No vacancy for backcountry campers? Are permits the answer?

Rick Brown, of Petaluma, California, and daughter, Laura Brown, of Seattle, hike past Marion Lake in Grand Teton National Park in late August. Unable to get a permit to camp there, they crossed parts of the Teton Crest Trail by ducking out of the national park and camping on unrestricted national forest lands, a workaround that Laura knew from her previous residency in neighboring Jackson Hole. Photo by Brandon Loomis

Using the Tetons as a way to explore the idea of backpacking permits in the Adirondacks

By Brandon Loomis

The Browns faced a conundrum. 

They had tried and failed to secure a permit to camp at the picturesque alpine bowl around Marion Lake, in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, after standing in line before 6:30 a.m., when park headquarters had opened. So the father-daughter hiking team of Rick and Laura Brown had decided to hike across park lands past the lake, then up and over a ridge to unrestricted national forest camping just beyond the park boundary at Fox Creek Pass. Then they would traverse another part of the park the next day, a broad alpine shelf, until ultimately reaching a canyon where they had secured a Park Service permit.

But time, age and a nagging doubt late on their first day had stopped them short. Rick, 68, had prepped for his Teton Crest adventure by toting a backpack around Petaluma, California, over six months. Now, though, he was at Rocky Mountain altitude—and slowly climbing—and there came a point at which the pair questioned whether they could make the miles to Fox Creek and avoid stopping to camp in the park illegally. To be safe, they instead stopped in the Moose Creek drainage, in a wilderness area just outside the park, which put them behind schedule.

When my sons and I crossed paths with them at Marion Lake the next afternoon, they asked a favor. Because we would be out of the park and in phone range before them, we agreed to text the party waiting for them back in civilization, to tell them of a change in plans and timing.

“I knew it was going to be challenging,” Rick Brown said, sweating from the hike but not the circumstance. “But to get to do this with your daughter? It doesn’t get better.”

The family’s minor setback illustrates one of the pains that a strict regulation of camping in wildlands can deal outdoorspeople. It’s the kind of unwelcome inconvenience that has kept New York state land managers from upending most first-come, first-served camping in the Adirondacks—though the idea of reserved permits has long been discussed for the popular High Peaks Wilderness.

But permits also protect natural resources from what might otherwise be destructive crowds in bucket-list places like the Teton Crest, stressing the bears, leaving more human waste, flattening more campsites. 

Last year, National Park Service statistics show, more than 3.2 million people visited Grand Teton, a land mass about a third larger than the Adirondack Park’s High Peaks Wilderness. Those visitors combined for nearly 409,000 overnight stays. Most of those were in developed campgrounds or lodges, while just over 40,000 campers—roughly 10%—slept in the backcountry under a permit.

More than two-thirds of the backcountry stays were concentrated in July and August.

Lake Tear of the Clouds
Lake Tear of the Clouds, source of the Hudson River, is a relatively quiet stopping point in the shadow of well-traveled Mount Marcy. Photo by Brandon Loomis taken in July 2020 during an Adirondack High Peaks Wilderness backpacking trip.

In July 2020, more than a year before I would set out on my own Teton Crest journey, I first pondered the utility of a reserved wilderness campsite while I sat exhausted on an Adirondack rock next to the Opalescent River. I was trekking from Panther Gorge and Lake Tear of the Clouds toward Lake Colden that day, and the cumulative effect of two days on the trail with a too-loaded backpack weighed on me. As swifter hikers on their return from Mount Marcy’s summit passed me, I feared I might not secure one of the designated tent sites, and would be forced to hike into the night or pioneer some less-ideal site in the brush. Knowing that both rules and good citizenship dictated that I not flatten the area’s thick vegetation, I didn’t want to be that guy.

Wouldn’t it be nice if I had a reserved site waiting?

I wasn’t the first to have that thought. The state’s unit management plan for the High Peaks Wilderness back in 1999 envisioned it for a reason beyond my convenience: to limit environmental damage. Many sites, it said, “both designated and impromptu, have been located in areas not capable of sustaining repeated and heavy use.” Campers had dug trenches, built rock walls and fire rings and bough beds, and had cleared firewood. Areas including Johns Brook Valley, Lake Colden and Marcy Dam, managers wrote, compounded heavy camping use with heavy day-hiker traffic, and campers tended to clear new sites when others were full, broadening into large impact zones.

Permits were among the envisioned solutions for the South Meadow-Flowed Lands corridor—the hiking thoroughfare that includes Marcy Dam and Lake Colden. They would link backpackers to designated campsites in that zone, according to planners, and be limited to the busy May-October season. “The decision to implement a permit system will require an amendment to this plan and will afford opportunity for public review and comment.”

Today, there is no such backcountry permit system, though in 2021 there has been a pilot project testing free parking reservations for hikers from one trailhead lot, at the privately owned Adirondack Mountain Reserve. It’s used mostly by day hikers, and has prompted an online backlash from many who feel it is elitist and exclusionary. But others, such as Saratoga County hiker Dave Pawlick, acknowledged one advantage. If you’re coming from a distance, as Pawlick was when I met him at the trailhead in May, having a reserved spot can ease anxiety about arriving too late to park and hike. “I’m an early bird,” he told me. But on that day, he wasn’t out before dawn, because he didn’t have to be. He arrived at 8:30 a.m., reservation in hand on his cellphone, when in the past he would have been there by 5 a.m. to ensure a spot.

