California Gold Rush: Stake Your Claim at Yosemite and Other Popular California Places
Tips for striking it rich with a rare permit or reservation at a prime destination
Since the Gold Rush of 1849, California remains high on many an adventurer’s bucket list of travel destinations. Today’s adventurers dream not of gold, but of striking it rich with a campsite in Yosemite Valley’s Lower, North or Upper Pines and other prime California treasures.
On Recreation.gov, nothing—and we mean nothing—creates the demand that Yosemite Valley campsite reservations do, but other “gold strikes” include a permit for the Yosemite Cables on Half Dome, a permit to scale America’s tallest peak outside of Alaska—Mount Whitney in California, or camping at Pinecrest Lake, Serrano on Big Bear Lake or Nevada Beach on Lake Tahoe.
These places are special because—like gold—they are rare. Access to these popular sites is limited specifically to protect them for future generations.
To strike it rich, first understand and follow these Five Rules of Prospecting. If you are not one of the lucky ones, be sure to read our article 10 Yosemite Valley Alternatives.
The Five Rules of Prospecting:
Rule #1: Book on-line!
It is easier and quicker and you greatly increase your odds by booking on the web. At Yosemite, thousands of would-be campers compete for about 500 campsites, and 93 percent of the successful reservations are booked on-line. Lucky campers book 75 percent of the campsites within the first half hour after they go on sale (or less)! Would-be climbers of the Cables on Half Dome might compete with as many as 500 applicants for just 50 permits on a given day. So…if you don’t have a computer and a high speed internet connection, make friends with someone who does!
Rule #2: Know the on-sale dates!
Know the booking window for the campground, permit or lottery you’re competing for. Most campgrounds are available six months before your arrival date, so on January 4 you can book an arrival date of July 4. You can book group sites up to 12 months in advance.
- Yosemite National Park is the notable exception! Yosemite releases a new block of campsites on the 15th of each month at 7:00 a.m. Pacific or 10:00 a.m. Eastern (make sure to do the math for your time zone). Review the Yosemite National Park Campground Reservation Dates for a detailed explanation of Yosemite’s block window.
Rule #3: Prepare in advance!
If you don’t have one already, create your login and password and test it long before the on-sale date. Research the facility and choose what you want, but be sure to have an alternate in mind.
- TRY THIS: If you are new to Recreation.gov, practice speed drills and get comfortable with the site. Get acquainted with the Date Range Availability tab, it’s the best “at a glance” view of what sites are available. Play around with adding a campsite in your shopping cart. Abandon your cart. Remove the site you locked. Watch the timer go down. How fast can you get to the “book these dates” link?
- TRY THIS: If you can, select travel dates that do not include a Friday and Saturday. Instead of a week-long stay, consider a mid-week or Sunday through Thursday stay in Yosemite Valley or visit during the shoulder seasons (April and October). Consider climbing the Cables on Half Dome on a Sunday or Tuesday, or if you’re climbing Mt. Whitney, choose a less popular (but perhaps longer) route to the top.
- TRY THIS: Synchronize your computer clock so that you are poised to refresh at exactly the on-sale time. Check the National Institute of Standards and Technology Internet Time Service.
Rule #4: Be ready on the day!
On the day of the sale, log in well before the sale begins. Bring up the facility or permit details page and be ready to “Book These Dates” the moment the on-sale begins. Have your credit card ready and your alternate campsites in mind. Refresh your page at exactly 7:00 a.m. Pacific or 10:00 a.m. Eastern (and remember to do the time zone math ahead of time!).
Rule #5: Do not hesitate!
Seconds make the difference between getting your reservation or not. Once you click “Book These Dates” the site is locked in your cart for 15 minutes to give you time to complete your reservation. If you do not complete the transaction after 15 minutes, the campsite or permit is released back into inventory. If your computer freezes, the site remains in your cart. Simply log back in, access your cart and complete the reservation.
Last but not least, if you don’t strike it rich this time, don’t bet on a cancellation (they are rare), but don’t give up either! Keep trying or try again next year.