New Access Limits Comingto Oregon PCT in 2020
If you’ve ever hiked—or wanted to hike—the John Muir Trail (JMT), the iconic High Sierra route from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, you may know how limited—and coveted—those hiking permits are. Well, in 2020, with the implementation of a new permit and quota system in Oregon’s Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson wilderness areas, section-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail through this region may become just as exclusive.
For the past couple years, the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests have been working on a new permit and quota system across the Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson wilderness areas in order to address concerns about increasing use and its effects on these wild areas. Earlier this year, officials from these forest districts held a series of public information sessions to share several draft proposals of possible courses of action. The five options ranged from option 1): do nothing (as required by law), to option 5): maximum clampdown on all outdoor use. With the new Draft Decision released last week, it appears they have chosen option 4): significant limits on most trailheads within the designated areas. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that they have removed the Diamond Peak and Waldo Lake areas from the Decision, both of which were originally included in the change plan.
Within the Draft Decision, the Forest Service has indicated which trailheads will be affected by the new system, and the number of daily permits that will be granted for access. There will be limits on both dayhikers and overnight backpackers, as well as new fees imposed on all. If you’re familiar with the restrictions associated with the Obsidian or Pamelia Lake Limited Entry Areas (LEA), this plan essentially turns this entire cluster of wilderness areas (and nearly 100 miles of the PCT) into one huge LEA. Sadly—and questionably—these limitations will exceed those of some of the most popular national parks, and restrict access to a huge portion of some of Oregon’s most scenic public lands.
How This Plan Affects PCT Hikers
Details on how this new plan directly affects PCT section- and thru-hikers are hard to find in the current Decision documents, so we contacted Matt Peterson, one of the plan managers at Willamette National Forest, for more details and additional clarification. For thru-hikers, the changes are fairly minimal, however for section-hikers, it gets pretty ugly. Here’s the rundown:
New Rules for PCT Thru-Hikers
Thru-hikers holding a PCT Long-Distance Permit (hiking 500+ miles) will be given pass-thru permission to cross all three wilderness areas. This is in accordance with the current long-distance permit allowance. Long-distance hikers should still fill out the self-issue wilderness permits at the entry kiosks at every wilderness area they enter to assist with usage data collection.
New No-Camping Zones will be implemented in some popular and high-impact areas. This will include the Obsidian area and North/South Matthieu Lakes in the Three Sisters Wilderness, and Coyote/Shale Lakes and Jefferson Park in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness. The Forest Service will be releasing boundary maps for these no-camping zones once the plan is final. Camping in the Obsidian and Coyote/Shale Lakes will still be permitted with a separate, valid LEA Permit for the respective area.
The PCT Corridor through these wilderness areas will be extended to 1/2 mile on either side of the PCT to allow for more camping flexibility. New camping setbacks of 250 feet will be implemented for Obsidian Falls, Minnie Scott Spring and Pamelia Lake.
New Permit for PCT Section-Hikers
The Forest Service will be implementing the new Skyline Permit for hikers interested in section-hiking across multiple designated wilderness areas in this region. This permit is intended for those hiking less than 500 miles and don’t qualify for a Long-Distance Permit. It will be required for anyone starting their hike in a designated wilderness area (Three Sisters, Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson), as well as anyone hiking larger portions of the PCT through Oregon and requiring pass-thru privileges. Skyline Permits will be limited to two starts/entries per day, and will be restricted to specific entry and exit dates.
Hikers with a Skyline Permit will be required to start their section-hike in one of the designated wilderness areas at one of the newly-designated PCT Trailheads:
- Irish Lake in the Three Sisters Wilderness (FR-600)
- Lava Camp Lake and McKenzie Pass at McKenzie Pass (OR-242)
- Big Lake and Santiam Pass at Santiam Pass (US-20)
- Breitenbush Lake in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness (FR-4220)
Skyline Permit holders will not be permitted to start their hikes from any of the trailheads on the Cascade Lakes Hwy out of Bend, e.g., Elk Lake, Devils Lake, Sisters Mirror Lake, etc. Also off-limits are any of the lateral trails within any of the designated wilderness areas, e.g., Hinton Meadow, Scott Pass, Pamelia Lake, etc. Use of these trailheads for a PCT section-hike would require both a Skyline Permit and the respective trailhead permit.
Skyline Permit holders will not be required to observe the same no-camping zone restrictions as Long-Distance Permit holders, yet will be limited to the same PCT Corridor requirement of camping within 1/2 mile of the PCT. It will also include the same 250-foot setbacks at Obsidian Falls, Minnie Scott Spring and Pamelia Lake. Camping side-trips to locations such as the Snow or Mink Lakes, Hinton Meadows, Eileen Lake, etc. will not be permitted unless you also obtain a valid permit for those respective trailheads; camping in the Obsidian and Coyote/Shale Lakes areas will still require a separate, valid LEA Permit.
Skyline Permits will go into effect beginning with the 2020 hiking season, and will be only be available through the recreation.gov website. They will be required from the first Friday before Memorial Day through Sept. 30, and there will be a yet-to-be-determined per-person fee. It is still unknown if Skyline Permits will be available on a day-of or walk-up basis, and there is currently no plan to deal with cancellations or no-shows.
New Limits to Overnight Backpackers
Hikers planning to do an overnight backpack that may incorporate portions of the PCT, but remain within a single designated wilderness area, will not be required to obtain a Skyline Permit. They will be required to obtain a permit for the desired starting trailhead, and adhere to the new daily limits imposed on each (see trailhead chart). These permits will not have camping restrictions (except for the LEA areas), but will be limited to specific entry and exit dates.
