Skip to main content

12 things to know about Wilderness Permits in the Central Cascades

Adventure Journal

Save to a List Saved


Apr, 06 2021

12 things to know about Wilderness Permits in the Central Cascades

If you’ve recently gone to Green Lakes seeking solitude, you may have noticed something missing. Namely, the solitude.

It’s no secret some of the Central Cascades’ most beloved hiking trails have seen surges in popularity, with some feeling a 300-500% increase in use. To help protect these wild places, the Forest Service is implementing a new Wilderness Permit program to give high-traffic trails a chance to heal. 

Broken Top hike

Some hiking trails, including Broken Top, will now require a permit.

While you can still hike your old faves like Tam MacArther Rim or Sisters Mirror Lakes, it’ll take a bit more planning beginning April 2021. Read on to learn all you need to know about the new Central Cascades Wilderness Permits system.

Wait…where is this happening?

For day use, the new permit system applies to select areas in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness, the Mt. Washington Wilderness, and the Three Sisters Wilderness. While that’s a whole ‘lotta land, day use permits are required at only 19 out of 79 trailheads in those areas. 

As you might guess, they’re the areas most at risk of overuse. You know…the ones where Forest Service wilderness rangers have had to clean up more than a thousand pounds of human excrement (I wish I was kidding).

I’ve already mentioned some of the biggies, like Green Lakes and Tam MacArthur. For a complete list, check out this Forest Service page.

For overnight visitors, folks wishing to camp in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness, the Mt. Washington Wilderness, and the Three Sisters Wilderness are required to have a Central Cascades Wilderness Permit. For day use hikers, you’ll only need the Central Cascades Wilderness permit for those 19 trailheads I mentioned. 


When is this happening?

The permit system rolls out on April 6, 2021, and permits will be required beginning May 28, 2021. If you’re planning to hike or take an overnight backpack trip anytime between May 28 and September 24, 2021 in one of the identified areas, you’ll need to purchase a permit.

You’ll also need a permit between the last Friday in September and October 31, but those permits will be free and can be obtained at all trailheads, just like it’s always been.


Why are they doing this?

You know how you love that special trail in the Three Sisters Wilderness? Welp, so do thousands of others. In order to keep wild places from being loved to death, the Forest Service is putting a cap on how many folks can be there at any given time. 

Map courtesy of the Forest Service. Go here to see it in full size.

A little history here: The National Wilderness Preservation System is a network of more than 109 million acres protected under The Wilderness Act, which was signed by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 to preserve pristine swaths of land across America. These are places where human activity is limited to scientific study and non-mechanized recreation. 

As a sidenote, when you see “Wilderness” capitalized, that’s what it’s usually referring to. A reference to “wilderness” with a lowercase “w” can encompass any ol’ forest or wide open space.

So we’re talking about the capital Wilderness here, and our need to protect it so when your great-great-great grandkids go adventuring in the future, that special place will look like it did when you last laced your hiking boots. It’s in the same ballpark as our Pledge for the Wild program, which raises funds to protect wild places around popular mountain towns like Bend.

All of these things are signs that outdoor enthusiasts realize we have an obligation to tend the lands we love, so here’s a chance to do our part.


Er, do I need a permit?

I get it…this is new and different, so how the heck do you know if you’ll need a little slip of paper to do the hike or camping excursion you’re planning?

First things first: Consult the maps on this page. Not only will it acquaint you with the areas we’re talking about, but it’ll let you know right off the bat whether you need a permit or not. 

Next, figure out if you’re planning a regular ol’ day hike or an overnight camping trip. That will determine which kind of permit you need. 

If you’re just day hiking, roughly 20-50% of each trailhead’s full season of permits will be available for reservation April 6. The remaining 50-80% will be released on a 7-day rolling window when the permit season begins. Every day, new permits will come available.

For overnight users, 40% of the full season will be available April 6, with the remaining 60% available on a 7-day rolling window.

And if I may slip in another plea to please consult the map, it really does help. For instance, I know now that I won’t need a permit to take the dogs on a simple stroll around Todd Lake. But if I had my heart set on using Todd Lake as our starting point to venture into the Wilderness, we would need it. That’s why it’s smart to plan ahead and get acquainted with the areas included in the new permit system.


How do I get a permit?

Permits are all handled through, so it’s a system familiar to most of us who’ve used it to book campsites.

Based on the type of permit you’re seeking, here are the links:


What if I miss out but reeeeally want to go?

If you’re looking at the calendar and seeing it’s already past April 6, 2021 when the first round of full season permits are released, don’t panic.

