12 Stunning Trails That Require A Permit to Hike

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Like it or not, many natural areas around the Western US are being loved to death. With more and more people heading out and hitting the trails, some areas have experienced so much overcrowding that it has become a logistics nightmare and safety issue to keep things at the status quo.

Because of this, many popular trails now require a permit to hike. Some of these permits are issued through a lottery, others require advanced reservations, and some offer walk-up options. Either way, it has changed how outdoors people plan their summer adventures and has left some waiting years to hit a trail that has been on their bucket list.

Here are 12 popular trails in the Western US that now require a permit to hike.

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California

Cables with climbers on Half Dome as seen from the Sub Dome in Yosemite National Park in California United States
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Climbing up Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is one of the most iconic hikes in America. This 16-mile round trip hike with over 4,800 feet of elevation gain is no joke, but that doesn’t stop thousands of people from making the trek from the Yosemite Valley floor up to the granite dome that offers jaw-dropping views of the park.

While most of the hike is fairly routine, it is the last stretch up the side of the dome that led park officials to implement a permit system during the peak hiking months. The final approach up the side of the dome is aided by cables that are attached to the rock face. Crowds on the hike led to long wait times to ascend and descend the cables and safety issues along the route.

While the cables are in place (typically late May through mid-October), a maximum of 300 hikers are allowed up the dome per day. Permits are distributed through both preseason and daily lotteries, so even if you’re already in the park, you still have a chance to grab one of these coveted permits.

The Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Utah

The Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Arizona Utah, USA
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Southern Utah and Northern Arizona are home to some of the most unique geological features in the world, with one of the most popular being The Wave located in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness.

Getting to The Wave is no small feat, as it requires a 6+ mile hike over an area with no trails or signage. A rough map is provided at the trailhead, but visitors must have some navigation skills to reach this landmark. Despite the difficulties required in getting there, this otherworldly feature requires a permit system that covers the entire Coyote Buttes North area.

Permits for The Wave are distributed through a lottery that is run four months in advance on a rolling basis. A select few permits are available on a day-ahead basis, but your odds of getting one are typically low, especially during the busy summer season.

Mt. Whitney, Inyo National Forest, California

Climber on Mt. Whitney. Beautiful landscapes in Eastern Sierra, California, USA, Beautiful natural background
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Mt. Whitney is the tallest peak in the contiguous United States, but despite its height reaching over 14,500 feet, reaching the peak doesn’t require any technical gear or skills. The trail is over 21 miles long and climbs nearly 7,000 feet, but that doesn’t stop thousands of hikers per year from tackling the peak as a day hike.

Only 100 day hikers are allowed on the trails up to Whitney Peak per day, and up to 100,000 apply for a permit each year, so plan on it taking a year or two to secure your chance to hike up this iconic peak.

Applications to the permit lottery system are due by March 1st, and results are announced shortly thereafter, but for those who miss out, there are plenty of cancellations that show up throughout the climbing season, so keep your eyes open!

South Sister, Three Sisters Wilderness, Oregon

Camp Lake in the Three Sisters Wilderness in Oregon sits at nearly 7000 foot elevation. South Sister is in the background
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The Three Sisters Wilderness, outside of Bend, Oregon, recently implemented a permit system for almost all of the trailheads within the wilderness boundary. This means that to climb the iconic South Sister during the summer and early fall months, you’ll need to snag one of these highly sought-after golden tickets.

The climb up South Sister is fairly straightforward during the late summer when the snow is melted off, minus the final ascent, which requires a slog through volcanic sand and rock. The views from the top of the crater make it all worthwhile, though, as you can see up and down the entire cascade range.

Snagging a permit to hike South Sister can be done in advance of the season when a portion of the permits are released or on rolling 10-day and 2-day windows ahead of the hike date. Be aware, though, that this is the most popular hike in the region, and permits will often be gone within seconds of their 7 am release.

Havasu Falls, Havasupai Indian Reservation, Arizona

Beautiful sunrise in Havasu Falls near Supai Village, Havasupai, Arizona USA
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The permits to camp at and visit the Havasu Falls area are both some of the most in-demand and most expensive permits you’ll find anywhere in the country. Entry to this gorgeous area is only offered to those who have managed to grab one of the 3-day camping permits (there are only 350 visitors allowed per day), and for the honor of grabbing one on either the presale or public release dates, there is a $455 per person fee!

That is a small price to pay, though, as the Havasupai Tribe could close access to these stunningly turquoise waterfalls entirely to the public if they so wished.

The public campground permit release date typically falls on February 1st of each year, so plan ahead if you want to grab a permit for next season.

Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah

Angels Landing at Zion National Park with Navajo Sandstone Mountains and Cliffs in Utah, USA.
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Zion National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the country, and a fair share of visitors make their way up the beautiful yet dangerous Angels Landing Trail. This incredible trail snakes its way along narrow ledges and up some rather steep climbs to a lookout that is out of this world.

