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Current NF/NP weekend backpacking permit system?

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Current NF/NP weekend backpacking permit system?

Postby SSSdave » Tue Jul 06, 2010 10:59 pm

Which national forests here in California currently allow phone in or email wilderness permit reservations with night box pick up? And is there a minimal time needed to set that up? This is an issue I've been pushing for many years and have praise for those who provide such a service. Don't believe any of our national parks allow such, but please correct me if that is incorrect. In fact a few decades ago at parks like Yosemite, obtaining a permit was often ridiculously awkward and painful to the point in the boom years of backpacking during the 1970/80s, enough groups didn't bother that the park was evenutally forced to make the permit system more friendly.

In the past decades for the most part it has been rather difficult for those of us that work 8-5 m-f all year to do short weekend backpacks for trips made at short notice because our national forests and parks required making reservations days or weeks ahead of time, usually by phone. And often required picking up a permit in person to listen to the policies sermon. Thus we have been forced to drive up to ranger stations on Saturday mornings that usually opened at 7am to 9am, gamble the remaining trail quota has not yet been taken, write up a permit, listen to the sermon, then usually drive several to many miles to a trailhead, to finally get on a trail at some ridiculously late time of morning. For short one night weekend backpacks time is minimal and every wasted hour makes bothering with weekend backpacking less appealing. Of course the usual time many of us might start hiking is at dawn when temps are cool then reach a destination during early to mid morning that allows us to make the most of a short weekend. Always suspected a hidden agenda by some in park management was to discourage weekend backpacking.

Instead we have been forced to day hike that for many destinations is awkward especially for photographers interested in early light or the fisherman casting flies on calm dawn waters. I'm a frequent night hiker but getting up at 3am to hike 3 miles to some location by sunrise grates against my body's usual waking time clock. And since many locations I would visit are in part off trail doing such is rather unpractical. Hiking with even a strong flashlight at night cross country can be very challenging and in more difficult terrain dangerous.

In the past there were always some wilderness areas where wilderness permits could be filled out at trailhead kiosks though today such is rare. An example is the Toyabe NF Ebbetts Pass trailheads did so a decade or two ago. For years reservations made over the phone required mailing a permit reservation back to a user they then needed to present at a ranger station to receive the real permit. Then a decade or two ago the night box system came into being with Inyo and Sierra NF having good systems. However the reservations still had to be made some days beforehand.

Now today Stanislaus NF allows phone in to set up a permit on the same day one will start hiking that if one will not arrive during hours a ranger station is open, they will then put the permit into a night box. So that perfect situation is now in place at least at Stanislaus. Thus one can drive up after hours, sign the permit leaving a record copy and taking the user copy, drive to a trailhead, and start hiking up a trail in the evening making for a two-night weekend with two mornings and one or two late afternoons. I believe Inyo allows setting up permits just a day or three ahead of time but haven't visited those areas in the last couple years.

What about our other areas? What is their current system?



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Re: Current NF/NP weekend backpacking permit system?

Postby rlown » Tue Jul 06, 2010 11:56 pm

So, are you working with the NPS and USDA/FS to coordinate their efforts to streamline permit systems? Because, that would be impossible. :\ If you make friends in areas that you care to visit, they might accomodate you.

Otherwise, You have to search for the station, aquire the phone number and then call or email successfuly to get the permit. You're kind of forgetting they (employees) work as well to get you your permit.

What are you really asking for? consistency? They'll tell you they're understaffed and not really in control of their web function...

I don't see the real problem, given the economy, resource and state strategy. Plan better, pick your spots and get a permit via what works..
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Re: Current NF/NP weekend backpacking permit system?

Postby bcrowell » Wed Jul 07, 2010 6:45 am

rlown wrote: "Plan better, pick your spots and get a permit via what works."
This takes care of part of the problem that SSSdave was complaining about, but not all of it. Even if he's organized enough to reserve his wilderness permit months in advance, he still has to show up in person to pick it up and go through the educational session (what he refers to as the "sermon"). I'm a teacher, so I have the summers off and can show up the day before my hike to pick up the permit. But for someone who works M-F 9-5, I can see how it really could be a problem.

