10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit

By Michael Lanza

Backpackers planning a trip in popular national parks like Yosemite, Grand Teton, Glacier, Zion, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, Great Smoky Mountains, and others have one experience in common: A high percentage of them see their backcountry permit application rejected—and many probably don’t realize why.

Countless backpacking trips over more than three decades—during which I was the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years and have now run this blog for even longer—have taught me many tricks for landing coveted permits in flagship parks, which receive far more requests than they can fill. Follow the strategies outlined below for success reserving your next national park backcountry permit.

Just in the past several years, using these strategies, I’ve gotten permits for backpacking trips on two hugely popular trails, the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier and the Teton Crest Trail (a trip I’ve taken multiple times), as well as in Yellowstone, Glacier twice, Great Smoky Mountains, Zion’s Narrows and Subway, Sequoia, both the Needles District and Maze District of Canyonlands, North Cascades, Yosemite three times (this trip, this one and this one), and Grand Canyon five times (this trip, this trip, this trip, this one, and this one)—and I’ve had just two unsuccessful applications, a previous attempt for the Wonderland Trail and one for 2021 in Glacier that was rejected for reasons I anticipated and explain in tip no. 3 (below).

And if you want to take a trip in one of those popular parks this year, the time for reserving permits is now or coming up quickly.


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A backpacker descending from Panhandle Gap on the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park.
Todd Arndt descending from Panhandle Gap on the Wonderland Trail, Mount Rainier National Park. Click photo for my Wonderland Trail e-guide.

A friendly warning: Don’t backpack without a permit. Backcountry rangers might issue you a citation for camping without a 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 no option but camping illegally in a potentially uncomfortable spot and causing damage to a sensitive area. That’s not cool and it’s not fun.

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 all of us an uncrowded, better wilderness experience. Compare the experience in many parks with places you’ve been that have no permit system and are overcrowded, and you’ll realize: Permits are a good thing.

Please tell me what you think of my tips or share your own in the comments section at the bottom of this story, and consider sharing this story. I try to respond to all comments and questions.

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A backpacker hiking over Yosemite's Clouds Rest, with Yosemite Valley in the distance.
Mark Fenton backpacking over Yosemite’s Clouds Rest, with Yosemite Valley in the distance. Click photo for my e-guide to “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

#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 slowest person, and factors like the terrain’s ruggedness, total elevation gain and loss on your route, and whether it’s at high elevations. (See the expert tips in my story “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”) Plan daily distances and pick campsites that make sense for your group, to minimize the likelihood of not reaching one and camping illegally.

See my stories “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips” and “How to Decide Where to Go Backpacking.”

See also my downloadable e-guides to backpacking trips in several popular national parks for detailed hiking itineraries, expert planning advice, on-the-ground knowledge, and tips specific to getting a permit in those parks.

Don’t have the time or expertise to plan it yourself? Want to make sure your trip is as good as it can be? Visit my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan your next great adventure.

Insider Tip

If you sound like you’ve done the research and know your options in the park—and have good experience overall and perhaps in that park—in my experience, a backcountry ranger may respect that and more readily share information with you that he or she might not share with a novice.

Backpackers on the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon.
Backpackers on the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon.

#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, which varies from park to park.

Plan on applying on the earliest date or time period possible—especially for popular hikes in parks that attract a lot of backpackers (like most parks and trails mentioned in this story). More and more parks are moving to an online permit application system that provides current availability of backcountry campsites in real time; while I still find some better than others, this represents a step forward at a time when demand is skyrocketing.

Some parks still do not have an online reservation system—it’s done in person (not an option for many people), by mail, fax, or over the phone. The National Park Service has an online reservation system, operated through recreation.gov, and it’s one that that many national parks use, an NPS spokesman explained to me via email. But he emphasized that “it is still up to the individual parks and regions to determine what to use to meet their needs.” The NPS anticipates that cost and efficiency incentives will gradually prompt more parks to use the recreation.gov system.

Insider Tip

Use a shotgun: Submit permit applications in multiple popular parks for a range of potential dates. At least one may be successful. You can always cancel any you can’t use.

A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park.
David Gordon backpacking the Teton Crest Trail. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan this or any trip you read about at my blog.

