Permits for trips under 500 miles

Some places on the Pacific Crest Trail require permits. It’s important to research your trip well in advance.

Permits are required on some of the PCT

Generally, an overnight permit is required in:

  1. National Forest Wilderness Areas
  2. National Parks
  3. California State Parks
  4. Some other areas

Many places on the Pacific Crest Trail do not require a permit. This is the case on most non-Wilderness National Forest land and land administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Basically, if you’re hiking on U.S. Forest Service administered land, and it’s not designated Wilderness, it’s rare that you’ll need a permit. If you’re on the BLM land along the PCT, you don’t need a permit.

The PCT passes through five national monuments, five state park units, six national parks, seven BLM field offices, 25 national forest units and 48 federal wilderness areas.

Sunset behind hikers walking along the top of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the Mojave Desert. Photo by Clayton Feider-Sullivan.

Sunset behind hikers walking along the top of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the Mojave Desert. Photo by Clayton Feider-Sullivan.

Permit systems are different depending on where you’re hiking

Always check the local agency’s website for their specific requirements. You should also know about recreation.gov – the portal for reserving space on much of our nation’s public lands.

How permits work in California

In California, overnight permits are generally obtained from the agency that manages the trailhead that you’re starting at. Or, if that agency doesn’t require a permit – obtain it from the first agency that requires one on your itinerary. This permit will often cover you for your entire trip, even if you cross management boundaries. Be sure to ask the local agency. Some trailheads have quotas – limits on the number of people per day – but many do not. High Sierra hikers can find further information on our John Muir Trail permit page.

In addition to an overnight permit, Desolation Wilderness requires a permit for day trips. It is free, non-quota and self-issued at the trailhead.

How permits work in Oregon and Washington

In Oregon and Washington, you’ll generally obtain free, self-issue, non-quota overnight permits while already on the trail. As you pass by trailhead kiosks, look around. There may be a box with a permit to fill out. You’ll usually find permit boxes at National Forest Wilderness boundaries. In Oregon and Washington, fill out a permit every time you cross an agency boundary.

This is a pretty typical wilderness permit box. When you see something like this, please fill out a permit.

This is a pretty typical wilderness permit box. When you see something like this, please fill out a permit.

Places in Oregon and Washington that are exceptions to what’s stated above

  1. Crater Lake National Park – PCT thru-travelers can pass through after signing the boundary trail register, otherwise, you should obtain a permit at the park visitor center.
  2. Obsidian Limited Entry Area
  3. Pamelia Lake Limited Entry Area
  4. North Cascades National Park

How to determine in detail what permits you need

  1. First, where are you hiking? What trailhead are you starting at?
  2. What land management agency manages it? (e.g. Yosemite National Park or Deschutes National Forest)
  3. Will you be entering a Wilderness Area, a National Park or a California State Park?

Once you’ve decided on where you want to go, look at your map. All outdoor maps will show who manages that piece of public land. With that, a simple internet search with the name of that agency and the word “permit” will bring up their webpage with all of the instructions that you’ll need on how to apply for a permit.

Remember, recreation.gov an important portal for reserving permits.

Frequently asked questions about permits

How do I get a permit?

It’s a different system depending on where you’re hiking. Plan well in advance if you’re hiking in a popular area that has visitor use quotas. Reservations can fill up months in advance.

In places that have quotas (limits on the number of people per day), you can often apply in advance and make a reservation. You’ll usually need to stop by the local ranger station on your way to the trailhead to pick up your permit.

Decide where you’re going, and then check the permit page of the local land management agency. It’ll have detailed instructions.

Can I pick up a permit at the trailhead?

In Oregon and Washington, you can generally pick up a permit at a wilderness boundary or at the trailhead kiosk as you’re heading to the wilderness boundary. There will be a little box, usually on a sign kiosk, where you can fill out a permit. In pretty much all other places where permits are required, you’ll need to pick one up from the local ranger station.

Can I apply for a permit online?

It depends. Start by going to the local land management agency website and reading their permit instructions. Sometimes you’ll apply for a permit at recreation.gov, sometimes you’ll fill out a form and fax it in.

Generally, if there is no limit to the number of hikers per day, you’ll just pick up a permit on your way to the trailhead. Reservation systems only exist for places that have limits. Once you have a reserved permit, you’ll usually need to go to the ranger station to pick up your actual permit.

Do I need a permit?

It depends on where you’re going. Scroll on back to the top of the page for the answer. About half of the trail requires a permit if you’re spending the night.

What happens if the permits are full?

Generally, we’re talking about the Sierra Nevada when we’re faced with limits on the number of people per day.

Most of the time, only a certain percentage of permits can be reserved. On popular trailheads, those might be reserved the day they become available, months in advance. In the future, consider doing what so many others do: research your summer trips 6+ months in advance and calendar out when you need to apply for a permit.

The rest of the permits (perhaps 30% of them) might be saved for “walk-ups”. Sometimes you need to get in line very early in the morning if you’re aiming for an extremely popular trailhead. Be flexible. You might need to try multiple days in a row or be willing to hike somewhere less popular.

If you can’t be flexible, can’t get a reservation, and don’t want to risk a walk-up permit, we recommend going somewhere less popular. Luckily there are thousands of other miles of Pacific Crest Trail that you can go hike when places like the John Muir Trail segment are full.

Do I need a permit to day hike?

Along the PCT, only Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe and the Obsidian Limited Entry Area in central Oregon require day hike permits.

What’s the difference between a wilderness permit, an overnight permit, a hiking permit and a backpacking permit?

They’re all basically the same thing.

Where can I go backpacking without getting a permit?

Lots of places! About half of the trail can be enjoyed without a permit. Look for U.S. Forest Service land that’s not designated Wilderness or BLM land.

Why do permits exist?

Overnight use permits are in places for various reasons:

  1. Protecting fragile areas from overuse and impact
  2. Limiting overcrowding and helping to ensure a sense of solitude
  3. As a means of providing education to trail users
  4. To help track visitor use trends which helps secure funds and prioritize needed work

Why are permits systems different?

We’re blessed with a huge amount of public land. And it’s all yours. To protect and manage it, our land is split up into separate units – all with slight variances depending on local needs and circumstances. Broadly, there are differences between U.S. Forest Service, BLM, National Park and State Park lands. Then there are differences within each of those systems. One National Forest does things differently than another. Then there are differences at things like Ranger District levels and between Wilderness Areas. Along the PCT, you pass from Region 5 into Region 6 of the Forest Service as you cross the California/Oregon border. That accounts for some of the broad differences between those permit areas.

What other permits do I need?

Ask local land management agency about any other permits that you might need. Ask them if the wilderness permit that they issue you will cover you all the way to your destination. It’s possible that you’ll need to get a few separate permits from different agencies to cover your entire trip. If you’re in California, you’ll likely need a California Fire Permit, even if you’re not going to have a campfire. If you’re entering Canada, you’ll need the Canada PCT Entry Permit.

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Photo by: Nathaniel Middleton