PCT Section Hikers Lose Big in Final Decision on Central Cascades Wilderness Access
Beginning in 2020, the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests’ new permit and quota system will only allow a handful of PCT section hikers to enter the Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson wilderness areas each day. Hikers will be required to enter and exit on specific days—and pay multiple fees to do it—in a new central cascades wilderness access system that’s more restrictive than most popular national parks.
This article was updated 6.12.19 with new information provided by Willamette National Forest.
After more than two years in the works, the Willamette and Deschutes national forests have released their final decision in the Central Cascades Wilderness Study Project. This project sought to identify high-impact areas in central Oregon’s wilderness areas, and implement solutions to address issues such as overuse and damage to the environment. Following the mandatory public comment period, and numerous gatherings with concerned outdoor communities and organizations (including PCT: Oregon), the final decision made a few amendments to the initial draft decision released last fall, but moves forward on imposing forest-wide limits on day hikers, overnight backpackers, and PCT section hikers.
Beginning in 2020, access to popular trails in the Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson wilderness areas will be significantly restricted by a new permit and quota system. This system will implement daily limits on 19 trailheads for dayhikers and 79 trailheads for overnight backpackers. (See pages 20–22 of the final decision for the complete list.) For PCT section-hikers, entry into these wilderness areas from the southern boundary (Irish-Taylor Lakes) and the northern boundary (Breitenbush Lake) will be limited to just a few hikers per day. Hikers wishing to access, or hike through, these wilderness areas will need to acquire a new entry permit, and time their entry and exit to specific days—or risk being fined.
How the New Permit System Affects PCT Hikers
Depending on how you want to hike the PCT—dayhike vs. weekend backpack vs. multi-week section hike—the new permit and quota system will have varying effects. Some will be more challenging than others. The chart below lists the 20 trailheads with direct access to the PCT, or are a reasonable distance from the PCT. Here’s the rundown:
If you’re just interested in taking a stroll on the PCT for a few miles, there are 10 trailheads that will fall under the new permit and quota system. This will include popular trailheads such as Sisters Mirror Lake, McKenzie Pass, and Pamelia Lake (Jefferson Park). Permits for these trailheads will be issued on an “individual” basis. This means if you’re a group or family of four, you will need to acquire four permits. There are 10 more trailheads with access to the PCT that will not require a permit. These include Six Lakes, Elk Lake and Woodpecker (Jefferson Park). Unfortunately, just because a trailhead won’t require a permit doesn’t mean it will be easy to get to. Many of these trailheads are only accessible via rough roads that may not be suitable for passenger vehicles.
For those looking for a weekend or multiday getaway on the PCT in the affected wilderness areas, you will need to obtain an overnight wilderness permit for all trailheads with access to the PCT. The number of daily permits granted for each trailhead varies, with most offering fewer than 10 permits per day, regardless of which direction you may be traveling, or what your intended destination is. These permits will be granted on a “group” basis. The Forest Service considers a group to be anything from 1 to 12 people, so if you’re a party or family of four, you will only need to obtain one permit. These wilderness permits will allow you freedom to move within (and out of) all three restricted wilderness areas.
PCT Section-Hikers (starts)
If you are wanting to start a PCT section-hike (less than 500 miles) anywhere within the three limited wilderness areas, such as Elk Lake or Santiam Pass, you will have to adhere to the same rules as PCT Backpackers (see previous). You will need to obtain a permit (good for up to 12 people) to start at your preferred trailhead. You will then be able to hike the PCT north or south, out of the restricted area, to your destination of choice. Section hikers, both starting and passing thru (see next) will be free to move and camp anywhere within the wilderness areas without restriction, but are required to move between wilderness areas only via the PCT.
PCT Section-Hikers (pass-thru)
Unfortunately, the new permit and quota system disproportionately penalizes this type of PCT section-hiker—those hiking long distances, but less than 500 miles and don’t qualify for a long-distance permit (see next). For those starting their hikes at locations south or north of the newly restricted wilderness areas—such as Crater Lake or Mount Hood—and only needing pass-thru permission, you will be required to obtain one of the few daily entry permits for the southern (Irish-Taylor Lakes) or northern (Breitenbush Lake) wilderness boundaries—and time your entry and exit to the dates of your permit.
This allows little to no flexibility to adjust your hike in cases of bad weather, trail issues, injuries, etc. If you’re delayed by a day or two to replace a busted water filter, or have to slow down due to a nasty blister, you’ll need to make up that time to meet your specified entry date or you’re SOL. If you’re moving faster than anticipated and you arrive at the wilderness boundary early, before your entry date, too bad. Look around for somewhere to camp and wait for your specified date before proceeding. Once you enter the restricted area, you’ll then need to pass thru and exit on or before your permit end date.
PCT hikers holding a PCTA-issued thru-hiking permit (500+ miles) will be given free and unlimited access to pass through the restricted wilderness areas. However, thru-hikers will have an additional restriction placed on their passage now, and will be required to camp within the designated “PCT Corridor.” This is 1/2 mile east and west of the PCT. PCT thru-hikers will be permitted to deviate from the PCT for side trips and detours, but will not be permitted to camp at destinations such as Snowshoe Lakes, Mink and Porky Lakes, Horse Lake, Linton Meadow, Hunts Cove and Pamelia Lake. These camp locations, being farther than 1/2 mile from the PCT, will be considered out of bounds. In addition, PCT thru-hikers are no longer permitted to camp in the Obsidian area, at North and South Mathieu Lakes, Coyote and Shale Lakes, and Jefferson Park.
How the New Permit System Will Work
Many of the details about how the new permit system will work—and what fees will be imposed on permits—are yet to be determined. The Forest Service has confirmed that the majority of permits will be made accessible via the recreation.gov portal. An unknown percentage of each trailhead’s permits may be made accessible via walk-in availability—if the local ranger station is even open. (Many are closed on weekends and holidays—the most popular days for hiking.) What the Forest Service will be doing to prevent abuse of the permit system is also unknown. What is known is that each permit will require two fees: one for the actual permit, aptly named the “wilderness stewardship fee,” and one to reserve the permit. According to the Forest Service, this new stewardship fee will replace the need for a NW Forest Pass trailhead parking permit—but the details of exactly how have not been finalized yet. Some additional ideas the Forest Service is considering are annual passes and volunteer passes, but even these will be bound to the reservation and quota system.
It’s Not Over Yet. Take Action!
The next stage of the process is about to begin, where the Forest Service must present its plans to the public for how the permit system will work, and what the fee structure will be. This process will review topics such as how many permits should be reservable, how many should be saved for spontaneous trips, and what the cancellation policies should be. Once presented, the public will have an opportunity to provide feedback, which the Forest Service will take into consideration before making a final decision and rolling out the new system. However, if things proceed as planned, beginning in 2020, it is very likely that we will see significantly reduced—and potentially more expensive—access to the PCT.
If any of this concerns you as a hiker, it’s not too late to make your voice heard. Watch the project’s web page, and/or sign up for email alerts so you can stay informed of the permit/fee proposal. If the Forest Service holds public information meetings to present the permit/fee proposal, be sure to attend one so you can voice any concerns you may have. If you can’t make it to a meeting, send a letter. If you’re an Oregon resident, you can also call your local, state and federal representatives and express your concerns about these actions, and being restricted and charged for accessing your public lands. Only by raising your voice—politely—can we make a case for maintaining our wilderness areas’ integrity and ensuring equitable access to them.
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