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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.

Map showing overnight permit quotas for all trailheads with access to the PCT. Click on the map for full coverage area.

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:

PCT Dayhikers

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.

PCT Backpackers

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 Thru-Hikers

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.

pct three sisters south matthieu lake
PCT thru-hikers will no longer be permitted to camp at the Matthieu Lakes in the Three Sisters Wilderness.
Also off limits: Obsidian, 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 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.

If you have questions or comments, please leave them below.

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32 thoughts on “PCT Section Hikers Lose Big in Central Cascades Wilderness Access”

  1. I am tired of how hikers (day to section to through) are destroying the beauty of the back country with their demonstration of no regard. For example…pooping anywhere they want; leaving camp debris either brought in from man, or their pet; scrambling where ever and when ever they feel like like hence mangling the flora; cutting a switchback/ making shortcuts; and using the great outdoors as their ‘god-given’ right to be be pigs. I also hate that some of these hikers will ‘smoke’ without any regard to where they are and the potential to start a wilderness fire.
    Having a registration and significant fee system will help to reduce the crap some hikers do… and also to know who’s in each area at any time. Violators need to get a huge tickets. If a person can afford to buy all the specialized and expensive equipment, and don’t follow the rules ; they can pay the fine.
    Thanks for this. I truly appreciate the plan!

  2. This is absolutely disheartening news! I have been wanting to hike the Oregon PCT for many moons, and finally everything has alligned for me to do so….kids are older, time off available from work, incredible support from my wife. I have been collecting information and gear for the last few months in anticipation of heading out July 2020. I’m still not completely clear how this will affect me, but I have many concerns. I plan on beginning at Donomore Pass, and ending at the Bridge of the Gods. Does this mean I will need to pay attention to my timing through these wilderness areas and purchase permits to pass thru? Would it make more sense to add on a little mileage, making it a 500+ mile hike vs a 455 mile hike so that I can obtain the long distance permit and reduce some of the headache? I’m utterly confused and irritated to say the least! I pray there is a change in the proposed action. Ugh..

    1. Yes, if you’re planning a cross-Oregon section-hike, you will need to time your entry and exit in the restricted area. This is where flexibility goes out the window. To be on the safe side, and have more flexibility, you may want to consider a 500+ permit and starting in CA or ending in WA. Of course, this permit comes with camping restrictions in the restricted area, so you have to weigh the pros with the cons.

  3. It was bound to happen, and the practice will expand north and south. For those of us who have hiked this section, we can now refer to it as “the golden age of the PCT.” May it RIP.

  4. I am trying to understand this new policy.
    So if I am a section hiker and I plan my hike and purchase a 15-day permit, but I complete my hike in 12 days, I am forced to camp for 3 more days before I can exit the wilderness area?? How does that lessen impact? Conversely, I face fines if I become sick, injured, or sustain any number of delays that can plague a hiker, and I am unable to meet my exit deadline on the 15th day??
    We are people, not robots, who are trying to enjoy a public trail in public lands. If these are truly the conditions soon to be imposed, they are setting many many users up for failure.

    1. To clarify: You can only enter the restricted wilderness area on the date your permit grants entry, not sooner. You can exit any time before your granted end date. You don’t have to stay. But you will be considered in violation of your permit if you overstay your time in the restricted area.

  5. JohnWayne Kenneth Pool

    Increase permits to at least fifteen, if not twenty. Allow thru-hikers to camp in Jefferson Park and rid of their 1/2 mile restriction!

  6. Monique Schaefers

    I am curious to know if this kind of restriction is being looked at in California and/or Washington as well. It seems a pretty large swath of Oregon is being restricted.

    1. Permits requirements in the most popular California locations—JMT, Desolation Wilderness—have been increasing in recent years. While Washington does have pretty strict permit requirements in areas such as the Enchantments and the Wonderland Trail, they haven’t impacted the PCT…Yet.