I don't see a good solution to this part of the problem, though. At a minimum, the rangers need an opportunity to discuss bear canisters with hikers, and rent canisters to people who didn't bring them. Those of us who have been through the process a lot of times, and who always bring bear canisters, may see it as a waste of time, but I don't see how to distinguish between the people who are sufficiently experienced and responsible and those who aren't. It's not just education, it's law enforcement, and you can't just outsource law enforcement to a contractor. (I also find it very helpful to be able to talk to rangers about conditions. Is this creek running? How is the snow on this pass?)

It seems to me that the problem is going to be most onerous for weekend backpackers who are doing a hike out of a trailhead that's very remote from any location where they can pick up their permit. One option is simply to reserve a permit, but not pick it up. That way you know you're in compliance with any quotas, so you're not being evil by over-impacting a popular area. You're bringing a bear canister, so you're not being evil there, either. Since the area is remote, you probably won't see a ranger. If you do, you apologize and explain the situation. Worst case, he marches you out to the nearest trailhead, and some law enforcement resources are wasted. More likely, he gives you a stern lecture.

"Which national forests here in California currently allow phone in or email wilderness permit reservations with night box pick up?"
I believe that you can get a self-issued permit for Shasta. (I was just there, and I went into the ranger station to pick it up, but I think you can also get a self-issued one without doing that.) Probably the difference between Shasta and, e.g., Yosemite Valley is that the law-enforcement concerns are absent on Shasta: there are no quotas, and you don't need a bear canister. The issue is simply that if your spouse calls 911 because you don't exit on time, they want to have some info on where to send the SAR team.
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Re: Current NF/NP weekend backpacking permit system?

Postby rlown » Wed Jul 07, 2010 8:59 am

Trinity also has self-service kiosks for permits and no bear can requirements. I doubt you'd see this in high use wilderness areas in the Sierra, except in the winter.
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Re: Current NF/NP weekend backpacking permit system?

Postby Wandering Daisy » Wed Jul 07, 2010 10:27 am

Inyo has night box permit pick-up. There may be some trails that do not allow this, but I have used this on several trips. I have night picked up in Bishop and Lone Pine.

Getting a permit at 7AM from the Hetch Hetchy entrance station in Yosemite is pretty painless. They also stay open until 9PM.

I always make a good effort to obtain a permit, but when all else fails, I have been know to simply go out without a permit. I do a lot of off-trail travel and seldom run into rangers. I do believe, however, that they need to know how many people are out there to manage the resource so I really try hard to comply with regulations. I have at times posted a note on the permit office window stating where I am going when the office was not open. Of course, I do not say who I am, simply let them know that one slot on that trail has been "taken". I have talked many times with rangers about getting some sort of backpack "license" - like a credit card that can be used to get a permit over the internet. I certainly would be willing to pay a small fee - and take a class or pass a test to get my "license" and avoid repeated "bear" talks! Inyo NF seems to be the most progressive forest in internet-savy staff. But like everything governmental, lack of funds and staff are cited for keeping the current system.

Also, sometimes a location is almost as easy to reach via a National Forest trailhead where first-come permits are easier to obtain.
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Re: Current NF/NP weekend backpacking permit system?

Postby dave54 » Wed Jul 07, 2010 12:34 pm

Not all wilderness require a permit or have a quota. The lesser used ones may have a trailhead logbook or nothing at all.
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Re: Current NF/NP weekend backpacking permit system?

Postby tim » Wed Jul 07, 2010 1:02 pm

Desolation Wilderness will send you the permit in the mail if you book several weeks in advance (and there is quota space). Of course this has its own problems - I bet many (most?) of those permits go unused, because there is no mechanism for switching to a different date unless you go to the office in person, and there are no refunds so no point in returning it.

Maybe the FS view this as a benefit in terms of reducing the number of people, given its fairly busy there? I think the same system is in place for the Half Dome day hike permits on weekends - you have to get them in advance (and they are very cheap) so I assume many of them will go unused. Last time I looked virtually every weekend this summer is fully booked. I wonder whether Half Dome will actually end up busier on weekdays than weekends this summer as a result? If half the 400 permits are unused then that will be a pretty quiet day.

