10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit
By Michael Lanza
The first time I backpacked in Yosemite National Park, more than 25 years ago, I applied months in advance for a permit to start at the park’s most popular trailhead, Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley—and I got it. I had no idea at the time how lucky I was. I’ve since been shot down trying to get permits for popular hikes in parks like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Glacier. But I’ve also learned a few tricks for landing coveted backcountry permits in those flagship parks—which all receive far more requests for permit reservations than they can accommodate.
Following these 10 tips won’t guarantee you get the permit you want, but I’ve had pretty good success over the years using these strategies. And when you’re frustrated over being denied a permit for the hike you really wanted to take, keep this in mind: The permit system in parks imposes quotas on the number of backpackers in order to protect the landscape from overuse and give you an uncrowded, better wilderness experience. It’s a good thing.
A friendly warning: Don’t backpack without a permit. Backcountry rangers might issue you a citation for camping without a backcountry permit, which could involve a fine and a court appearance. The more immediate problem with lacking a permit for where you’re trying to camp is that all established campsites there could be occupied, leaving you the only option of camping illegally in a potentially uncomfortable spot and causing damage to a sensitive area. That’s not cool.
If I were to add an eleventh tip, it would be: When your first attempt fails, find another trip to do that year instead, and try again the next year. Wherever you go, the effort to plan and pull off that adventure will pay off.
#1: Do Your Homework
Research your route in advance. Know where you want to go and how far you intend to hike each day. Keep in mind that your party’s speed will be determined by the experience and fitness level of the slowest person, and factors like the terrain’s ruggedness, total elevation gain and loss on your route, and whether it’s at high elevations. Pick campsites that make sense so you don’t increase the likelihood of either not reaching one or getting to a site so early in the day that you’re tempted to push on farther and camp illegally.
If you sound like you know your options in the park and come across as experienced, a backcountry ranger may feel more motivated to help you plan an unforgettable trip.
#2: Know When to Apply
Especially if you’re traveling a long distance for the trip, to avoid disappointment, check the park’s website months in advance for the procedure to apply for a permit reservation (it varies from park to park). Plan on applying on the earliest date possible—especially for popular hikes in parks that attract a lot of backpackers (like any parks and trails mentioned in this story). Some parks, like Glacier and Grand Teton, provide an online listing of current availability of backcountry campsites.
Some parks still do not have an online reservation system—it’s still done in person (not an option for many people), by mail, fax, or over the phone. National Park Service plans to make an online reservation system, operated through recreation.gov, available to all national parks in 2017 have been delayed, NPS spokesman Jeffrey Olson explained to me via email. But some parks have already switched over to using recreation.gov in the past year, including Grand Teton, Katmai, and Voyageurs; and while it’s unclear when complete rollout of the online system will be accomplished, the vision appears to be that all parks will eventually either use recreation.gov or adopt their own online system.
Learn a trick from river rats: Pool your efforts. Have everyone in your party submit one or more permit applications in multiple popular parks every year for whatever dates you can potentially go; maybe one will be successful. You can always cancel any you can’t use.
Permit reservation schedule for some popular parks:
• For backpacking in the Grand Canyon, you can apply about four months prior to the month in which you want to start a trip (for example, beginning between Nov. 20 and Dec. 1 for a hike beginning in April). There is a fee based on the number of people and stock in your party.
• In Yosemite, you can apply for the free permit up to 24 weeks (168 days) before the date you want to start hiking. That means that for starting on a date in July, you should be submitting your application on the same date in January.
• In Zion, apply for a permit starting at 10 a.m. on the 5th of the month, two months prior to the month in which you want to take your trip—for example, apply on Feb. 5 for a trip in April. There is a fee based on the number of people in your party. Popular routes like The Narrows require a permit whether backpacking or dayhiking, and some one-day canyon descents, like The Subway, also require a permit that must be reserved three months in advance. Find more information at nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/wildernesspermitinfo.htm.
• At Glacier, backcountry sites can be reserved starting March 15 for groups of one to eight people, and March 1 for groups of nine to 12. There is a fee based on the number of people and backcountry nights.
• In Grand Teton, reservation applications are only accepted from the first Wednesday in January (starting at 8 a.m. Mountain Time) through May 15; after that, all permit requests are handled first-come, first-served. Popular backcountry camping zones, like those along the Teton Crest Trail, get booked up very soon after the park starts accepting reservations in January. There is a fee for each permit.
• In Great Smoky Mountains, reservations may be made up to 30 days in advance of the first night of your trip. There is a fee based on the number of people and backcountry nights.