Here are the dates to apply for a backcountry permit reservation in some major and popular parks:

•    In Grand Teton, advance reservation applications can be made at recreation.gov starting at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on Jan. 10, 2023, 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 quickly after the park starts accepting reservations—often within minutes. The park allows one-third of available permits to be reserved in advance, so two-thirds are available first-come, for walk-in backpackers, no more than one day before your trip begins, from May 16 through Dec. 31. See my downloadable e-guides to the Teton Crest Trail and the best short backpacking trip in the Tetons, and my Custom Trip Planning page to see how I can help you plan that trip, as well as my stories “How to Get a Permit to Backpack the Teton Crest Trail” and “How to Backpack the Teton Crest Trail Without a Permit.” There is a $45 non-refundable fee if you obtain a permit. Find more information at nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/bcres.htm.

•    In Yosemite, wilderness permit reservations are issued based on trailhead quotas, with special rules for backpacking the John Muir Trail. Sixty percent of permit reservations are available by lottery at recreation.gov beginning at 12:01 a.m. Pacific Time on the Sunday up to 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the date you want to start hiking, with the lottery for each specific window of dates closing at 11:59 p.m. the following Saturday. For example, to start a trip between Aug. 6-12, 2023, submit your application between Feb. 19 and Feb. 25. In 2022, 40 percent of permits were made available at recreation.gov at 7 a.m. Pacific Time up to seven days in advance of a trip start date, but the park has not announced whether that will carry over for the 2023 permit season. The non-refundable permit fee is $10 for each lottery entered or a walk-in permit plus $5 per person if you get a permit. Permits issued by other national parks or forests in the Sierra for trips extending into Yosemite—for example, a John Muir Trail permit—are valid in Yosemite for the permit dates. See my downloadable e-guides to three stellar, multi-day hikes in Yosemite, including “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite,” and my stories “How to Get a Yosemite or High Sierra Wilderness Permit” and “How to Get a Last-Minute Yosemite Wilderness Permit Now.” Find more info at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm.

A backpacker hiking the John Muir Trail above Helen Lake in Kings Canyon N.P., High Sierra.
Marco Garofalo backpacking the John Muir Trail above Helen Lake in Kings Canyon N.P. Click photo to read all stories about backpacking the John Muir Trail at this blog.

•    To thru-hike the John Muir Trail southbound, apply for a permit from Yosemite National Park at recreation.gov up to 24 weeks in advance of the date you want to start hiking, entering a lottery for a permit within a specific window of dates—for example, you would apply between Feb. 26 and March 4, 2023, to start hiking anytime from Aug. 13-19, 2023. See nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/jmt.htm. Permits for hiking northbound, starting at Whitney Portal, are reserved through a lottery system at recreation.gov; apply online between Feb. 1 and March 1, with results announced March 15. To start a JMT section hike (or any hike) in the Inyo National Forest between May 1 and Nov. 1, apply at recreation.gov at 7 a.m. Pacific Time six months in advance. See my stories “10 Great John Muir Trail Section Hikes” and “How to Get a Yosemite or High Sierra Wilderness Permit” and all stories about backpacking the JMT at The Big Outside. Visit my Custom Trip Planning page to see how I can help you plan a successful and unforgettable JMT thru-hike or section hike or any other trip (as I’ve done for many other readers).

•    For the Grand Canyon, apply by 5 p.m. MST on the first of the month four months prior to the month in which you want to start a trip—for example, by Dec. 1 for a hike beginning in April—especially if seeking camps on any corridor trail. You can submit it up to 10 days prior to the first and all received before 5 p.m. MST on the first are processed in a computer-generated random order.. The application form must be submitted via fax, mail, or in person and a response can take a few weeks. The fee is $10 per permit plus $12 per person (or stock animal) per night. A limited number of last-minute permits are issued in person for the popular Bright Angel and North and South Kaibab corridor trails; that often involves waiting at least a day. See “How to Get a Permit to Backpack in the Grand Canyon” and my downloadable e-guides “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon” and “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.” Find more info at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm.

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Morning Eagle Falls and backpackers on the Piegan Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.
Backpackers on the Piegan Pass Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo for my e-guide to this trip.

