The National Park backcountry permit process can be tough at times. But for good reason.


The notorious Murphy's Hogback is one of the toughest sections of the White Rim Trail.

Anyone who frequents the backcountry of a National Park knows that you have a good chance of facing the most challenging aspect of your trip well before you strap on your gaiters, because, like most things today, finding solitude requires paperwork. And when it comes to really enjoying our best idea, it’s all about getting a permit. I’m looking to get one for next June for a rim-to-rim.

Last year, a lot was made about some sweeping changes to the permitting process in the Grand Canyon. Ultimately, the new process, which took effect in February of this year, was put into action to level the playing field between hikers mailing date requests from across the country and locals who have access to walk-up reservations that under the old process, were given priority. The change also impacted commercial guiding companies, which also had a bit of leverage under the old system.

Previously, in-person requests on the first day permits go on sale were allowed to choose their days ahead of requests that were mailed and faxed. Clearly, this gives a group of hikers from Flagstaff an advantage over a group from Peoria. Not being one to insert myself into processes I don’t think are really broken, I never found any fault in the old system. I am all for allowing the masses to pay their gate fee and frequent the concession vendors to keep money flowing into the parks. Frankly though, I don’t want the masses in the backcountry. Not without a guide, anyway. There is simply too much risk, medically and environmentally, in making the permit process an unrestricted free-for-all.

In the Grand Canyon, the current permit system puts all permit requests received on the first day of the month that is four months out from your trip (March 1 for a July trip, for example) being requested into the same pool to be selected at random by a computer. Fax. Mail. Or hand delivery. It doesn’t matter how the request gets in, but it does have to be in writing. All those received after that first day are selected in order of receipt. And now, walk-in verbal requests for the remaining dates are only accepted one to three months out.

If you get selected, the backcountry office will mail you notification.

Heading north just a bit, the process is somewhat different, and quite a bit easier, in Canyonlands. And I must add, the backcountry office there is immensely helpful, and quite eager to respond to e-mail. We are planning another visit to this incredibly underrated park for a mountain bike trip on the White Rim Trail next April. In Canyonlands, the permitting is based on whether you’re rafting/kayaking or backpacking, mountain biking or driving. Since we plan to mountain bike (and have a support vehicle), we must wait until the second Monday in July (a few weeks from now) for dates in 2011. We can mail or fax the request.

Different than the Grand Canyon though, the folks at Canyonlands allow a two-week window for all the requests to flow in before beginning the lottery. So, according to an e-mail we received, they will not begin processing permit requests until July 26. Here’s more from Bruce, a nice guy in the Canyonlands Reservation Office:

“The earliest you can apply for a reservation for any dates in 2011 will be Monday, July 12, 2010. Sending a request on that day will give you the best chance of reserving the trip you want for any dates in 2011. Any requests which are sent on the first day of open season, whether they are mailed, faxed, or hand-delivered, all end up in the same box. We will hold them all for at least two weeks, to allow time for all of the mailed requests to arrive. Then we will process all of the requests sent on July 12 lottery style.

Every request sent on that first day will have an equal chance to be the first in line to be processed, no matter how they are sent. After we process all of the ones sent on July 12, 2010, we will begin processing the ones sent on later dates.

We will not begin processing reservations until July 26, to allow time for all of the mailed requests to arrive. Since all requests will be entered into the lottery, everyone will have an equal chance to get a low number. It is advised that you simply mail your request on July 12, since the fax machine will be very busy beginning at midnight (many people still do not understand the lottery system).

Please do not send your request by both fax and mail, since that could result in your getting two different reservations with a non-refundable $30 fee. We try to sort out duplicate requests, but there are always some that slip through.”

Fair enough. And thanks again Bruce.

The discrepancies in permit processes comes down to one thing: volume. Canyonlands’ backcountry experiences a fraction of the footprints found in the Big Ditch. Granted, Canyonlands’ is much more difficult to access. And it doesn’t attract hungover Vegas daytrippers.

However, dates of travel mean a lot, too. If you’re heading out in June and July, expect to have a much harder time gaining backcountry access than you would if you wanted to head out in the shoulder seasons. (Which are almost always better times to hike, by the way.)




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