By Michael Lanza
You really want to backpack in Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Teton, Zion, Rocky Mountain, Mount Rainier, or another hugely popular national park this summer—but you didn’t apply to reserve a wilderness permit months ago? Well, you’re in luck: Most parks have a system for getting a last-minute permit. It requires jumping through some hoops, good timing, and a bit of luck, but many backpackers get permits without a reservation every year.
Here are the tricks I’ve learned from numerous backpacking trips to major national parks over the past three decades. Follow them and you just might go backpacking this year in a classic national park.
Most parks offer walk-in, or first-come backcountry or wilderness permits—which is simply a permit that you obtain, without a reservation, based on availability, no more than a day in advance of starting a multi-day hike. The number of walk-in permits varies between parks, and availability is affected by advance permit reservations. But in general, parks set aside anywhere from 40 percent (in Yosemite) to half (in Glacier) and even two-thirds (in Grand Teton) of available permits or campsites to be issued no more than a day in advance.
For starters, go to any park’s website and find out its procedure for obtaining a walk-in permit—especially where and when to do so. Demand for them can vary even in the most-popular parks. Check whether the park has any other option for acquiring a permit on short notice, such as Zion’s Last Minute Drawing online.
Beyond that first step, five strategies are key to snagging a walk-in backcountry permit.
#1 Go When Most People Don’t
Early or mid-July through Labor Day is the peak hiking season in most mountain ranges. Naturally, summer is when competition for walk-in permits is stiffest.
After Labor Day, though, the number of people seeking backcountry permits drops off dramatically in many parks, especially in the higher mountains of the West—partly because the summer vacation season has ended for many people, and partly because snow can fall in September.
But I’ve backpacked (and dayhiked) many times in September and even October in Western parks, including Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Teton, North Cascades, Mount Rainier, Olympic, and Yellowstone, in glorious, late-summer weather, with sunny, mild days and nights in the 30s to 40s Fahrenheit—although you should prepare for lows below freezing—and seen surprisingly few people on the trails, considering how pleasant it often is out there then.
I’ve long been in the habit of planning a roughly weeklong backpacking trip in the mountains for every September—it’s my favorite month because the weather is often good, bugs are generally gone, and permits are easier to get.
Backpacking in September or October certainly makes it even more imperative that you prepare for any weather, and accept the chance that a severe storm could force you to cancel your plans—or to simply go somewhere else. Still, in my experience, even when planning far enough in advance to book flights to a distant park—and thus, too early to know what to expect for weather—my September trips have had great weather most of the time.
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#2 Go Where Most People Don’t
In many popular national parks, a few trails, trailheads, and areas attract the vast bulk of demand by backpackers. Examples include Yosemite’s core between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows (including Half Dome and the northernmost section of the John Muir Trail); the Teton Crest Trail and Cascade and Paintbrush canyons in Grand Teton; the Highline Trail in Glacier; the Narrows in Zion; the Wonderland Trail at Mount Rainier; the High Sierra Trail in Sequoia; the High Divide-Seven Lakes Loop in Olympic; and the Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab, North Kaibab, and Bright Angel trails.
But in those same parks, vast areas—sometimes more remote and difficult to reach, but sometimes simply not as well known—receive far less demand, making it easier to secure a permit for them (whether walk-in or advance). With a park that provides current availability of backcountry campsites online, you can see which areas are the most popular, and avoid them, or at least have alternate hiking itineraries ready if you don’t get a popular hike (see tip no. 3).
Gear up smartly for your trips. See a menu of all my reviews and expert buying tips at my Gear Reviews page.
See my All National Park Trips page for a lengthy list of stories, many of them about backpacking trips that are less well-known. A few of my favorites include:
• Two hikes in Yosemite, a 65-miler south of Tuolumne Meadows and an 87-mile route (which can be shortened) north of Tuolumne. See also my downloadable e-guides to the 65-mile trip (which I consider the best backpacking trip in Yosemite) and the 87-mile trip in Yosemite; each e-guide describes alternative itineraries as well.
• The Southern Olympic Coast.
• Bowman Lake to Kintla Lake and other options in Glacier.
• The Northern Loop at Mount Rainier.
• A 40-mile loop from the Mineral King area in Sequoia.
• The Kolob Canyons in Zion.
• Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead, Hermits Rest to the Bright Angel Trail, the Royal Arch Loop, or the New Hance Trail to Grandview Point in the Grand Canyon.
Along those lines, there are national parks, like North Cascades and Capitol Reef, many parks in the Midwest, and nearly every park in Alaska, where backpacker demand remains so low that walk-in permits are easy to obtain. These parks have scenery just as beautiful as the flagship parks at the top of your list. If you don’t have flexibility in your vacation dates and don’t want to risk having to wait more than a day for a walk-in permit, go to one of these parks for an adventure just as memorable as any other.
Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.
#3 Keep Your Group Small
None of us wants to leave out our favorite backpacking partners, but the hard truth is that the larger your group, the harder it will be to get a permit, whether a walk-in a day in advance or a permit reservation months in advance. This simple statistical reality is based on availability—there are a limited number of backcountry campsites available for walk-in permits, and some of those sites may only have space for two or four people. Plus, many parks define backpacking parties larger than six or seven people as “groups” that require a larger campsite, and so-called group sites are far less numerous than standard backcountry campsites.
Keep your party to four or less, and you will significantly improve your chances of getting a last-minute backcountry permit—possibly even for a popular route like the trip I consider the best first backpacking trip in Yosemite.
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#4 Get in Line Early
A walk-in permit is exactly what it sounds like: You show up, get in line, and see what’s available when you reach the front of the line. At any popular park, that line starts forming at least an hour and often more than two hours before the backcountry center opens. Get up really early and be first in line—in popular parks, getting in line two hours before the office opens is smart. Dress warmly and bring a book, a hot drink, food, a folding chair, and a headlamp, and make sure you know in advance where to go so you don’t wander around in the dark.
#5 Have a Few Trip Options Ready
Come prepared with multiple hiking-itinerary options—you may not get your first choice. That can be as simple as reversing your route or having alternative campsite options for some nights, but should include, if possible, alternative routes. Ask a backcountry ranger’s advice on where to go—that person may point you to a great hike that you hadn’t considered and which is available for your dates.
Be prepared to start hiking either that day or the next day; or, if nothing’s available, to return early the next morning to get in line again for a permit starting the following day (although you can usually start your trip by the next day, except in parks with the highest demand for popular hikes, like Grand Canyon and Zion).
One Final Tip
Next year, plan months in advance. Mark your calendar now to remind yourself. See my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit” for my top insights, based on many trips in major parks over the past three decades. Apply as soon as a park starts accepting applications, and submit them in two or three parks.
With luck, you’ll get at least one permit, and if you get more than one, well, that’s the kind of problem a lot of people would like to have.