No Permit? No Problem

Bless the planners of the world, with their tight itineraries and advance reservations. This story is not for them. Here are your go-to, last-minute getaways.
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Bless the planners of the world, with their tight itineraries and advance reservations. This story is not for them. Here are your go-to, last-minute getaways.

[The Open Secret]

Locals want to share this wilderness in hopes of getting it designated.

The spot: Alpine Trail No. 7, Swan Range, MT

The Guide: Keith Hammer
Years on location: 50
Favorite dayhike: Trail 293 on Broken Leg Mountain
Best post-hike meal:The Laughing Horse Lodge in Swan Lake

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Everyone knows Glacier’s beauty doesn’t just end at park boundaries, but the tricky part is getting trail-weathered long-timers to divulge their favorite spots—because, really, what’s in it for them? More RV-clogged trailheads? Well, in the case of Alpine Trail No. 7, there’s more to be gained than lost: Locals want the high-country route through the Swan Range and the surrounding terrain protected as wilderness. Why? Grizzlies, bobcats, and moose roam these woods, and the meadows are overrun with wildflowers.

“This area is so underused, sections of the trailbed have glacier lilies growing in them,” local conservationist Keith Hammer told me when I went in search of the region’s insider hikes. These delicate yellow flowers bloom all summer in patches of melting snow, along with Indian paintbrush, anemones, and yellow wood violets. “The scene is just as incredible as Glacier,” Hammer says.

See why locals want to protect it on a two night, 25-mile shuttle hike. Pack water for a dry first day, head up the ridge from Napa Point, and follow the Swan Crest’s alpine tundra north, with views west over the pine-studded, river-crossed Lost Creek drainage and east through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, an area so vast even yearround residents barely scratch the surface. (If you’re up for it, scramble Warrior Mountain, Gildart Peak, or Thunderbolt Mountain, which are all just shy of 8,000 feet.) Camp at Crevice Lakes (mile 10), a pair of tarns pooling on glaciated rock atop the Swan Crest, with Thunderbolt’s north face casting long shadows in the evening. Stay on the crest for 8 miles to Trinkus Lake on the second day, and rinse off in its cool, green water. Day three, follow Bond Creek’s meander for 7 miles through huckleberry patches (ripe in August) to the trailhead 2 miles south of Swan Lake.
–JACOB BAYNHAM

Trip Planner

Shuttle 47.909928, -113.834496*; 37 miles southeast of Kalispell on Bond Creek Trail (private option: Flathead Glacier Transport; $45/hour, 3-4 hours; 406-892-3390; glacier transportation.com)
Trailhead 47.786475, -113.733909; 51 miles southeast of Kalispell on Center Loop Rd.
Contact (406) 758-5208; fs.usda.gov/flathead

[The Sneak Route]

This back-door, easy-permit route leads straight to Olympic’s high country.

The Spot: Gray Wolf Loop, Olympic NP, WA
Your Guide: Vicki Heckamen
Years on location: 44
Favorite dayhike: Lake Angeles- Heather Park Loop, Olympic NP
Best post-hike meal: Barhop Brewing and Taproom in Port Angeles

Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker, the North Cascades—the list of destinations within striking distance of my front door reads like a backpacker’s life list. But even with this embarrassment of backcountry riches, something keeps pulling me west, to Olympic National Park. In the past three years, I’ve become a serious student of spur-of-the moment trips, when I don’t have time to snag a coveted, reservation-only campsite in the park’s craggy alpine zone. That’s why I was so thrilled when Port Angeles local Vicki Heckamen told me about this master-level backdoor route in the park’s northeast corner.

