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According to conventional wisdom, you shouldn’t show up at the Grand Canyon during peak season without a backcountry permit. But that’s exactly what I did on my first trek there. It was early April, when the pairing of spring break and perfect weather makes the inner canyon an irresistible hiker magnet.
Cactus blooms, mild temps, and plentiful water sounded good to me, too, but I’d been too busy to plan ahead. At the last minute, two friends and I decided to drive 12 hours to the South Rim, without reservations, and hope for the best.
At the backcountry office, in glorious early-morning sunshine, we got in line with the other hopefuls. “Nothing left,” the ranger announced when it was our turn. “Bright Angel, full. Indian Garden, full. Horseshoe Mesa, full.”
Would-be hikers ahead of us had quietly retreated at the same news. But I couldn’t imagine getting back on the highway. What was the harm in asking?
“What about that area?” I ventured, pointing to the eastern end of the park on the counter map, where the canyon’s wide span and few trails (and zero designated campsites) made it look relatively empty.
The ranger glanced up at us, and then back at her permit records, and then back at us. Our boots must have appeared sufficiently scuffed, because she grudgingly asked, “Do you have Grand Canyon experience?”
“We have a lot of experience!” I responded, not technically lying (we’d hiked plenty, just not here, precisely). And magically, a primitive” backcountry zone became available. We told her it was just what we’d hoped for, and a short time later we were hiking down the Tanner Trail, at the beginning of a life-list trek from the big-view rim to a private beach camp on the Colorado River. If we saw anyone else for the next three days, I don’t remember.
I would chalk that adventure up to dumb luck, but I’ve had similar experiences in some of the country’s most famously crowded parks. In Yosemite, I learned to target obscure trailheads in the height of summer, since the park’s quota system lets you hike anywhere once you get a trailhead permit (I’ve had good success with Mono Meadows). Rocky Mountain releases unclaimed reservations at noon, so you just need to be there on time to snag one. And even when I was thwarted (like in Sequoia one time), I still found what I was after (next door, in the Golden Trout Wilderness).
The lesson? Conventional wisdom is often the worst kind. Yes, this magazine routinely counsels planning ahead if you want a guaranteed permit for the best routes in the most popular parks. But we also know what life is like. That’s why this issue offers a national parks guide with plenty of options for hikers who have done zero planning. For starters: Go at night (Arches) , go remote (Theodore Roosevelt), and go to undiscovered parks (Lassen Volcanic). We also give plenty of tips on scoring last-minute permits in even the premier parks.
So should you plan ahead? Of course, that’s always smart. But if you didn’t? Go anyway. You sure won’t find any wilderness on your couch.