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Tips and Tricks

Navigating Wilderness Permits and Lotteries

Updated for 2020!

If you want to climb Mount St. Helens, spend a few nights in the Enchantments, or backpack on the Wonderland Trail, you’re probably not alone.

Getting a permit for some of Washington’s popular wilderness areas can be tough and requires a bit of advanced planning, a willingness to be flexible, and sometimes a stroke of luck. Though reservation systems aren’t perfect and can be frustrating to navigate, permits are a necessary step that preserve the wilderness experience and protect fragile environments from being overrun.

Many lottery and permit applications for wilderness areas in Washington open in February and March so now is a great time to start planning. Below is a guide to important permit dates and details for these coveted areas.

Good luck everyone!

Mount St. Helens Climbing Permits.

From a summit climb on Jan 1, 2015.

Permits on sale: Wednesday, March 18, 7am PDT on Recreation.gov.*
*For climbs between April 1 – October 31.

Climbing permits cost $15 per person per day. A $6 reservation fee is charged per transaction. The purchaser of the climbing permit may make a reservation for up to 12 total climbing group members. The permit purchaser must be included in the climbing group.

April 1 – May 14: permits are limited to 500 per day. 
May 15 – October 31: permits are limited to 100 per day.
November 1 – March 31: permits are free, unlimited, and available 24/7 through self-registration at the Marble Mountain Sno-Park.

Updated information is available on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest website.

Mount Rainier National Park.

Application lottery: March 15 – March 31.

A wilderness permit is required for all overnight camping at Mount Rainier National Park.

Anyone climbing above 10,000′ or onto any glaciers at the Park must also pay an annual climbing cost recovery fee. The fee is $50.00 per person for anyone 26 years of age or older and $35 per person for anyone 25 and under. This is not required for day trips to Camp Muir or Camp Schurman, only for climbs higher. If you stay overnight at either camp, you still need a standard wilderness permit.

70% of wilderness permits at Mount Rainier are reservable and the park begins accepting online reservations between March 15 and March 31 for any trips ending September 28. After September 28, permits are issued in person on a first-come, first-served basis.

Applications received from March 15 to March 31 are processed on April 1 in random order and winners will be notified several weeks later, sometimes not until May due to large volumes of submissions.

Online reservation requests are $20 per party per trip and are non-refundable, even if you do not receive a permit.

For the Wonderland Trail, the Park will only review one full-circuit Wonderland Trip request per person. The Wonderland Trail is quite popular, so if you don’t score with your reservation, keep in mind that 30% of the park’s permits are available on a walk-in basis. With some flexibility, you can still make it happen!

North Cascades National Park.

Applications accepted beginning: March 15.

Permits are required for all overnight stays in the North Cascades National Park backcountry.

In 2017, the North Cascades debuted a pilot program that allowed advanced reservations for up to 60% of sites in certain areas of the park. That system continues with dates similar to Mount Rainier, but a bit more complicated.

Online reservation requests can be submitted for a $20 non-refundable fee per request between March 15 – April 15 for trips between May 15 – September 30. Permits for trips before May 15 or after September 30 are only available in person on a first-come, first-serve basis. Even with reservations, you must stop by a park station closest to entry to convert your reservation to a permit by 11am the day of your reservation.

For stock parties to receive priority at stock camps, reservations must be submitted by March 31.

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).

Olympic National Park.

Wilderness permits are required for all overnight stays in the Olympic National Park backcountry and are $8 per person per night plus a $6 permit fee. Additionally, you can purchase an Olympic Annual Wilderness Pass for $45/year that will cover all per-night camping fees per-person for a year; however, permits and reservations are still required.

Wilderness permit reservations can be made up to 6 months to the day in advance on a rolling basis through Recreation.gov. Reservations will become available at 10:00 AM EST/7:00 AM PST each day. While many camp areas are reservable year round, reservations for high elevation areas are limited to a shorter summer season (typically mid-July until mid-October). These camp areas may be available on a walkup basis outside of that season. Reservations are also accepted in person at a park Wilderness Information Center during business hours.

Check out details about the updated reservation system on the Olympic National Park website.

Mount St. Helens Mount Margaret Backcountry.

Permits on sale: Sunday, March 1, 7am PST on Recreation.gov.

Eight campsites in Mount St. Helen’s beautiful Mount Margaret backcountry are available for reservation from March 1 – November 30. One permit issued per site per night (except Ridge Camp, which allows for 2 permits per night). Group size is limited to 4 persons per group. The non-refundable application fee is $6 per permit.

Enchantment Area Wilderness Permits.

Application lottery: February 15 – February 29 on Recreation.gov.

Permits are required for overnight stays in the Enchantment Area Wilderness between May 15 – October 31. Due to overwhelming popularity, I’m sure most Washingtonians are familiar with this one! Applications exploded from 2,802 submissions in 2011 to over 24k in 2019. If you want to see more statistics around permit allocations and application numbers for specific zones you can check out this PDF updated through 2019.

A pre-season lottery is held February 15 – March 2 each year to allocate 75% of the overnight permits. Applications will be randomly drawn March 13 and any unclaimed permits are returned to the reservation system on April 1.

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.

I’ve yet to win an overnight permit after nearly 10 years of trying so instead, I’ve Death Marched (aka, day hiked) the Enchantments three times. I’m convinced there should be some kind of weighting rule for every year you’ve applied that resets to zero once you finally win!

Day hiking is always an option, but be physically fit and prepared because it’s one long, tough outing. Don’t expect much solitude these days either as day use of the Enchantments has exploded. Check the Forest Service information page about the Enchantments to learn about new parking restrictions and other rules based on the increasing number of users in the area.

And please, be very careful about dangerous early and late season conditions. Sadly, several people have fallen through the snow on Aasgard Pass to their death. Know the route and its dangers. And please, please treat this fragile area with respect.

Fire Lookouts.

Fancy spending the night in a fire lookout? The good news is that you can but there aren’t many here in Washington State that are open for stays. Most that are reservable are available on a 6-month rolling basis with Evergreen opening for reservations on February 18.

Check out my guide on fire lookouts that are available for first-come, first-served and reservable stays.

Final Thoughts.

Permit dates can be confusing. For your best chances, get your application in for the Enchantments in February and all other areas by end of March to get lottery priority. Check the reservation websites often for details.

With many of our wilderness areas seeing increased visitation, have patience when it comes to permit systems, be creative with a Plan B or a lesser known route, or plan spur-of-the-moment midweek trips when you’re more likely to score a walk-up permit. Know that permits are a safeguard that protect our wild spaces.

February, March, and April are a busy time for the Parks as they process huge amounts of applications, so be patient and be kind, you’re not the only one navigating the system. Always remember to leave no trace and treat our historical fire lookouts with a lot of respect and care so their fantastic history can be enjoyed for generations to come!

Good luck with the upcoming permit season!