It’s Official! or, How I Beat Grand Canyon National Park’s Byzantine Permit System (by Getting Someone Else to Do It For Me)

I got an email yesterday that opened like this:

Hello [JT],

Great news – your spot is confirmed on the Rim to Rim 7/19/2017 – 7/23/2017! If you were waiting for a permit, this means you have secured it.

Woo hoo! My five-day, once-in-a-lifetime trek is official–I’m going to the Grand Canyon! As I read through the email I felt like I’d won a big prize. Even though I’d anxiously awaited this email for three weeks–ever since March 1, when Wildland Trekking Company submitted camping permit requests–I almost still can’t believe it’s true, partially because there was a very real possibility that a scarcity of permits would obstruct the whole enterprise.

As I mentioned in my first post, I concluded after my initial research that a guide service was the way to go. I’m usually good at giving myself plenty of credit for my good decisions but even I did not know how right I was to put professionals in charge of the logistics on this one. For some reason backcountry permits weren’t even on my radar. I should have gotten an inkling from this little tidbit on the Wildland Trekking Rim to Rim page (which I’d read about a billion times):

Because Rim to Rim permits are quite competitive we recommend checking out the Hermit Loop and Grand Canyon Classic as backup options, or the Winter Rim to Rim from November 15 to February 28.

Pretty straightforward. But I’m an optimistic person. How hard could it be to get backcountry camping permits? I did some Googling to learn more about the process, and (spoiler!) it’s kind of hard.

Here’s what Grand Canyon National Park says about backcountry camping on its website. It boils down to this: You need a permit to camp anywhere but the big campgrounds at the rims and permits are assigned by lottery 4 months before the month of your stay. My trip will take me to three campsites in the Canyon: Cottonwood, about halfway down the North Kaibab Trail; Bright Angel, at the bottom of the Canyon adjacent to the Colorado River; and Indian Garden, about halfway up the Bright Angel Trail. My Google-fu revealed that these campgrounds are pretty small. Bright Angel has 31 sites, which doesn’t sound like very many until you consider Indian Garden has 15 and Cottonwood has only 11 sites. It makes sense when you think about it. Grand Canyon National Park doesn’t want a bunch of giant campgrounds along the Corridor.

I didn’t like the math. I had submitted a range of dates comprising two weeks, so my start date was somewhat flexible, but my (or really anyone’s) chances still seemed abysmally low based on the colossal number of requests the Park Service receives. The internet is awash with tales of prospective rim to rim hikers whose hopes were cruelly dashed by this permit system. This blog post by Sammydee lays out how deeply complicated the process really is, and also drove home the basic fact that I’d decidedly dodged a bullet in this whole permit scheme by signing on with Wildland Trekking and getting them do it for me. Obviously they’d saved me the time and effort of filling in a lot of forms and faxing them to the NPS, but they’d also literally improved my odds of winning the lottery. Here’s how Sammydee puts it:

While I was at the Backcountry Office, I asked if I could submit a written permit request for February by handing it to him, or if I needed to really FAX it in. “Sure,” he said. “The other guys just submitted theirs.” The ranger then pointed to a stack of permit request forms that the #1 person in line – from the trip-leading business – had handed in.

The stack was an inch tall.

In retrospect this is completely obvious, but it struck me as astonishing at the time. Individual backpackers all over the country send in their permit requests, and are told by the NPS that requests are handled in random order, determined by computer, to guarantee fairness. (And I’m sure they are.)

But commercial hike leaders are turning in DOZENS if not HUNDREDS of requests, which go into that same lottery. So it’s your one single request vs. their hundreds in that lottery.

The Permit Request form lets you specify up to 3 different itineraries that you’re interested in … you can list your first choice, second choice and third choice. When your request comes up in the lottery, they’ll see if they can give you any of the permits you asked for.

When Wildland Trekking submitted permit requests for my itinerary they could include three separate requests for every three dates in my two-week range; similarly if they have, say, 10 guides available to lead the hike (and it looks like they likely have a few more than that), they could submit triple requests for that range of dates for each of those 10 guides. That approximately quinziuples the chances of winning in the lottery (I think; probability isn’t my hottest math suit).

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About JT

Professional receptionist, amateur actor, in training to hike the Grand Canyon from rim to rim in July, 2017.
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