Though hiking and camping in National Parks have always been a great American pastime, the activity has seen a swell in demand over recent years. People are ditching video games and Netflix for fresh air and outdoor adventure.
Hiking and camping are fun and healthy ways to explore some of the most beautiful places in the world, so it’s really no wonder why these activities are growing in popularity.
The surge of hikers on trails and at campsites, especially in National Parks, creates a pressing need for extra maintenance and management. An increase in litter, footprints, and noise generates the necessity for regulation, and the regulation that most parks implement is a permit system.
Opinions circling the topic of permits (including timed vehicle entry reservations and parking permits) are usually pretty bold and passionate. Whether you agree or disagree with the way parks implement and distribute permits for trails, park entry, and vehicle parking, I am going to share with you how these permits ultimately are a win for our parks.
In this blog post, I am going to share with you what exactly permits and reservations are, what types of permits typically get distributed, how visitors can earn them, and why permits are necessary for the health and longevity of our beautiful National Parks.
Park Permits 101
What Are Park Permits?
Park permits are passes that allow visitors permission to enter, park, hike, or camp in some area (or areas) of the park.
There are many different types of permits that you’ll usually discover in National Parks. These permits can gain you access to the park, a trail, a campsite, or parking lot, or a backcountry area.
A trail permit (sometimes called a hiking or wilderness permit) is an official document or pass that grants you permission to hike in a certain area.
Generally, trail permits are required in areas that see a high volume of traffic or in areas that require a high level of protection and preservation.
Funds from trail permits go toward protecting, preserving, and maintaining the trail system.
Some trail permits are free. In these cases, the park is simply wanting to control an overcrowded area.
A camping permit (sometimes called a backcountry or wilderness permit) is an official document or pass that grants you permission to camp in a certain area.
Just like trail permits, camping permits are usually required in backcountry areas that see a high volume of traffic or in areas that require a high level of protection and preservation.
Many backcountry camping permits are free. The park usually distributes these to limit the amount of traffic in fragile landscapes.
Timed-Entry Vehicle Reservation
A timed-entry vehicle reservation is a pass that grants you permission to enter a park (or park area) within a certain timeframe.
Timed-entry reservations are typically used to control parks with a high volume of visitors.
Some parks require a timed-entry reservation for entry into the park while others require a timed-entry reservation for entry into a specific area of the park.
Rocky Mountain, Arches, Glacier, and Yosemite have all implemented timed-entry reservations in the past.
A parking permit is a pass that grants you permission to park your vehicle somewhere (or anywhere) inside the park.
Parking permits are typically used to control parks that see a high volume of visitors.
Some parks require parking permits for the entire park while others require a parking permit for one particular section or parking lot in the park.
Great Smoky Mountains is an example of a park that requires parking passes.
The Debate on Park Permits
The debate on park permits is a divisive one. I don’t have a statistic to back this up, and there are definitely exceptions, but it seems as though a majority of passionate hikers tend to be pro-permits, and many casual travelers and uneducated tourists tend to be anti-permits.
I’ll present both sides of the permit debate based on what I’ve heard and read. I’ve heard these arguments straight from mouths, and read them on internet groups and social media comments.
Permits limit foot traffic, making the landscapes more pristine and natural and allowing wildlife to go about their “regular routine.”
Permits prevent overcrowding. It’s not fun to share a trail without hundreds of people.
Permits provide funds to care for and maintain the trails, backcountry campsites, trailhead parking lots, etc.
Permits hinder visitor freedom and access to public lands.
Permits are inconvenient to apply for. You have to be online at a certain time, or else it could be gone.
Permits that have a lottery system can sometimes seem impossible to win.
Though my goal is to share facts, my opinion will naturally shine through. Here’s my verdict.
Permits are paramount for the conservancy of our precious lands even if they aren’t always convenient.
Though public lands are for all to enjoy, these parks need to be maintained and protected to ensure that they stick around for generations to come.
Without rules, without management, without the NPS and other similar services, who would care for the land and the wildlife? Who would pick up trash or mark and maintain trail paths and camping zones? Who would announce which areas are safe to walk on and which might have poisonous or dangerous plants and should be avoided? Who would cordon off fragile ecosystems that would otherwise harm and possibly eliminate wildlife?
These fees, regulations, and permit systems aren’t set up to hinder our experiences as hikers and campers, but to enhance them. I wholeheartedly believe that it’s worth it to pay a small fee or jump through a small hoop or two in exchange for hiking or camping in a dream area that will gift you with solitude, picturesque views, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
And think about this: when you do win a lottery or score a permit for your dream hike, think of the satisfaction and thrill that will course through your veins. You will be ecstatic! And you will be rewarded with so much more than that $9 (or whatever amount it was) you paid in application fees.
And any fees that you pay will go right back into the park, allowing you to be able to keep visiting over and over again.
So while it is true that these wilderness areas are gifts to us, the lands wouldn’t be the same without a little regulation.
Why Park Permits Are Necessary
Park permits may seem like an unnecessary hassle to rookie tourists who are unfamiliar with the ropes, or to a seasoned traveler who craves freedom, flexibility, and spontaneity, but they are fundamental to the health and well-being of our precious public lands.
Here are some reasons why park permits are necessary.
For Litter Prevention
Expert hikers and park-goers who are passionate about preserving the outdoors and who follow Leave No Trace principles don’t carelessly leave trash strewn across the trails, campsites, and parking lots, but if the NPS placed zero restrictions on the most popular, overcrowded parks and trails, litter would be (and is) a serious detriment to the land.
