If you're hoping to hike Half Dome at California's Yosemite National Park this summer, you'll want to take action by March 31. That's because, under a new system, permits to reach the summit will be allocated by a lottery this month for the whole season, instead of month by month.
Other changes may be coming too as the National Park Service considers overhauling management of the iconic granite dome, which rises nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley. Thousands each year make the grueling trek to the top, aided by a 400-foot-long cable system in place during warmer months.
But first, here is what you need to know to navigate this year's permit system:
Unlike last year, when reservations opened up three months in advance on a first-come, first-served basis, permits for the entire May 25-Oct. 8 season will be allocated by a lottery held through March 31. Each lottery winner will be assigned one hiking date, and unlike past years, permits will not be transferable.
Park officials hope the new system will thwart scalpers, who last year snatched up multiple permits and later resold them for $60 or more each.
Under first-come, first-served, "it was a mad dash at 7 a.m. Pacific time for the permits," said Rick DeLappe, acting interagency program manager for the park service. "You had to get in the first 10 minutes or you didn't get anything, say, for a Saturday."
Now, with a month to apply, he said, "everyone gets to throw their hat in the ring." You can apply online at http://www.recreation.gov or by phone at (877) 444-6777. Winners are expected to be notified by early April by email or phone.
Rick Jellen of Los Angeles, an experienced climber who summited Half Dome last summer, supports the lottery idea.
"I think that's a better option for sure," he said. "It gives a fair chance among multiple people, especially those with limited Internet access."
But there are downsides.
Costs are going up. Last year, a Half Dome permit cost $1.50 a person. This year, you'll pay two fees: a nonrefundable $4.50 online charge (or $6.50 by phone) to submit an application, plus $5 a person if you receive a permit. On each application, you can apply for up to six permits (six people) and for up to seven dates.
Given that the lottery is new, your chance of landing one of the 300 daily permits — the same number as last year — is unclear. "There is an unknown for how many applications might be submitted," DeLappe said.
If you strike out in the March lottery, you may still be able to ascend Half Dome. Another lottery will allocate unused or canceled permits, with two days' notice. And like last year, as many as 100 backpackers a day will be allowed to summit Half Dome under a less formal permit system.
For details on Half Dome permits, visit http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/hdpermits.htm or http://www.recreation.gov (Under "Search for Places" on the home page, type "Yosemite National Park" and choose "Permits & Wilderness"). The interagency Recreation.gov, funded by transaction fees, handles reservations for campsites, cabins, permits and tours on federal lands.
Even as the park service tinkers with the Half Dome permit system, which it started in 2010 to reduce increasing foot traffic that sometimes reached more than 1,000 hikers a day, it struggles with long-term plans to control damage to natural resources and potential risks to human life.
In January, officials released a 132-page environmental assessment of the Half Dome Trail that proposed limiting hikers to 300 a day instead of the current 400 (300 day-hiker permits plus 100 backpacker permits). It cited safety and the need to protect the "wilderness character" of the area.
Since 2006, five people have died in accidents along the cables portion of the trail after nearly four decades without fatalities, according to park service records. The trail also accounts for the highest combined number of serious injuries and search-and-rescue calls in the park, said Kari Cobb, Yosemite public affairs officer.
One problem is that the cable system is like a one-lane road. Crowding can quadruple the time to navigate it during treacherous turns in the weather.
"Until we had the permit system, people were taking up to two hours," Cobb said. "The chances of getting caught in a storm are substantially higher if you are on the cables for two hours instead of a half-hour."
Then there are intangibles.
At peak times in the pre-permit days, the trail could become "more like a freeway than a park-like experience," said Kathryn Phillips, director of the environmental group Sierra Club California, which at press time hadn't yet take a position on the environmental assessment.
If you'd like to weigh in on the future of Half Dome, there's still time. The park service is accepting public comments on its report through March 15. For details, visit http://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectID=29443