The Hardest Backcountry Permits To Get (and How You Can Get Them)

Look­ing to have a life-chang­ing adven­ture this upcom­ing year? Unfor­tu­nate­ly, some of the more icon­ic hikes and adven­tures will require you to wait in line or get your per­mit quick­ly. These are the hard­est back­coun­try per­mits to get, and how one might go about actu­al­ly get­ting them.

Things to Know About Adven­ture Per­mits (Even the Easy Ones to Get)
Some gen­er­al tips for get­ting pop­u­lar back­coun­try per­mits include falling all the direc­tions to a tee. If fax­ing your appli­ca­tion is the best-rec­om­mend­ed action, dust off the fax machine and fax away. Flex­i­bil­i­ty is also key, espe­cial­ly if you’re aim­ing for a walk-up per­mit of any kind, and know­ing the alter­na­tive trail­heads and hav­ing back-up itin­er­aries will ensure max­i­mum suc­cess. Also, keep in mind group size; while it’s fun to get every­one out on the adven­ture, larg­er groups have more spe­cif­ic require­ments and can make it hard­er to get a per­mit.

Last­ly, just because you got the per­mit, doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly qual­i­fy you for the adven­ture. Know your own abil­i­ties, pack the right util­i­ties, and under­stand the envi­ron­ment you are putting your­self in.


Hik­ing the John Muir Trail

John Muir TrailFor many hik­ers, the John Muir Trail (JMT) is the epit­o­me of back­coun­try hik­ing. This is one of the hard­est back­coun­try per­mits to get, and there’s a good rea­son for that. It’s got pic­turesque moun­tain pass­es, serene moun­tain lakes, and alpine inspi­ra­tion to last you a life­time. As a result, there are many avid adven­tur­ers look­ing to make this epic 210-mile hike, and for good rea­son.

How to Apply
Requests for JMT per­mits have lit­er­al­ly dou­bled over the last five years. As such, total usage of the trail has tripled since the year 2002. This rise in pop­u­lar­i­ty has sig­nif­i­cant­ly increased the impact on the area. As a result, we have the Inter­im Exit Quo­ta Sys­tem. For most hik­ers who are look­ing to start at the North­ern Ter­mi­nus of the JMT (Hap­py Isles & Lyell Canyon), you will need to Apply For Your Per­mit at least 168 days in advance (24 weeks). Apply via fax for your best chances, and believe that they go fast; accord­ing to the NPS, 97% of these per­mits are declined.

Oth­er Options
There are a num­ber of oth­er ways to get access to this moun­tain cathe­dral coun­try, though. And they all require some extra research and time. If you can’t get a per­mit with­in Yosemite, you can start your hike in anoth­er area not man­aged by the nation­al park. Sim­ply put, your oth­er-agency per­mit should grant you access to the trail. Check out these oth­er trail­heads where you could start your jour­ney. If all else fails, there’s anoth­er option. First-come, first-served per­mits are issued begin­ning at 11 a.m. the day before your trip at the near­est ranger sta­tion to your entry point.


Day Hik­ing Coy­ote Buttes, Ari­zona

Coyote Buttes, The WaveTucked into the south­west sand­stone of north­ern Ari­zona and south­ern Utah is the Paria Canyon-Ver­mil­lion Cliffs Wilder­ness, home to Coy­ote Bluffs and one of the hard­est day-hik­ing per­mits to obtain. Coy­ote Buttes is most known for the geo­log­ic land for­ma­tion known as “the Wave.” It’s a bril­liant dis­play of swirling sand­stone in its pris­tine envi­ron­ment.

How to Apply
Coy­ote Buttes (CB) per­mits are split into two areas: North and South. No mat­ter the direc­tion you enter, the entire­ty is day-use only, with too few water sup­plies to sup­port overnight trav­el­ers. North CB con­tains the famed Wave for­ma­tion, but the South holds its own too. Both areas only allow 20 peo­ple a day, 10 of which are giv­en out via lot­tery (for North CB) or reser­va­tion (South CB) four months in advance.

