The Forest Service is Implementing a Permit System in the Central Cascades

Starting in May, you’ll need a permit to day-hike or backpack the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson, and other popular zones in the Williamette and Deschutes National Forests.

Photo: Sheila Sund (CC BY 2.0)

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If you were hoping to feast your eyes on Oregon’s lava fields, old growth forests, and frosty peaks this year, you may need to plan ahead. Beginning on May 28, thousands of hikers will have to secure a permit to get close and personal with Oregon’s Mount Jefferson, the Three Sisters, and the Mount Washington Wilderness area. Permits can be secured online, over the phone (1-877-444-6777), and in person. The first wave of releases will begin on April 6.

The permits themselves won’t cost much. Day hikers will be subject to a whopping $1 fee, while overnight hikers will pay $6, with each permit good for up to 12 people. Overnight users will have access to up to 40% of the season’s allocated permits beginning on April 6, while the remaining 60% will be available on a 7-day rolling window. Those who just hope to experience the wilderness for a day can expect the permit offices to release 20 to 50% of the season’s day-use permits beginning on April 6, with the rest available on rolling basis.

The reason behind the new permit rules is, to put it simply, crowding. Between 2011 and 2016, the visitor load on the Sisters Wilderness Area nearly tripled, rising 181 percent. The Forest Service is hoping to lower the impact on these well-loved trails by limiting the number of hikers that are permitted into the most trafficked areas of the region during the busy season. While the plan to permit the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests isn’t entirely new—the Forest Service proposed a draft plan in 2018—progress came to a halt during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. As interest in the outdoors continues to skyrocket, managing local traffic is becoming even more essential.

One group that won’t have to worry about the new permits: Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers, who will be covered by their existing permits. Trail volunteers and hunters will also be exempt. Another way to get around the permit regime: plan an off-season trip. The permit system will only be in effect during the busy season, from May 28 to September 24.