How to Get a Last-Minute, National Park Backcountry Permit
By Michael Lanza
You really want to backpack in Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Teton, Zion, Rocky Mountain, 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. The bad news? It requires jumping through some hoops, good timing, and a bit of luck. 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 popular 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.
Beyond that first step, three strategies are key to snagging a walk-in backcountry permit.
No. 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, Grand Teton, North Cascades, Mount Rainier, Olympic, and Yellowstone, in glorious, Indian-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 is out there then. In fact, I’ve long been in the habit of planning a roughly weeklong backpacking trip for every September—it’s my favorite month because the weather is often good, bugs are generally gone, and permits are easier to get. (In fact, I have a permit reservation for a trip this September in Glacier, a trip I’ll write about later; for now, see all of my stories about trips in Glacier National Park on my All National Park Trips page.)
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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No. 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 three “corridor” trails, the South Kaibab, North Kaibab, and Bright Angel.
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).
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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 86-mile route (which can be shortened) north of Tuolumne.
• The Southern Olympic Coast.
• 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, 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.
No. 3 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 two hours before the backcountry desk opens. Get up really early and be first in line. (Dress very warmly and bring a book, a hot drink, food, a folding chair, and a headlamp if it’s dark.)
Come prepared with multiple hiking-itinerary options—you may not get your first choice—and ask a backcountry ranger’s advice on where to go. Be prepared to start hiking either that day or the next day; or, if nothing’s available, to have to return the next day 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).
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My last tip for you: 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, and if you get more than one, well, that’s the kind of problem a lot of people would like to have.
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See also these stories at The Big Outside:
“Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites”
“My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips”
“Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking”
“10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit”
“The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun”
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