Yosemite Permits Aren't Making Half Dome Safer

The logic behind requiring permits on Yosemite's famed Half Dome was sound: smaller crowds equals fewer accidents. In this case, the opposite is true.

Yosemite National Park instituted permits to make Half Dome safer. The opposite happened. (Photo: Anacleto Rapping/Getty)
Yosemite National Park instituted permits to make Half Dome safer. The opposite happened.

The hope behind Yosemite’s Half Dome permit system was that it would lead to fewer hiker accidents and deaths. But since the park began issuing permits in 2010, the number of incidents per person has effectively doubled, according to a new study by the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine.

The classic 14.2-mile round-trip trail rewards hikers with expansive views of Yosemite Valley. It also has a reputation for severe overcrowding and a high level of risk due to bottlenecking at the start of the cable handrails, rain, and hiker inexperience. These risks are known to be even higher on the weekends. From 2005 to 2009, eight people died on the trail, several by slipping and falling. The crowds were often cited as the main cause of the accident. Before the park required permits, there could be as many as 1,200 hikers on Half Dome on peak days. 

These incidents prompted Yosemite to institute the random lottery permitting system for hikers interested in scaling the cable handrail-supported portion of the trail. The current permitting system limits the number of hikers by as much as 66 percent.

But when researchers analyzed search and rescue data on and around Half Dome five years before and five years after the park began issuing permits, they found no significant decrease in the number of deaths and injuries, suggesting overcrowding may not be the main factor for hiker safety on Half Dome. The most recent death on the trail occurred in May 2018, with wet conditions implicated as the cause.

The report speculates that the Park’s promotion of the permit system could attract too broad of an audience, including those with less awareness of the fitness and experience levels required to complete Half Dome safely. In 2014, for example, more than 30,000 people applied for trail permits, and the Sierra Club estimates that only 20 percent of total applicants reached the summit. The researchers recommend close observation of fatal and nonfatal accident trends on Half Dome over the next decade.