Glacier backcountry permits for 2016

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Over the past few years summer backcountry permits in Glacier National Park have been increasingly problematic.  An antiquated mail-in reservation system has combined with a sharp increase in applications to create a situation which was no good for anyone.  Prospective backpackers were stuck waiting until well into May or even early June to receive confirmation or denial of their permit, and permit rangers had to deal with 1500+ paper applications.  On April 16th all those sheets of paper were mixed, put into a random stack, and processed by hand beginning at the top.  Thankfully that system will be no more.

Instead, this year applications will be online.  Reservations will be accepted starting March 15th, and processed beginning that date on a rolling basis (something I confirmed this morning in a chat with the chief permit officer).  Fees will also increase; there will be a 10 dollar non-refundable processing fee, a 30 dollar application fee which will only be charged if you are granted your request, and a 7 dollar per person/night fee (up from 5 dollars in years past).

The important thing here is the rolling application processing.  If you want popular sites at popular times, you need to put in an application on March 15th, or put yourself in the hands of walk-in permits (see below).

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Why bother with these hurdles and fees, when uncrowded and permit-free terrain is available just to the south in the Bob?  Because Glacier has the best hiking, mile for mile, in the lower 48.  Places like the Winds and Sierra have far more extensive alpine terrain, but Glacier’s is distilled to a refinement not otherwise seen.

Because the alpine terrain is so concentrated, and that which can be reached by trail so heavily used during the brief months of summer, backpackers must use designated campsites.  The number of truly alpine camps are few, to keep impact down, and therefore slots at those camps are coveted.

The NPS does do a good job of advertising what options are not taken by advanced reservations.  This map provides a clickable view of all the camps in the park, and once applications start rolling in will show how many slots are available each day all summer.  Walk-in permits are also available, beginning at 0700 the day before the trip starts.  Check the campground status chart, and get to a permit office early in the morning.  0530 is not excessive if you’re trying for a premium site.

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Boulder Pass, Hole in the Wall, Stoney Indian (above), Fifty Mountain, Lake Ellen Wilson, Morning Star Lake, and Cobalt Lake.  These are the sites you want, though Cobalt gets less pressure because it isn’t on any of the main loops hikes.  2016 is not the year for delay.

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5 thoughts on “Glacier backcountry permits for 2016

  1. That sounds much better than the Denali NP system, where backcountry “units” must be booked/reserved in person the day before or the day of your trip.

    1. Unfortunate, though due I’d imagine to the lack of trails or any easy options for newbies.

      I’m of two minds on the NPS permit issue, as almost uniformly they’re getting more complex and more expensive. On the one hand they amount to a fairly meritocratic way to reduce traffic and demand. On the other plenty of folks have to get turned off of backpacking by not planning and ending up with a mediocre out-and-back route.

      Regardless online is good, as are guarantees in advance. Canyonlands online system is good, and while the Grand Canyon permit process is long and irksome, you do get your permit way ahead of time, and don’t have to pick it up in person.

      1. Possibly – in denali there are lots of nice options for newbies, it is pretty friendly to folks new to the area. However, the rangers that handle the permitting seem programmed not to provide much detail about the various “units” that can be reserved, so it isn’t like interacting with the staff adds a lot of value.

        Regardless, I would never suggest anyone travel to denali to go overnight backpacking, as the in person backcountry booking system is a crap shoot – visitors could end up with units in out of the way locations, or no units at all in peak visitation.

        I don’t think it reduces visitation – the units all have limits on the number of people allowed to overnight in them, it just changes who actually uses them, which has never seemed fair to me.

        It is nice to see parks like Glacier moving to a model that is more “fair” from my POV.

        1. A pity. While there are plenty of particular rules I don’t like, on the whole my experience with the various national parks has been that they ‘re quite helpful, and fair to all but the hopeless non-planners.

  2. Dave, being so close to the BC border have you spent anytime exploring the Purcells/Selkirks and their neighboring areas. From Glacier NP (BC) to the Bugs to Valhalla and all the Crown land in between. I’ve been to the Bugs a couple times and all the photos I see of the surrounding areas has me planning to return to the area soon. I would imagine the drive for you would be equivalent of myself driving to da UP for a long weekend get away. A lot less people I would imagine.

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