Olympic National Park

Mount Rainier National Park.

Will the National Parks Bring Their Backcountry Permit System Into the Digital Era?

By Michael Lanza

Last month, a storm caused a power outage at Mount Rainier National Park during a two-week period when rangers received about 2,000 requests from backpackers and climbers for backcountry permit reservations for 2016. (One of those requests, coincidentally, was mine.) The outage sparked a “critical failure” of the park’s reservation system, forcing management to abandon it and announce they would issue permits only first-come, first-served for all of 2016—not convenient for anyone traveling a distance to explore Rainier’s backcountry or thru-hike the Wonderland Trail.

Rainier’s crisis throws a spotlight on a larger dilemma facing the National Park Service: In an age when we can swipe and click to purchase almost any product or service, many national parks have plodded into the Digital Era with an archaically 20th-century system for reserving and issuing permits to camp in the backcountry—a system involving snail mail and fax machines. (If you’re not old enough to remember the 1980s and 1990s, Google “fax” on your smartphone.) At some parks, you must actually still show up in person, stand in line, and hope for the best.

Finally, though, it appears the national parks are making a bold leap into the 21st century, a change that should make exploring the backcountry of most parks—or at least getting permission to do so—much easier.

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Young kids backpacking through Spray Park in Mount Rainier National Park.

Photo Gallery: 11 National Parks, One Year

By Michael Lanza

Backpacking in the Grand Canyon, Glacier, Olympic, Rocky Mountain, North Cascades, and Mount Rainier (lead photo, above) national parks. Hiking to Yosemite’s waterfalls. Paddling the Everglades and sea kayaking Glacier Bay. Rock climbing in Joshua Tree, and cross-country skiing in Yellowstone. In one magical year, we took 11 national park adventures with our kids, sharing experiences that expanded their understanding of their world, times filled with joy and wonder.

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My daughter Alex on the trail to Spider Gap, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington.

Ask Me: Backpacking Trips With an 11-Year-Old

Hi Michael,

My fifth-grade daughter and I spend most of our summer playing and hiking. We are upping our backpacking mileage each year and hope to be able to do the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier when she is 12. For this summer, we are looking to do a hike of about 60 to 75 miles. One possibility is the Pacific Crest Trail between Highway 50 and 80. It’s a beautiful route I’ve taken before. But I’m very open to other ideas. She’s tough and has built up to solid 10-mile days. Any help or direction you could give me would be great. I envy the time you have been able to spend in the wild.

Adam
Sacramento, CA

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Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park.

Ask Me: Which National Parks Should My Family Visit on a Cross-Country Trip?

Hi Mike,

We are planning a trip across the country in July to Seattle/Tacoma. We have six kids (ages one to 12). We’re planning to drive all the way across and back in about a month. There are lots of places we’d like to experience, but we don’t want to just spend 30 nights in 30 different places, so we are planning spend two to three nights in the most interesting places and four nights in and around Yellowstone. We aren’t campers, don’t boat/canoe, and while we enjoy hikes with the kids, anything more than a few miles (or less if there is significant elevation change) is challenging. Given your experience and all of our constraints, I was curious which parks/areas you might recommend we visit (vs. better to visit later when the kids are older and some of those constraints are removed).

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Hikers on Dog Mountain, Columbia Gorge, Washington.

Photo Gallery: My Best Wildflower Pictures

By Michael Lanza

On a sunny, spring afternoon, we hiked through lush, quiet forest up the steep Dog Mountain Trail, on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. After climbing more than 2,000 vertical feet (the trail ascends a calf-pumping 2,800 feet in three miles to the summit), we broke out of the shade of trees onto slopes carpeted with one of the best wildflower displays you’ll see anywhere. Climbing higher still, we got sweeping views across the gorge to the snow and glaciers of Mount Hood. But the wildflowers stole the show.

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