2021 Backpacking Permit Deadlines for California and More

Getting backpacking permits for popular spots like Yosemite, Eastern Sierra, or other parks and areas can sometimes be the hardest part about backpacking. It’s become increasingly difficult to get wilderness permits over the years, with more people wanting to get out and hike while the quota restrictions remaining the same. Plus, each area has their own system and permit deadlines for when to apply.

I’ve compiled an updated guide so you can start understanding local regulations and not miss an important date in the overnight permit booking process. This year for 2021, I’ve added some of the updated permit systems that a few of the agencies have recently adopted.

How to be successful

I keep an updated Google Calendar (preview it at the end of this post) that is publicly shared so you can also add it to make sure I don’t forget any upcoming deadlines.

I also like to follow parks that I’m interested in on social media like Facebook and Instagram, as they will often post updates to those accounts.

It’s very possible you won’t get your desired trail or hike dates. Don’t worry, the mountains aren’t going anywhere! Try to be more flexible and opt for shoulder season, mid-week hikes, and smaller groups. When planning any trip, try to also find several backup trailheads and start dates.

Click here for my complete weekend backpacking pack list

Why even have permits?

These permit restrictions are actually a good thing for us hikers - limiting the number of people on the trails keeps the impact of human activity to a minimum in an attempt to keep these areas as pristine as possible! No one wants to hike or experience nature in a zoo, we’re all out there to enjoy the calm and peacefulness of the outdoors.

COVID-19

The development of the novel COVID-19 virus has meant serious changes to recreation opportunities. Last year each week brought news on closures and permit cancellations, so anything can happen. Always check your destination for travel restrictions, as these can vary by county. Also be considerate of emergency responders by limiting the risks you choose to take in the outdoors during these times.

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

 

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks (SEKI)

Permit quota season: May 28 - Sep 18
When you can book: Feb 9, 2021 at 7am PST
Wilderness permit instructions


Beginning 2021, for the first time ever, Sequoia & Kings Canyon will offer an online reservation system through Recreation.gov! These were released Feb 9, 2021 and since you can reserve up to six months in advance that means that a good chunk of the season was open to reserve on opening day. As always I recommend having all of your research done, ready with backup trip itineraries, trail heads, and start dates.

The Pear Lake via the Lakes Trail overnight permits are exempt from the online reservation system and are limited to walk up only.

SEKI will offer walk up permits like normal that can be picked up starting at 1pm the day before your trip. Of course all of this can change depending on the currently evolving COVID-19 situation. Always check the website for the most up to date information.

Don’t forget to do

Be sure to coordinate your permit pick up times with the wilderness desk operating hours. You can pick up your permit as early as 1pm the day before your trip.

If you’re picking up your permit after 9am the day of entry, you’ll need to contact the wilderness office either by phone or email so they don’t mark it as a no show and give it away to someone else.

Cancellations

You can cancel your reservation up to 7 days before your trip and get the 5$ per person fee refunded back.

Sequoia/Kings Canyon backpacking trip ideas

 

Eastern Sierra

Permit quota season: May 1 - Nov 1
When you can book: Six months before your hike in date, beginning as early as November 1, 2020
Wilderness permit information
Wilderness permit office locations (or see map below)

Eastern Sierra offers the most trailheads and variety of trips in all of California!

When to book

Reservations will become available exactly six months before your hike in date. Popular trailheads can book up minutes after release at 7am, so I like to set a calendar reminder for each permit I am trying to book.


Cancellations

Plans change, especially these days when so much can change in 6 months! Inyo National Forest allows you to cancel up to 22 days before your hike - you only forfeit the $6 non-refundable reservation fee.

This also means there will be cancellations, so keep an eye on the availability calendar for any last minute trips. One thing you can change online after you book is the group size, given availability.

 
 

Listing trip alternates

Since these reservations are non-transferrable, you’ll probably want to at least put down one alternate trip leader - these are people that can be issued the permit if you can’t go. You’ll need to have the email of each alternate trip leader, as well as requiring each person to log in and confirm their status as an alternate to utilize this feature.