•    At Glacier, as of Jan. 11, 2023, Glacier National Park has posted at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry-reservations.htm: “Changes are coming to Glacier National Park’s advance reservation system in 2023. As in prior years, there will be a modified lottery for large groups (5-12 people) using the pay.gov website on March 1. We will begin accepting reservations for all others on March 15. Complete details regarding all advance reservation changes will be available by mid-February.” Under the 2022 permit reservation system at Glacier, backcountry sites for trips starting between June 15 and Sept. 30 could be reserved in advance at pay.gov/public/form/start/74000984 starting March 15 for parties of one to eight people and March 1 (with a midnight deadline) for groups of nine to 12. But that page is no longer available at pay.gov. All applications submitted on March 15 between 12 a.m. MST and 11:59 p.m. MST were processed in randomly sequenced order. All applications received after opening day were processed in the order they are received. Approximately 70 percent of available backcountry camp availability can be reserved; about 30 percent is made available up to one day in advance of starting a trip.See “How to Get a Permit to Backpack in Glacier National Park” and my downloadable e-guides “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park” and “Backpacking the Continental Divide Trail Through Glacier National Park.” Find more information at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry-reservations.htm.

•    In Zion, apply for a permit reservation at zionpermits.nps.gov promptly at 10 a.m. Mountain time on the 5th of the month, one month prior to the month in which you want to take your trip—for example, apply on March 5 for a trip in April. Half of the backcountry campsites in Zion can be reserved—and usually get filled within minutes after becoming available each month—and half are available for walk-in permits, obtained in person no more than one day in advance. Zion’s permit-reservation system requires booking each backcountry night separately—creating the possibility of failing to get a permit for one or more nights of a multi-night trip. Apply first for popular camps, such as on the West Rim Trail, and then for mid-trip camps with less demand. If you have any night(s) without a permit on a multi-night trip, email zion_park_information@nps.gov about it. There is a fee based on the number of people in your party. See my downloadable e-guide “The Complete Guide to Backpacking The Narrows in Zion National Park.” Find more information at nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/wildernesspermitinfo.htm.

Backpackers on the High Sierra Trail above the Middle Fork Kaweah River in Sequoia National Park.
Backpackers on the High Sierra Trail above the Middle Fork Kaweah River in Sequoia National Park.

•    For Sequoia and Kings Canyon, apply for a permit reservation at recreation.gov starting at 7 a.m. Pacific Time up to six months in advance for a trip taking place during the trailhead quota period, May 26 to Sept. 23, 2023 (it’s generally the Friday before Memorial Day through the Saturday between Sept. 23-29). Permits are issued based on trailhead quotas and can be submitted up to one week in advance—although availability for popular trailheads gets booked up quickly. The park keeps a portion of each trailhead quota available for backpackers seeking a first-come permit (without a reservation) no more than a day in advance. There’s a non-refundable fee of $15 plus $5 per person (refundable if canceled) for each confirmed permit. Permits issued by other national parks or forests in the Sierra for trips extending into Sequoia or Kings Canyon—for example, a John Muir Trail or Mount Whitney permit—are valid in these parks for the permit dates. Find more information at nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/wilderness_permits.htm.

•  Mount Rainier accepts applications for permit reservations at recreation.gov/permits/4675317 for two-thirds backcountry campsites for trips beginning May 26 (May 5 for climbing camps and zones) through Oct. 9. The park holds an optional Early Access Lottery from 7 a.m. Pacific Time on Feb. 21 through 9 p.m. Pacific on March 7, 2023. Lottery participants are notified of results on March 14 and winners will receive a date and time on or after March 21 when they can apply for a multi-night backcountry itinerary reservation competing against a limited number of other applicants—improving chances of getting a Wonderland Trail permit. General reservations for all permit applicants opens at 7 a.m. Pacific Time on April 25. There is a non-refundable, $6 fee for a reservation application and a $20 fee for a permit reservation. One-third of available permits are issued first-come, in person at a park wilderness center, up to one day before starting a trip. Find more information at nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/wilderness-permit.htm and and more about the Early Access Lottery at recreationonestopprod.servicenowservices.com.

Colonnade Falls on the Bechler River in Yellowstone National Park.
Colonnade Falls on the Bechler River in Yellowstone National Park.

•    Yellowstone accepts reservations for backcountry permits during the peak backpacking season, May 15 through Nov. 5, at recreation.gov/permits/4675323. For the best chance of getting a permit for a popular backpacking trip like Bechler Canyon, enter the Early Access Lottery, which runs from 8 a.m. Mountain Time on March 1 through 11:59 p.m. Mountain Time on March 20, 2023. Lottery participants are notified of results on March 25 and winners will receive a date and time on or after April 1 when they can apply for a multi-night backcountry itinerary reservation competing against a limited number of other applicants. General reservations open at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on April 26 and end Nov. 2. There’s a $10, non-refundable fee for entering the Early Access Lottery and a non-refundable $10 fee for a reservation (not charged if you’ve already paid the lottery fee), plus a backcountry camping fee of $5/person/night. First-come permits are issued from May through October at park backcountry offices no more than two days in advance of a trip. The park says that only “a portion” (no percentage is given) of designated backcountry campsites are available for walk-in permits. See nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/backcountryhiking.htm and the park’s Backcountry Trip Planner at yellowstone.co/pdfs/bctripplanner.pdf.

