6 Tips for Securing High-Demand Wilderness Permits and Campgrounds

It’s February, and planning for Road Trip 2017 is officially in full-swing! Midnight permit faxes, reservation-stalking on Recreation.gov, and obsessive checking and re-checking of NPS deadlines and Google Maps is the name of the game around these parts. This year’s trip poses particular logistical challenges, as we will be on the road for six and a half weeks. On the itinerary are 17 National Parks and 8 National Monuments–some new to us, others highly anticipated return visits. We’ll explore some parks as long as five days, others as few as five hours. 20 nights will be spent backpacking, 6 in motels, and 19 more will be spent in frontcountry campgrounds. And man oh man, are there reservations to be made–so many reservations! Airline tickets, ranger tours, backpacking permits, shuttles–the list seems endless. As an obsessive-compulsive planning type, I think I may have finally met my match.

As the kids grow older, backpacking has become a larger staple in our road trip repertoire. For one, it is incredibly economical–even more “expensive” permits such as a Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim trek can be had for as little as $8 a night per person. More importantly, the opportunity for intimacy with nature and uninterrupted family time can’t be beat. It’s a win-win situation in cost and payoff, especially for those (like us) who live outside the Lower 48 and must consider airfare and car rental expenses as well.

Securing wilderness permits, however, can be a source of anxiety and frustration, especially at popular destinations such as Yosemite or Grand Canyon. I’m no expert on the permitting process; I truly believe luck played as big a part in securing our Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim and Devil’s Postpile to Tuolumne Meadows permits as anything else. I have great respect for those who prefer a more spontaneous, less-planned approach to travel, and my intent is not to espouse one method over the other. However, for those who are inclined to plan, there are ways to increase your chances of securing high-demand wilderness permits. Here are just a few:

  1. Check NPS websites regularly for updates

    Check, double-check, and triple-check NPS websites for updated deadline timetables and preferred application methods. For example, less than a month ago, Sequoia’s website indicated faxing to be the preferred application method for wilderness permits. A recent update to the website, however, indicates that email is now the preferred application method. Reservation systems are tweaked constantly; I’ve learned the hard way that procedures can change seemingly overnight.

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    Ode to road trips past: Redwoods, 2013
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    Redwoods National Park, 2013

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    Cliff Palace tour at Mesa Verde, 2014
  2. Early is best

    Determine the earliest date and time applications for your desired permit are accepted. Sync your computer to the official NIST time, and aim to apply the minute reservations open. This tip applies to campground reservations as well, especially in popular parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. If your wilderness permit is handled by Recreation.gov, aim to set up an account and log in prior to “go” time. Pre-navigate to your intended trail/backcountry use area. Pre-select dates, and be ready to click “Book these dates” the second reservations become available. In some cases, hundreds of other people (literally!) will be competing for the same dates and spaces, so time is of the essence. A correlate to this tip is to note the time zone indicated on the reservations page and calculate any discrepancy for your specific time zone in advance. For example, 12:01 PST on Reservation.gov means a 10:01 pm booking time the day before the listed date for Hawaii folk.

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    So excited to return to the Narrows this year!
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    Hiking the Narrows, Zion, 2014

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    Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota, 2015
  3. Flexibility is key

    For a Grand Canyon rim-to-rim, flexibility is key, especially with hundreds of applicants vying for a mere dozen spots. There are only 12 campsites available in Cottonwood at the base of the North Rim, and reservations at coveted Phantom Ranch are even more of a unicorn chase. Flexible dates are your best best; short of that, multiple itinerary options are you next best option. For example, our dates were only marginally flexible, so we included no less than 8 trail/itinerary options to increase our chances of securing a permit. While we were ultimately unable to snag Cottonwood, we were granted permission to take the North Kaibab Trail from the North Rim to Bright Angel Campground for 2 nights before heading out via Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim. It’s not ideal and will require a longer Day 1 hike than anticipated, but listing this option allowed us to secure a permit for a rim-to-rim traverse–a bucket list item for us. Listing no alternate options, on the other hand, might have resulted in no permit at all.

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    Last light, Grand Canyon 2014

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    Bright Angel Trail, 2014
  4. Consider a reverse trek

    For those looking to reserve Yosemite wilderness permits originating in Tuolumne and ending in Inyo National Forest, consider a reverse trek. For example, we had our hearts set on backpacking a 30-mile section of the John Muir Trail, beginning at Tuolumne Meadows and ending at Devil’s Postpile National Monument. With Yosemite’s strict entrance and exit quotas, particularly over Donohue Pass and Lyell Canyon, we knew obtaining a summer permit was a long shot at best. Instead, we set our sights on a reverse trek. Entering at Devil’s Postpile (Agnew Meadows) and exiting at Tuolumne opened up multiple trail options reservable through Inyo National Forest/Recreation.gov instead of Yosemite National Park. The benefits here are multifold: Recreation.gov’s online system operates in real time, whereas faxing an application to Yosemite requires a multi-day wait for approval. During this wait, any alternate routes you might have considered in lieu of your first choice could easily be snatched up, shutting down your backpacking options should your first choice route be denied. Also, Inyo National Forest offers multiple entry points and trails leading to the same destination. In our case, River Trail, Shadow Creek Trail, or High Sierra Trail all merge with the JMT at Thousand Island Lake and exit at Tuolumne Meadows. Having multiple trails to choose from in real time offered us the best chance of successfully booking this high-demand section of the JMT.