For some reason, people think that it’s okay to drop wrappers, food scraps, and human waste onto the trails, at campsites, and in the parking lots as opposed to packing them out in their backpacks.
To reduce litter, permits are implemented. Permit requirements eliminate all of the less serious hikers, campers, and travelers who are more interested in partying, destructing, and destroying, and who only come to the area to document content for social media credibility. They don’t want to jump through any hoops or pay any fees, so they will set their sights on the next park or trail, somewhere free, limitless, and easy to access.
Those who score a permit are more likely to abide by the rules and leave less of an impact. Since the permit holders went the extra mile, so to speak, to gain access to the trail, campsite, or park, there is a higher chance that they will respect the land and the wildlife.
To Slow Erosion
Whenever you are walking along a trail or pitching a tent on a patch of ground, you may not think that your footprint is making an impact. But if millions of people walk over that same path or set up a tent on that same patch of ground, erosion is bound to occur over time.
To prevent the “wear and tear” on trails, campsites, or other fragile wilderness areas, permits are put into place. Permit enforcement reduces foot traffic and slows erosion, especially in particularly fragile and soft landscapes like rainforests and coastal zones.
Avoiding crowds can seem impossible, especially in National Parks. If you are one of the lucky ones to hold a trail or backcountry camping permit in your hands, you know that you will only pass a small number of hikers and campers on the trail and/or at camp. The “hassle” of applying for a permit will pay off, and you will be rewarded with solitude along with all of the other perks of hiking and/or camping on a restricted trail or area.
A major reason that permits are issued is safety assurance for both humans and wildlife. Excessive noise can disrupt wildlife and impede their natural habitats. Changes in behavior can ultimately be extremely detrimental to a species.
Human safety is as much of a concern to rangers and park staff as wildlife safety. If staff deems a trail unsafe with heavy foot traffic, permits can step in and solve the problem. On a steep and dangerous trail like Angel’s Landing or Half Dome, where crowds are packed in so closely that they’re basically breathing down each other’s necks, injuries become a real risk. Limiting the number of people on a trail creates more room to breathe and less risk of injury or death.
With the fee that you pay to enter the park, hike the trail, or camp in the backcountry, you will be helping fund the longevity of the area.
Permit funds go straight into the parks, allowing the areas to be maintained, preserved, and protected so that future hikers and campers can continue to recreate in these beautiful places.
How Park Permits Are Distributed
Permits are distributed in many ways. They are available either online or in-person and either in advance or walk-in. Lotteries are common for the more popular hikes that receive a high volume of interest while first-come, first-served permits are common for all other trails, backcountry campsites, and park entry.
Here’s a breakdown of each type of permit distribution.
The lottery permit system is considered to be the least desirable permit distribution because the chances of winning are slim. But this makes “winning” all the more exciting!
Lotteries are typically distributed for popular hiking trails or events that receive a high volume of interest. Examples of hikes that implement a lottery are Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. An example of an event that implements a lottery is the Synchronous Fireflies in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Applicants usually pay a fee to enter the lottery. If you don’t win, you aren’t refunded that fee. But the fees go toward maintaining the trail or campsite that you were applying to hike or camp, so think of it as a small donation to a great cause.
Lottery drawing winners are randomly selected and usually have a fairly short application window. And if you win, you’ll usually have to print your own permit or show a digital version on your phone at the trailhead or entrance station.
To enter a lottery for an incredible hike today, click here. The choices are endless!
First-Come, First-Served Online
First-come, first-served online permits are the easiest to obtain.
Hikers, campers, and park-goers can select a date and quantity directly on the website, and they will know right away if they are able to snag the desired permit(s) before traveling to the destination.
Many permits must be reserved 6 months in advance, but others have a slimmer window. Each park, trail, backcountry campsite, and parking pass may be different. Check the individual park’s website to find out more about when to snag your permits.
First-Come, First-Served In-Person
First-come, first-served in-person permits require hikers and campers to arrive at the trailhead, campground, or ranger station without a guaranteed selection.
This is generally ideal if you are already in an area, heard about a permitted hike or campsite, and have some extra time built around your planned activities. It is best not to build an entire trip around walk-in permits because there is no guarantee that there will be any available.
How to Know Which Parks Require Permits
When you are planning your next park, hiking, or backcountry camping trip, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations of the area.
Rules vary from park to park. Depending on the volume of traffic that a particular park, trail, or backcountry camping area sees, it may require a permit for day use, overnight, or both.
This is where you’ll continue your research to see what type of permit system they are running, when you can apply, how likely you are to obtain a permit, and if you will need to print at home or pick up your pass upon arrival.
Some Popular National Parks and Trails That Require Permits
- Yosemite (Timed entry in February for Firefall and hiking at Half Dome)
- Zion (Hiking at Angel’s Landing, the Subway, and the Narrows top-down)
- Arches (Entering the park and hiking Fiery Furnace)
- Great Smoky Mountains (Daily parking and annual fireflies event)
- Rocky Mountain (Timed entry)
→ READ NEXT: 2023 US National Parks Visitor’s Guide
All in all, park permits help restore landscapes, protect wildlife, humans, and fragile ecosystems, prevent excessive noise, litter, and unnecessary and harmful destruction, maintain safe trail conditions, and allow silence to permeate through the park and humans to establish a more meaningful connection with nature.
I hope this blog post was enlightening and educated you on what exactly park permits are and why they are necessary for the longevity of our beautiful National Parks. If you have any questions, feel free to comment on this post or reach out to me on Instagram.