Explaining the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit Program

Summer in the Central Oregon outdoors will look different this year, due largely to the unveiling of the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System. Years in the making, the new system will cap the number of day-use and overnight visitors to some of the region’s most popular trails — including Green Lakes and Soda Creek, Broken Top, South Sister, and the Tam MacArthur Rim trails.

If you’re wondering how this new Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System might impact your summer plans, here’s a quick guide to everything you need to know — along with how to secure your own permits as the spring and summer seasons unfold.

Which Trails are Part of the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System?

Trails throughout the Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington and Three Sisters wilderness areas of the Deschutes and Willamette National Forests will be restricted to permit-holders between May 28 and Sept. 24, 2021. (In future years, a good rule of thumb is to know that permits will generally be required from the Friday before Memorial Day through the final Friday in September.) In all, 19 trails will require day-use permits, and nearly 80 will require overnight permits.

Some of Central Oregon’s most popular trails will be restricted — including Devils Lake, South Sister, Scott Trail, the Obsidian Trail, Green Lakes and Soda Creek, Broken Top, Black Crater, and Tam MacArthur Rim. The U.S. Forest Service has produced an FAQ (PDF) that lists every impacted trail, along with whether day-use or overnight permits are required (or both).

How Many Day-use and Overnight Permits Will Be Issued Per Day?

Day-use permits are issued on a per-person basis — so the Broken Top Trail, with 40 day-use permits available on any given day, is limited to exactly 40 hikers per day. Different trails will have different capacities; 12 day-use permits will be available each day for the Scott Trail, for instance, while the South Sister Climber Trail will be capped at 100 hikers per day.

Overnight permits are a different story; anywhere between three and 17 overnight permits will be issued for each of the 79 impacted trails on any given day — but one overnight permit covers a group of up to 12 hikers and backpackers.

When Will Day-use and Overnight Permits Be Made Available?

Reservations for day-use and overnight permits will open at 7 a.m. April 6, 2021. In future years, permit reservations will go live the first Tuesday in April.

Note that only some permits will be made available on April 6.

For overnight permits, 40% of a trail’s full season will be made available on April 6; the remaining 60% will be available on a seven-day rolling window as the season opens up. So if you want to spend a night on the Obsidian Trail on August 8 —but miss out on an overnight permit when it’s made available on April 6 — you can angle for additional permits starting on August 1.

For day-use permits, 20-50% of a trail’s full season will be made available on April 6; the remaining 50-80% will be made available, like the overnight permits, on a seven-day rolling window as the season opens up.

In both cases, the seven-day rolling window allows for more spontaneous travel, giving hikers more choice for planning around weather events, wildfires, and so forth.

How Much do Day-use and Overnight Permits Cost?

Day-use permits cost $1 each, and overnight permits run $6 apiece — though the overnight permit is good for a group of up to 12.

How Can You Secure Permits?

All permits must be purchased through Recreation.gov or by calling (877) 444-6777. The following links offer different options for purchasing permits, depending on which permit you’d like (and how far in advance you’d like to purchase):

What Happens If You Can’t Secure a Permit?

If you can’t secure a permit, don’t hike your desired trail without one; Forest Service rangers will monitor trail usage this spring and summer, and they may choose to issue citations that run $200 or more.

If you can’t secure a permit, consider finding an alternate trail. Here are a few suggestions (note that other types of recreation passes may be required):

West Metolius River Trail: A footpath hugs the banks of the West Metolius River, passing springtime wildflowers and cutting through ponderosa pine forests before arriving at the Wizard Falls Hatchery.

LaPine State Park: Several miles of trails crisscross the popular LaPine State Park (just outside La Pine), with paths passing through forests of pine, hugging the Deschutes River, and offering views of surrounding Cascade peaks.

Whychus Creek Scenic Overlook: An easy, wheelchair-accessible trail arrives at an overlook that affords views of the Three Sisters, as well as the Whychus Creek Wild and Scenic River area. A longer trail can turn the hike into a loop that affords additional mountain viewpoints.

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