A limited entry permit system designed to curb congestion on Central Oregon’s most popular hiking trails is off and running. There were some initial bottlenecks and some confusion over the system but experienced trail users are so far pleased with the experience. “It seems to be going pretty well,” said Jake Wiley, an REI employee and frequent trail user. “There is still some confusion that we are seeing from customers about where permits are required.”
Wiley said he and other REI employees have helped customers who have questions on the permit system and trails, using information put out by the Forest Service as guidance.
The number of hikers on Central Oregon trails has soared in recent years to the point where the environment along many paths has become degraded with trash and even human waste. The permitting system is designed to reduce the number of visitors using the trails.
Snow still covers some trails and it’s not yet the peak time for tourism so it’s still a little early to compare the difference in crowd numbers, but it’s not too soon to assess the ease of use for the new online reservation system, Wiley said.
The system rollout has gone relatively smoothly, said Jean Nelson-Dean, a spokesperson for the Deschutes National Forest. The only issue was early confusion over how the overnight permits worked. Some hikers accidentally reserved just one night when they wanted more.
“We also had some issues with people reserving trails at times when roads to those trailheads would not be open,” said Nelson-Dean. “We worked with people to correct those issues and overall it seems like people are working well with the reservation system.”
It has been a multiyear process to get to this point. The Deschutes National Forest started gathering data for the permit system in early 2017 and made a final decision in May of 2019. The program was intended to begin a year ago but was pushed back due to the pandemic.
The day-use permitting system affects 19 out of 79 trailheads between May 28 and Sept. 24 in the Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington and Three Sisters wilderness areas.
Some of the affected trailheads include Broken Top, Tam McArthur Rim and Todd Lake.
During the same period, overnight-use permits will be required for all trails in the three wilderness areas. Hikers who already hold a Pacific Crest Trail long-distance permit are exempt. There are also exceptions for hunters with certain types of permits and volunteers with the Forest Service.
Some permits were made available for purchase in advance of the season, which ends Sept. 24. In order to allow some spontaneity, the majority of permits also become available within a seven-day reservation period, on a rolling basis.
Nelson-Dean said there was an initial bottleneck when the system first went online last month, and many advance purchase permits sold out. Dedicated hikers and tour groups scooped up many of these permits as soon as they were available.
But the seven-day advance permits have leveled the playing field and allow anyone to jump online and see what is available for the coming week.
“During the advanced reservation period that opened on April 6 there was a kind of panic buying and many popular trailheads were reserved very quickly,” said Nelson-Dean. “Now that the system is open and operating within the seven-day rolling window reservation system, there seems to be a fair amount of availability for people to reserve.”
“As we get into the higher demand periods of July and August we will continue to assess that availability, but this weekend there were still available permits for even some of the most popular trails,” she added Monday.
Wiley, the camping department manager at the REI store in Bend, said the system was “well thought out” and allows for flexibility.
“You are not locked into hiking a particular route once you get your permit there,” he said.
Bend resident Jana Hemphill used the permitting system on recent hikes to Duffy Lake and Marion Lake. She had some initial setbacks using the system but quickly learned how to navigate the site.
“Overall I have been lucky thus far. It has been a good experience,” said Hemphill, who has been hiking in the Cascades for the past six years.
She said there will be an adjustment period in terms of not being able to do a hike at any given time.
“It will be quite the change, not being able to hike up there on a whim or just deciding the day is really nice and going up. But I also understand the Forest Service’s need to protect public lands,” she said.
But that need to plan does come with a benefit — the trails will remain in better condition, with fewer crowds. Nelson-Dean said foot traffic on some of the most popular trails, including Green Lakes, Devils Lake, Broken Top, and Tam Rim, increased 300% to 500% over the past five years.
“These trails were just getting loved to death,” said Wiley. “It takes all of us to step up and ensure that these places will be wild for future generations, so we fully support (the permit system).”
Are the trails better off for the system and is there a noticeable improvement in the environment? It’s too soon to say, said Wiley.
“It’s not an overnight process,” he said. “It is going to take years for these trails to recover after being used so heavily for so long, so we won’t see it right out of the gate.”
Hikers needing a permit can visit recreation.gov and browse for available dates in the areas they want to go. Reservations can also be made by calling 1-877-444-6777. Permits are also available at the offices of the Willamette and Deschutes national forests.