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 20 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 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 (although the National Park Service has plans to modernize its permit system).
• For backpacking in the Grand Canyon, you can apply beginning on the first of the month four months prior to the month in which you want to start a trip (e.g., on Dec. 1 for a hike beginning in April).
• In Yosemite, it’s up to 24 weeks (168 days) before the date you want to start hiking.
• 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.
• At Glacier, under a new, entirely online system that began in 2016, backcountry sites can be reserved in advance starting March 15 for groups of one to eight people, and March 1 for groups of nine to 12.
• In Grand Teton, advance 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.
• In Great Smoky Mountains, reservations may be made up to 30 days in advance of the first night of your trip.
• 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.
• 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.
• Mount Rainier abandoned its previous permit-reservation system in 2016, issuing backcountry permits only first-come, up to a day in advance of a trip’s start date, and only to walk-in visitors. For 2017, the park plans to launch a new online reservation system.
For parks like Yosemite, Grand Teton, and Grand Canyon, fax in your permit application early on the first day they begin accepting applications for your trip dates. 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.
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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.
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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#6: Camp Outside the Park
National parks often border on other public lands, like national forests, where there’s 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 sites 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 camp a night or two before entering the park, perhaps increasing your chances of getting a permit in the park.
Get the right pack for you. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking”
and my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack.”
#7: Try For a Walk-In Permit
If all else fails, show up at the park at least an hour or two before the backcountry office opens and try to get a front spot in line for a first-come permit. Parks reserve a certain percentage of permits for walk-in backpackers, issuing those usually no more than a day in advance. Some parks post the current availability of backcountry campsites online; check that and prepare a hiking itinerary accordingly before you show up. Expect applying for a walk-in permit to take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, possibly longer, especially in parks like Yellowstone, Glacier, and Denali, where you’re required to watch a video about camping safely in bear country.
The difficulty of landing a first-come permit varies during the peak hiking seasons: At Zion, Yosemite, Glacier, and Grand Teton, you might get lucky and score a permit to start that day, but plan on having to wait at least one day. At Grand Canyon, Denali, and Everglades, you may not be able to start your trip until two or three days after you first start waiting in line. If you don’t get one of the available permits the first day you show up—you’ll often know within an hour—you will have to return each morning until you do.
Start a trip from a less-popular trailhead and you might be able to land campsites in more-popular areas later in your trip.
#8: Go Outside Peak Season
I’ve always been amazed at how few backpackers there are in the Tetons in September, when you can 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. I backpacked Zion’s hugely popular Narrows (lead photo at top of story) and dayhiked The Subway (which requires a permit that’s hard to get) in early November in very pleasant weather (if short days) and low water (a plus); I saw a good forecast and grabbed a last-minute permit without a problem. 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.
Knock off one of America’s classic hikes. See “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips.”
#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, no reservation is needed (or accepted); you just show up at the backcountry office the morning you want to start hiking and get a permit.
Go where others don’t. See my “Top 5 Backpacking Trips For Scenery and Solitude.”
#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 can average even a modest 2 mph pace over a 10-hour day, you can cover 20 miles. (See my stories “Cranking Out Big Days: Ramp Up Your Hikes and Trail Runs,” “8 Great Big Dayhikes in the Tetons,” “Ask Me: Can You Recommend a Big Dayhike in the Grand Canyon,” and “5 Perfect (Big) Days in Glacier National Park,” and all of my stories about ultra-hiking at The Big Outside.)
NOTE: See also my related Ask Me posts, “How to Grab a Hard-to-Get Permit For a Popular Backpacking Trip Like Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail,” and “Can You Suggest a Backpacking Trip in the Tetons That Won’t Be Hard to Get a Permit For?” And see all of my stories about national park adventures at The Big Outside.
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