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
For 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.
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
Tucked 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.
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
While 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
See 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
While 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.
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
There 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 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
The 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.