The Parks: Denali, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite
The Skill: Snagging a permit
In some parks, the greatest challenge is bagging a backcountry permit. Our best advice is to get cracking early, as much as a year ahead. Do this:
>>> Go to www.nps.gov/parks to determine the earliest date you can reserve a permit. Dates vary from park to park: Grand Canyon is the first of the month, 4 months prior to your trip, but Grand Teton is January 1.
>>> Fax an application that morning and include backup itineraries; expect to redial numerous times. For some parks, the best strategy is to construct a route that starts at a less popular trailhead, or in an adjacent national forest, and spend a day or two hiking into your desired spot.
>>> For all parks, visiting during the off-season or going midweek boosts your odds of getting the trails and campsites you want.
>>> If the above approach fails, call the park’s backcountry desk and ask how to nab cancelled permits or walk-up reservations. Or simply skip the paperwork and take a guided trip instead.
Follow these insider tips to the country’s most popular parks:
Grand Canyon Get a permit for a remote area, like South Bass Trail or the North Rim. Didn’t reserve a permit in advance? Show up at the South Rim or North Rim Backcountry Information Centers for a permit beginning that day; both open at 8 a.m. Get in line at sunrise during spring at the South Rim, especially on Thursdays and Fridays; at the less-busy North Rim center, just be there when it opens.
Great Smoky Mountains Stay off the Appalachian Trail from April to June, when shelters overflow with thru-hikers. In other months, start your hike on side trails and make your way to the AT.
Grand Teton The park’s namesake peak is a hiking magnet. Start your trip away from this epicenter, like at Desert or Granite Canyon, to make getting an overnight permit easier.
Denali Permits get claimed early every day, and you can’t get a permit more than a day in advance-unless you’re spending one or more nights at one of the park’s interior campgrounds before starting your hike. If you can’t afford the extra days, map a route that starts in a less popular sector and enters your first-choice area after a day or two. If you’re taking the train from Anchorage, send a runner to the backcountry office the minute you pull in; it could gain you 10 places in line.
Yosemite Permit quotas are for trailheads only. You up your chances of getting a last-minute permit (40 percent are issued first-come) by getting in line at dawn. Or start your trip at a non-Yosemite Valley or Tuolumne Meadows trailhead.