrun with visitors eager to hike the iconic granite monolith, which rises 8,842 feet above sea level, providing a spectacular view of the park.

With an average of 400 people a day on weekdays and as many as 1,200 a day on weekends, many complained the trail was losing its wilderness charm.

"We wanted to make sure visitors can experience the wilderness in solitude," Cobb said. "Hiking in the woods with 800 people is not solitude."

At the same time, the final 400-foot ascent, made along slick, almost vertical rock using steel cables anchored into the dome, was getting a reputation for its mounting death toll.

In 2010, the park started requiring permits on the weekends between May and October when the cables are up. The park takes the cables down when the weather makes the climb more dangerous.

In 2011, the park made the system seven days a week but had problems with scalpers. A number of permits were also reserved for back-country hikers whose route "reasonably included Half Dome."

Last year, park officials added a March lottery system for permits, which seemed to crack down on grifters. Visitors could also try a two-day in advance lottery at recreation.gov.

With the final adjustment of the long-term plan in place, officials say they're happy with the outcome.

"It has been a learning experience for the park, and we feel like we've been able to take all the information and provide a program that is beneficial and fair," Cobb said.

Details regarding the lotteries and the wilderness process can be found on the park's website at www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/hdpermits.htm.

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

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