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12 things to know about Wilderness Permits in the Central Cascades

Summit Hike

Updated March 31, 2022

Trash in the forest is declining. So are illegal campfires. Even better, elk, foxes, and other wildlife are returning to areas where they haven’t been seen for years.

Is it Sasquatch striking fear in the hearts of adventurers? Some cosmic ray causing hikers to recreate responsibly?

More likely, it’s the rollout of the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit program implemented in 2021 and continuing this year.

Read on to learn all you need to know about the 2022 iteration of the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit system.

Broken Top hike

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

Wait…where is this happening?

For day use, the 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, pre-registered day use permits are required at only 19 out of 79 trailheads in those areas. 

At the remaining 60 trails not included in the program, you’ll still need the regular ol’ permit you self-issue right there at the trailhead for free. You know the drill with those ones, and nothing’s changed there.

But for the purpose of this program, we’re talking about the 19 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).

Some of the biggies include popular trails 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.

Why are we doing this?

You know how you love that special trail in the Three Sisters Wilderness? So do thousands of others. 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 implemented a Wilderness Permit program in 2021 to give high-traffic trails a chance to heal. It’s an easy way to cap how many folks can explore certain trails at any given time. 

This program aims to protect public lands where human activity is limited to scientific study and non-mechanized recreation. That way, 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 Bend Sustainability Fund program, which aims to take care of the places that take care of us.

All of these things are signs that outdoor enthusiasts realize we have an obligation to tend the lands we love, so consider it a chance to do your part.

What’s different this year?

Already familiar with the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit system from last year and you just want a quick primer on what’s new? Here you go!

  • For areas requiring permits, you’ll need one between June 15 and October 15, 2022. It’s a small shift from 2021 when it started and ended a couple weeks earlier, so now the dates align better with the period of heaviest use.
  • In 2022, no day use permits will be available for full season, advanced reservations. That’s a switch from last year when 40% of them were up for grabs the first Tuesday in April. Turns out a lot of folks don’t know what their hiking plans might be four months out, so the new system aims to reduce the number of no-shows. This year, all day use permits will be released in a 10-day and a two-day rolling window.
  • For overnight permits, the quota is now based on the date of entry, and there’s a daily entry quota for each trailhead. This behind-the-scenes tweak allows more overnight groups to enter the wilderness and simplifies the reservation system. In other words, some groups can now launch while previous groups are still out on the trail, which wasn’t the case last year.
  • There was some confusion in 2021 about hunting permits and whether hunters needed both their hunting tag and a wilderness permit. In 2022, hunters will only need their valid tag issued through the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife without needing a separate wilderness permit.
  • Quotas for most trailheads have been increased to account for the no-show factor I mentioned.

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

 

Er, do I need a permit?

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 the paid, pre-reserved permit or if the free one you issue by yourself at the trailhead.

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, you’ve got two opportunities when permits will be released for each area. Round one rolls out 10 days before the date of your hike, and another round two days prior. If you’ve got your heart set on a certain date, your best bet is to check 10 days out and then again at the two-day mark if you miss out the first time.

To give you an example, for the first day of permit season (June 15), the first batch of permits will be released on June 5 at 7 a.m. PST. The remaining permits will be released June 13 at 7 a.m. PST.

For overnight users, 40% of the full season will be available April 5, with the remaining 60% available on a 7-day rolling window before the trip start date. For example, for a trip starting on a Saturday, that permit could be reserved starting on the Saturday prior.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 adjoining wilderness, we would need it. That’s why it’s smart to plan ahead and get acquainted with the areas requiring a permit.

 

How do I get a permit?

Permits are all handled through Recreation.gov, 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:

Central Cascades Wilderness Permits––Day Use

Central Cascades Wilderness Overnight Permits

 

What if I miss out but reeeeally want to go?

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.

If you’re looking at the calendar and seeing it’s already past April 5, 2022 when the first round of overnight permits are released, don’t panic.

First, check the system to see if spots remain for the dates you want to 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 rolling window dates when 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 parking permits you’re accustomed to leaving in your car, the 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.

Keep in mind the 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!)

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 Wilderness areas in the nearby Ochoco National Forest. 

And do keep in mind, there are tons of other trails within the Three Sisters, Washington, and Jefferson Wilderness areas that don’t require the pre-paid Central Cascades Wilderness Permit, but rather a free self-issue permit at the trailhead. By studying the map, you’ll know beforehand what’s what so you can pivot as needed.

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) canceling is the best way to ensure that permit doesn’t go to waste.

Green Lakes hike

 

How can I be a good steward?

Since a big chunk of this 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.

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 system, breathe. Just remember it’s in place to preserve and protect the places you love so much, and that’s a good thing for all of us.

Um, you mentioned Sasquatch. Is he real?

We’ll never tell.

The Bend Adventure Journal

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