TRAIL NEWS // PERMITS

Remaining Central Cascades Overnight Wilderness Permits Coming This Weekend

This summer, the hot ticket in town isn’t Billie Eilish or the Craft Beer Festival, it’s your local campground or wilderness destination. Even with COVID vaccine distribution increasing, slow and varying restrictions continue to keep the return of many forms of travel and entertainment uncertain at best. This is resulting—for better or worse—in more people turning to their local outdoors. And that was evidenced last month with the release of the first round of new Central Cascades wilderness permits—and how quickly they were snatched up.

After a yearlong delay, the new Central Cascades wilderness permit system launched last month through Recreation.gov. This was the first chance for hikers to secure overnight permits for trips this summer in Oregon’s Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson wilderness areas. As could be expected, most permits for the prime hiking months of July and August were gone within the first few hours. Those who weren’t on the ball were left with scattered weekdays or remote trailheads to choose from. Fortunately, this was only 40% of the total number of overnight permits available for summer hiking. This Saturday, May 22, Recreation.gov will start offering the season’s remaining permits on a rolling, 7-day advance window.

NOTE: PCT hikers holding a PCTA-issued long-distance permit are not required to obtain a Central Cascades wilderness permit to pass thru.

Mixed Reviews on Launch of Permit System

The new permit system was met with mixed reactions among Oregon’s hiking community. Many of those familiar with reserving permits in other high-demand forests and wilderness areas were able secure summer hiking permits with little challenge—except for jockeying for the best trailheads. Those who were new to the system had a little more difficulty. Overall, according to Matt Peterson, Recreation Program Manager for Willamette National Forest, the new permit system started well. “There were more than 4,000 successful reservations made in the first couple days,” Peterson shared. “We’ll be monitoring how the system performs, and will be making adjustments to ensure people can get their permits.”

Those who were not able to secure a permit were less enthusiastic with the new system, and its mechanics. “[This is the] strangest permit system ever!” says Lauri Ann, a member of the PCT Section Hikers Facebook group. “Each night you [select], a permit is deleted from each consecutive day. You [can] only request as many consecutive nights as their [are] permits available on the days after your entry date. I have never seen that before.”

Eric Badzinski, a PCT section-hiker, shared a similar frustration, “I wanted to hike on the PCT for seven days, starting at PCT Santiam. Unfortunately, all [the] overnight permits were gone for that trailhead on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. [For PCT hikers], only the entry day should be counted.” He continues, sharing what many others feel about the new system’s limitations, “The reservation system doesn’t know [PCT hikers will] only be in an area for one day. They are limiting access to  areas [hikers may not even] be in.” It’s a valid point.

Navigating the Central Cascades Permit Portal

For those familiar with the permit systems of other premiere backcountry destinations, the new Central Cascades system works a little differently. In other systems, per-person quotas are allotted to each trailhead or backcountry destination, you choose what’s available and, in most cases, can hike for up to 14 days. In the Central Cascades system, per-group* quotas are allotted to each trailhead, but each quota is also dependent on how many came before you, and/or how many are coming after you, regardless of whether they even stay in the area. So, while you might look at the Central Cascades permit calendar and find an available entry on a Tuesday, if there is not an open Wednesday following, you’re limited to just the one night. That’s because Wednesday’s allotment has been taken up, and is blocking you from extending your trip.

It’s an aggressive quota system that significantly limits the number of hikers who can camp overnight in the Central Cascades backcountry. It also makes planning and carrying out multiday hikes extremely challenging, and ensures that there will be quite a few summer days when there will be no overnight entries permitted at all. And forget about spontaneous trips. “We considered travel patterns, both into an area and out of it, when developing the quotas,” says Peterson. “The average trip length is only 2 to 3 nights, so if folks are flexible in their starting trailheads and starting dates, it will be easier to find available trips.” Perhaps—unless you’re a PCT section-hiker.

Unfortunately, those who are interested in section-hiking a portion of the PCT in Oregon, that includes the Central Cascades areas, are subject to the limitations of the new system. Not only does it severely limit your ability to enter these wilderness areas on any given day, it makes planning a multiweek hike a logistical nightmare. And while Peterson concedes that the PCT entry points (Irish–Taylor TH on the south end, and Breitenbush TH on the north end) have higher quotas, it cannot be ignored that the new system staggers PCT access for section-hikers so severely that it may not let any hikers enter the Central Cascades areas for many days at a time.

How to Get Your 7-Day Advance Permit

If you weren’t able to score an early season permit for the Central Cascades, and you’re willing to give it a try, your next option is to go for a 7-day advance permit. These permits will be made available starting on May 22, 2021, for trips starting from May 28, 2021. Permits will be made available every day on a rolling, 7-day window. With most area ranger stations still closed to the public due to COVID safety restrictions, permits are only available through Recreation.gov, or by calling 1-877-444-6777. 

