Ah, everyone’s favorite outdoor topic: permits, lotteries, and reservation systems!

Permits are a necessarily step to regulate the amount of traffic in fragile environments and I fully support them. Just imagine what our beautiful Enchantments Zone would be like without them! Saying I support them though, doesn’t mean I don’t have frustrations around how some of these systems operate.

Now that we’re into February, permits and reservations are a big topic since many popular locations like Mount Rainier, the Enchantments, and the Olympics will be opening lotteries and reservation systems soon. Poor Mount St Helens already had a disastrous opening for climbing permits that is still in process of being sorted.

Probably one of the most famous permit lotteries in Washington State: The Enchantments Zone. Permit systems help regulate traffic in fragile environments like these, though I have a feeling day use may soon get scrutinized.

Here’s a quick commentary on the current state of permits as well as a little how-to guide on upcoming dates for important area lotteries and reservations.

When Systems Fail

There’s a lot to know when it comes to snagging wilderness permits and sometimes systems fail in frustrating ways. In 2016, Mount Rainier’s reservation system suffered a catastrophic outage and all permits for the year became first-come, first-served only until they were able to launch a new system in 2017.

Last week Mount St Helens climbing permits went on sale at 9am on February 1st and more than 11,000 people, nearly triple prior years, not surprisingly brought their website down. Many were angry when they couldn’t pay for permits already in their cart then found them no longer available when they hit refresh.

The Mount St Helens Institute suspended sales, endured a lot of angry comments, has been overwhelmed by phone calls and messages, and will be re-opening permit sales with a new processor on February 26th at 9am.

Almost all of our National Parks and wilderness areas have seen an explosion in the number of people not only visiting but also applying for permits. All of this demand can cause a lot of confusion and headaches. However, it’s simply not practical to expect an organization like the Mount St Helens Institute to spend gobs of money on IT infrastructure to handle a one-day spike in traffic. Even large companies like Ticketmaster can’t deal with demand for big events, so how can we expect our parks to?

I also don’t think it’s fair for advanced reservation systems to jeopardize walk-in permits and the ability to plan a spur-of-the-moment adventure. Most reservation systems do still allow a percentage of walk-in permits, but in some places they’re very limited. For instance, last year the North Cascades rolled out a pilot system for securing advanced reservations for 60% of their popular sites but since many of these areas have single sites (many on Ross Lake and the East Bank trail) that makes a lot of sites 100% reservable and potentially unavailable for walk-ins.

Last year when we tried to plan a Ross Lake kayak camping trip it was frustrating to not be able to see what single sites weren’t fully reserved ahead of time since the current system gives you no visibility into availability. It’s one thing to show up in person and know you have some walk-in odds. It’s another to show up and find out all the single sites were already reserved but you had no way to know! Even Olympic National Park is rolling out reservations this year for 100% of the quota in some areas, which I hugely dislike.

One thing Mount St Helens did get right this year? They’re now saving 10% of each month’s permits to release on the last day of the month prior. Meaning, if you want to climb in June, you might be able to do some short-term planning and secure one of 10% of the month’s permits on May 31st. Let’s just hope they work out the kinks in their system before then!

So what’s the right answer?

Why Lotteries Win

I’m a huge supporter of lottery systems, especially when they keep a fair percentage of permits for walk-ins and short-term planners.

The Enchantments has been doing it for years and it’s as fair a system as you can implement. Mount Rainier also runs a lottery and the North Cascades jumped into the game with their pilot reservation program last year as well, my only issue being with single site reservations.

Lotteries are great in that you have a several week window to submit your application and can pick 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choice dates. There’s no pressure to be on a website making reservations at a specific time. At the end of the submission period, applications are randomly drawn from the pool and winners have a window of time to approve their selections. Any remaining spots are then open for first-come, first-serve reservations.

Popular trail running events have been operating on a lottery basis for years and even give weight to those who have entered year after year and remain unselected. Imagine how nice that would be for those of us who have been burned by the Enchantments lottery for the 6th year in a row!

Below is a guide to upcoming permit and lottery dates and the specifics around certain coveted areas.

Happy permitting season everyone!

Washington State Permitting and Lottery Guide

Mount Rainier National Park

70% of wilderness permits at Mount Rainier are reservable and the park accepts reservations between March 15th-March 31st. On April 1st all reservations received will be processed in random order and winners will be notified several weeks later. After April 1st reservations are processed in the order received. After September 30th, all permits are first-come, first-served and must be issued in person. There is a non-refundable $20 fee for permit applications. The park will only review one full-circuit Wonderland Trip request per person.

Mount Rainier Wilderness Permits

North Cascades National Park

Last year the North Cascades debuted a pilot program that allowed advanced reservations for up to 60% of sites in certain areas of the park and works similar to Mount Rainier’s lottery system. Remaining areas are available the day before or day of on a first-come, first-served basis.

Advanced reservations can be submitted for Ross Lake, Diablo Lake, Copper Ridge area, Cascade Pass area, Stehekin area, and climbing areas around Shuksan, Forbidden, Sharkfin, Eldorado, and Triumph. Reservations are accepted between March 15th and March 31st for camping dates between May 15 – September 30 and will be processed in random order beginning April 1st. After April 1 reservations will be processed in the order received. There is a non-refundable $20 fee for permit applications. Just be aware that single sites along Ross Lake and the East Bank are all now fully reservable and there’s no insight into whether they’re available as walk-ins or not unless you visit the permit office or are able to reach someone by phone.

All permits are available through the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount. If you’re not passing through Marblemount, you can get permits at a number of other ranger stations (Golden West in Stehekin, Glacier, Sedro-Woolley, Methow Valley Visitor Center, or Chelan Ranger Station).

General North Cascades Permit Information
North Cascades Backcountry Reservation Information

Olympic National Park

New in 2018, The Wilderness Information Center will begin accepting wilderness permit reservations for quota areas on February 15th for the entire reservation period: May 1st – September 30th. The permit fee is $8 per person per night. Annual wilderness passes are $45 per person. This does NOT seem to be a lottery system but instead a first-email, first-serve advanced reservation process. They’re also making 100% of certain quotas reservable, which I hugely disagree with. It will be interesting to see how it goes.

100% of the quota is reservable for: Ozette Coast, Royal Basin, Lake Constance, Upper Lena Lake and Flapjack Lakes. 50% of the quota is reservable for Grand and Badger Valleys, Sol Duc/Seven Lakes Basin/Mink Lake, Hot Lake and C.B. Flats, and Hot River Trail.

Olympic National Park’s New Backcountry Reservation System
Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Trip Planner

Mount St. Helens Mount Margaret Backcountry

Eight campsites in Mount St Helen’s beautiful Mount Margaret backcountry are available via advanced reservation only through Recreation.gov. Permits typically go on sale March 19th.

Mount Margaret Backcountry Permits

Enchantments Area Wilderness Permits

Due to overwhelming popularity, I’m sure most PNW’ers are familiar with the Enchantments permit process. A pre-season lottery is held February 15th – March 2nd of each year to allocate 75% of the overnight permits required between Mary 15 – October 31. Applications will be randomly drawn March 13th and any unclaimed permits are returned to the reservation system on April 1st. Daily walk-in permits can be obtained (except Sundays) at the Wenatchee River Ranger District Office in Leavenworth at 7:45am. Demand usually exceeds availability and during peak season if more people are present than permits available, a drawing is held to distribute the walk-in permits.

Permit applications for the Enchantments has exploded from 2,802 in 2011 to over 20k in 2017 and you can check out this PDF for some interesting statistics.

Enchantments Zone Permit Information