•    In Great Smoky Mountains, permit reservations can be made starting at midnight Eastern Time up to 30 days in advance of a trip’s start date. There is a fee of $4 per person per night with a maximum of $20 per person and seven nights. Find more information and the permit reservation form at smokiespermits.nps.gov. Reservations and permits can also be obtained in person at the Backcountry Office at Sugarlands Visitor Center.

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•    Rocky Mountain starts accepting permit reservations at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on March 2 at recreation.gov/permits/4675320, for camping in the backcountry between May 1 and Oct. 31; reservations are accepted up to three days prior to a trip. Permits are issued based on quotas for designated individual backcountry campsites that accommodate parties up to seven people or group sites for parties of eight to 12 people. The total reservation fee is $36.  more information at at nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/wilderness-camping.htm and nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/wild_guide.htm.

•    For Canyonlands, including backpacking in the Needles District, Island in the Sky District, and Maze District and multi-day float trips on the Green River, apply for a permit reservation at recreation.gov at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on Nov. 10 for a trip beginning between March 10 and June 9, on Feb. 10 for a trip between June 10 and Sept. 9, on May 10 for a trip between Sept. 10 and Dec. 9, and Aug. 10 for a trip between Dec. 10 and March 9 in the Island or Maze. From Nov. 29 through March 9, Needles backcountry permits are only available first-come/walk-in at the Needles Visitor Center. Reservations close two days before a trip start date. There’s a non-refundable $36 permit fee plus $5 per person per night for parties up to seven people in the Needles and Island in the Sky districts and five people in The Maze District. First-come permits are issued based on availability no more than two days in advance. Find more information at nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/backcountrypermits.htm.

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A backpacker in the Bailey Range, Olympic National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking in the Bailey Range, Olympic National Park.

• At Olympic, permit reservations can be made at recreation.gov starting at 7 a.m. Pacific time on April 15 for trips in the Seven Lakes Basin/High Divide area from July 15 to Oct. 15, for trips in the Glacier Meadows/Elk Lake, Grand Valley, Royal Basin, Lake Constance, Upper Lena Lake, and Flapjack Lakes from June 15 to Oct. 15, and for trips in the rest of the park backcountry between May 15 and Oct. 15. Group size limits are 12 people and lower in some camp areas. Permits listed as walk-up can only be obtained by contacting the Wilderness Information Center. The permit fee is $6 per reservation plus $8 per person age 16 and older per night. Find more information at nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/wilderness-reservations.htm and nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/upload/OLYM-Wilderness-Trip-Planner.jpg

North Cascades accepts permit reservations at recreation.gov/permits/4675322 for backcountry camping from May 19 through Oct. 7, 2023, for up to 60 percent of backcountry campsites, while permits for the other 40 percent of backcountry campsites are issued walk-in/first-come no more than one day in advance. For the best chances of getting a permit that includes popular camps, enter the Early-Access Lottery, which opens March 6 and closes at 9 p.m. Pacific Time on March 17, 2023, for the chance to win a timeslot between March 27 and 9 p.m. Pacific Time on April 25 to make a permit reservation. General reservations open May 1, 2023. There’s a non-refundable $6 fee for the Early-Access Lottery and a $20 fee for a reserved or walk-in permit. Find more information at nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/permits.htm and in the Wilderness Trip Planner at nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/wilderness-trip-planner.htm.

•  In Everglades, backcountry permit reservations can be made online year-round 90 days in advance of your trip’s start date at recreation.gov/permits/4675314, beginning daily at 10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. There is a $21 non-refundable reservation fee plus $2 per person per night in the backcountry. Or you can get a walk-in permit at the park’s Gulf Coast Visitor Center or the Flamingo Visitor Center up to a day in advance of starting a trip. Find more information at nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/permitsandreservations.htm and more about the Early Access Lottery at recreationonestopprod.servicenowservices.com.