In addition, the Forest Service has posted an extensive information page about how the permit system works, with an FAQ Page, trailhead quotas list and thru-hikers info sheet. And while you probably won’t be planning any PCT thru-hikes quite yet to jump on the site this weekend for a May permit, here’s a quick rundown of how it works to help you get ready for the time you want:

  1. Log onto Recreation.gov and search for “Central Cascades Wilderness 7-Day Advance Overnight Permits.”
  2. Choose your desired entry date. This must be no more than 7 days in advance. Click “Check Availability.”
  3. In the new window, choose the wilderness area you wish to enter. When the appropriate calendar appears, find the trailhead you wish to start at. If there are permits available, these nights will be highlighted in blue, with the number of permits available in the window.
  4. Select your desired starting date for your first night. Then SELECT EVERY NIGHT FOLLOWING that you want to be out, up to 13 nights. Example: If you want to start on 7/20 and want to be out for three nights, select 7/20, 7/21 and 7/22.
  5. Once you’ve selected all the nights you want to be out, click “Book Now.” If there are not enough nights available for your desired trip, you may need to select an alternate trailhead, or wait until the next day for more permits to become available.
  6. Follow the instructions to purchase your permit. At the completion of the process, print out your permit reservation confirmation—THIS IS NOT YOUR PERMIT!
  7. Within 14 days of your trip start date, return to Recreation.gov and PRINT YOUR ACTUAL PERMIT. Carry this with you on your trip.

If you need to change your reservation (e.g., group size, exit date, etc.), or cancel your reservation, you can click the link in your confirmation email. If you’re not going to make your trip for any reason, please be courteous and CANCEL YOUR RESERVATION. This will return those permit days to the pool, and open them up for another hiker to use.

This sample calendar shows the permit availability for the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness for 7/20 through 7/29. With most weekend days taken, trips starting before the weekend could only be as long as active permits are available. Example: A trip start at PCT Santiam on 7/20 could only be three nights long, because all weekend permits have been taken.

How the 7-Day Advance Permit System Works

So you have an idea of what you’re looking at on the permit reservation calendar, and so you can plan accordingly, the following is an example of how the 7-day advance permit system works. This may help you be ready to apply for the permit you want, when the appropriate time comes.

  • On 5/22, permits for trip starts on 5/28 are made available; you can choose up to 13 nights.
  • On 5/23, permits for trip starts on 5/29 are made available; remaining starts on 5/28 are still available.
  • On 5/24, permits for trip starts on 5/30 are made available; remaining starts on 5/28 and 5/29 are still available, and so on.
  • If a trailhead with a quota of three groups/starts becomes available on 5/28, and all three permits are taken for one night each, the next available permits will be on 5/29.
  • If a trailhead with a quota of three groups/starts becomes available on 5/28, and all three permits are taken for three nights each, the next available permits won’t be until 5/31.
  • For PCT section-hikers, if the Irish–Taylor TH (south entry) has a quota of six groups/entries on any day, and all six permits are taken, the next available permits won’t be until these start to expire. Example: On 5/28, three permits for six nights, two for eight nights, and one for ten nights take all six of the permits available for that day. The next available permits won’t be until 6/3, and then only three permits will be available (for the expiring 6-night permits). If those three permits are taken for multiple nights, the next available permits after that won’t be until 6/5 (for the expiring 8-night permits), and so on.

If you’re looking at section-hiking the PCT through the Central Cascades, you’ll need to be quick on the draw to snag the dates you want. Having a backup plan will be beneficial. If you’re not able to secure the Central Cascades wilderness permit you want, you may need to make alternate hiking plans this summer. Thankfully, there’s plenty of other great places to hike in Oregon, both on other sections of the PCT that don’t require permits, and in other fantastic locations.

Share Your Feedback About the Permit System

How was your experience with the new Central Cascades wilderness permit system? Did you get the permits you wanted? Share your feedback with the Forest Service. They have built in an adaptive management plan to make improvements in the system where necessary. State your case, but be courteous and respectful. There are ways to ensure the integrity of Oregon’s wilderness areas, disperse crowds and minimize impact that don’t require shutting hikers out of their public lands. // #RecreateResponsibly

Eli "Lounger" Boschetto

Eli "Lounger" Boschetto

Eli is the founder of PCT: Oregon, and the author of three Mountaineers Books guides: Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon, Day Hiking: Mount Hood, and Urban Trails: Portland. He is also a brand ambassador for SPOT and National Geographic Maps, and is on the advisory council for the Oregon Trails Coalition. Eli lives in Portland, Oregon.

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*The Central Cascades permit system, in accordance with wilderness guidelines, considers a “group” to be anywhere from 1 to 12 persons. According to the 2018 CCWSP Environmental Assessment, the average group size among Central Cascades hikers is 2.5 persons.

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