Because of some of the precarious positions, hikers find themselves in during the hike and crowds that led to bottlenecks near the chains portion of the hike, the National Park Service implemented a permit system to help control crowds and make the trail a safer experience for everyone involved.

Grabbing a permit for this hike requires entering either the seasonal or day-ahead lottery and keeping your fingers crossed that you’ll be selected.

Enchantment Lakes, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Washington

Beautiful Alpine lakes wilderness area  in Washington, USA
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The Enchantment Lakes Wilderness is located high in the Washington Cascades and offers otherworldly scenery, especially during larch season in the fall. The area features numerous high alpine lakes surrounded by granite peaks and steep passes that hikers have no choice but to climb to traverse through the area.

Because of the sensitive habitat and overcrowding around the lakes, there is a strict quota system for both day and overnight trips through the wilderness area. Due to its overwhelming popularity, many local hikers find themselves now waiting years to grab an elusive permit or risk hiking in the snow if they choose to try after the permit season ends on October 31st.

Most permits are issued through a preseason lottery, but lucky hikers and backpackers can still grab a very limited number of day-ahead permits.

Kalalau Trail, Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park, Hawaii

View along the Na Pali Coast from the Kalalau Trail in Kauai, Hawaii.
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We’re headed far west for this one but this trail on the island of Kauai is so stunning that we can’t leave it off the list. The Na Pali Coast on the north side of Kauai so beautiful and otherworldly that you have to pinch yourself while hiking along it. With lush rainforests covering the steep cliffs that plunge straight into the turqouis blue waters of the Pacific this is a must do hike for anyone visiting the Hawaiian islands.

The trail used to be open to anyone provided you arrived early enough to grab a parking spot, but in an effort to reduce overcrowding and help protect this sensitive environment, a permit system was put in place after restoration efforts were finished following massive floods in the area a few years back.

Now to hike the trail you’l need to secure a parking reservation which allows day use visitors to hike the first two miles of the Kalalau trail. Those wishing to hike further or go on an overnight trip will need to secure a hiking permit as well.

Enchanted Valley, Olympic National Park, Washington

Enchanted Valley chalet in Olympic National Park
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The Enchanted Valley in Olympic National Park is a magical place filled with waterfalls, historical lodges, and an absolute abundance of wildlife. Getting to the Valley requires a 27 mile round trip hike so unless you’ve a very fit hiker or trail runner you’ll need to do the trip as at least an overnighter. Those who can do all 27 miles in one day are free to go without a permit but all other will need to pick up a permit in advance.

Starting this year, the park has limited permits to only 30 per day for a maximum of 208 users in the area at any one time. This is a huge decrease from the previous system that was in place, so those wishing to make the trip, especially on busy summer weekends, should plan ahead.

Mount St. Helens, Washington

Wonderful Mt Saint Helens panorama view with wildflowers in summer time.
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Climbing to the top of the crater on Mt. St. Helens is a bucket list hike for many hikers in the Pacific Northwest. This challenging yet untechnical hike ascends 4,500 feet up to the remains of what used to be the peak of this impressive volcano before it exploded over 40 years ago. Visitors to the summit today are treated to a peak inside the massive crater, where volcanic activity is slowly pushing up a new mountain.

Permits to climb the mountain are required from April 1st to October 31st and are released on rolling 1-month windows. WIth a limit of only 110 climbers per day during the summer months these can be hard to get, especially for weekend dates.

The Subway, Zion National Park, Utah

The Subway - Left Fork in Zion National Park
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The Subway in Zion National Park is a stunning hike through a canyon carved away to make it look like a subway tunnel. But getting to this incredible location requires either extensive canyoneering skills or the ability to hike off trail for hours. Because of the beauty of this area this hasn’t deterred adventurers from making the trek in huge numbers so the park has limited access to only 80 people per day.

Permits to access this natural wonder are available through a seasonal lottery, where 75% of the permits are released in the winter months for spring and summer excursions, with the remaining released on a rolling 2-day window through a daily lottery.

The Lost Coast, King Range Wilderness, California

Footsteps in the black sand of the Lost Coast backpacking trail in California
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Like the Enchanted Valley in Washington, the only way to experience The Lost Coast in California is to backpack the 25 miles along this remote and rugged stretch of beach along the Pacific Ocean. Due to the ruggedness of the King Rang Wilderness, Highway 101 had to be routed inland, which left this stretch of coast mostly uninhabited and untouched, minus a few ranchers and hearty souls who managed to secure places to build a backcountry cabin.

Hiking the coastline requires managing the tides as numerous areas are impassable at high tide, crossing streams, and enduring the difficulty of hiking on sand and beach rocks for multiple days. Those that do, though, are treated to one of the most incredible hiking experiences on the entire West Coast.

Permits to backpack along this rugged stretch are available on a rolling 3-month window with 60 available per day during the peak summer season and only 30 per day the rest of the year.

About the author
Derek Carlson
Pacific Northwest native, cross-country skier, hiker, mountain biker, wannabe fly fisherman, writer and owner of Roam the Northwest