For me, one of the biggest drawcards of hiking and camping is the peace and solitude. 95% of Yosemite National Park is designated Wilderness so we knew that to truly experience Yosemite magic, we had to venture off into the backcountry. This means securing a Wilderness Permit which details which trailhead you are to start from and when, and which trailhead you are to exit from and when. It may seem counterintuitive, as though you are asking permission to be free, but these policies and regulations are there simply to protect Yosemite from overuse and degradation. As I get older, I become increasingly aware of my footprint on this beautiful earth so I was more than happy to jump through the hoops in order to obtain my chance of camping in the Yosemite Wilderness.
(You also need a permit to hike Half Dome but you can opt in for this on your Wilderness Permit application, which is what we did)
FIRST STEP - DETERMINE YOUR DEADLINE
I would say that the first step is to check what date is the first day you can fax through your Application Form. The demand for these permits is HIGH (as in, I met an American guy in Yosemite who has tried 3 times to get one particular permit, including Half Dome, to no avail. He was super jealous that I got mine first time round) so it is crucial that you get your application in early.
You can do this by clicking here.
For example, we want to start our backcountry adventures on 26 July 15 so the first day we could fax through our form was 8 February 15. I actually only remembered to check ON 8 February so it was lucky that Australia is ahead of the US, time-wise!
SECOND STEP - RESEARCH AND PICK YOUR HIKE
The second step is to research the abundance of hikes offered by Yosemite.
The Lonely Planet guidebook to Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks is incredibly useful. There are tables in the guidebook detailing the distance and duration of each hike as well as what facilities are available.
If you are a visual person like me, you can also start by scrolling through Instagram to see what inspires you.
Months before we even locked in our US trip, I had already decided that I wanted to do the hike to Cloud's Rest. I had long followed photographer Trev Lee on Instagram and drooled over his images of Yosemite on an almost daily basis. One day, I saw that he had recommended two hikes in Yosemite in the comments section so I screenshotted that baby. The two hikes were Mount Hoffmann and Cloud's Rest.
THIRD STEP - PICK YOUR TRAILHEADS
Open up the Trailhead Map and pick out your destination. Now, work backwards to pinpoint which trailhead would serve you best. There will be an arrow originating from the trailhead to show which direction you must travel in.
Therefore, for Clouds Rest, my two options were Sunrise Lakes and Happy Isles to Sunrise/Merced Lake Pass.
Of course, you can Google this as well but there is so much convoluted information on the interwebs that it is often more confusing than helpful (I realise the irony as I am just adding to this tangle of guides and how-tos but hopefully you find this actually helpful!)
FOURTH STEP - READ THE INSTRUCTIONS ON COMPLETING THE FORM
Now that you know your deadline, what hike you want to do and the associated trailheads, open up the instructions to fill out the Application Form provided by the NPS.
The instructions are excellent - it's just that there is some prep work to do before you are ready to complete the form.
FIFTH STEP - COMPLETE THE FORM
SIXTH STEP - FAX OFF YOUR FORM!
This is the best way for us Australians (and likely anyone not in the US) to reserve a Wilderness Permit.
As mentioned above, I only realised that the opening date to fax through on the day and that luckily Australia was ahead. At that point, 12am in the US was 7pm in Sydney so at 7.15pm that night, I faxed through our application using an online fax service - because who owns a fax machine these days??
The online fax service I used was eFax and I do recommend it, because it was simple and straightforward.
SEVENTH STEP - STALK YOUR INBOX FOR YOUR RESERVATION CONFIRMATION
If successful, you will receive an email from the Wilderness Center confirming your reservation. This is NOT your permit but you will need to keep this so flag it in your inbox. The confirmation email also is your authorisation to stay in a backpackers campsite on park campgrounds one night before and after your hike at a cost of $5 per person per night. And now...you wait until your adventure begins...
EIGHTH STEP - YOU'RE HERE!!! FIRST, VISIT A WILDERNESS CENTRE...
You will need to visit a Wilderness Centre, at the latest, before 10am on your entry date to pick up your permit.Yosemite has a very thorough check-in process to obtain your permit so be patient and actually enjoy it because the rangers are all very lovely and knowledgeable.
You will need to rent bear canisters as well, if you do not own any, and this can be done at the Centre.
Once on the trail, keep your permit handy as the rangers will check, especially when you are coming off of Half Dome.
NINTH STEP - LEAVE NO TRACE
This is extremely important. The regulations can be found here. Basically, you must camp 40 paces from the trail and from any water source. You must bury your human waste about the width of your thumb to your pinky. You must pack out everything that you pack in. The amount of trash I saw in Yosemite NP, especially down in the valley, was frankly infuriating. Sometimes, the rubbish was placed ON or at the FOOT of a bin. You shouldn't litter at all, but to me, it is absolutely sacrilegious to litter in a National Park.
FINAL STEP - ENJOY YOUR YOSEMITE EXPERIENCE!
Yosemite is a special place and the truth of this can only be understood once you wake up on that first morning, in its wilderness. Soak up every single moment, explore as far and as wide as you can and then make it a priority to come back and do it all over again.