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    Moro Rock Trail, Sequoia 2014

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    Clara Barton Tree, Sequoia 2014
  5. Some folks go sly

    I haven’t personally tried this tip yet, and while I’m generally opposed to underhanded dealings as a matter of principle, there’s also a part of me that admires the evil genius behind this plan. In most cases, Recreation.gov allows you to make campground and wilderness permit as early as 6 months in advance. For example, on 1/1, you can make camp or permit reservations for a start date of 7/1. However, on 1/1, you can also theoretically reserve a 14-day block that extends all the way to 7/15. Again, I haven’t tried this personally, but I’ve read that you can deliberately select a too-early start date to guarantee a spot for your later preferred arrival date. For example, let’s say you would like to reserve Coveted Campground A from July 8-July 15. You could wait until January 8th to make your reservation, or you could “work the system” by reserving the earliest date that would allow you to wholly accommodate your desired reservation (in this case, January 1) and modify your reservation start date later. Though shady, this would theoretically guarantee you a spot at Coveted Campground A for your preferred dates nearly competition-free. Note that Recreation.gov charges a $10 fee to modify your itinerary; I’m less sure of any fees karma may eventually collect.

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    We’ll pass within 50 miles of Arches, but a return visit isn’t in the cards this year, unfortunately

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    Yosemite, 2014
  6. Shoot for weekdays, not weekends

    Last but not least, maximize your chances of securing high-demand wilderness permits and campgrounds by traveling weekdays if at all possible. Traveling during non-summer shoulder seasons is also helpful, but we were unable to swing this with school and work schedules. Traveling for close to two months means that we will inevitably wind up at a handful of parks during peak weekend visitation periods, but we tried to time our high-demand treks for weekdays to maximize our chances of acquiring permits. We hope that this strategy will pay off as we apply for our Rae Lakes Loop (Sequoia/Kings Canyon) permit next week–fingers crossed!

There’s no denying that applying for high-demands permits and campgrounds can be a frustrating process. And while dumb luck may play a larger role in determining success or failure than we might like, there are ways to stack the odds in our favor, however small that may be. After all, if success is where preparedness and opportunity meet, then preparing for the best gives opportunity every reason to knock on our door!

What are your favorite tips for securing high-demand campgrounds and permits? What summer plans have you been making?                          

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24 thoughts on “6 Tips for Securing High-Demand Wilderness Permits and Campgrounds”

  1. This trip sounds AWESOME! Can’t wait to read about it! You’re incredibly organized/tenacious to deal with so many permits and registrations….as much as I love the NPS, that stuff can be such a nightmare. And it’s different with every park!!

    When my fiance and I were set on getting a permit to do the top-down overnight Narrows trek in Zion, we actually recruited several friends to help us—we gave everyone a list of our preferred dates and campsites in order, and then at the moment the site went live with the permits, we ALL tried to snag one! Only my fiance was actually successful at getting through. It was like trying to get highly coveted concert tickets, haha. (Of course, we weren’t able to do the overnight hike because of weather, but that’s another story….)

    So for parks that are online like Zion (not sure how many that is), I recommend recruiting help! Also, make sure you have ALL the information you need ahead of time, because they do NOT hold the permit for you while you fill out the form. I had to run outside to look at my license plate! (I realize now I probably could have filled in anything and changed it later, but I also could have just looked through the full form ahead of time and been prepared.) Finally, make sure you have a great internet connection. As in, literally plug your computer into the internet, because that little extra bit of speed can make a big difference!

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    1. Thanks so much, Laura! I love your tips–thank you for sharing! Recruiting help for online permits is such a great idea; I’ll have to remember that one. And how awesome that you were able to snag top-down permits for the Narrows–another NPS unicorn for sure. (Though I’m bummed to hear the weather didn’t cooperate…I feel your pain on that one!). We tried a similar strategy for Phantom Ranch–3 callers phoning 4 hours straight in the middle of the night. Although our dates were already filled by the time we finally got through, recruiting help was the only way we were able to even make contact.
      Great tip about having info ready ahead of time, and you’re absolutely right–every extra bit of speed counts. With our JMT reservation, all 18 permits disappeared in under a minute! Thanks again for sharing your planning experiences and wisdom–I love reading these kinds of specifics!

