In the movie version of Into the Wild, Chris McCandless is baffled when he’s told he needs a permit to kayak the Colorado River-but that’s the reality for many of our most incredible (and most popular) places, some of which aren’t that easy to access. There are limits on use in a lot of places, for good reason, and although some dream destinations might be a bit of a headache to get legal access, most aren’t that hard. Some, however, seem impossible, but of course they aren’t. They just require patience and luck.
1. Grand Canyon Rafting, Arizona
At one point, the waiting list for river permits in the Grand Canyon was 27 years. Now there’s an elaborate weighted lottery system and you have about a one in eight chance at getting a permit through the system. Odds are better if you pick less popular months like December and January instead of September. The way around the permit system? Pay for a spot on a commercially guided trip.
2. The Wave, Coyote Buttes, Utah/Arizona
The Wave is one of the Southwest’s most picturesque, and most photographed, sandstone sculptures. Only 20 people get permission to hike back to see it per day-half of those pre-register through a lottery system, and half walk up and get to be the lucky 10 who get day-of permits. If you do the math, and everyone shows up and all 20 permits get filled every day of the year (they don’t), and everyone makes it the entire three miles back to the Wave (they don’t), just over 7,000 people get to see The Wave per year.
3. Enchantments (Core Zone), Washington
The Alpine Lakes Wilderness Plan limits the number of hikers per day in the Core Enchantments Zone to 60 between June 15 and October 15. Hopeful hikers enter the lottery each spring in hopes of getting a permit, and three-quarters of the hiking permits are awarded during that process. The other one-fourth are saved for hopeful walk-in hikers, which, if you’re lucky, you can show up and grab one the day of your trip. If you’re not lucky and there are other hikers hoping for the same permit at the ranger station, the permits for the day will be awarded in a lottery.
4. Half Dome Cables Route, California
In 2011, permits for hiking Half Dome’s cables route sold out in 23 minutes. Scalpers bought them up and re-sold them, so in 2013, the NPS went to a lottery system. It’s not that there is a dearth of permits available-300 people per day are allowed on the cables route-it’s that demand is so high. A little secret: If you make Half Dome part of a backpacking itinerary and get a backcountry permit (like, for example, hiking the JMT from the Cathedral Lakes trailhead), you don’t have to have a cables route permit in order to go up Half Dome.
5. Mt. Whitney Trail, California
More than 9,000 people applied for the 2012 permit lottery for the Mt. Whitney Trail, for 100 day-use spots and 60 overnight spots per day in the summer. Of course your odds are way worse if you’re trying to do it on a weekend day, and the Forest Service would like you to pick up your permit in person two days before your hike. If you’re day hiking it, you have a 22-mile round-trip hike to the summit, with 6,100 feet of elevation gain. So it’s pretty tough overall. If you pick a different route, like the more technical Mountaineers Route, your odds are way better of scoring a permit.
6. Yampa River Rafting, Colorado/Utah
In 2010, Dinosaur National Monument River Office installed an automated river information line and in the first week it received more than 1,700 calls. Every week after that, it got 50 calls per day. During the main season-the 10-week stretch from the second Monday in May through the second Monday in July-only 300 private launches are allowed for the Yampa and the neighboring Gates of Lodore (which joins the Yampa at Echo Park).
7. Selway River Rafting, Idaho
Idaho’s Selway River may not be as famous as the Colorado when it comes to rafting, but the permits are way harder to get (if you can imagine that). In typical years, 2,000 or more parties apply for just over 60 private trip permits-which are not good odds. It’s been said that a Selway River permit might be the hardest in the U.S. to score. If you’re not wedded to the idea of running it yourself, pay for a guided trip, where your odds are much better.
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