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.

Getting a backcountry permit reservation for a popular park—think Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Mount Rainier, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain, and Great Smoky Mountains, among others—generally requires making a reservation weeks or months in advance; otherwise, your only option is to show up at the park’s backcountry office and stand in line (with your fellow, non-planning free spirits) for some of the backcountry campsites issued first-come no more than a day in advance. At the Grand Canyon, Denali, Everglades, and others, you might have to do that two or three mornings in a row. Anyone who has applied for an advance permit reservation has probably wondered why many parks require an unnecessarily time-consuming process of printing and filling out a form by hand (a lost art form that no one’s trying to find), mailing or faxing it in, and then waiting weeks for a response.

And every park has its own system and dates for reserving a permit in advance. That hodge-podge of individualized permit systems evolved because parks had different operational, resource-protection, and wilderness-management needs, Jeffrey G. Olson of the NPS Office of Communications told me in an email.

At many parks, including Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Sequoia-Kings Canyon, and Olympic, you can only submit a reservation application by mail, fax, or in person. Some popular parks, including Everglades and Denali, don’t accept advance reservations—you just show up and see what you can get. (Other parks, like North Cascades and Capitol Reef, also only issue backcountry permits in person no more than a day in advance; but so few backpackers go there that those permits aren’t hard to obtain. Still, an online, advance-reservation system would assure visitors they’re getting the hike of their choice, and would probably reduce processing time for visitors and staff.)

But this may change as soon as next year.

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Jerry Hapgood sharing the Gunsight Pass Trail with mountain goats, in Glacier National Park.
Jerry Hapgood on the Gunsight Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.

Reserving Park Permits Online

The website recreation.gov, working with the newly formed U.S. Digital Service (USDS), is now evaluating proposals for a service contract to create an online reservation system for national park backcountry permit reservations, Olson told me. It will involve “extensive use of end user feedback throughout the development process to ensure that the government is able to deliver a public service that meets their needs and expectations,” Olson wrote to me.

The recreation.gov reservation system is expected to go online in 2017, and NPS policy requires that parks consider it before other online systems, but individual parks will not be required to use the recreation.gov system, according to Olson. He told me that users will still be able to call and in some cases email backcountry rangers at parks to get answers to questions during trip planning.

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Some parks, including Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Canyonlands, Great Smoky Mountains, and as of last month, Glacier, already have an online reservation system in place. On March 15, Glacier replaced its previous advance-reservation lottery with an entirely online reservation system that uses pay.gov. I submitted a reservation application online for this year using Glacier’s new system, and it worked smoothly and quickly. Mirroring policy at most parks, Glacier will still hold about half of backcountry campsites for first-come permits issued daily.

Two weeks into the new online system, Glacier had received about 2,000 permit applications, park spokeswoman Margie Steigerwald Public Affairs wrote to me in an email. “Our staff is processing the applications more efficiently and the use of pay.gov has made payment more secure,” she wrote.

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As it happens, even before the storm and power outage that trashed Rainier’s permit reservation system, the park had been working with the University of Washington Information School on developing an entirely online system, which will launch in March 2017. (Unfortunately, it isn’t ready to launch this year.) Rainier’s Public Information Officer, Kathryn Steichen, told me the park had already considered the recreation.gov system that’s in development, but decided, with the blessing of the NPS, to create its own system.



Todd Arndt backpacking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.

At Rainier—which has seen the number of permit reservation requests that come in during the second half of March, when the park begins accepting them for the coming hiking and climbing season, leap from several hundred five years ago to more than 2,600 last year—all requests submitted this year will be returned unprocessed and fees refunded.

Rainier’s strictly first-come permit system will be something of a year-long birthday present to western Washington backpackers, who will probably see less competition for permits from out-of-staters in a park that issued 6,319 permits, representing 12,838 people, and 434 permits for Wonderland Trail thru-hikes, in 2015. Park Superintendent Randy King acknowledged in a statement: “The ability to make a reservation for popular hikes in the park, especially the high demand backcountry campsites on the Wonderland Trail, is an important visitor service that offers certainty for those planning an overnight hike. Unfortunately, we are unable to provide that service for this summer.”

So I may not get my chance to thru-hike the Wonderland Trail this year, as I’d hoped. But I’ll welcome the opportunity to submit a permit reservation request entirely online—without having to blow the dust off my old fax machine—to hike the Wonderland in 2017.

See my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit,” “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites,” a photo gallery of every national park I’ve visited, and all of my stories about national park adventures and backpacking at The Big Outside.



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2 thoughts on “Will the National Parks Bring Their Backcountry Permit System Into the Digital Era?”

  1. Great story. This is why I am a paid subscriber to your site. Of course, as is typical with the government, multiple parks will spend taxpayer money to develop their own system, instead of spending the money once for all parks. Just another reason the parks are short of money.

    • Thanks, David. I don’t know the answer to the question about whether the NPS would save money by centralizing a permit system, or the question of whether it would work better if centralized. My hope is certainly that the NPS would audit the cost and efficiency of experiments with either option, and gravitate toward whichever works the best.