Friday, September 3, 2021

License to backpack: Trying out permits

tetons traveling

Explorer staffers have begun traveling to other parks this summer to learn what lessons they may hold for managing popular trails and attractions. These stories will appear in the magazine later this fall and winter, and will focus largely on New England. This week, though, I’m mixing personal travel with some research, meeting my son at Grand Teton National Park for some backpacking on a permit that I reserved months ago.

Permits, of course, are a point of debate and contention in the Adirondacks. At Grand Teton and many other national parks, they’re standard for backcountry camping, though not generally for day hikes. August is a busy month on Teton roads, known for their moose jams (pictured above). The backcountry is different, and strictly regulated. Reservations are required months in advance if you’re traveling great distances and want to be assured of a spot. But you can also take your chances on a walk-up permit when you arrive. I did a little of both, reserving one of the few spots I could find back in the spring, just to be sure I’d have something, and then changing it to one of the available walk-up permits when I checked in at the visitor center.

By the time you read this, I will have walked up the trail and out of contact for a few days. Here’s hoping the rest of the trip goes as planned. It hasn’t been the simplest process, and I expect a lot of hikers who are used to the freedom of access in the Adirondacks might bristle at all the planning — and especially at having to show up in person to collect the permit far from the intended trailhead access. I imagine it’s especially challenging for long-distance thru-hikers who need to plan long strings of campsites. I’ll see what I can gather from others I meet on the trail, and would also be interested in knowing how Adirondack backpackers feel about this kind of system.

Editor’s note: This first appeared in the Explorer’s weekly “Explore More” newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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Brandon Loomis is a former Adirondack Explorer editor.

17 Responses

  1. Eric says:

    What’s the point of this? Permits always make things easier for some people and harder or impossible for other people who have different family or job situations. Anecdotal stories from individual aren’t helpful. The Adirondacks are also not like the National Parks in that folks visiting the Adirondacks are not on a family vacation planned months in Advance. It’s mostly day visitors from within a few hours of the Adirondacks making impromptu trips alone or with non-family hiking buddies. Any time I look through a trail register it’s full of single hikers or small groups from places like Clifton Park, Glens Falls, and Schenectady. Hardly anyone is planning months in advance for these trips like they would for Grand Teton or Yosemite.

  2. Todd says:

    I just made my first visit to Baxter State Park in Maine a couple weeks ago and oh my god what a terrible experience. I was armed with a permit and camping reservation secured months in advance. Showed up an hour before the gates open (yes, every entrance is gated, unlike the Adirondacks), and still was forced to wait in line for over 90 minutes to get in. Each car had to re-give the same information we have online months ago (plate #, emergency contact, etc) as if we had never interacted before and didn’t already have printed paperwork. It was almost 8am before we were able to start hiking (which would normally be about lunch time for me in the Adirondacks or Whites). When we went to our campsite after the hike on the other side of the park we were told our spot had been given away because we didn’t check in at the campsite by 4:30pm. It made no difference that we’d checked in at the gate, I guess we were supposed to check in at our camping spot before driving to our trailhead (these were over an hour from each other). So we were forced to find and pay for a B&B in Millinocket and we also didn’t get our $ refunded from Baxter. What an absolute disaster. If the Adirondacks ever come close to acting like Baxter I’m moving to New Hampshire.

  3. Zephyr says:

    One reason I go hiking is to get away from the bureaucracy and hassles of the modern world. Permits ruin the experience for me and I will never go to one of these places. If they come to the Adirondacks I will go elsewhere. Plus, with my life situation it is literally impossible for me to schedule any type of recreational activity more than a few weeks in advance at most, and usually most hikes are spur of the moment. My pack is always packed and I often decide where to go while on the drive north.

  4. nathan says:

    i sure hope this doesnt apply to day hikes. Get a day off and cant hike because of a permit. What kind of fee are these permits going to cost? it’s start of slippery slope of restricting and being controlled by special interest groups. whole idea is just offensive!

  5. ADKresident says:

    I rarely plan a hike. ( except by the weather forecast.)
    Just one killjoy after another and these days there is plenty of that going around. If there is any ounce of freedom, spontaneity or simple ways to enjoy life, let’s make it as difficult as possible for people. Might as well make “KillJoy” the new mantra for 2021. js.

  6. MOFYC says:

    Ease of access is precisely what makes forest preserve trails in the Adirondacks unique, certainly compared to national and state parks. We want our obese society to be more active so let’s be wary of any barriers to discourage this.

    A reservation system for parking makes sense in the most overcrowded places – the FREE permitting system really does improve equity of access in the AMR for those of us for whom it is impossible, or senseless, to arrive at 5 am – but really should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

    • Zephyr says:

      The AMR permits don’t improve access if you can’t get a permit, as happened to me with three different tries for different dates when I knew I could go. After three negative results I have given up on ever going there. I want to hike, not sit in front of a computer trying to score a reservation.

      • Steve B. says:

        So yiu’re basically saying the system is working to prevent over-crowding, which many agree is a problem. Which is partly the intent in Federal parks, helps to enhance the wilderness experience for when you can visit.

        • Zephyr says:

          I agree an idiotic permit system created by a private entity with the cooperation of a government agency with no public input is effective at keeping people away from trails that are in excellent condition compared to many in the High Peaks region. Check out some of the earlier long threads on the many problems with the AMR example, not the least of which is that carrying capacity was never defined for the trails, and the measurement of use was done by the AMR.

  7. rb says:

    Easiest and most effective is not controlling parking, or access. Instead focus on the destination to monitor… that is the summits. A permit should be for the summit itself, that way enforcement is easy as it is a singular location and this will also provide data on specific usage of the summit itself. I am agnostic over a fee. If there was one, it should be minimal if for no other reason than to deter folks from just signing up for all the summits every day.

    • JohnL says:

      Little confused RB. How do you check or enforce permits for a particular summit? Somebody hiking in from the Loj, or any major trailhead, could be going to any of dozens of summits. Did you envision someone at every summit to check and be sure each hiker is going to the summit he/she ‘signed up for’.
      Also, minimal fees wouldn’t deter someone from signing up for multiple destinations. Higher fees would.
      I must be missing something! Or, are you messin’ with us?

  8. Jim Purdy says:

    My son lives in Oregon and hikes in both Oregon and Washington. They both have a “ permit system”…. The permit is a parking permit….if you have a parking permit you can park and hike…day or more. No permit…no hike !
    The permits are for the year… permit each year. He has a permit for both states. Parking is the key…control the parking and the places to park…..

    • Todd Eastman says:

      The Northwest Forest Pass was instituted by the agencies to support trail and parking maintenance after the funding through the USFS plummeted due to drops in logging revenue and politically based funding cuts. If a parking area had an outhouse and a picnic table, a NWFP was required. The FS went about putting an outhouse and a (single) picnic table at every trail head throughout the region.

      Not the elegant solution some imagine.

  9. Alex says:

    After the stunt that AMR pulled, any additional attempts at permits will just be seen as more locals just trying to keep the riff-raff out of “their” park. Nobody with even half a brain thinks that the AMR permits have anything to do with preserving resources. That whole debacle has probably soured people on permits for generations to come.

  10. Alex says:

    It’s too bad that after the stunt AMR pulled, any additional attempts at permits will just be seen as more locals just trying to keep the riff-raff out of “their” park. Nobody with even half a brain thinks that the AMR permits have anything to do with preserving resources. That whole debacle has probably soured people on permits for generations to come.

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