Smart Traveler: Wilderness By Mail

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, January 1995

Smart Traveler: Wilderness By Mail

Now's the time to send away for tough-to-get permits
By Debra Shore

Like it or not, certain rivers, mountains, and backcountry campsites now have the cachet of a three-star restaurant where reservations are hard to come by. Of course you can always just show up and take your chances--some permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis, and there are always no-shows. But if you want to guarantee your seat at the table, don't wait till the weather warms up. Start thinking now about reserving permits, where possible, as soon as deadlines allow. Here's how.

Some say the classic run of the Colorado through the Grand Canyon is the toughest river permit to get--the waiting list is now about ten years long. But what most people don't know is that 40 percent of those who finally make it to the top of the list end up canceling. So the trick is to get on the waiting list and then claim a canceled date. Applications must be postmarked in February and accompanied by a nonrefundable $25 cashier's check or money order. For applications and information as well as a tally of canceled dates, call the River Permits Office at 602-638-7843.

Others contend that the Selway River in Idaho is actually the hardest permit to get. The Forest Service issues permits for four sections of Idaho rivers--the Selway, the main section and the Middle Fork of the Salmon, and the Snake (Hell's Canyon) through a joint lottery held in early February. Applications, plus a $6 nonrefundable fee, must be received between December 1 and January 31. Chances of winning the lottery (based on 1994 demand) are one in 24 for the Selway, one in 19 for the Middle Fork of the Salmon, one in five for the Main Sal-mon, and one in two for the Snake. Your chances increase if you don't apply for the most popular dates (mid-June to mid-July). For applications and information, call 406-821-3269.

Other rivers with high-demand permits include the Colorado through Utah's Westwater Canyon (apply January 1-February 28 for the lottery; call 801-259-4421) and Oregon's Rogue (apply December 1-January 31 for the lottery; call 503-672-4168).

Backcountry Camping
Many national parks and wilderness areas require permits for backcountry camping, but only a few of the most popular issue them in advance. Yosemite, for instance, has a daily quota for the number of people allowed to embark from each trailhead, and these quotas are usually filled from June through September 1. Half of the permits can be reserved in advance; the rest are issued to first comers. Requests must be postmarked between March 1 and May 31. Call 209-372-0310.

Other well-used sites where permits can be obtained in advance include Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California (call 209-565-3708 or fax permit requests to 209-565-3797 starting March 1); Grand Canyon National Park (applications postmarked the first of every month are considered for openings during the following four months; call 602-638-7888 for information); and Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness in Arizona (reservations may be made up to 13 weeks in advance of your trip; call 602-428-4040).

Permits are required to climb some popular U.S. peaks, but at most, such as Mount Shasta, they simply are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. A notable exception is Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48. To use the most well traveled route, via the Mount Whitney Trail, you must submit an application postmarked between March 1 and May 31 and include a $3-per-person reservation fee. Call 619-876-6200 to get an application. In 1994, applications bearing a March 1 postmark completely filled the last week of June, all of July and August, and the first two weeks of September (only 50 people a day are allowed on the trail). You'll increase your chances of getting a permit if you have a small climbing party, avoid Friday or Saturday, and list as many starting-date choices as possible.

Another popular peak for which a permit is required is Mount St. Helens. Applications must be postmarked no earlier than February 1; call 206-247-5800.

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