So I'm not convinced this is a better solution, at least for popular locations, which are bound to sell out in advance. Look at Mt Whitney for example - always fully booked in advance, but in reality almost every day has walk-in space available because people change their plans and don't turn up. I wonder whether they will do proper permits for Half Dome day hikes next year, especially if they extend the permit system to weekdays - however, I guess this will be a big problem for staffing at the Wilderness Center (and congestion on the reservation phone line).

Actually, my pet peeve is that in most places you have to get there a full day early to get walk-in permits for the next day. Desolation Wilderness is same day entry (just make sure you're in line at 8am) which is nice when you are driving up from the Bay Area. I usually don't have much time to spare and want to drive up early and do a solid half day of walking the first afternoon, so that means I have to pre-book if I want there to be quota space available. Of course I can see the other side of the coin, that people want to start early the next morning without waiting in line. All in all, I don't think there is a perfect answer that will satisfy everyone.
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Re: Current NF/NP weekend backpacking permit system?

Postby SSSdave » Wed Jul 07, 2010 5:36 pm

tim, you bring up another annoying issue. Backpackers at most NF/NPS are allowed to pick up walk up permits the day before. That is usually not early in the morning as it would interfere with writing up permits for those intending to start that day, but rather at some later quieter time in the morning like 11am. For most days that is a useful policy because it allows backpackers to start hiking a trail early as they want the next morning. But that policy is unfair for those intending to start a backpack on Saturday morning who cannot take time off from work to arrive the day before as there are far more people that cannot take such time off versus those few that can. Most Sierra backpackers come from the big coastal urban regions of LA and SF thus just to drive up to a forFS/NPS office requires several hours of driving. Additionally those who want to backpack many weekends are not likely to have much sympathy from their employers if they try to habitually ask for such time off. Hence it's pretty much a wasted day of precious vacation PTO time. So I would like to see the policy change to make Saturday an exception thus leveling the playing field requiring all Saturday walk up permits to start issue on Saturday morning when FS/NPS offices open. Of course that ought have no bearing on those that want to pick up an already reserved permit the day before.
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Re: Current NF/NP weekend backpacking permit system?

Postby hikerduane » Wed Jul 07, 2010 7:28 pm

Dave, I'm one of those that have to take off extra vacation time to get a permit to enter the next morning. I've done the morning permit thing, then travel to the TH and start hiking late. I've had to work around the whole process, the best I can come up with. I'm doing WY this year, so no need for the permit process. I feel your grief.
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Re: Current NF/NP weekend backpacking permit system?

Postby TehipiteTom » Thu Jul 08, 2010 9:56 am

Oh, never mind...you covered what I was going to say.
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Re: Current NF/NP weekend backpacking permit system?

Postby AlmostThere » Thu Jul 08, 2010 10:18 am

Sierra NF is easy to get permits for, generally. They do have a nightbox - I have requested they place permits in the night before and picked it up before the office opened in the morning.

Yosemite NP leaves you waiting on the porch in the middle of the night the day before you want to go, but has backpacker campgrounds for you to stay in that night once you have your walk in permit. (I have gotten there at 5 am and been fourth in line, barely got the permit for happy isles). This is really critical only for a handful of popular trailheads, however. Never been denied a permit at the gate to Hetch Hetchy. Walk in permits are free, too. Sequoia/Kings has a different setup - all permits cost $15, walk in or reserved, and you start picking up permits for the next day at 1 pm. I have never reserved a permit for SEKI - never had to fuss with it. That will probably change when I get set up to do Rae Lakes Loop, however.

Jennie Lakes Wilderness has no permitting system, just a self registration at the trailhead. Los Padres National Forest (north and south) and the various wilderness areas within require no permit but you will either need an Adventure Pass or pay a fee to park at (some) trailheads. Last time i was at Big Sur, parking behind the ranger station was 5/day.
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Re: Current NF/NP weekend backpacking permit system?

Postby TehipiteTom » Thu Jul 08, 2010 12:08 pm

AlmostThere wrote:Sierra NF is easy to get permits for, generally. They do have a nightbox - I have requested they place permits in the night before and picked it up before the office opened in the morning.

But only if you reserve your permit 3 weeks in advance. At least, that's how it worked last time I went out of Sierra NF (last year).
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