Walk-In Per­mits
The oth­er 10 dai­ly per­mits are walk-ins. And recent odds of obtain­ing a North CB per­mit through the lot­tery have been as low as 3%. So your bet­ter bet is the walk-in per­mit. Show up at the Grand Stair­case-Escalante Vis­i­tors Cen­ter the day before your desired trip between 8:30—9:00 a.m. Utah time, and put your name in the hat.


Hik­ing Half Dome, Yosemite Nation­al Park

Half DomeWhile most vis­i­tors enjoy the splen­dors of Yosemite Val­ley as a road­side attrac­tion, it is pos­si­ble to get a lit­tle clos­er to the action on Half Dome, and you don’t have to be a seri­ous climber to do it. You do have to be in mod­er­ate­ly good shape though. This 14–16 mile climb gains over 4,000 feet in ele­va­tion and is steep enough to require its name­sake fea­ture. Lit­er­al cables to help your final ascent to the top.

How to Apply
The offi­cial cables of the Cables Route typ­i­cal­ly go up at the end of May and remain there into ear­ly Octo­ber, and you’ll need a per­mit all sev­en days of the week. Yosemite Nation­al Park only issues 300 per­mits to climb a day, and 225 of those per­mits are up for grabs in the pre­sea­son lot­tery from March 1st through 31st. Max­i­mum group size is six, and each mem­ber of the par­ty can apply for your group’s per­mit. To help your chances of land­ing next year’s Cables per­mits, check out the stats on the most pop­u­lar days to apply.

The Oth­er 75 Per­mits
If you are up for an overnight trek, there are oth­er options. You might have bet­ter chances of obtain­ing a wilder­ness per­mit that includes the Cables route in your jour­ney. Yosemite reserves 75 permits/day for back­pack­ers want­i­ng to do this (with 25 of those reserved as walk-up per­mits). And there is no pre­sea­son lot­tery for these, just apply up to 24 weeks in advance.


Back­pack­ing the Teton Crest Trail, Grand Teton Nation­al Park

Teton Crest TrailSee for your­self why Grand Teton is one of the most pop­u­lar Nation­al Parks in the coun­try. Sharp, jagged peaks, lush alpine val­leys, and dra­mat­ic vis­tas that will astound. Overnight trips into these mag­i­cal moun­tains can be hard to get a per­mit for. Pop­u­lar overnight hikes like the 40-mile Teton Crest Trail have a ten­den­cy to fill up with­in days, if not hours. So be sure to act fast if the Grand Tetons are on your radar this upcom­ing sea­son.

How to Get a Per­mit
A third of all back­coun­try per­mits for Grand Teton Nation­al Park are avail­able for ear­ly reser­va­tion between the first Wednes­day of Jan­u­ary and May 15th. Look­ing to bag a clas­sic route like the Teton Crest Trail? You’ll want to apply as ear­ly as pos­si­ble. Fax­ing in your appli­ca­tion can ensure the quick­est deliv­ery. The oth­er ⅔ of the avail­able per­mits are reserved for walk-ins, which can be secured up to a day in advance. If you do your research and are flex­i­ble with a few back­up plans, you’re sure to find a good time on your next impromp­tu trip out.

Know Before You Go
There a few things to con­sid­er before plan­ning your trip into the Tetons. If you camp with­in the park, expect to not only watch the Required Back­coun­try Video, but under­stand the con­cepts and dan­gers ahead of you. Among oth­er things, also be aware that although the hik­ing sea­son tra­di­tion­al­ly starts in June, snow is near­ly always present, espe­cial­ly in the high­er ele­va­tions, and know­ing how to cross that ter­rain is imper­a­tive to your suc­cess.


Back­pack­ing the Bright Angel and the North & South Kaibab Trails, Grand Canyon Nation­al Park

south kaibab trailWhile Grand Canyon Nation­al Park issues over 10,000 back­coun­try per­mits a year, your odds of receiv­ing one for the cov­et­ed Bright Angel and North & South Kaibab trails dur­ing the peak sea­sons (April-May & Sept.-Oct.) are worse than your chances of get­ting denied. Indeed, this one def­i­nite­ly ranks as one of the tough­est back­coun­try per­mits to get.

