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Permits and Planning Ahead

Yep--it's that time of year, when a hiker's thoughts turn to backpacking and summer trips. And if you're planning to backpack in the Sierra this summer, there are two major factors you need to consider: snowpack and permits.

Let's start with first things first. What's the earliest date you can expect to get into the high country? It all depends on the weather between now and then. One good indicator is the opening of Tioga Road through Yosemite. That road gets to almost 10,000 feet, and usually opens sometime in June. Here's link to when the road has opened in the past:

Remember that just because the road is open doesn't mean that there won't be a lot of snow on the ground. You'll need excellent navigation skills to hike when the trail disappears into a snowbank for a mile, or an important junction is buried by the white stuff. That's M hiking (on the trail!) at about 9,000 feet over 4th of July weekend a few years ago.

Of course, there are trails in the Sierra that are well below 10,000, and we've included them in our list of early season hikes.

If you do go early, just remember that white water kills more people in the Sierra than anything else. And early season hikes are prime white water adventures. Be careful, and stay the hell out of the water. We've turned back countless times rather than test the waters (ahem!) We passed up a log crossing of the stream in the photo below just because we knew that if we fell, we would die. And we are here to tell you all about it.

And now let's talk about permits. In 2021, there is a new policy in most of the National Forests in the Sierra about permits, and it's important. In the good old days you could request a permit from the wilderness office, and work with them to get the dates and trailheads you wanted. Not anymore. Now it's all on-line at

Why does this matter? Well, mainly because if you want a permit for a popular trailhead this summer, those permits are probably already gone--reserved by people who knew the system and acted early. 60% of all permits are being listed this way, and it's a little frustrating to sign on to the website and see how few permits are available for the summer.

(One important note here. If you ARE lucky enough to get a permit, and then decide that you are not going to use it, or not have as many people as you thought, PLEASE let them know! They can use those spots for other deserving hikers who also love the wilderness.)

What happens with the other 40% of the permits? There is hope, but again, it's harder to come by. In years past, any permit that wasn't reserved was available on a first-come, first-served basis. You could walk into the wilderness office the day before, and chances are you could find a permit. Again, not any more. Now those walk-up permits are being held until two weeks before the date, and then released through So you still have to be on your toes and think ahead--at least two weeks ahead. And hope for the best.

And yes, there are still a few wilderness areas where permits are easier to get, or at least don't require a quick trigger finger on your computer six months before you want to hike. But we'll let you find those on your own...

As for our trips? We've been blocked out of a number of itineraries that we were considering this summer. We may still try to do some of them via the remaining 40% permits. But we've also already made three reservations for permits this summer, and when you add in a trip or two to locations that aren't as hard to reserve, we should be plenty busy in the backcountry this year.

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