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Ask a Thru-Hiker: Long Trails in National Parks

Can you see America's best idea on a thru-hike? You sure can—if you can figure out how to pick up your permit.

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This is Ask a Thru-Hiker, where record-setting long-distance hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas answers your questions about life on the trail. 

Dear Snorkel,

I’m a big fan of the national parks. I’m also a big fan of long, long walks. What national parks can I visit on a thru-hike?

Packing to Park

Dear Packing,

Many of America’s premier long trails travel right past some of the best features our national parks. Getting camping permits for them as a thru-hiker can range from easy (a few taps on a smartphone) to tricky (physically going into a backcountry office).

The Appalachian Trail goes right through Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Shenandoah National Park. Like any other backpacker, you’ll need to get a permit before entering the parks, and you must stay at the shelters along the trail. For the Smokies, thru-hikers can pay and apply for their permits online, so car-less hikers don’t have to worry about getting a ride to a ranger station to pick the permit up. Thru-hikers can self register for permits at Shenandoah, again avoiding the awkward car ride to the ranger station.

Thru-hikers going more than 500 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail can apply for a special permit that is good for the entire path, but you’ll still need to take special action when entering the seven national parks the trail goes through. There’s a limit to how many permits and which trailheads you can start at, especially in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which includes Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite National Park. Crater Lake has an easy thru-hiker permit: just sign in at the park boundary. In North Cascades, thru-hikers still need to physically go to the backcountry office to camp in the park, but it is pretty easy for northbound hikers: the ranger station is part of the compact village of Stehekin, WA, where almost all hikers resupply. Some national parks, like Lassen Volcanic, require all hikers—including thru-hikers—to use bear canisters. The Pacific Crest Trail Association has detailed information on permit details for distance hikers.

Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers can look forward to visiting Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Park. But much like the trail itself, the in-park camping permit system isn’t easy to navigate. Most thru-hikers on the CDT can see Rocky Mountain in a day without camping in it—which saves them from having to get a ride to a backcountry office for a paper permit. Thru-hikers can call ahead to make reservations for permits to Yellowstone and Glacier for the nights they plan to camp in the park. Most hikers call as close as they can to the dates they expect to be in the park so they can accurately estimate arrival times. Just like other backpackers, CDT distance hikers need to physically pick up their permits and watch a video on backcountry safety and bears for Yellowstone and Glacier. Depending on which direction you are hiking the CDT—northbound or southbound—you may be able to hike into a backcountry office to obtain your permits for those parks. Last year, Yellowstone emailed thru-hikers a PDF of their permit in case they ran into a ranger before they were able to hike into a ranger station, but Glacier didn’t have a system like that in place.

Hike through a national park, and one sad fact becomes apparent: the system is set up for cars, not hikers. Getting physical permits from backcountry offices isn’t made any easier by rules that make hitchhiking illegal on lands administered by the Department of the Interior and its agencies, such as the National Park Service. But the joy of getting to see the splendor of our National parks on foot alone is well worth it.

Snorkel