Dreaming of Summer: Washington Backcountry Permits to Get Now

Posted by: Josh Garwood

In the midst of February in the Pacific Northwest, summer can feel like a vague and distant memory. But keep your head up, and you'll notice the days are getting longer and the forecast sunnier. Which means it’s time to start thinking ahead for how to make the most of Seattle’s best season, so you can hit the ground running once it arrives.

The importance of planning ahead is especially true for some of the most popular summer adventures in the state. Backcountry permits have just opened for The Enchantments and climbing Mount St. Helens, and will soon open for backpacking in Mount Rainier National Park. Here, our tips for how to apply and how to increase your odds of actually snagging some of the most popular Washington backcountry permits. Because, really, summer is just around the corner—and these are epic adventures you won’t want to miss.

The Enchantments

With scenery like this, it's easy to see why visiting The Enchantments is so popular.
With scenery like this, it's easy to see why visiting The Enchantments is so popular. Nate B

With dazzling alpine lakes and impressive granite peaks,The Enchantments is one of the most iconic wilderness areas in Washington. It’s also one of the most notoriously difficult places to get a summer backpacking permit for. This year, the U.S. Forest Service extended the timeframe for which a permit to camp in The Enchantments is required by six weeks, so you now need one if you plan to camp there anytime between May 15 and October 31. Seventy-five percent of the permits are divvied out via a lottery system, which opened this year on February 15 and closes on March 2.

When you log on to the site, you’ll need to set up an account and pay a non-refundable $6 application fee (if you win a permit, it costs an additional $5 per person per day for up to eight people). You will also be asked to choose which zone area you would like a permit for: Snow Zone, Colchuck Zone, Core Enchantment Zone, Stuart Zone, or the Eightmile/Caroline Zone. The most popular zones to apply for are the Core Enchantments, Snow Lakes, and Colchuck Lakes Zones—so if you want to increase your odds of winning the lotto, try for one of the others. You’ll also have a better chance if you have the flexibility to apply for weekdays instead of weekend trips.

If you’re not one of the lucky ones to win a permit, take heart: Day hikes do not require a permit, and 25 percent of the overnight permits are given out in-person at the Leavenworth Ranger Station.

Mount St. Helens

Summiting Mount St. Helens is a once in a lifetime kind of adventure.
Summiting Mount St. Helens is a once in a lifetime kind of adventure. gfpeck

The 8,328-foot Mount St. Helens is famous for having blown its top in 1980, but those who dare to visit today find it is a spectacular peak. And if you're keen to climb Washington's volcanoes, hiking to St. Helens' summit crater is a great one to start with as; unlike Mount Rainier or Baker, it's not a technical climb. But it is still a big day: a 10-mile round-trip trek that ascends 4,500 feet, over which you may have to navigate ice, pumice boulder fields, and scree. And during the high season a permit is still required to tackle it.

Permits to climb between April 1 and October 31 went on sale on the Mount St. Helens Institute website on February 1—and they’re going fast. They are available on a first-come, first-served basis for $22 per person. To increase your odds, look for weekdays in June or September (July and August are the most popular months to go). If your preferred dates are already sold out, check out the options on purmit.com (this is also the best place to sell your permit if you bought one you later realize you won’t be able to use).

Mount Rainier Wilderness

Mount Rainier National Park's Wonderland Trail is one of the best backpacking trips in the state.
Mount Rainier National Park's Wonderland Trail is one of the best backpacking trips in the state. Loren Kerns

Mount Rainier National Park is another sublime spot for a summer backpacking trip, and a similarly competitive place for getting a permit. 70 percent of the permits can be reserved ahead of time. Your best bet is to put in a request between March 15 and March 31: all requests received during this window will start to be processed on April 1, with any leftover permits awarded in the order requests are received.

To make a reservation request, you will need to fax or mail a form printed from this page, or visit the Longmire Wilderness Information Center in person (it may seem old school, but they don’t take online requests or phone calls). There is a $20 reservation fee per party of up to 12 people. While the popular Wonderland Trail, the beautiful 93-mile trail circling Mount Rainier, might be a top choice, you’ll increase your chances of getting a permit if you are flexible about where in the park you want to camp and preferred dates (the wider range of start dates you can provide, the better). As August is the park's busiest month, June, July, or September can offer better odds.

After you’ve put in your request, hang tight: it can take up to six weeks for the rangers to process all the applications. If you are awarded a reservation remember to actually pick it up from a ranger station. They will give your permit away if you don’t show up by 10am on the first day of your trip! If you aren’t awarded a reservation, similar to The Enchantments, you still have a good shot at getting one of the day-of permits that are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

Show up early, be prepared—and may the odds be ever in your favor!

Written by Samantha Larson for RootsRated.