Confused yet? Check out this permit comparison chart:
*The Daily Permit Limit indicated in this chart shows the number of “group” permits that will be made available. A “group” may consist of a single hiker up to a maximum of 12 hikers. Overnight permit quantities are based on individual trailheads. **For more information on Trailhead Access, see the Trailhead Chart below.
What This Means for PCT Hikers
If you’re thru-hiking the PCT, or hiking a larger portion of the PCT (500+ miles with a Long-Distance Permit) the changes are marginal. The No-Camping Zones in the Jefferson Park and Matthieu Lakes areas will be frustrating—especially considering that large swaths of forest surrounding these areas have recently burned—but there are still some good campsites near the trail in these areas that will allow you to enjoy these locations. You may even discover some of the “hidden gem” campsites in these areas.
For those interested in section-hiking some or all of the PCT through Oregon (less than 500 miles with a Skyline Permit) that includes crossing these wilderness areas, things are going to get challenging. First, you will have to be lucky enough to score one of the two daily Skyline Permits. Those wishing to start their hike in this area will have to stick to specific start and end dates with no flexibility. If the weather is bad, the snow is too deep, or you have any personal changes, you either use it or lose it. Also, the limited starting trailheads means you may have to make your trip longer or shorter than you would like, or it may require you to drive rough roads to access a more remote, albeit designated, trailhead. For section-hikers on longer trips (e.g., full Oregon PCT) who require passing through these areas, you have little flexibility to change your hiking itinerary and will have to target your passage through these designated wilderness areas to the specific dates you choose. No extra zeros or neros if you get tired, sore or find a nice spot you’d like to stay and enjoy an extra day.
Overnight backpackers and shorter-distance hikers who may incorporate some of the PCT and will be remaining in a single wilderness area will just have to compete with fellow hikers to obtain what few permits will be available for any trailheads that will soon have daily limits applied (see trailhead chart). Similar to the Skyline Permits, these will be specific to start and end dates with no flexibility, and may require you to settle for a less-desirable trailhead. The Forest Service has indicated that there will be limited day-of permits available for spontaneous trips, but they don’t yet know how many of these permits will be available for each trailhead, or what the process will be to obtain these.
The following chart displays trailheads with direct access to the PCT, the number of daily permits that will be granted, and where the trailhead is located:
Our Thoughts. And Yours?
While we agree that action is needed to address some of the crowding and negative impacts inflicted upon these wilderness areas due to increased usage, we feel that this Draft Decision is short-sighted in its scope and fails to seek reasonable solutions in reducing impact while maintaining access to public lands. Their own data indicates that the majority of impact results from day-users at mostly frontcountry destinations, yet the limits of the Decision are unfavorably targeted at backcountry users. We fail to see how limiting PCT section-hiking entries minimizes impact in the Green Lakes area (nowhere near the PCT), which, under the new plan, will still allow nearly 100 hikers and backpackers per day.
According to Peterson, the limits to section-hikers are not based on definitive PCT or section-hiking data, of which there is little, but presumptions based on usage metrics mostly coming from day-use and general overnight data. He suggested that the Adaptive Management Plan as outlined in the Decision will allow them to make adjustments as necessary, but we feel these limits are too aggressive at the start and based on too little information. The Decision also ignores or dismisses potential solutions including, but not limited to, limited permit requirements (e.g., weekends, holidays), designated camp areas to mitigate impact, wilderness privy installations to reduce waste, and improved trailhead access and parking.
In our experience on the PCT in Oregon over the last five seasons (2014–2018), we have observed the impacts of increased traffic in these wilderness areas. Yet, in our opinion, that impact has remained mostly negligible, as the majority of PCT hikers we’ve witnessed and interviewed are diligent in maintaining clean backcountry camps and adhering to Leave No Trace principles. In 2018, as a member of the Granite Gear Grounds Keepers, we collected less than 6 pounds of trail trash over a distance of more than 200 miles—and the majority of this was collected at frontcountry campsites, not in deep wilderness areas. And as far as “crowding” goes, during each of these seasons we have been able to spend several nights in some of these wilderness areas with no other hikers or campers around, and have still been able to enjoy plenty of solitude and privacy.
And then there’s the socio-economic impacts of new fees and potentially restricting lower-income communities access to public lands. Under the new system, a per-person fee will be charged for both day and overnight users. There will also be a fee for making a permit reservation, which will likely be necessary due to the limited availability of day-of and walk-up permit availability. And that’s on top of the NW Forest Pass that will still be required for parking at most trailheads. That’s three fees that will now be required for accessing public lands in this region. These fees are yet to be determined, and the language about how these fees will be used is vague, but this has the potential of making visiting these wilderness areas more expensive than visiting Yosemite or Mount Rainier—and those locations don’t put limits on dayhikers, and the fees collected support park infrastructure and accessibility. And then there’s the question of how these new limits will affect a region that relies heavily on outdoor recreation and tourism, which is another ball of wax we won’t get into here.
We will be strenuously objecting to the proposed Draft Decision until the Forest Service can take a more reasoned approach to backcountry use and PCT access based on actual data, and consider more thoughtful and proactive actions to addressing both the need to preserve wilderness characteristics and ensure that our public lands—and the PCT—remain reasonably accessible. Our concerns on this issue are shared by Scott Wilkinson and Dana Hendricks of the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), and we’re pleased that they agree that the current Decision is quite unreasonable in its treatment of PCT section-hikers. The PCTA will be considering their own response to this Decision.
Share your thoughts
How will these new restrictions affect your ability and interest in hiking the PCT and our public lands in central Oregon’s wilderness areas? Leave your comments below and we’ll share them with the Forest Service in our formal response.
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