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Need a Permit in 2013? Now is the Time to Plan

It’s not just spring that's sprung. It’s permit season, too.

Thinking of exploring some popular backcountry place this spring or summer? You’ll likely need a permit, and it would be wise to apply for it soon.

Example: Mount Rainier National Park’s beautiful but way-popular Wonderland Trail. For 2013 trips, the first time period the park will accept reservation applications for campsite permits is March 15-April 1.

Dropping an application into that first wave of requests can be a big plus. As I pointed out in a recent Seattle Times article about hiking the famed 93-mile trail, early applications will be the first to get assigned reservations by park personnel.


Flowers on Mount Rainier's east side on the Wonderland Trail. (Photo: T.D. Wood)

Each park runs its permit system according to its own rules. At Rainier, reservation applications received between March 15 and April 1 will be processed in random order. Applications arriving after April 1 will get treated on a first-come, first-served basis.

Applying before April 1 boosts your chances of getting your preferred campsites on your first-choice dates before sites fill up. Not every campsite can be reserved; a few are saved for walk-in backpackers, which is a nice thing for a procrastinating local such as me. (Note: Nightly camping permits are free—thank you, Rainier—but reservations involve a $20 fee.)

Climbers: If you’re aiming to climb Rainier, this application process applies to climbing permits as well.

Some Permitting Tips to Share

Lotteries for backcountry permits have become an unavoidable fact of outdoor life and can be a teeth-grinding experience. But they keep popular camps from being overrun by too many people, so they contribute to a better wilderness experience if you’re one of the fortunate few to be holding a permit.

The lesson I've learned: If you must play the game, it’s smart to play it knowledgably. Here’s one hiker’s advice:

1. Think now about faraway U.S. outdoor destinations you would like to explore in 2013.

2. Research to learn all you can about their permit requirements, reservations, lotteries and application dates. Read all the fine print.

3. Decide if you’re serious about making the trip. If so, pick some dates (and some alternate dates) and take action based on what you learn about your chosen destination. Every park and wilderness area, it seems, does things a little differently.

Below is a randomly selected list of parks and wilderness areas that have permit quotas and early-reservation systems. It is by no means a comprehensive list. It’s just a random sampler intended to show the variety of procedures and fees you will encounter from park to park.

So: You should closely investigate the permit regulations of any outdoor destination that’s on your to-visit list to determine your best individual strategy. The list below offers a glimpse of how early birds can get a jump on scoring a permit in 2013.

Half Dome day-hiker climbs in Yosemite: Applications ($4.50) accepted March 1-March 31; permits (an additional $8 per person) will be randomly assigned, 225 per day for day hikers and 75 for backpackers, after April 1.

Refer to past REI Blog posts for details on this year's process and a lottery created last year for short-notice permit applications. Plus: Yosemite this week released charts showing the most-requested dates in 2012 and so far in the 2013 process. Saturdays account for 36% of requests; Wednesdays and Thursdays, just 9% each.

Yosemite wilderness permits (free) can be reserved in advance up to 24 weeks prior to a trip’s start date as long as wilderness office is open, which is from late November through October.

Sequoia/Kings Canyon makes three-quarters of its wilderness permits ($15 per trip) available for reservation during the park’s quota period (May 24-Sept. 28). Applications for reservations are accepted March 1-Sept. 14.

Grand Canyon wilderness permits ($10 per permit, plus $5 per person per night) can be requested year-round, but no more than 4 months before your trip's start date.


Backpacking season in Utah and Arizona starts early. (REI photo: Damon Parrish)

Canyonlands wilderness permits ($30 per trip for parties of 1-12 people) can be acquired year-round with or without a reservation. Reservations must be requested at least 2 weeks in advance.

Grand Teton wilderness permits (free; $25 for reserving a permit for parties of 1-12 people) can be requested in advance of the summer season Jan. 5-May 15.

Glacier wilderness permits ($30 per trip for parties of 1-12 people) can be requested in a lottery Jan. 1-April 15; lottery processing begins April 16. Reservation applications received April 16 and beyond will be processed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Olympic wilderness permits ($5 per permit, $2 per night) can be reserved starting April 1. Note: Permit applications received before April 1 will be discarded.

Great Smoky Mountains wilderness permits ($4 per person per night, max of $20) for backcountry camping now require reservations—new for 2013., beyond handling Half Dome and Mount Whitney climbing permits, is the place to acquire backcountry permits for 11 popular wilderness zones managed by the U.S. Forest Service (California’s Desolation Wilderness, for example, and the Enchantments in Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness) and some BLM sites.

Some permit lotteries have already come and gone. The popular, commercially managed High Sierra Camp system in Yosemite conducted its lottery Sept 1-Nov. 1 in 2012. The lottery for 2013 day hiking permits to the summit of 14,505-foot Mount Whitney took place Feb. 1-March 15 via

That site often posts updates on permit availability after lotteries close. For example, some post-lottery permits will be available for the Enchantments starting April 1.

One way to sidestep the permit process: Join an REI Adventures trip to a national park or North American wilderness area. Trip guides acquire all the permits needed.


Springtime trip planning can pay off big time in summer. (REI photo: Damon Parrish)

Posted on at 8:30 AM

Tagged:, national parks and permits

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Jerry DeCapua

Thank you for this post. Not enough coverage on this important topic.

Alternatively, some areas do provide a post-lottery permit scenario. For instance, Mt Whitney will show a calendar of remaining availabilities after April 1. The calendar is "dynamic" in that availabilities for any given day can change up or down on an ongoing basis. All the available dates and remaining quotas will be shown after April 21, the final day after lottery participants must accept or reject their assigned dates and permits are adjusted for final number of participants. So if you missed the lottery, you still have a chance, provided you are flexible. Other areas utilize a walk-up system whereby one can wait at a designated ranger station the day before (usually) and snag an abandoned availability. Sometimes this requires cooling your heels in line for hours while the rest of your tribe has fun or waking up insanely early. Not recommended since you have no guarantee of an opening but it's still there.

Also, the Park Service does not provide permits by email. Usually, one must bring the acceptance letter to a ranger station for permit pickup by a designated time. They may also ask for an online re-confirmation of one's plans a couple of weeks before the permit date. Last year, some folks either didn't receive the reconfirmation notice email for Mt Whitney or didn't know they had to re-confirm. This led to some confusion at the ranger station. I did not receive the email but randomly re-checked my account and re-confirmed just in time.

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T.D. Wood Staff Member

Great points, Jerry. Thanks very much for your input.


Another thing that you want to keep in mind is a lot of National Parks like Rocky Mountain National Park require a detailed itinerary of your trip, so they want to know what campsite you are going to be staying at on which date for the entire trip so that requires a bit of planning. Not something you can really put off until the last minute. So if you want to go to places like this it would be wise to start planning in February or the first of March so you can figure out exactly when and where you are going to make camp.


yes, it is a permit season, good points.


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