  7. I am saddened by the new permit system but over the past 10 years the amount of feces/trash has skyrocketed. The area has seen huge increases in the number of day hikers and thru hikers . It appears most of those are not practicing “leave no trace ethics” based on what is left behind and the wilderness has suffered immensely.

  8. Once the bastards get a fee in place it will only go up, we’re taxed to pay for the government then we have to pay to enter public lands, what a croc of bullshit!

      1. how about the forest service take some responsibility for bastardizing the Northwest Forest Pass when they voluntarily reduced appropriations for upkeep that the NWFP was never intended to support or sustain (it was panned to the public as a way to collect funds to address maintenance backlogs at the site it was collected). Treat increased usage as a huge opportunity to win a new generation of people to support them, instead of looking at public lands users as problems and monetization pools. Stop decomissioning miles of trail in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness over the last 20 years while shrugging their shoulders, saying the wilderness is a fixed resource, people aren’t disbursing enough, and complaining about less budget?

        F the FS. I have zero respect for the institution. They laid waste to our public lands for decades clear cutting and road building, now they act like some sanctimonious protectors of nature when there’s an increase of feet on the ground.

  9. I don’t like this. I started the PCT years ago, I’m old now, but I still want to do little bits of it. I need maximum flexibility to go slow, turn around, or stay put. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to exit at the time required. On the other hand I’m careful, quiet, and respectful, I wouldn’t damage anything. I should be able to have more options. The whole idea of wilderness is freedom, not schedules and restricted areas.

  10. What does this do to stock and trail riders who use the PCT to access areas and lakes on or near the PCT?

    1. Equestrians will be held to the same permit and quota requirements as hikers and backpackers. See page 11 in the Final Notice. The only user groups given exceptions are thru-hikers holding 500+ mile permits, and some seasonal hunters.

  11. Thank you for the reply!
    So if I acquire the 500+ permit, are the camping restricted areas short enough to travel completely through them in a day to be able to camp in a nonrestricted area? I hope that make sense. I am in the process of getting to know the area and familiarizing myself with mileages, terrain, and whatnot.

    1. Yes, you shouldn’t have a problem if you can do a 10–12-mile day. In the Three Sisters Wilderness, south of Obsidian, there’s good camping at Reese Lake, then north, between Obsidian and Matthieu Lakes, there’s good camping near Minnie Scott Spring. Then you can camp at Lava Camp Lake, or north of there near the Washington Ponds. In the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness, there’s some really scenic spots for dry camping near the Hunts Cove junction. Then going north, you can camp at Whitewater Creek, and in the basin above Jefferson Park.

  12. If EVERYONE practices No Trace Camping, I seriously doubt this would ever be an issue. WHERE you camp, and HOW you camp are the questions you must ask yourself each and every day on the trail. And it’s extremely easy to do! Just before you head out in the morning, turn around and have a look. If there is any sign at all you were there…fix it. Alas, there are far too many morons on the trail these days, so…heavy regulation. Like I said before…I can remember when…

  13. People behave in ways such that they deserve to lose unfettered access. It won’t be beautiful for anyone if it keeps getting littered, trampled and shat upon. And hopefully, the fees will work to deter a number of people from going at all.

  14. Scott Matheson

    Have you, or has anyone, asked the pcta whether they might restrict access to the pcta long-distance permit for oregon hiking in the future? I ask because in the other places where land use managers have overuse concerns (the southernmost hundred miles, the jmt overlap) there are restrictions on getting pcta long-distance permits. Northbound permits starting in the first 100 miles are subject to a quota, as are section-hike permits for travel through the jmt overlap; it would not surprise me to see something similar being considered for sections passing through northern oregon. The pcta could be contemplating it for next year, even, and we wouldn’t know about it until this fall. And as people use the pcta permit as a substitute for the new oregon permit regime, I would say restrictions on the pcta permit will become more likely. So I don’t thing we can take for granted that hikers will be able to avoid the consequences of this decision by taking out a 500-mile permit.