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    1. Thanks so much! We only have 2 summers with our oldest before college, so we’re excited to get out there and make memories. I bet you’ll be out there with your kids in no time, too. I think it’s wonderful that you’re enjoying time with your littles–the years go by much too fast!

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  2. Wow, so much great info! Your trip sounds epic, and I can only imagine how much planning and research went into this trip. I loved looking at the pics of your trips from the past, you’ve already been to so many places! The only way we’ve lucked out with campsites is, like you said, booking early! But also being flexible with dates (which with your tight schedule was probably not possible). My hubby and I have our own accounts in recreation.gov and start clicking away at the moment the sites open up. Whoever secures a site first wins (that is a great motivator for me :)). How special to be able to share this trip with family, can’t wait to read all about it. Looking forward to meeting you in person!

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    1. Ooh, awesome tip–I love the idea of having separate rec.gov accounts! And I’m all for winning against the hubby any chance I can, lol. Uploading those pics was a trip down memory lane for sure–it’s hard to believe the kids were ever that little. They’re so…teenage-ry these days. 😀 So excited to finally meet you, too! And so grateful for your fantastic hike/camp and bike tips!

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  3. I feel exhausted after reading your opening paragraph… looks like I need more cardio workout. Seriously, what a summer you’ll be having. It is a pain to have to go through the reservation process and to be creative about different trip options. At least it’s a fair process to guarantee everyone’s a fair chance to get the permits. Unlike the lottery for the Wave which BLM charges a non-refundable fee whether or not you win the permit.

    I can’t wait to follow along with you guys this summer.

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    1. Cardio workouts–you and me both, lol! We’re really excited for the summer, too; just two more reservations to go, whew. I didn’t realize the Wave lottery was non-refundable. I guess it’s meant to limit applicants, but I’d be pretty sad if I didn’t win that permit. Can’t wait to follow along/take notes on your epic Canada Rockies trip this summer!

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      1. One more thing. I love seeing pictures of your children when they were younger. I didn’t have many photos of me when I was young and went places with my parents. I am sure your kids will value these precious pictures when they are older.

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  4. Six and a half weeks in the parks…wow, this sounds so great! I’m a meticulous planner too and I know how difficult and stressful it can be securing permits. These are great tips. I am very envious of your rim-to-rim hike. This past October, with only 3 weeks notice, we were lucky to secure one night in the Phantom Ranch dorms. A day before the hike my hubby got really sick and we had to cancel. I was choked! There are last-minute cancelations for those with lots of flexibility. I look forward to reading about rim-to-rim and your other hikes. It is so great that you guys do these adventures as a family.

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    1. Phantom Ranch in October–I’m the envious one! How devastating to have to cancel (I’m choked for you, just reading!!), though I’m glad that your husband is healthy and well. You’re so right–last-minute cancellations happen, and flexibility gives you the best shot at scooping sites up (also a great tip for airfare). Lightning can strike more than once–fingers crossed for you that a Phantom Ranch stay finds its way into your future!

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  5. This is great information, thank you so much for posting this! We haven’t yet gotten into venturing out on trails requiring permits, I had no idea so much was involved. But as I plan where we’re going to stay every night of the year, it feels like such an overwhelming task, I can’t imagine adding permits into the mix, lol! Since we love state parks I have definitely been online many times ready to secure a spot the minute I was able to. 😉 It sounds like you may be going to some of the same parks as us this year, but I think you may be later than us. By summer time we should be in the PNW. I’m looking forward to reading about your travels later this year.

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    1. I can’t even imagine making reservations for an entire year like you do, yikes! That’s some serious planning. We haven’t been to many state parks, but I’ve heard their facilities are fantastic–I’m interested in checking these out more. We’re only venturing north as far as Crater Lake this year (July); feel free to email me if you’ll be in the area–it’d be fun to meet up! 🙂

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  6. That’s the most epic trip ever! I thought I liked dreaming and planning big but I’m not worthy to unlace your hiking boots. You always post such great information, I know a lot of people out here are helped in their planning process that could turn a marginal vacation into an unforgettable one.

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    1. Lol, your comment brought back Wayne’s World “we’re not worthy” memories. (Also, between that and my Home Improvement reference, I’m totally dating myself here!) Thanks so much for your kind words–they mean a lot coming from a fellow NP lover. I learn so much from the NP blog community–makes the world seem smaller in the best possible way.

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      1. Haha, Tool Time and Wayne’s World are both references I got. We must be the same generation. I’m 44. Keep up the great posts, this is a great community.

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      2. Looks like we’re the same age, though I’m guessing your class shirts didn’t read ‘Class of ’90, Cool and Mighty!’ like ours. Yep, we were regular rhyming geniuses 😀 Thanks; you, too–it’s a fun community!

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