Insider Tip

For parks like Grand Teton, Olympic, Zion, Rocky Mountain, and Canyonlands that open permit reservations at a specific date and time (i.e., they do not have rolling reservations), start your reservation application the very minute they begin accepting them. Set up an account at the host website, like recreation.gov, and familiarize yourself with it in advance.

Hikers on the Chimney Route in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.
Pam Solon, Todd Arndt, and Jeff Wilhelm hiking the Chimney Route in the Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.

#3 Request Alternative Itineraries and Dates

If you want to take a popular trip during its peak season, this is the single most-effective strategy for maximizing your chances of getting a permit. When applying for a permit through a system that notifies you of results at a later date—as with parks like Yosemite, Glacier, and Grand Canyon—always include at least one or two alternative itineraries and a range of starting date options spanning a week or more, if possible.

When applying through a system that shows availability and processes the application in real time, as with recreation.gov for parks like Grand Teton and Canyonlands, enter the process with a range of possible start dates in mind so that you’re ready to adjust quickly if your first date choice isn’t available.

In fact, as I mentioned at the top of this story, my permit application for a 2021 trip in Glacier was rejected—and I’m sure it was mainly because I applied for just one specific itinerary that I wanted and our dates were not flexible, which greatly reduced my chances of succeeding. The rejection email the park sent me noted that they received over 2,500 backcountry permit applications just on the first day the process was open, March 15.

A view from the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
A view from the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Have 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 should submit at least two itineraries. Denali and Everglades—which have, since the pandemic, started accepting advance reservations for permits, and where permits are in high demand—familiarize yourself with the park map and submit multiple route options.

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 many parks, you can get useful help selecting an itinerary from backcountry rangers over the phone or in person.

Start planning now to take one of “The 10 Best National Park Backpacking Trips.”

A backpacker in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park. Click photo for a menu of all of my Yosemite and other e-guides.

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 and Bright Angel trails, 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.

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, or the 25-mile hike from Hermits Rest to Bright Angel Trailhead, either of which is done in three to four days and quite beautiful, or two much more rugged trips: the 15-mile hike from the New Hance Trailhead to Grandview Point and the 34.5-mile Royal Arch Loop.

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. Learn more in my downloadable e-guides to three stellar, multi-day hikes in Yosemite.

Insider Tip

If you’re determined to backpack in a park, make any permit reservation, even if not for your desired route. When you pick up your permit, ask about altering your itinerary; other campsites may be available due to cancellations and sites held for walk-ins. Ask a backcountry ranger for suggestions.

Below Forester Pass on the John Muir Trail, Sequoia National Park.
Below Forester Pass on the John Muir Trail, Sequoia National Park.

 

#4 Think Small

Keeping your party small—at two to four 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.

Parks also generally limit the number of people allowed on one standard permit, often to six to eight; otherwise, it’s considered a group permit, and there are far fewer campsites for large groups.

#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 that accesses that route.

Insider Tip

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 “Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite.”

A backpacker above Alaska Basin on the Teton Crest Trail..
David Gordon backpacking into Alaska Basin on the Teton Crest Trail.. Click photo for my Teton Crest Trail e-guide.

#6 Camp Outside the Park

National parks often border on other public lands, like national forests, where there’s often no limit on the number of backpackers—which may give you campsite options when sites or camping areas within park boundaries are full on your trip dates. For instance, Alaska Basin, along the Teton Crest Trail, is not within Grand Teton National Park; so if you can’t get a permit to spend a night on Death Canyon Shelf in the park (a gorgeous spot, by the way), Alaska Basin is a very nice alternative and may fit neatly into an itinerary for which you have the other camping zones you need inside park boundaries.

At other parks, like Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon, you can start your trip in a national forest wilderness area—which, in the High Sierra, are just as spectacular as the parks—and permits issued by those national forests are valid for continuing a multi-day hike into either park. That may increase your chances of getting a permit to backpack in the park. Keep in mind that advance permit reservations are needed in many of those national forests, too, often made months ahead of your trip dates.

Want a better backpack? See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs
and the best ultralight backpacks.

Big Spring in The Narrows, Zion National Park.
Big Spring in The Narrows, Zion National Park.

#7 Try For a Walk-In Permit

If all else fails, show up at the park at least a couple of hours before the backcountry office opens and try to get a front spot in line for a walk-in, or first-come permit. Parks reserve a certain percentage of permits for walk-in backpackers, issuing those usually no more than a day in advance. The percentage of permits set aside for walk-in backpackers varies greatly between parks. As examples, at Grand Teton keeps two-thirds of available campsites for walk-ins, , in Yosemite it’s 40 percent, and in Glacier it’s 30 percent of campsites.