How to Apply
If you want to hike in the Grand Canyon overnight, request your per­mit by the first day of the month that is four months pri­or to your trip. For exam­ple, if you want to hike April 15th, apply by Decem­ber 1st. Grand Canyon Nation­al Park will begin accept­ing faxed or mailed per­mits 10 days pri­or to the first of the month, and all appli­ca­tions deliv­ered by 5 p.m. on the first will be ran­dom­ly processed. Any remain­ing and late appli­ca­tions will be processed in a first-come, first-served basis.

Extra Tip
The Grand Canyon ranks 2nd on Nation­al Park vis­its per year, and many of those vis­its (includ­ing overnight per­mit vis­its) hap­pen between April-May & Sep­tem­ber-Octo­ber. If you apply out­side of this date range you will have a bet­ter chance of being suc­cess­ful. No mat­ter the sea­son you adven­ture into or around the Grand Canyon, be sure to famil­iar­ize your­self with Desert Hik­ing Tips before you go.


Camp­ing in Glac­i­er Nation­al Park, Mon­tana

Glacier National ParkThere are 65 des­ig­nat­ed camp­sites in Glac­i­er’s back­coun­try, and despite the rugged abun­dance of this beau­ti­ful land, per­mits for those camp­sites do fill up quick­ly. Take a look at Glacier’s Back­coun­try Camp­ing Map to get an idea of the vari­ety of trips avail­able and to help with your trip plan­ning.

How to Apply
New to 2015, Glac­i­er Nation­al Park has stepped into the 21st cen­tu­ry and now only takes reser­va­tions online. The reser­va­tion win­dow opens March 1st for larg­er groups (9–12 campers, max) and March 15th for small­er groups (1–8 campers). Expect the servers to be a bit busy the day of, these reser­va­tions are grant­ed on a first-come, first-serve basis. Yes, it’s eas­i­er than before, but it’s still one of the hard­est back­coun­try per­mits to get. Pay $10 to apply, $40 if you are accept­ed, plus an addi­tion­al $7/night camp­ing fee.

Walk-Up Per­mits
Walk-up per­mits are avail­able at Glac­i­er Nation­al Park, and half of all sites are reserved just for that pur­pose. But don’t let that sta­tis­tic lead you to believe your walk-up per­mit is a guar­an­tee. Long-dis­tance trav­el­ers may have reserved your camp­site long in advance, and it’s not uncom­mon to have to wait a cou­ple of days to get the trip you’re dream­ing of.


Overnight Camp­ing the Won­der­land Trail, Mt. Rainier Nation­al Park, Wash­ing­ton

Wonderland Trail, Mt. Rainier National ParkThe Won­der­land Trail cir­cum­nav­i­gates the base of Mt. Rainier with a 90-mile loop (plus side trails) and con­tin­u­ous­ly chang­ing views of one of the PNW’s most icon­ic peaks. A com­plete hike around the Won­der­land typ­i­cal­ly takes around 10 days. And camp­ing is only allowed in the 21 des­ig­nat­ed camp­sites along the path, all of which fill up dur­ing the no-snow hik­ing sea­son (late July ‑Sep/Oct). This means plan­ning ahead is key to your suc­cess.

Obtain­ing a Walk-Up Per­mit
You can receive a walk-up per­mit the day of or day pri­or to your trip and no soon­er. Must be in per­son and at one of the des­ig­nat­ed ranger sta­tions to obtain a per­mit. Have your logis­tics in mind, and flex­i­bil­i­ty if you can afford it. That will strength­en your chances of get­ting a walk-up per­mit for the Won­der­land Trail.

In con­clu­sion, lay­ing your hands on one of the hard­est back­coun­try per­mits to get isn’t real­ly impos­si­ble, but you’ll have to be strate­gic, and you’ll most like­ly need to plan ahead. Do just that, and you’ll be so glad you did.