    1. The PCTA is very aware of this situation and its potential repercussions. We will be speaking with them soon and sharing any information we can gather to this effect.

  15. What are the dollars of these new “fees”? How much will it cost for a section hiker or a thru hiker? How is all of this going to be monitored and who is going to “police” this? Will there be “authorities” at each trailhead making sure there are no rule breakers? If I were to get a thru hike permit, how would they know where I truly started? I agree that we are not robots and can’t predict when we start and stop something. It seems to me that these restrictions are just going to discourage people from enjoying Oregon. I am seriously considering taking my hike elsewhere. (which would impact Oregon’s economy in the end)

  16. I live in Bend, and I hate to say it, but this was inevitable. Our population has exploded, and access to the backcountry around Three Sisters is only 30-40 minutes away from town, depending on where you’re going. A lot of people who access the backcountry from Bend are not Leave No Trace types. Combine these things and you have overuse and trash/pollution issues. I’m guessing something similar has happened in the Mt. Jefferson area. I’m going to try and do the Willamette Pass-Mackenzie Pass section of the PCT this year (in two trips), and then I’m done with hiking in this area.

    1. Links are available in the post for Facebook and Twitter. You can also just copy/paste the page URL. Cheers!

  17. I hiked the PCT in 2017 and went back to do trail maintenance in 2018. I would like to hike the PCT again on 2020 or 2021. Since I have hiked the PCT I can tell you, all of you including the Forest Service, that it is NOT the thru-hikers or the section hikers that is the problem. You will not find a more conscientious, respectful group of people who appreciate nature and want to enjoy it as well as leave it in pristine condition for those who follow. I was amazed to see how clean the PCT is and to see people carry a candy wrapper 500 miles to the next trash can. I did walk upon several sites on or near roads (i.e easy access) where there was obvious abuse and a lack of respect for nature and other hiker/campers. While I truly do not know, I do believe that those responsible were the local day hikers (to use the Hiker term loosely) or shall more aptly say we say the party people (listen closely…drinkers and pot smokers) who are responsible. It is obvious that the real issue is the easy access to lakes, rivers and campgrounds that allow additional access to wilderness areas where some people will go and do as they please without regard for the wilderness or other people. In my estimation this plan will not solve the problem of not practicing “leave no trace” while using our public lands. I will drive visitors out of your state. Perhaps the fee system and limited use policy should apply to the easy access areas. There should be a real workable plan to limit abuse instead of a veiled attempt to punish those who appreciate the PCT the most.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Dan. We wholeheartedly agree. Last summer, we served on the Granite Gear Grounds Keepers team and picked up trail trash along 250 miles of the PCT in Oregon. We found less than a baggie-full through each of the backcountry wilderness sections. The places we found the most garbage was in front country camp areas. We continue to try to impress this upon the forest agencies that are trying to impose these limits.

  18. I thru hiked the AT, would love to do PCT a state at a time, a year at a time. Don’t really want to do a whole thru again. All i gotta say is, they can try and “regulate” wilderness access all they want, but we all know there is absolutely NO manpower to enforce access to hikers. If a ranger were to try and stop me and ask for my “papers” I would keep walking, because you are supposed to be absolutely free in the wilderness. Screw permits, I’ll hike where I want, fine me and I’ll never pay, good luck arresting me 20 miles from the nearest anything. Regulations and permits be damned, don’t punish the many for the sins of the few. Catch me if you can beaurocrats. Freedom to travel – period.

  19. I’m a bit confused. Suppose I want to access the PCT for a day hike from a trail not listed on the table, like Marion Lake. No quota, no fee, so just go ? And what about if I want to climb Mt Jefferson ? How do you permit that ?

    1. There are many more trailheads not listed in the article that will also be limited. Click on the link for the final USFS decision to see the full list. Many popular trailheads will also be limited for day hiking. As for climbing Mt. Jeff, we don’t have any specific info, but most of the trailheads that access the mountain will be limited.

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