Yosemite Wilderness Climbing Permits: What You Need to Know

On May 7, Yosemite National Park announced a new pilot program requiring Wilderness climbing permits for overnight big wall climbs in the park. While Access Fund was consulted in the concepting phase of this program earlier this year, we only just learned of the final details of the program alongside the climbing community last week.

Yosemite National Park, ancestral lands of Sierra Miwok. © Francois Lebeau

We believe that this new program is well-intentioned, and that park officials are acting in good faith to conserve the vertical environment as well as the unique climbing experience. However, as currently written, Access Fund does not fully endorse this new permit system, and we are committed to working with park officials to address issues that unnecessarily hinder big wall climbing in the park.

The Facts

  • Starting May 21, 2021, all climbers staying overnight on climbs in Yosemite must have a Wilderness climbing permit.
  • As currently written, climbers must obtain permits 4-15 days in advance, and the permits must be picked up in person until October 31.
  • There is no fee associated with this permit; it is free.
  • There is no limit on the number of permits the NPS can issue, meaning there is currently no quota system driving this permit process.
  • If you are doing a day climb, you don’t need a Wilderness climbing permit.
  • The stated reasoning for this pilot program are to:
    • Increase in-person educational outreach opportunities with climbers to share regulations and Leave No Trace tips while big wall climbing;
    • Collect data and better understand use patterns by big wall climbers; and
    • Monitor impacts to natural resources and Wilderness character.
  • Prior to this program, Yosemite was the only National Park in the United States with Wilderness climbing that did not require backcountry permits for overnight climbs.
  • This is not an exhaustive list. We encourage climbers to review specific details about how and when to obtain a permit on the National Park Service (NPS) website.

The Implications to Our Community

There are both positive and negative implications to this new pilot program, and Access Fund is working with park officials to address the issues that unnecessarily hinder big wall climbing within the park.

The positives: Climbers with big wall permits will no longer need reservations to enter the park. All other park visitors are still required to purchase reservations in advance, as part of COVID quota protocols, and reservations are not always available. Climbers with big wall permits will be allowed to camp one night in the backpacker campground on both ends of their big wall climb. Climbers will also receive Leave No Trace (LNT) and preventative search and rescue education, as well as up-to-date beta on how many climbers will be on each route.

The drawbacks: As currently structured, the permit program will hinder spontaneity of big wall attempts between May 21 and October 31. During this timeframe, the NPS is requiring that permits be requested at least 4 days in advance and that climbers pick up permits in person (self-registration will be available at the Valley Visitor Center after October 31). These requirements can make it unnecessarily difficult to find a safe weather window for a big wall ascent and require climbers to arrive at the park at least a full day prior to climbing to pick up the permit during office hours (hence the allowance to stay in the backpackers campground). In addition, despite the fact that there are no quotas or fees associated with the pilot program, the NPS might impose a fee and/or some form of quota in the future to manage crowding on the wall.

The Changes We Are Requesting

The permitting process needs to be streamlined to allow for the flexibility and spontaneity required for big wall climbing in Yosemite. We have asked the NPS to implement the following changes to the pilot program:

  • To NOT require in-person, office-hour permit pick-ups and, rather, allowing online or phone check in or some other option (e.g., an after-hours pick-up box) if a climber arrives outside of office hours and needs to start climbing.
  • To NOT require four-day advance registration and instead allow automatic online authorization to allow for flexibility/spontaneity.

The Big Picture

All of Yosemite’s big walls—including El Cap, Half Dome, and Leaning Tower, to name just a few—are within designated Wilderness, and are therefore subject to the highest levels of conservation. Every other national park in the United States that has Wilderness climbing requires backcountry permits for overnight climbs. Also, every other recreational user in Yosemite, such as backpackers, are required to obtain a permit for overnight camping.

Climbers have long enjoyed unfettered access to Yosemite’s big walls, and we understand that this may be a difficult change for some. On a larger scale, we are seeing a national trend toward more permits and reservation systems on public lands in order to manage and mitigate the impacts caused by the incredible growth in outdoor recreation. Without a doubt, these new systems impact our lifestyle as climbers.

That said, some level of climber management and education is necessary to protect Yosemite and other public lands. For perspective, just last week Yosemite climbing rangers responded to several egregious Wilderness violations, including two cases of improper human waste disposal, fixed lines on Salathe Wall that had been up for over two weeks, filming without a permit, unsafe food storage, and illegal use of a power drill. With this new pilot program, Yosemite climbing rangers seek to connect with big wall climbers, and provide LNT and Wilderness climbing education that protects this unique climbing experience.

“I believe that the climbing rangers are core climbers and are genuinely interested in improving the big wall experience and environment,” says Yosemite big wall climber Tommy Caldwell. “The initial pilot program proposal is well-intended but possibly not optimal. I do think we need to do something about the impacts to Yosemite’s big wall climbing experience, and I am interested in working with the park to fine tune a process that will educate climbers on how to climb El Cap in a sustainable manner.”

Access Fund is cautiously optimistic that the park will work with us on our proposed changes to streamline the pilot permitting process. And we’re closely monitoring this initial pilot program and are strongly advocating that the NPS engage in a robust public engagement period with climbers before making any permanent changes to its policies. We also encourage the climbing community to share constructive feedback directly with the NPS at [email protected].