Broken Top hiking

Starting in 2021, you’ll need to make summer hiking and camping plans in advance if you plan to visit areas requiring a permit.

First, check the system to see if spots remain for the dates you want to hike or camp. Some dates won’t fill up as fast, while other dates might see users returning permits to the system as their plans change. 

Second, pay attention to the calendar and the seven-day rolling window on which more permits will be released. That’s a handy way to snag something a bit more last-minute.

If you still strike out, please, please don’t show up in person at the trailhead or at the Deschutes National Forest Welcome Station. They won’t have permits there.

Instead, use the skills you’ve honed during the pandemic. You know how we all had to get clever about having plan A, B, C….heck, maybe even Z because things kept changing? Same deal here. Scan Visit Bend’s hiking pages or buy a guide book so you can keep a living list of hikes that sound fun. You can even stop by the Bend Visitor Center to get ideas from our knowledgeable staff (though keep in mind…we don’t have permits, either).

However you build it, make a nice, long bucket list of hikes. That way you can move on if your first pick doesn’t pan out.


I got one! Now what?

Unlike the types of permits you’re accustomed to leaving in your car, the new Central Cascades Wilderness Permit system requires you to keep your permit on your person. If you’re stopped by a ranger along the trail, you’ll need to show your permit.

Beyond that, all the usual advice applies. Pack the 10 essentials. Let someone know where you’re going and when you’re expected back. Follow Leave No Trace practices and pack out any trash. Check out this blog post for more tips on recreating responsibly and sustainably.

Oh, and above else, have so much freakin’ fun you’ll be skipping down the trail in a tutu singing “Walking on Sunshine.”


I can’t get one. Now what?

I feel ya. It’s a bummer when you’ve got your heart set on a certain trail and it’s unavailable. Even before the permit system, folks ran into this when parking lots were full and good sense indicated it wasn’t wise to invent a parking spot atop that delicate batch of saplings.

That’s why it’s smart to have plans A, B, C….why not make a whole alphabet full of Central Oregon hikes to try? There are plenty to be found on our website or popular hiking guides. 

Consider a spot like Newberry National Volcanic Monument, which tends to be less crowded and is absolutely freakin’ amazing if I may say (I did say, actually…go here). The Oregon Badlands Wilderness is another area with plenty of room to roam and fewer crowds at trailheads.

You can also still hit spots like Diamond Peak, Waldo Lake and Mt. Thielsen for recreation opportunities that don’t require permits. Besides that, the Deschutes National Forest has more than 2,000 miles of hiking trails. People can also enjoy Wildernesses areas in the nearby Ochoco National Forest.

Bottom line: Get creative! There are so many amazing areas around Central Oregon, and this is your chance to explore some you may not have seen before.


What if I need to cancel?

If for any reason you need to cancel your hike or camping trip and you already have a permit, please, pretty please with sugar on top, follow the steps in your confirmation email to cancel. 

Not only will you earn karma points for doing the right thing, but you’ll make someone else’s day by giving them the chance to go in your place. Since permits are non-transferrable (meaning you can’t give yours to a buddy if you’re not able to go) cancelling is the best way to ensure that permit doesn’t go to waste.

Green Lakes hike

Do I still need a NW Forest Pass?

The new permit system doesn’t replace your Northwest Forest Pass or any other permit you might otherwise need to access a specific area. Whatever you’re used to doing, just keep doing it (and add one more small step!)


How can I be a good steward?

Since a big chunk of this new permit system is about tending the lands we love, it’s natural you might want to take a few more steps. 

Besides following Leave No Trace practices, consider taking The Bend Pledge to renew your commitment to sustainable outdoor recreation. 

This blog post has lots of ideas for responsibly recreating in Bend’s outdoor playgrounds, so consider tattooing the tips on your forearm or other frequently used body part.

If you truly want to give back to the wild places where you’re playing, consider a donation to Pledge for the Wild. It’s a simple process of texting WILD4BEND to 44321 with a dollar amount that can be as small as a few bucks or as big as your love for the outdoors. Funds support the Deschutes Trails Coalition, a nonprofit organization that tends and protects our trails.

Want to keep going? Book the Pledge for the Wild Package at the Element Hotel in Bend. You will receive a copy of Bend’s photo book Ineffable, two reusable mugs, and the Element will donate $20 to Pledge for the Wild for each night of your stay.


What else should I know?

Got a question I haven’t answered above? Go here to skim the Frequently Asked Questions doc the fine folks at the Forest Service put together.

And if you’re feeling frustrated with the new system, breathe. Just remember it’s in place to preserve and protect the places you love so much, and isn’t that a good thing?