Insider Tip

Start a trip from a less-popular trailhead and you might be able to land campsites in more-popular areas later in your trip.

A backpacker hiking Indian Ridge, overlooking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking Indian Ridge, overlooking Half Dome in Yosemite. Click photo to read about “Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Backpacking Trip.”

The difficulty of landing a first-come permit varies during the peak hiking seasons. Since Grand Teton sets aside two-thirds of available permits for walk-in backpackers, chances are relatively good, especially if you’re flexible about your itinerary and accept what’s available—and any Tetons hike is great. At Zion, Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Denali, and Everglades, you might not score a permit to start that same day, but Grand Canyon has a wait list—get on it. If you don’t get one of the available permits the first day you show up, you will have to return each morning until you do.

See my story “How to Get a Last-Minute, National Park Backcountry Permit.”

Get inspired. Read my book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.

A young boy backpacking the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.
My son, Nate, backpacking a section of the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.

#8 Go Outside Peak Season

I’ve always been amazed at how few backpackers there are in the Tetons in September, when, while it could snow, you can more often enjoy perfect weather. In Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon, and sometimes at Mount Rainier and Rocky Mountain, good hiking weather can extend into October. At Sequoia-Kings Canyon, the quota season for permits ends on the Saturday between Sept. 23 and 29, and at Mount Rainier the permit-reservation season ends by early October; if you have a good forecast after those dates, you can get a last-minute permit.

A family backpacking Chimney Rock Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park.
My family backpacking Chimney Rock Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park.

I backpacked Zion’s hugely popular Narrows and dayhiked The Subway (which requires a permit that’s hard to get) in early November in very pleasant weather (albeit short days) and low water (a plus); I saw a good forecast and grabbed a permit through the park’s Last Minute Drawing system for claiming unreserved campsites—a good method for getting a Zion permit if you have the flexibility to act on short notice. Good weather and hiking conditions can last into late autumn and return by late spring in Great Smoky Mountains.

In mountain parks, the most popular season extends from early or mid-July to Labor Day. In desert parks like Grand Canyon and Zion, it’s April, May, September, and October. Although summers are too hot for backpacking, watching for a good forecast and going in early spring or late fall means you will have a much easier time getting a permit.

Go where others don’t. See my “Top 5 Backpacking Trips For Scenery and Solitude.”

A backpacker at Sahale Glacier Camp in North Cascades National Park.
A backpacker at Sahale Glacier Camp in North Cascades National Park. Click on the photo to see my 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.

#9 Go to a Less-Popular Park

Okay, this tip and the next one don’t help you land a permit for a popular hike—but they do offer alternatives worth considering if you fail to get that desired permit. National parks that are off the radar of most backpackers are never a disappointment. At two of my favorite Western parks, North Cascades and Capitol Reef, walk-in permits are relatively easy to obtain (although North Cascades does accept reservations for popular areas).

See some of Yosemite’s best scenery on any of “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite.”

 
Hikers on the Chesler Park Trail, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park, Utah.
Hikers on the Chesler Park Trail, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park.

#10 Dayhike It

When all efforts to secure a permit to camp in the backcountry fail, ask yourself: Is it possible to dayhike all or part of my route or another trail in the same area?

It’s often easier to hike a long distance in one day than it is to carry a heavy backpack a shorter distance. Choose well-maintained, well-graded trails and keep your pack light, and if you have the stamina for it and can average even a reasonable 2 mph pace over a 10-hour day, you can cover 20 miles.

If I were to add an eleventh tip, it would be this: 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.

See the All Trips List and All National Park Trips page at The Big Outside.

See also all stories with my expert tips, including “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” “How to Decide Where to Go Backpacking,” A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

Tell me what you think.

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34 thoughts on “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit”

  1. This was the most informative and helpful backpacking permit information for the Grand Canyon that I’ve come across. Thank you!

    Reply
  2. This is a power and money grab by NPS. Like the forest service adventure Permit pass. They are justifying their existence. In the past, backcountry wilderness permits were free and easy to get. If I’m denied I’ll take my chances. And yes, if you can day hike 40 miles in a day you don’t need a permit, YET.

