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.