My 2020 slog from the Opalescent toward Lake Colden ended happily, if just in time. As I reached the teeming camp zone, a ranger told me that if I scurried down the trail toward the Flowed Lands I would likely snatch the final designated campsite, which I did immediately. As I set up, others passed by, presumably to find dispersed sites farther south. With no reservations possible, I told myself that next time I would travel earlier and lighter.

The busiest national parks, on the other hand, have long since moved to a more regimented system. One, Utah’s Arches, even took reservations just to drive into the park this summer.

tetons backpacking with a permit
Theo Loomis, left, and brother Jackson Loomis hike over a ridge toward Marion Lake in Grand Teton National Park. Photo by Brandon Loomis

Last spring, when I started searching web reservations to plan my Teton trek for late August, I found that I was nearly too late. Actually, I was too late for the itinerary I really wanted and that I thought would be easiest on my younger son. So, like the Browns, whom we would meet on the trail at Marion Lake, I improvised. Having lived in that area decades ago, I called a friend and asked for suggestions. He told me he rarely bothers with park permits anymore, and instead camps on the adjacent national forest and then hikes where he wants through the park.

I took that advice and planned two free nights on the forest, separated by a hike through the park and followed by a final night for which I could still reserve a pass in the park. The only permit I could get, though, was nearly 10 miles from the trailhead where I planned to exit. I anticipated complaints from my 11-year-old (who would be carrying a heavy pack for the first time), but I paid the $45 for that night so I could travel across the country knowing I would have a place waiting when I reached the West. 

There was more to the process than punching in a credit card and finding the trailhead, though. An in-person check-in to gather the permit was necessary on the day before the outing, which meant traveling to park headquarters in Wyoming even though I intended to approach the mountains from Idaho, where I was staying to visit family. This added about 200 miles and several hours in a car when I was trying to concentrate on gearing up. Once at headquarters, though, I found that some alternative permits—either forfeited by no-shows or held in reserve for walk-ups—had opened. This allowed me to exchange mine for one in a zone significantly closer to the trailhead.

Contact with the permit-issuing ranger also proved helpful, as he scanned a map and pointed to important water-gathering locations that I otherwise might have walked past because they’re hidden by trees and ridges. (Two days later, the same ranger hiked past me and checked my permit in the backcountry, again suggesting a good spot to camp and find water.)

The next day was when we ran into the Browns, and heard from Laura that, like me, she was relying on some insider information to camp in the unregulated forest next to their route through the regulated park. She had mixed feelings about that, and about how a ranger who had prepped the sunrise crowd in line at the visitor center had urged them to have an itinerary in mind and a credit card out, because the permits would go quickly when the doors opened.

“It’s ecologically important,” she agreed, regarding the permit system. But could it be intimidating people who don’t know what itinerary might suit them, or who don’t know that there are options for camping beyond park boundaries? 

“You don’t want to only give access to people who know the place and how it works,” she said. 

Her preferred itinerary—camping at the lake where you can hear your voice bouncing off the surrounding cliffs—didn’t work out. So the Browns moved on toward their camp beyond the park. Still, the permitting system had its benefits, Rick Brown noted.

“You are the second people we’ve seen in two days,” he said to us. “That’s probably a good thing.”

teton camping permits
The Loomis brothers set up camp in the Targhee National Forest in Wyoming, just outside of Grand Teton National Park. Photo by Brandon Loomis

Such solitude is not likely achievable for backpackers in the Adirondack Park’s eastern High Peaks, where day hikers by the hundreds head for New York’s highest mountains on summer and autumn mornings. If permits ever were required there, as the 1999 plan suggested, the goal would be resource protection.

“The High Peaks are going to be crowded. You’re not going to find solitude there,” said Todd Eastman, a Vermonter and environmental planning consultant who lived in the Adirondacks from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s working in outdoor shops and as an Outward Bound guide.

Eastman worries about campers’ feces polluting Adirondack streams. He said more controls will make sense as the number of visitors climbs, just as the backpacking wave that he rode in the 1970s caused New York to shut down camping above 4,000 feet to protect alpine vegetation.

He has also lived under permit systems for trails on national forests in the Pacific Northwest, and believes people would accept them if they’re “predictable and apparently fair.” But New York may lack enough rangers to check everyone’s permits in the backcountry. Eastman has another solution in mind that would preserve the first-come, first-served model.

He would concentrate the camping in three zones—Marcy Dam, Lake Colden and Johns Brook—mentioned in the 1999 plan, and make those campgrounds more sustainable with better sanitation.

Whatever the solution, Eastman hopes the park will remain an inviting place for people to make the sort of spontaneous mountain forays that he enjoyed in his youth.

“I would like to make sure that people’s access, when they come to the Adirondacks, isn’t curtailed by a permit system that really is going to limit trail access and discourage people from wanting to come up,” he said.

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This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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