It was like trying to score Hamilton tickets. At 9am on a Thursday in February, thousands of hikers across the Northwest hovered over computers in hopes of reserving a permit to climb Mount St. Helens this summer. The Mount St. Helens Institute, the nonprofit tasked with administering the $22 permits, felt prepared for a crowd like the 3,500 users who flocked on release day in 2017.
More than 11,000 logged on. The system went berserk. A lucky few scored permits—summer weekends went first—before the entire thing crashed.
MSHI took down the system, found a new back-end vendor, and tried again a month later. It worked, sort of (hello, refresh button), and 13,830 reservations were booked that day. It marked a new high—or low—in the Washington permit race.
Across the state, permits limit use in the busiest areas. The beloved core Enchantment Lakes near Leavenworth saw 17,988 requests for overnight use in 2017, with 728 total spots up for grabs. Scoring a permit was actually harder than getting into Harvard.
Wilderness district ranger Daniel van der Elst oversees reservations at Mount Rainier National Park, where the 93-mile Wonderland trail is in increasingly high demand. “It’s important to me that access is equitable,” he says, but that’s not always easy to accomplish.
He thinks the spike in interest may be as much about technology as hordes of new outdoorspeople. Before 2016 wannabe hikers would fax requests, and demand rose slowly until a free online form for applications replaced faxes. That’s when it skyrocketed.
To stem the tide and fund staff to process them in random order, MRNP added a mandatory $20 application fee in 2018. It didn’t work; the lottery pool remained large. Next year Rainier will likely try something like the St. Helens model, opening up spots online on a given day. “Whatever capacity we get on the server to support that is probably going to be exceeded,” Van der Elst says drily.
This year Columbia Gorge rangers started a permit experiment; on weekends through July, only 165 permits are available for the wildflower-heavy Dog Mountain trail. The built-in bypass: Hikers who take a shuttle to the trailhead get unlimited access.
So how does a Washington hiker get outdoors when the frenzy for access rivals the Seattle real estate market? There are workarounds, like taking a chance on the few walk-up permits, hitting the Helens resale market online, or, in the case of the Enchantments, day hiking instead of backpacking.
When you’re not among the lucky few, permits suck. But they don’t simply exist to protect those trails easily overrun by too many feet. Limiting access is what makes the outdoors so special. “Our mission is to preserve wilderness character,” says ranger Van der Elst. “If a trail is so crowded you never get a chance to be alone, we’re not meeting that mission.”
Washington's Top Permits
Chances: About 4 percent in the annual February lottery, with a few walk-up permits available at the Leavenworth ranger station.
Alternative: Stunning Lake Ingalls is just on the other side of Mount Stuart from the famous Enchantment lakes, with camping available in Headlight Basin.
Chances: A little more than 9 percent in Mount Rainier National Park’s lottery; decent for walk-up hikers with schedule flexibility.
Alternative: Circle a different volcano on Mount St. Helens’ Loowit Trail, or find similar high alpine meadows in the Goat Rocks Wilderness.
Type: Day hike
Chances: In the first year, the local ranger station has seen the 320 weekend permits sell out most of the time.
Alternative: Wildflower meadows? Gorge views? Find them both at Dalles Mountain Ranch, a similar trail that begins about 35 miles east of Dog Mountain.
Mount St. Helens
Type: Day hike
Chances: Snagging one of the 38,800 total climbing permits in February’s free-for-all is largely dependent on your browser-refresh reflexes; users resell the passes at purmit.com.
Alternative: Mount Adams is also a nontechnical volcano hike, albeit one that takes most climbers two days—but for now, permits there are unlimited.