“If you can get in the back way, it’s always nicer and less crowded,” she says. “Most people don’t want to work that hard.” Quotas don’t apply to the sites on this five-night, 47.8-mile loop, so you’re guaranteed a trip that traverses four airy passes, skirts meadows dotted with wildflowers, and traces river valleys shaded by old growth evergreens. Plus, you could luck into a walk-in permit for the idyllic Deer Park basin. (You’ll get a day’s jump on a walk-in permit by spending your first night outside the reservation zone.) From the Deer Park trailhead, plunge 3,800 feet in 4.3 miles to your first night’s camp at Three Forks. If you scored the permit to Deer Park basin (Gladys, Grand, or Moose Lakes), follow Cameron Creek 7 miles to 6,500-foot Grand Pass, a vertigo-inducing ridge with stadium views across the park’s snowy summits, and drop down to your lakeside site. (Otherwise, leave your pack at the Lower Cameron campsite and dayhike Grand Pass.) Day three, cross two more high passes—6,450-foot Cameron Pass, a sere, rocky notch that demands an ice axe until late July, and 5,150-foot Lost Pass—and camp at Dose Meadows (8.4 miles from Lower Cameron).

The next morning, head east to 6,204-foot Gray Wolf Pass, then descend to Falls Camp. Your last full day tracks 5.7 miles under a canopy of Douglas fir, Engelmann spruce, and western red cedar to Graywolf camp. Climb back to Deer Park on the Three Forks Trail to close the loop. Even in a place replete with wilderness riches, the hard-toearn ones are still the best. –ELISABETH KWAK-HEFFERAN

Trip Planner

Permits Backpacking permit required ($5 plus $2/person/night; no quota). For a walk-in permit to Grand Lake, head to the Wilderness Information Center at Olympic National Park Visitor Center.
Trailhead 47.949035, -123.258448; 24 miles southeast of Port Angeles on Deer Park Rd.
Contact (360) 565-3100; nps.gov/olym

[The Alternate Viewpoint]

Look at (not from) some of the best scenery in all of Wyoming.

The Spot: Six Lakes, Gros Ventre Wilderness, WY
Your Guide: Reed Finlay
Years on location: 22
Favorite dayhike: Bradley-Taggart loop, Teton NP
Best post-hike meal: Pinky G’s Pizzeria in Jackson

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When you see the Tetons for the first time, you’ll be drawn to them like a Snake River trout to a dry fly. This is normal—heck, it’s one of the reasons I live here—but locals know there are easier ways to nab fine views than to climb the faulted mountains. That’s why you’ll see so many of us heading east, into the Gros Ventre Wilderness, to see the Tetons scratching the western horizon. This three- or four-day, 30-mile point-to-point along Crystal Creek (Trail #3021) follows the waterway beneath the contours of the Flathead sandstone formation, through meadows spilling with wildflowers, into a rarely accessed lake basin. From the Crystal Creek trailhead north of town, wind south (the trailhead creek crossing is dicey; scout 100 feet downstream) for 3.2 miles and bear left along Jagg Creek. Put 800 vertical feet between yourself and the river and enter Six Lakes Basin, a watery hideaway hemmed in by long ridgelines.

“Camp near the second largest lake on a knoll overlooking the basin,” says Reed Finlay, a Jackson Hole ski patroller and Snake River rafting guide. The next day, leave packs in camp and climb 11,657-foot Black Peak— a class 3, talus-strewn summit—via its northwest ridge. Backtrack the third morning, keeping an eye out for moose and bears (grizzly and black; pack bear spray). Take Granite Creek south and set up camp in The Meadow (mile 29.7, if you climbed Black Peak) amid Indian paintbrush and mule’s ears (blooming in August). Bag 11,407-foot Antoinette Peak via its class 3 eastern ridge for the view you’ve been waiting for: the Teton Range in its full, snowy glory. Finish with a soak in Granite Creek’s hot springs. You won’t find a natural spa like this in the typical Tetons Experience. You’ll probably share the pool with a local. Just don't tell him who sent you. —JEFF BURKE

Trip Planner

Shuttle 43.349618, -110.437403; 33 miles southeast of Jackson on Granite Creek Rd.
Trailhead 43.562512, -110.408349; 30 miles northeast of Jackson on FR 30377
Contact (307) 739-5400; fs.usda.gov/btnf

[The Next Best Thing]

Split the difference between Tahoe and Yosemite to get both of their charms but none of their crowds.

