Start planning now for these hard-to-get wilderness permits and once-in-a-lifetime trips
So much for spontaneously heading out on a grand trip, like a climb up Yosemite’s Half Dome cable route or an overnight backpacking trip into Lake Tahoe’s Desolation Wilderness, in California. Both require planning ahead to secure permits—and for good reason. Without them, sacred wilderness zones would be trampled by crowds.
Here are nine more big-ticket climbs, paddles, and hikes that you need to start planning for now, since a couple require years to land a coveted reservation.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Over a million acres in size, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 2,000 campsites, and nearly 200 miles of hiking trails throughout Minnesota’s Superior National Forest. But if you want to explore this area overnight between May and September, you’ll need to request a permit online in advance—and there’s a limited number available from each entry point on any given day (the number of walk-up permits available each day varies; sometimes stations have dozens, sometimes they’ll have just one). Another option is to visit during the colder, less crowded months, from October to April, when self-issued authorization is available from checkpoints. Or Wilderness Inquiry has guided five-day canoe and camping trips—permit included (from $595).
If you’re summitting all 58 of Colorado’s famed fourteeners, eventually you’ll get to 14,047-foot Culebra Peak, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The catch? This peak is on private land and has no designated trail. You have to make a reservation in advance with Cielo Vista Ranch, which came under new ownership in 2017. The new owners allow 20 hikers per day to access the peak on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays between January and July (the peak is closed to climbers from August through December, due to hunting season). Camping for hikers on the property is free the night before your climb, but the ranch charges a fee ($150 per person) for your climbing reservation.
John Muir Trail
Due to a major increase in popularity, it’s very tough to snag a permit to thru-hike the 211-mile John Muir Trail, which crosses through some of central California’s most striking high country. If you’re hiking the trail southbound from Yosemite, you’ll need a permit from Yosemite National Park, which is processed via a lottery 24 weeks before your designated start date. Or you can try for last-minute availability in person at a permit station in the park the day before your trip. If you’re hiking the JMT northbound from Mount Whitney, you’ll need a permit from Inyo National Forest. Apply for the lottery between February 1 and March 15, knowing that only about a third of applicants land a permit. Don’t want to deal with the permitting process? Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides leads backpacking trips (from $3,445) on the trail, and it’ll handle the permit for you as well as remote food drops and transportation.
Utah and Arizona
The Wave is a whimsical red-sandstone canyon in the Paria Canyon–Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. The trailhead is in Utah, and the rock formation and its five-mile round-trip hike crosses the border into Arizona. To hike here, you’ll need a very difficult-to-get permit from the Bureau of Land Management—only 20 people are allowed in each day. Ten of those permits are given out via lottery months in advance; the other ten are reserved for first-come, first-served walk-ins at the Grand Staircase–Escalante Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah. Around a dozen tour operators authorized by the BLM lead guided hikes into the Wave, but you’ll still need to secure a permit on your own. Didn’t get one? Head to White Pocket for your geology fix and Instagram snap.
Middle Fork of the Salmon
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River, in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, is one of the most stunning and in-demand raft trips in the U.S. Because of that, you’ll need a permit to be on the water year-round. To paddle this 104-mile stretch on your own, apply for the permit lottery between December 1 and January 31—only one out of every 34 applicants scores a permit, and the winners are announced in February. You can bypass the process by booking a commercial raft trip, and your outfitter will get it for you. Adventure Sun Valley does six-day guided trips (from $1,950). If you’re set on paddling your own rig, it also offers supported trips, permit included.
Part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, the Enchantments area of the central Cascades, east of Seattle, is filled with glaciated granite peaks, high-alpine lakes, and rugged trails. Day hikes and long runs are doable but challenging, with thousands of feet of vertical gain. The good news is you can tackle a day hike or run with a free permit self-issued at the trailhead. However, if you want to camp overnight in the Enchantments between May 15 and October 31, you’ll need a paid overnight reservation from the Forest Service, which requires luck and foresight—the lottery opens in February. If you don’t win one, try your chances with a same-day permit, issued in limited quantities in person at the ranger station in Leavenworth.
Denali Park Road
This scenic 92-mile stretch of roadway, which cuts through Denali National Park and offers views of North America’s highest peak, is normally closed to private vehicles; past mile 15, you can only access it via bus, bike, or on foot. But for four days in September, those lucky few with permits have the road and hiking from various trailheads essentially to themselves. Enter the lottery in May—you’ll have about 14 percent chance of scoring a permit—and results are made available in June. (This year the road is opening to private authorized cars September 13–17.) If you didn’t get a permit and still want to venture in, Denali Outdoor Center rents bikes and offers a bus-in, ride-out tour.
Havasu Falls, located near Grand Canyon National Park on land administered by the Havasupai Tribe, requires a 20-mile, round-trip trail to reach. Camping overnight in the designated campground (day hiking isn’t allowed) requires getting a reservation from the tribe in advance. Those are made on February 1 each year, and typically all the permits are snatched up in the first several hours. It’s worth the hustle: you’ll be treated to a red-rock canyon that ends at waterfalls cascading over limestone cliffs into turquoise pools. For 2019, the Havasupai Tribe isn’t allowing any outside commercial tours or guiding outfitters to lead trips to the falls.
Long Range Traverse
Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada
The Long Range Traverse, in Newfoundland and Labrador’s Gros Morne National Park, is so unmarked and remote that there’s a required orientation and navigation test from the park service before you head out. It’s a 22-mile, off-trail traverse that starts with a one-hour boat ride into the fjords before climbing from sea level to 1,800 feet to the flat-topped plateaus. Most hikers take three to four days to complete it. You’ll need a reservation, made in advance, before you go. To minimize traffic, a maximum of three parties (with up to four people per group) are allowed on the route each day. Gros Morne Adventures offers guided four-day backpacking trips along the Long Range Traverse (from $1,035), if you want to skip the navigating and the permitting process.
*If you’re looking for a permitted adventure we didn’t include, a savvy backpacker from Colorado put together a handy calendar of the more popular permitting windows and dates for when you need to apply online to places like the Grand Canyon, Mount Whitney, and Yellowstone.