Don’t forget to do

All permits will be issued by phone and email like 2020, you’ll need to send an email to request your permit two weeks before your trip answering some questions and confirming you watched the Leave No Trace video. You’ll then just print the permit and bring it with you on your trip.

Be sure to read your permit confirmation email for instructions and check the website for the most up to date information as things can change.


Walk up permits

Normally for walk up permits, you can come the day before at 11am for a permit for the next day. However for 2021 all walk ups will be available online to book 1-2 weeks before your trip date like 2020.

Here is a PDF of trail quotas I like to use to determine my chances of getting a walk up permit based on my group size.


Eastern Sierra backpacking trip ideas

 

Mt. Whitney

Permit quota season: May 1 - Nov 1
When you can enter the lottery: Feb 1 - Mar 15
Second chance to snag unclaimed permits: Apr 1
Permit information

Mt. Whitney, the tallest point in the contiguous US, is such a highly-sought after hike that it gets its own special lottery and permit system! You can do this as a long 22 mile day hike (100 spots per day) or as an overnight backpacking trip (60 spots per day). I personally would prefer the latter, as 6,200 feet of elevation is no joke, and it is very possible that someone in your group would experience altitude sickness.

You can submit to enter the lottery anytime between Feb 1 and Mar 15, but no need to rush as these are processed at random, so entering first doesn’t improve your chances of being drawn. To maximize your chances, I recommend picking hiking dates in the middle of the week and going with smaller groups.

You’ll find out on March 24th, 2021 if you won a permit or not. If you didn’t win, don’t despair, as the unclaimed permits are put back up for grabs online on April 1st.

Even though some permits were cancelled last season, due to COVID-19, there hasn’t been any indication on the website that this season will also be affected. Keep checking the website!

Related trip reports

 

Desolation Wilderness

Permit quota season: May 21 - Sep 30
When you can book: Six months before your hike in date, available now
Book wilderness permits
Map of numbered permit zones
Wilderness office locations (or use the map below!)

Desolation Wilderness has quickly become a popular destination being so close to urban areas like the Bay Area and Sacramento, offering a quick escape into the wilderness. It’s also become an area that I can’t wait to explore more of.

Cancellation policies are lenient - you can cancel up to 8 days before your trip for a refund minus the $6 non-refundable reservation fee. I also love that you can select to print your permit at home instead of having to factor in logistics to stop by the permit office before your hike in.

Don’t forget to do

Don’t forget to log in starting 7 days before your trip to print your permit to bring with you!

Walk up permits

Like 2020, all permits will be 100% reservable online with no walk up permits since the offices are closed.

Desolation backpacking trip ideas

 

Yosemite National Park Backpacking

Permit quota season: May 1 - Oct 31
When you can book: 168 days before your hike in date, beginning as early as Nov 12, 2020
Wilderness permit information

How to book

60% of overnight wilderness permits are booked online 168 days in advance through a lottery on Yosemite Conservancy. Once you know your hiking dates, you should submit your reservation online exactly 168 days (use this site to determine the exact day to submit) ahead. You’ll find out within 24 hours if you were successful, but you can keep applying week after week if your reservation isn’t accepted.

The remaining 40% of permits are available as walk up permits. Normally these need to be reserved in person at the backcountry office, but this year due to the pandemic, they are reservable online two weeks in advance. You’ll want to submit for these 15 days in advance.

Things to keep in mind

Don’t forget that some trailheads will be inaccessible or do not allow overnight parking in the colder months. For example, Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road do not allow any sort of overnight parking from October 15th till when the roads open in the spring, and road closing/opening dates can be unpredictable because they are weather dependent. Click here for current road conditions.


Improve your chances

Yosemite permits are difficult to get, but don’t forget to look into one-way trips utilizing any available shuttles, or setup your own. For example you could take a shuttle from the valley to Tenaya Lake on the Highway 120 and hike down into the valley where your car is. Keep trying for permits - I’ve submitted permits every week for two months straight in an attempt to land some permits.


