(Spoiler Alert: It Has Changed for 2024)
By Michael Lanza
First-time backpackers in the Grand Canyon quickly absorb two lessons about this one-of-a-kind place. Foremost, the canyon’s infinite vistas and deceptive scale, the beauty of desert oases and wildflower blooms, the peacefulness and quietude of some of the best wilderness campsites you will ever enjoy—all of these qualities will hook you forever.
And you learn how difficult it can be to get a permit for backpacking there.
In fact, so many people apply for Grand Canyon backcountry permits that a high percentage of them get denied every year—including up to 75 percent of applications for the three most popular trails, the Bright Angel and South and North Kaibab.
This story explains the somewhat complex, multi-step process for obtaining a Grand Canyon backcountry permit reservation or getting a walk-in permit and shares strategies I have used to secure permits for several multi-day hikes in the Big Ditch—which I’ve revisited many times over more than three decades of backpacking, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
Starting with trip dates in 2024, Grand Canyon National Park is abandoning its old permit system, which required faxing in an application form, and issuing backcountry permit reservations through a monthly early-access lottery at recreation.gov/permits/4675337 conducted four months in advance of the month you want to hike. See more details on how that works below.
Click on any photo to read about that trip. Please share your questions or experiences about backpacking in the Grand Canyon in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
Do your Grand Canyon hike right with these expert e-guides:
“The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon”
“The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon”
“The Complete Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim.”
Decide Where You Want to Hike
First step: Research your route in advance, including how far you will hike each day and where you’d like to camp. A Grand Canyon permit requires specifying a camp location for each night, identified by the location name (such as a creek) and either a specific campground code or backcountry camping zone code shown on the interactive map at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/upload/useAreaMap.pdf.
Keep in mind that many of the canyon’s trails are rugged and feature significant elevation gain and loss; many people find their hiking speed slower here than in other places, especially anytime you have to carry extra water weight, and hot days can force you to hike very early and late and hunker down in shade during the heat of the day. Plan daily distances that make sense for your group.
Know where to find water sources, which are scarce and sometimes seasonal.
Find descriptions of the park’s Backcountry Trails and Use Areas, including water sources, at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/campsite-information.htm.
See all stories about backpacking in the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside (which require a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full, including my planning tips for each trip) and check out my expert e-guides to some of America’s best backpacking trips, including “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon” and “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.” Those contain detailed hiking itineraries, expert planning and gear advice, on-the-ground knowledge, tips specific to getting a permit, and myriad other details relevant to taking a trip into the canyon.
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When and How to Get a Permit
Starting with all 2024 permits, Grand Canyon National Park is issuing about 80 percent of backcountry permits through a monthly, randomized early-access lottery at recreation.gov/permits/4675337.
One important detail remains unchanged under the new permit system: For the best chances of obtaining a permit reservation—especially for camps on any corridor trail (the Bright Angel or South or North Kaibab)—be ready to begin the permit process four months prior to the month in which you want to start a trip.
Apply for the early-access lottery anytime during a two-week period that ends on the first of the month four months in advance of the month you’d like to hike—for example, between Nov. 16 and Dec. 1 for a trip anytime in April and between May 16 and June 1 for October. See the chart showing dates to apply for a permit at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm.
The lottery only determines who gets awarded an early-access time to apply for a permit reservation; you won’t include any hiking itinerary details in your lottery entry. Every individual can enter only once per monthly lottery period, but all members of a party can enter it and see who obtains the best timeslot—and if multiple group members obtain a timeslot, all of them could try to reserve a permit.
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Held on the 2nd of every month, the lottery awards up to 750 applicants a date and time between the 4th and 17th of the month following the lottery period when they can log in to their recreation.gov account and attempt to reserve one permit for a specific itinerary with designated campsites each night.
Each timeslot includes no more than 15 applicants.
People with earlier lottery timeslots will obviously see more camping availability than those who draw a later time. You can check availability prior to your assigned date and time—a wise thing to do, to know what’s already not available, saving you time when you begin the application—but you cannot make a reservation until your timeslot. You can make a permit reservation anytime after your timeslot until the 19th of the month.
Key detail: The park expects that most of the 750 applicants awarded a lottery timeslot will get a permit—although popular camps and dates will definitely get reserved quickly.
After the Grand Canyon, hike the other nine of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
Tip: The park has far more backcountry campsites for “small” groups of up to six people than “large” groups of seven to 11 people. Keeping your group to no more than six increases your chances of obtaining a permit.
When you apply for the permit reservation, recreation.gov shows backcountry campsite availability and processes reservations in real time, meaning that, if you succeed in assembling an itinerary with camps every night, you will immediately confirm and pay for a permit reservation. Under the previous system, where rangers manually processed thousands of faxed applications, applicants had to wait up to a month to learn whether they got a reservation.