The Spot: Kennedy Meadows, Emigrant Wilderness, CA
Your Guide: Alex Wierbinski
Years on location: 22
Favorite dayhike: Bagging 11,570-foot Leavitt Peak in the Emigrant
Best post-hike meal:Kennedy Meadows Resort and Packstation

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Old-growth trees, crystalline streams, and granite domes dot the western Sierra, and when I walk through the area I experience the full breadth of its fluid stillness—if I can be alone for a sec. So I’m learning to look north, past Yosemite, to the quiet paths of the Emigrant Wilderness for my own tract of unspoiled heaven. A four-night, 40-mile loop leads southeast from Kennedy Meadows, past Relief Reservoir, over 9,400-foot Mosquito Pass, and to Emigrant Lake (mile 16), where the combination of skyward granite, alpine pool, and rainbow trout make for the most picturesque fishing imaginable. Or so says Alex Wierbinski—and he’d know: He’s been tracking these trails and visiting these pools for two decades. The trail continues over the 9,800-foot Brown Bear Pass for a vantage overlooking the surrounding meadows pooling with clear water and protected by jagged Sierra peaks. Here, ancient lava flows cover slabs of granite, creating intricate layers of rock Wierbniski calls “ice cream sandwiches.” His tips: Take it slow—camp at Sheep Camp (mile 9), Emigrant Lake (mile 16), Snow Lake (mile 23), and Sheep Camp again (mile 31)—study the geology, and most of all, let your pace match the forest’s natural calm. –JAMES LUCAS

Trip Planner

Permit Free, no quota; at Stanislaus NF ranger stations
Trailhead 38.267432, -119.733853; 167 miles east of Sacramento on Eagle Meadow Rd.
Contact (209) 965-3434; fs.usda.gov/stanislaus

[The Perfect Substitute]

Find world-class serenity next to the Boundary Waters.

The Spot: Circle Route, Superior NF, MN
Your Guide: Jim Blauch
Years on location: 20
Favorite day trip: Bass Lake Trail, Superior NF
Best post-hike meal: Chocolate Moose in Ely; (218) 365-6343

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Want instant R&R? When I do, I remember this: Within an hour of dipping my paddle into the waters of a wilderness lake, the distractions of modern-day life melt away. And the Boundary Waters are ground zero for wilderness lakes. Yet the BWCA requires entry permits and has strict quotas, so arranging a last-minute trip can feel far indeed from peaceful serenity. Luckily, Jim Blauch, outfitter, resort owner, and longtime local, knows a way around. Just outside the BWCA’s western edge, in the Superior National Forest, lies the Circle Route, a 30-mile, two- or three-night backcountry canoeing loop that traverses 10 lakes and two rivers. The put-in at Bass Lake is wide, flat, and easy to maneuver.

From the parking lot, a gradual, few-hundred-yard portage gets you on your way: On the first day, connect Bass, Low, Grassy, and Tee Lakes and find a shoreline site at Tee, or continue to a campsite on the west end of Sletten Lake. Stay the second night at Twin Lakes. Even the hard parts are pretty: Several short portages offer spectacular vistas of the surrounding forests and small lakes—a classic Boundary Waters tableau. Burntside Lake, with its thimble islands and crystal-clear water, is the most susceptible to
wind. “Use caution and time it right,” Blauch says. “Early morning and late evening are the best times to cross big water. Take advantage of the small islands that can shelter you from the wind as you make your way across.” The loop ends at Little Long Lake. The public take-out is across the road from the parking lot where you started.

“They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Blauch reflects. “But it doesn’t matter who you are. From steep cliffs to small streams, everyone will find a true sense of solitude and beauty here.” –LOUIS DZIERZAK

Trip Planner

Trailhead 47.949437, -91.870766; 7 miles north of Ely on Ely-Buycks Rd.
Contact (218) 365-7600; fs.usda.gov/superior

[The Secret Passage]

Most Sierra visitors drive right past this gem near Yosemite's eastern boundary.

