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Many visitors, unfamiliar with the major National Parks of the western United States, are surprised and dismayed when they discover that not only does backpacking there require a permit, but that securing that permit during prime season typically requires a reservation made months in advance. Many first visits to the new "Wild West" have gone awry this way.

This need not be so. What follows is a brief treatment of the permit system as it is practiced in six major National Parks found in the western USA. I have selected these parks because they are among the most popular, include the most complex insofar as permits are concerned, represent a geographical range, and are ones in which I have personal experience with the permit system. It is not intended to be a definitive treatment or guide, but rather a primer and warning. Do not let your backpacking vacation be set back by poor planning.

Before diving into specifics it is worth providing a modicum of context. National parks may be America's best idea, but the inexorable dark side of broad appeal is the "Disneyland factor". Most people visiting national parks rarely go out in nature in an intentional fashion under any other circumstance. For better or worse, the landscape of national parks is too often viewed as categorically different than that found beyond, rather than merely a more spectacular iteration of the same. Traffic problems, bad food, and expensive accommodations only further serve to further reinforce the national park as other, a moving museum or organic freakshow. Needless to say, this sort of conceptualization does not encourage good behavior.

Further exacerbating the un-human behavior often found in national parks are the vast crowds, which in high season vastly outstrip the year-round population of the surrounding area. I live in the Flathead Valley, the western gateway to Glacier National Park. The year-round population of the valley often grows by a quarter on a single busy summer day. Monthly visitation at Yellowstone during July usually approaches the population of the entire state of Montana. Between 2001 and 2009, Grand Canyon averaged nearly 13,000 visitor nights in the backcountry alone during April, the most popular month. Visitors from abroad, be that Alabama or Germany, are often surprised at how regulated, regimented, and seemingly un-wild these parks can be. While the details may be subject to debate, the overall point that these terribly popular parks currently need the protection of rules is beyond question.

Point being; the western National parks are popular for good reason. Approach them with patience and intention, and the strategies outlined below, and you will be rewarded.


  • Introduction
  • Glacier
  • Yellowstone
  • Canyonlands
  • Grand Canyon
  • Zion
  • Yosemite
  • Summary

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