    Reply
    • I’m going to firmly disagree with most of your assertions. The National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service are not justifying their existence through fees: Their existence is justified by the existence and beauty of our national parks and forests.

      I think most people understand that charging a cost for a product or service, no matter who is selling it, does not constitute a “power and money grab.” Building and maintaining trails, managing visitors and backcountry access, paying the salaries of employees, etc., all cost a huge amount of money. You can’t walk into a store or restaurant and demand free products and service.

      If you’re suggesting all people should be able to enter national parks for free and get free backcountry permits, I’d agree, but that would require Americans paying a lot more in taxes and history has demonstrated repeatedly that Americans are far more comfortable with users paying for what they use than they are with higher taxes for everyone.

      I’m not sure what you’re suggesting about how you will “take your chances” if you don’t get a backcountry permit, but it sounds like you’re saying you’ll hike anyway, illegally, and that means you’re likely to create an added impact on natural resources by camping illegally in a place where you shouldn’t; you will also impact the experience of other people because one reason for the permit system is to control the numbers of people in the backcountry and provide some degree of solitude. Hiking without a permit only worsens the situation and adds to the costs behind backcountry permits.

      There’s an underlying selfishness and contradiction in your argument. I suggest you simply accept the reality that protecting and preserving America’s National Park System—which the writer Wallace Stegner famously called “America’s best idea,” and which remains cherished and beautiful precisely because we protect and preserve these places—costs money and we all have to pay for it somehow. And please don’t add to that cost by ignoring the rules and laws.

      Reply
  3. Thanks for this write up! Very helpful. I have a question about walk-up permits. Since many of the parks reserve half to even two-thirds of their reservations for walk-up permits, shouldn’t you in theory be able to guaranteed get one if you line up early enough? Is that a viable strategy and have you ever tried that?

    To be more specific, have you ever tried just skipping the online system entirely, booking a flight to the national park and getting to the ranger station at, say 4 a.m. on the day before the intended start date and waiting until opening time (like those iPhone people). I would get there as early as I needed to, armed with a preferred itinerary and several backups, if it was a good strategy. Are there any drawbacks to this/any way you could somehow still not get the permit you wanted?

    Reply
    • Hi Ethan,

      You ask a legitimate, good question. I have done exactly what you describe a number of times, often with success. Still, I’ve learned to plan months ahead and make a permit reservation if at all possible, for a few reasons. First of all, parks all have different rules and procedures for walk-in/first-come permits; in some parks, especially those where a high percentage of all available permits are held for walk-ins, you have a good chance of success. In other parks, you might have to return and stand in line two or even three days in a row. That strategy demands a lot of flexibility on your part and that you’ll be satisfied with whatever you get.

      Which leads to the best reason to get a reservation if you can rather than making a walk-in permit your Plan A: The trails you want to hike may be among the highest-demand trails in that park. Those permits get scooped up very fast. You may not get the trip you want.

      I’ve reached the point where I’ve seen a lot of many parks and have specific hikes/trails in mind when I’m planning a trip; I prefer the security of having a permit reservation in hand. If you’re really flexible on where you hike and the time you have, and for whatever reasons can’t plan months in advance, a walk-in permit can be a good strategy.

      Good luck.

      Reply
  4. This is a great post, thank you for taking the time to write it! I have a question though… I am planning a trip from mid-august to go backpacking with some friends and am planning on waiting in line to get permits the morning before. Is that the only permit I need? My friend said I needed a wilderness permit, but I did not know if that was separate from the backcountry camping permit. Google and the NPS website didn’t help me much when researching this too haha. Thank you so much!

    Reply
    • Hi Chloe,

      Thanks for the good question, I think that can be confusing. You didn’t mention a specific park, but U.S. national parks all set their own procedure and regulations for issuing backpacking permits and they even use different terms: some parks call them wilderness permits, some call them backcountry permits. They are the same thing and for backpacking, you need just one permit (whatever the name).

      The chances of getting a walk-in permit, as you plan to attempt, vary from park to park—they all even differ in the percentage of all permits issued that they set aside for walk-ins. This story provides some details about that for individual parks and you can search at my blog for stories about specific parks to get more details. And August is probably the highest-demand month in most parks.

      With patience and flexibility in your schedule, it’s possible to get a walk-in permit. Check out my story “How to Get a Last-Minute National Park Backcountry Permit.”

      I can give you a personalized trip plan for any trip you’ve read about at The Big Outside, including tips specific to most parks for getting a walk-in permit. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan your trip and email me at michael@thebigoutside.com if you want to discuss that before deciding on it.