The Spot: Twenty Lakes Basin, Mono Lakes NFSA, CA
Your Guide: Karen Honeywell
Years on location: 20
Favorite dayhike: Blue Lakes Trail, Hoover Wilderness
Best post-hike meal:Whoa Nelli Deli in Lee Vining

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Snow-draped granite, flower-filled meadows, misty waterfalls, and swimmable alpine pools. Sounds like Yosemite, but it’s nearby Saddlebag Lake, where you’ll find us locals—and our kids—in summer. The open, gently sloping terrain and easy routefinding on this three-day, on- and off-trail excursion make for family-friendly hiking. Says Lee Vining local Karen Honeywell: “I enjoy bringing less experienced backpackers and kids to this area because the distances are short, the lakes, waterfalls, wildflowers, and glaciated mountains are stunning, and the cross-country travel is easy.”

Start with a 4-mile tromp past Indian paintbrush and columbine along Saddlebag Lake's eastern shore to the junction with the Lundy Lake Trail. Making good time? Take a 5-mile round-trip detour through rocky notches and past tumbling cascades, beaver ponds, and aspens to Lundy Lake. Otherwise, head west to Shamrock Lake and North Peak’s perpetual
snowfields. Camp in the spongy grasses at Cascade Lake (mile 10, if you took the detour). For an after-dinner treat, climb the snowfield and watch the sunset turn the Twenty Lakes Basin into a palette of golden pools and silver rock.

Next day, choose your off-trail adventure: For airy ridges and see-forever views, head to Mt. Conness (12,649 feet, 5.6 climbing) or North Peak (12,242 feet, class 4 scrambling). Or stay low on the 8-mile, off-trail loop west past the Conness Lakes, then contour south into the Hall Natural Area (no camping), aflame with more summer wildflowers than I could possibly name. On day three, cast a line for trout—or bucket-list the pieces of wonder that you missed the previous day—before walking past Wasco and Greenstone Lakes on the return route to the trailhead. It may not be Yosemite’s famed Tuolumne Meadows, but you’ll barely know the difference. –TIM HAUSERMAN

Trip Planner

Permit Free, get at Mono Lakes Visitor Center
Trailhead 37.965719, -119.270539; 33 miles west of Lee Vining on Saddlebag Lake Rd.
Contact (760) 647-3044; monolake.org

[Another Way In]

One of the best hikes in the Grand Canyon isn’t in Grand Canyon National Park.

The Spot: Jumpup Canyon, Kanab Creek Wilderness, AZ
Your Guide: Annette McGivney
Years on location: 20
Favorite dayhike: Soap Creek Canyon, Grand Canyon NP
Best post-hike meal:Lees Ferry Lodge in Marble Canyon

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When it comes to expansive panoramas and spectacles of color and space, there is the Grand Canyon and there is everywhere else. This slice of Earth’s ability to make me feel wonderfully small blows me away every time. And there have been plenty of times. I moved to Flagstaff nearly 20 years ago in large part to be near it. When I need a last-minute escape, I head to the North Rim’s Kanab Creek Wilderness, where red-rock vistas blend with intimate, labyrinthine side canyons decorated with fern-decked hanging gardens, and no one but locals ventures. Link the spring-fed drainages in Kanab Creek Canyon to create a leisurely, easily navigable, 25-mile loop route that allows the luxury of water without having to schlep it long distances.