• Rocky Mountain starts accepting permit reservations online or in person on March 1 (starting at 8 a.m. Mountain Time) for that calendar year. Phone, mail, email and fax reservations are not accepted. There’s a fee for making a reservation.
• For Canyonlands, including backpacking in the Needles District and multi-day float trips on the Green River, apply up to four months in advance of your starting date. There’s a fee for each permit.
• In Sequoia and Kings Canyon, you can apply beginning on March 1 for a permit reservation during the trailhead quota period of late May through late September. There’s a fee for each permit.
• Beginning in 2017, North Cascades offers advance reservations for popular backcountry areas, while permits for other areas are still issued only on a first-come basis no more than one day in advance.
• Mount Rainier has launched for 2017 a new online reservation system that begins accepting reservations on March 15 for trips beginning through Sept. 30; after Sept. 30, permits are only issued in person at the park. There is a fee per party.
For parks like Yosemite, Zion, Grand Teton, and Grand Canyon, find out the time of day and the first day they begin accepting applications for your trip dates, and submit your permit application immediately then. You can submit more than one permit application at the same time, but make clear if you are requesting multiple permits, rather than just submitting alternative itineraries for one permit.
#3: Plan Alternative Itineraries
Have at least one or two backup routes or date options in case you can’t get a permit for your first choice. That may be as simple as starting a day earlier or later for the same route, reversing your route’s direction, starting midweek instead of on a weekend, or choosing an entirely different, less-popular route.
At some parks, you absolutely have to prepare at least three itineraries. For instance, in Denali or Everglades, which do not accept advance reservations for permits, you will find out which backcountry zones have campsite availability when you show up at the backcountry office, so be familiar with the park map and have some ideas on where you want to go. When applying for an advance permit reservation in the Grand Canyon, include alternatives outside the park’s popular “corridor” trails (Bright Angel, South Kaibab, and North Kaibab). In Great Smoky Mountains, shelters along the Appalachian Trail are the most popular, but tenting campsites elsewhere in the park are easier to reserve. At some parks, you will be able to get useful help in selecting an itinerary from backcountry rangers over the phone or in person.
While first-time visitors to a flagship park tend to gravitate toward its best-known areas—Half Dome and the John Muir Trail in Yosemite, the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail, Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail, the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains—areas that are lesser known are often just as scenically impressive, and may give you a more rewarding experience because of a higher degree of solitude. The first time I backpacked in Rocky Mountain National Park, I went on the less-visited west side and saw waterfalls and elk and bagged a summit on the Continental Divide.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.
In the Grand Canyon, some 75 percent of people who apply for a permit to hike across the canyon on the South and North Kaibab trails are denied. But you will find it easier to get a permit for the 29-mile hike from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead, done in three to four days and quite beautiful (as you’ll see in the photos with my story about it), or the much more rugged, 15-mile hike from the New Hance Trailhead to Grandview Point.
Similarly, about 70 percent of hikers who apply for a permit to begin a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail in Yosemite get denied, but it’s much easier to score a permit to backpack in Yosemite north of Tuolumne Meadows or in the Clark Range, both of which are stunning.
If you’re determined to hike in a park, make any permit reservation, even if it’s not for your desired route. When you show up at the park to pick up your permit, you may be able to change it to a more-desirable itinerary, because more sites may be available than when you applied, due to cancellations and some sites being held for walk-ins. Ask a backcountry ranger for suggestions; they’re often happy to direct hikers to less-obvious areas. I have many times even called a popular park and gotten a ranger on the phone, and found that person very willing to help me figure out where I can hike.
#4: Think Small
Parks generally limit the number of people allowed on one permit, often to six or seven; otherwise, it’s considered a group permit, and there are far fewer campsites for large groups. Keeping your party small—as in two or three people—can increase your odds of landing a permit in parks where permit quotas are based on the number of campers in an area each night or departing from each trailhead daily.
#5: Think Outside the Box
Each park has it’s own system for issuing permits; examine it and you might think up a way to work within it to get what you want or close to it. For example, in Yosemite, permits are issued according to a maximum quota of hikers starting at each trailhead in the park. Some trailheads, like Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, are so popular it’s very difficult to get a permit to start your hike there; but you might be able to hike the same or nearly the same route by simply starting at another trailhead along it.
While it’s hard to get a permit to dayhike Yosemite’s Half Dome, it’s probably less difficult to add Half Dome to your backpacking permit because many more people apply for the dayhiking permit than do for backcountry permits. (See my Ask Me post, “Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite.”)
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