      Good luck!

      Reply
    • Terrific, good luck, Melissa. I’m considering a Glacier trip this summer, too.

      You may already know, but with a subscription to The Big Outside, you get full access to all of my blog’s stories, including the trip planner section at the bottom of stories about trips, where I share details of the itinerary and other logistics and tips on planning this trip. I also have two e-guides to backpacking trips in Glacier, which offer much more detail on planning those trips than blog posts; see my E-Guides page.

      Lastly, with my Custom Trip Planning, I’ll help you plan any trip you read about at my blog.

      Thanks for the comment. Keep in touch.

      Reply
  5. This article is amazing and super detailed! I am planning on backcountry camping with a group of 5 in the Grand Tetons in a few days and don’t have a permit as of yet. The plan is to arrive early at Colton Bay Visitors Center to obtain one the day before our hike starts. (I have two alternate itineraries if we cannot obtain the first one.) My question is, do you know if all in my party need to be present to obtain the permit or can I alone go retrieve it? Thanks for any helpful info you can bestow!

    Reply
    • Hi Megan,

      Thanks for the compliment, I’m glad my tips are helpful to you. Only one person needs to pick up the permit for the party. I’m sure GTNP, like many parks, is seeing unusually high visitation and probably demand for walk-in backcountry permits. Show up at the visitor center at least a couple of hours before it opens to get a spot near the front of the line. I’ve gotten a walk-in permit at Colter Bay before by getting there very early. Bring a hot drink, a warm down jacket, a chair and a book.

      I’ve backpacked in the Tetons many times, most recently a year ago this week (an excellent time to be there). If you’d like my personal help planning your trip, including a detailed route that’s ideal for your group and tips on the best campsites, see my Custom Trip Planning page.

      Good luck!

      Reply
  6. Good ideas. In addition to applying for a National Park permit, I always plan a hike I want to do in a place that doesn’t require a permit at all so I have a backup plan if I don’t get a permit in the National Parks. I have always enjoyed your work in Backpacker.

    Reply
    • Excellent suggestion, Paula, thanks. I always do the same. In fact, I’m planning a September trip to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington, or possibly the Pasayten, because I didn’t get a permit for the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier this year (a rare denial when I follow my own strategies outlined in this story—but the Wonderland is always difficult to get). Of course, given that many parks require applying for a permits at least a few months in advance, you usually have plenty of time to come up with a backup plan. I’ve also maintained a list of trip ideas (for decades now) that I add to whenever I have a new one. I regularly turn to that list when I’m looking to plan my next trip.

      Thanks for writing and your nice compliment about my stories in Backpacker.

      Reply
  7. Glad I stumbled upon this article! Currently planning a 5 day backpacking trip through Zion covering 45 miles give or take depending on campsites (skipping the Narrows though — may visit for a day trip after the hike, may not). I’ll be applying for our permit in a couple months, thank you for the tips!

    Reply
  8. Photos are amazing of national parks. I have never done anything backcountry before. However, I really like your idea about camping outside of the park and going outside of peak season to do that. Thanks.

    Reply
  9. Hey, Michael, just seen your post and these are great tips. I have been denied access to National Parks several times in my country and I got some of these tips to see if I get a green light this time. I like going outdoors with my dog, especially in places with Bears, and that is a major hindrance. Thanks again.

    Reply
  10. Thank you for this backpacking tips Michael! I’ve been to Yellowstone and will be visiting more
    soon. Will do a list about backcountry outdoor adventure next time.

    Reply
  11. Dear Michael,

    Great advice! 3 weeks ago I applied and got a permit for 8 for July 29th to do a 4-day loop above Yosemite Valley including Cloud’s Rest, only because I decided to start up the Yosemite Falls TH, rather than Happy Isles.

    Btw, you must do Buckskin Gulch, and in the Winds, Titcomb Basin and Cirque of the Towers! And in the Weminuche Wilderness, Chicago Basin.

    Happy trails, Tom

    Reply
  12. I love visiting National Parks like Yosemite and Zion’s, but I have never done anything backcountry before. However, I really like your idea about camping outside of the park and going outside of peaks season to do that. Since August isn’t a peak season for Zion, I think that I will try and do something backcountry when I am there in a few weeks. However, what are some simple (not too long of a trek or too difficult to climb) hikes that I could do that are backcountry?

    Reply