Start at the Jumpup Canyon trailhead and descend 1,500 feet in 5 miles to pitch your tent on a ledge above the reliable oasis of Lower Jumpup Spring. Day two: Pick up the Ranger Trail (#41) on the east side of Lower Jumpup Canyon and soak in sprawling views of distant buttes as you ramble 4 miles across a slickrock balcony. Drop into Sowats Canyon and hike a mile to Mountain Sheep Spring where a perennial stream flows into sparkling pools for a 5-mile day. Next day, head south/southeast for 4 miles on the Ranger Trail to the head of Kwagunt Hollow, where water oozes from a slow seep in the rock and the night sky is so star-filled that Kanab Creek regulars call this elevated slickrock platform with saucer-shaped rocks the “space station.” On day three, boulder hop down Kwagunt for 2.3 miles to Jumpup Canyon, and side-hike into the mile-long Jumpup slot, one of the best limestone narrows in the Southwest—sheer walls tower 300 feet overhead and squeeze down to 15 feet wide.

Back at the junction, scramble 1 mile up Jumpup to climb a crudely constructed (though sound) wooden ladder up the namesake pour-off (bring a 30-foot rope to raise packs). Spend your last night at Lower Jumpup Spring and retrace your steps the next day to the trailhead. Feeling small has never felt better. –ANNETTE McGIVNEY

Trip Planner

Trailhead 36.585381, -112.547078; 233 miles northwest of Flagstaff on Road 423 (4WD required)
Contact (435) 688-3200; bit.ly/KanabCrk

[The Other Side of the Mountain]

Get all of Rocky Mountain National Park’s beauty, but none of its hassles.

The Spot: Comanche Loop, Comanche Peak Wilderness, CO
Your Guide: Joe Grim
Years on Location: 9
Favorite Dayhike: Emmaline Lake Trail, Comanche Peak Wilderness
Best Post-Hike Meal: The Mishawaka in Bellvue
If Colorado’s backcountry were an epic novel, Rocky Mountain National Park would be the CliffsNotes version: Granite peaks pierce bluebird skies, wildflowers fleck windswept tundra, and craggy cirques cradle glittering alpine lakes, all in a tidy 266,000 acres. I was hooked the first time I watched the sun set behind an elk herd in mid-rut in Moraine Park. But, like any classic, it’s popular: Rocky’s proximity to nearly 3 million people in the Front Range means solitude—and summer backpacking permits—can be harder to find than a pika in winter.

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So I turned to Loveland local Joe Grim, who literally wrote the book on the adjacent Comanche Peak Wilderness, named for the 12,702-foot peak that straddles the park’s northern boundary. Fewer than 50 people per day visit most of its 67,000 acres, compared to an average of more than 20,000 daily during Rocky’s high season—that’s 100 times more acreage per person than in Rocky.

Grim’s pick: a three-night, 25-mile loop following icy streams through thick evergreen forests and flirting with timberline for views of Rocky’s jagged Mummy Range. From the Jacks Gulch trailhead, hike west on Old Flowers Road and Flowers Trail to camp at Beaver Park, a grassy, hillside knoll in a sea of evergreens at mile 5. Day two, climb to treeline and the Browns Lake Trail junction at mile 10.5; catch intermittent glimpses south to 13,560-foot Hagues Peak 10 miles away. (Bonus: Detour 1 mile north on Browns Lake Trail for a ridgeline panorama of the Mummy, Medicine Bow, and Snowy Ranges.) Hike 1.2 miles south from the intersection to overnight at one of seven designated sites alongside jewel-blue Browns and Timberline Lakes (no campfires). Next day, turn east on Beaver Creek Trail, passing Comanche Reservoir to Fish Creek Trail and camping in a creekside meadow (mile 16.9). Close the loop via Little Beaver Creek Trail.
I’ll always love the CliffsNotes. But this summer, I’m taking a page from Grim’s book instead. –SARAH L. STEWART

Trip Planner

Trailhead 40.619100, -105.526085; 44 miles west of Ft. Collins on Pingree Park Rd.
Contact (970) 295-6700; bit.ly/comanchepeak

[Hidden in the Shadow]

Find bald, big-view summits, jumbled geology, and North Country beauty—without the hut crowds.