The fee is $10 per permit plus $15 per person per night below the rim and $4 per person per night for backcountry areas above the rim. The fee for entering the early-access lottery is $10 and that is applied to the permit cost if you succeed in making a reservation. Refunds are granted for partial or full permit cancellations made in recreation.gov before you print the backcountry permit (through recreation.gov) and at least 30 days before the permit start date.
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Second and Third Chances to Get a Permit
There’s a second phase of the permit process that creates another earlier access opportunity. Lottery applicants who are not among the 750 awarded a timeslot can apply for a reservation before they are opened to the public, beginning around the 20th of the month until the end of the month.
Finally, on the first day of the subsequent month—for example, Jan. 1 for April start dates and July 1 for October dates—reservations will open for the public to check availability and reserve any remaining backcountry campsite spaces.
Given the sky-high demand for permits during the peak seasons of March through May and mid-September through mid-November—and the fact that the park issues 80 percent of available permits through reservations, a higher percentage than most parks—the early-access lottery will unquestionably offer the best chance of scoring a backcountry permit.
The lottery also eliminates the frantic scramble for permits that occurs with reservation systems that open to everyone at the same time on one day. In parks with that type of system, virtually all backcountry campsites get vacuumed up within minutes for the entire year, leaving countless people frustrated over seeing their chosen campsites suddenly become unavailable.
Find more information at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit-questions.htm.
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Plan Alternative Itineraries and Dates
As I suggest in my “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit,” if you want to backpack in the Grand Canyon during its peak seasons of spring and fall, begin your permit application with at least two itinerary options and a range of starting dates, in case your first itinerary and date choice are unavailable. Consider starting your hike midweek instead of on a weekend and selecting a route that’s less popular, remote, or difficult as your first or second choice.
Under the Grand Canyon’s previous permit system, some 75 percent of people who applied for a permit to backpack some combination the Bright Angel and South and North Kaibab trails were denied; it’s hard to imagine demand for those trails changing.
But you will find it easier to get a permit for the 29-mile hike from the South Kaibab Trailhead to Grandview Point, the 25-mile hike from Hermits Rest to Bright Angel Trailhead, or any much more rugged and remote trip, like the 15-mile hike from New Hance Trailhead to Grandview Point, the 25-mile Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop, the 34.5-mile Royal Arch Loop, the Clear Creek Trail or the off-trail Utah Flats Route, or any of the itineraries possible along the route I write about in my story “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”
Click here now to plan your next great backpacking adventure using my expert e-guides.
Try For a Walk-in Permit
You didn’t make a permit reservation and you’re trying to plan a last-minute backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon? Although not easy to obtain, the park does set aside about 20 percent of available backcountry campsites for walk-in permits and issue a limited number of walk-in permits specifically for camping at Havasupai Gardens (formerly Indian Garden), Bright Angel, and/or Cottonwood campgrounds along the popular Bright Angel and North Kaibab corridor trails.
Note that the park doesn’t issue walk-in permits that include all three of those backcountry campgrounds. A walk-in permit on the North Rim gives you priority access to Cottonwood Campground but you will likely not be able to obtain a permit for Havasupai Gardens. Backpackers obtaining a permit on the South Rim will have priority access to Havasupai Gardens and likely not be able to obtain a permit for Cottonwood. Permits issued from either rim allow access to Bright Angel Campground.
That means that if you want to attempt a rim-to-rim hike over two or three days, you’ll have to get a walk-in permit that includes Bright Angel campground and/or Cottonwood and may need to possess the stamina (and a light-enough pack) for at least one big day hiking from Bright Angel to either the South Rim or the North Rim.
Walk-in permits are issued only in person, no more than one day in advance, at both the South Rim (open year-round) and the North Rim (open May 15 to Oct. 31) Backcountry Information Center (BIC). The hours for both are 8 a.m. to noon and 1-5 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, including holidays. You might not obtain a last-minute permit the first time you visit a Backcountry Information Center; you may have to return the next day. Use the wait list to guarantee your position in line.
And there may be more than 20 percent of backcountry campsites available at any given time due to canceled permit reservations. Cancellations must be made at least 30 days before the permit date to get a refund, hopefully resulting in fewer permit holders canceling at the last minute and giving permit seekers expanded opportunity to claim cancelled camps and dates. Some 10 percent or more of permit reservations get canceled in a given year, according to these park statistics.
See my e-guides “The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon” and “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon,” all stories about backpacking in the Grand Canyon at The Big Outside, and “How to Get a Last-Minute, National Park Backcountry Permit.”
See also my story “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips” and all stories with expert backpacking and outdoor skills tips at The Big Outside.