My Yosemite Backpacking Trip Recommendation

 

Lost Coast Trail

Permit quota season: Year-round for all overnight trips
When you can book: Permits for the entire year get released on Oct 1 the year before
Wilderness permit information

How to book

The Lost Coast requires you to book quite far in advance compared to other backcountry areas, and you can be sure that weekends will mostly book out for the year. From May 15 - September 15 60 people are allowed to start, whereas only 30 are allowed outside of this period.

Cancellations

Unfortunately, there are no walk-in permits and the $6 reservation fee is non-refundable, but you do get to print your permit at home instead of going into a ranger station!

My Lost Coast Trail trip report

 

Outside of California

Havasu Falls, AZ

Permit quota season: Year round
When you can book: Feb 1 8AM AZ time
Permit information here

As of June 2021, Havasupai tourism remains suspended until February 1, 2022. They are rescheduling reservations for 2022, but you should keep checking their website for updates.

Normally these permits are released all on one day at 8AM Arizona time, so 7AM Pacific time. You’ll need an online account, so be sure to make one beforehand on their website here. Also reservations are transferrable now.

Normally you can check 8AM Arizona time each day for cancellations. As of 2021, for a nonrefundable $10 fee you can now use a new feature called Purchase Priority to help you snag any cancellations for a specific date if they happen to occur.

Click here for my more in depth blog post on how to get permits and what to expect for your Havasu trip.

 

Grand Teton National Park, WY

Permit quota season: Year round
When you can book: Jan 6 - May 15
Permit information here

Backpacking permits for the Tetons are available online at Recreation.gov and are booked in real time, so be sure to set your alarm for 8AM Mountain Time, or 7AM Pacific on January 6th. After May 15th, any remaining permits will be available for walk up.

Subscribing to my Google Calendar below will keep you updated on these deadlines!

 

North Cascades National Park, WA

Advanced permits available for: May 15 - Sep 30
When you can book: Mar 15 to Apr 15
Permit information here

Starting 7am March 15 PST, you can submit your reservation application via pay.gov. However you might as well take your time since all applications submitted in March will be processed randomly. And then any permit application submitted from April 1 - April 15 will be processed in the order submitted.

You’ll receive email confirmation, or rejection by May 15th. Note that after Apr 15, you’ll need to go to the office in person to compete for a walk up permit, which they are planning on running this 2021 season.

Note there are no refunds!

Don’t forget to do

Pick up your permit before 11am of your trip start date, or you’ll lose your permit

 

Glacier National Park, MT

Advanced permits available for: Jun 15 - Sep 30
When you can book: Beginning Mar 15 (March 1 for groups of 9 or more)
Permit information here

On March 15, you can submit an online application paying via Pay.gov for groups of eight of less. No need to set an alarm, since any application received on this opening day’s will be processed as a lottery. Anything submitted March 16 or later will be in that order.

If you’re a group of nine or more, you’ll want to submit on March 1st for the highest chances of getting a backpacking permit for Glacier National Park.

A challenging thing about getting permits at Glacier is that you might not hear back about the results of your application for over a month. Also know that there are no refunds if you want to cancel your permit!

On their site they state that they plan to resume back to normal activities, so keep an eye on their site for any changes.

 

The Wave, AZ

Permit quota season: Year round
When you can book: Year round
Permit information here

As of 2021 the number of people that can hike the wave has quadrupled! Now 48 people/12 groups can enter a day, much more than the previous 10 people/8 groups.

The Wave, located in Coyote Buttes North in Arizona, requires permits just to day hike. These permits are notoriously hard to get and have now updated to a lottery system via Recreation.gov.

You can enter the lottery four months before your target month, and you’ll have to pay a 9$ fee just to enter the lottery. To increase your chances of winning, pick three days, favor weekdays over weekends, and keep as small a group size as possible.

 

My entire Calendar of important backcountry permit dates

Or click here for a Google Calendar that you can add to your own calendar

Hope this was useful for all of your summer adventures, happy hiking!