The Spot: Mahoosuc Range, ME
Your Guide: Roger Doucette
Years on Location: 64
Favorite Dayhike: North Percy Peak, near Stratford, NH
Best post-hike meal:Smokin' Good BBQ in Bethel, ME

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I’m a New England newcomer with only two years under my belt, which means that most New Hampshire chipmunks have more local status than I do. Luckily, I married into North Country authenticity. When I’m looking for the best hike—without squeezing into the ever-popular AMC huts—I look no further than my father-in-law, Roger Doucette. His suggestion: the Mahoosuc Range just beyond the New Hampshire border in southern Maine. With bald summits, craggy outlooks, and trailside shelters, it’s his standout favorite for classic Northeast backpacking. And he should know: He’s lived within 40 miles of the Mahoosucs for 64 years and counting, and has hiked all 48 of the 4,000-footers in New Hampshire.

While you can travel the four-day, 31-mile hike in either direction, going south to north builds anticipation (and stamina) for tackling the “toughest mile on the AT” on day three. Start your trip heading up the Centennial Trail over three summits to Gentian Pond Shelter. Day two is a hair over 10 miles long and, en route, you can scout for plane wreckage from the 1954 crash of a twin-engine DC-3 on the side of Mt. Success before retiring at Full Goose Shelter for the night. Day three is the most demanding. Rest up at Fulling Mill Mountain with views of the Bull Branch gorge and Goose Eye Brook before tackling the AT’s toughest mile through Mahoosuc Notch—choked full of garbage-truck-size boulders. Your reward: another 1,390 feet of climbing up Mahoosuc Arm to a wide-open summit view. From here, you’re less than a mile from a dip into spruce- and fir-ensconced Speck Pond. After a final night in the nearby shelter, 4.6 miles and Old Speck’s 4,170-foot summit are all that separate you from your post-hike celebration.
–MAJKA BURHARDT

Trip Planner

Shuttle 44.590192, -70.946574; 46 miles northeast of Berlin, NH, on ME 26 (private option: Trail Angels Hiker Services; $120 up to three people; 978-855-9227; trailangelshikerservices.com)
Trailhead 44.403986, -71.120167; 11 miles southeast of Berlin on Hogan Rd.
Contact (603) 466-8116; outdoors.org

[The Path Less Traveled]

Take the hard way to a Smokies lookalike.

The Spot: Slickrock Loop, Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, NC
Your Guide: Gary Eblen
Years on Location: 40+

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Favorite Dayhike: Pilot Mountain, Pisgah NF

Best post-hike meal:Southern Appalachian Brewery in Hendersonville

Gary Eblen has been hiking the Blue Ridge since before I was born. And he’s probably responsible for inspiring a lot of people who love the outdoors here. He even lent me his personal cookset for my first-ever backpacking trip. Recently I asked him, “With this new reservation system in the Smokies [all backcountry trips now require advance reservations], where can I head for a last-minute, less-regulated trip?”
“Slickrock Wilderness,” he replied softly. He then reached for his map and started to describe a 14-mile, three-day circuit. “Start at Big Fat Gap trailhead and go 2.5 miles to Slickrock Creek. There are some good camping options there,” he said. “You’ll sleep well listening to the crickets sing and the creek flow.”
Next, he pointed to a trail that climbs 2,200 feet in 4 miles. “Here you’ll find a lot of blowdowns and the trail isn’t well marked. Count on a maximum of 1 mile per hour.”
From there, he traced a 1.5-mile out-and-back from Naked Ground to Bob Stratton Bald.

“There are great views here of the Unicoi Mountains and Joyce Kilmer Wilderness,” he said, “and good camping. But I would continue on the Haoe and Hangover Lead Trails to camp in a grassy gap, at mile 10, that’s more secluded. From here, it is less than 2 miles back to Big Fat Gap.”
“Awesome!” I said. “By the way, why are we whispering?”
“Because it’s a secret.”

–JENNIFER PHARR DAVIS

Trip Planner

Trailhead 35.422997, -84.001529; 115 miles west of Asheville, NC, on Slickrock Rd.

Contact (828) 257-4200; bit.ly/kilmer-slickrock