The Permits You Need for Hiking the PCT in Oregon
Thinking about a PCT hike this summer? The first thing to determine is if you’ll need a permit. That depends on the state you’re hiking in, the section of trail you want to hike (i.e., a specific forest or wilderness area), and how long you plan to be on the trail. If you’re planning to thru-hike the entire trail, or a large portion of, and obtain a PCTA-issued long-distance permit, you are clear to proceed through all of the PCT-crossing land areas, without need of any additional permits. If you’re interested in a shorter distance on the PCT—backpacking a few nights, or section-hiking a portion—you must first navigate the appropriate permit systems for the proper pass to carry out your journey.
Where Are PCT Permits Required in Oregon?
Approximately 70% (312 mi.) of the PCT in Oregon is open for hiking, with no permit requirements. You can get on the trail and generally go as near or far as you like. A few wilderness areas ask entrants to collect a free, self-issue permit. These are typically found at kiosks at wilderness boundaries and major trailheads. When entering these areas, you should fill out these permits, and leave the appropriate slips behind. This helps the Forest Service monitor usage patterns, and lets them apply for much-needed trail maintenance funding.
The other 30% (143 mi.) of the PCT in Oregon—namely Crater Lake National Park and Oregon’s three Central Cascades wilderness areas—require permits for entry and backcountry camping. There are some significant permit changes going into effect in some areas in Oregon this year. Some of these may be challenging to obtain, depending on when and where you want to go, so advance planning is a good idea.
Crater Lake National Park
Due to ongoing pandemic safety precautions, Crater Lake National Park (CRLA) is changing their backcountry permit requirements. This summer, PCT hikers passing through the park do not need to detour off the trail to obtain permits for backcountry camping. Instead, you are simply asked to sign the trail registers when entering and/or exiting the park. Registers are found at the southern boundary, when entering from the Sky Lakes Wilderness, and the northern boundary, when entering from Hwy 138 and/or the Mt. Thielsen Wilderness.
Once you’ve entered the park, you have the option of proceeding on either the PCT, or the popular Rim Trail alternate route (more scenic). All PCT hikers must adhere to the park’s strict backcountry camping regulations, including some new restrictions going into effect in 2021. (Look for that update soon.)
Only those beginning a hiking trip, and leaving a vehicle within the park boundary, must still obtain a backcountry permit. This is largely in order to prevent the park from towing your vehicle. These permits are available in-person at the ranger station at the Steele Visitor Center on Munson Valley Road. Due to uncertain situations with regards to COVID restrictions this summer, the park recommends that you call (541-594-3000) with questions ahead of your hike, and avoid in-person visits to visitor centers and ranger stations. You can also get more info at CRLA.
Central Cascades Wilderness Areas
The big change coming to Oregon in 2021 will be the requirement of all overnight backpackers and PCT section-hikers to obtain a backcountry permit for entry into the Central Cascades wilderness areas. This includes the Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson* areas. This new permit program was set to go into effect in 2020, but was delayed due to COVID restrictions and forest closures. PCT thru-hikers holding a long-distance permit are exempt from the Central Cascades permit requirements.
This new permit system went through several years of development and review. (You can read more about it here.) While the final form of the new system eliminated the exorbitant fees, it still imposes significant limits on the number of hikers that can enter each area per day. It also significantly limits flexibility, which can be crucial during multiweek hikes, and your ability to respond to personal situations, food or equipment issues, or weather conditions.
Central Cascades wilderness permits will be available starting April 6. For more info on how the new system works, trailhead quotas and how to get your permit, visit our Permits Page.
Many outdoor organizations have expressed concern over how the new permit system will impact visitors’ ability to explore their public lands in Oregon’s Central Cascades wilderness areas. Matt Peterson, Recreation Program Manager with Willamette National Forest has indicated that this new system “emphasize[s] the need for adaptive management … so we expect to learn a lot this first year and will take a hard look at making changes based on what we see.”
Hikers interested in including some or all of the Central Cascades area in an overnight or section-hike should start planning now. The first round of advance reservation permits for the 2021 season will be made available on April 6 at 7am (PST). Permits will be available through the recreation.gov website, or by calling 877-444-6777. The remaining number of permits will be available up to seven days in advance of each quota day. To ensure your ability to get a permit, have a few options for starting dates and trailheads. Midweek starts are often easier to acquire than weekend starts.
For those interested in a complete thru-hike across Oregon, from Donomore Pass (south border) to Cascade Locks (north border), you should consider obtaining a PCTA long-distance permit. This will grant you permission to hike through all of Oregon’s wilderness areas—including the Central Cascades—without the need of obtaining other permits, and giving you the flexibility needed for a multiweek hike. PCTA does not currently have a limit on how many permits they can issue for crossing Oregon, however there is a catch.
The caveat is that you will need to add at least 45 miles to your hike to qualify for a long-distance permit, as these are only issued to hikers traveling 500+ consecutive trail miles—and Oregon is only 455 miles. The easiest way to do this (northbound) is to start in Seiad Valley, California (at Hwy 96), and finish near Stabler, Washington (at Wind River Hwy). This creates a total trip length (not counting detours, alternates or side trips) of 523 miles. After all, if you’re already planning on being out on the trail for several weeks, what’s a few more days? For more info about long-distance permits, visit PCTA.
Regardless of how many days, weeks or months you plan on hiking the PCT in Oregon this summer, the best thing you can do is start planning now. This will likely be an unusual year as we start to come out of the pandemic period. There may be a significant increase in trail traffic, as everyone suffering from cabin fever for the last year may flock to the outdoors once summer rolls in. If you can, get your permits well in advance, and be flexible where you can. When on trail this summer, be extra diligent about Leaving No Trace, and above all, be safe for yourself and others. Happy hiking!
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*As of this posting, wilderness managers are uncertain of the condition or accessibility of the PCT in Mount Jefferson area this year, due to damage done by the 2020 Lionshead Fire. PCT: Oregon will provide updates as more information becomes available.
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