Camping along Wonderland Trail or at climber base camps will be on first-come, first-served basis this summer.
Hikers and climbers dreaming of making a “bucket list” loop of the Wonderland Trail or a climb to the peak of Mount Rainier this summer just got news of a potential game-changer in their planning.
Mount Rainier National Park officials say a “critical failure” of the park’s wilderness-camping reservation system due to a power outage during a recent storm means the park will dispense all backcountry camping permits on a first-come, first-served basis for the entire 2016 summer season.
So, Wonderland Trail backpackers who’ve already picked out hiking dates and sent a request with routes and campsite choices won’t get a reservation at all, but instead must show up in the park up to one day in advance of their hike and queue up at a ranger office in hopes of getting one of a limited number of campsites for their preferred route.
Park officials hope to make the best of it, but don’t be surprised by some long lines at ranger stations.
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“It is an unfortunate situation, and most notably with the people who already applied for permits,” said Randy King, Mount Rainier National Park superintendent. “The walk-in system can work on some kind of level. People just need to be flexible, especially during the peak demand period.”
In a typical year, wilderness camping reservation requests received between March 15 and April 1 would be processed in random order starting April 1. In past summers, the park has normally allocated about 1,200 reserved permits for the highly popular Wonderland Trail system, and also retained about 30 percent of available campsites for walk-ins.
Camping permits are limited based on the number of campsites and to lessen the impacts on fragile ecosystems. Permits are not required for day hikers.
The number of wilderness reservation requests has boomed in recent years, primarily for Wonderland Trail campsites. Before 2013, the number of requests received during the first two weeks of the reservation period averaged in the hundreds. In 2013, it increased to 1,400, and then climbed in 2014 to 2,000. Last year, more than 2,600 requests were received by March 31, prompting the park to close reservations at that time.
“We cannot accommodate everyone who applies, and demand particularly for the Wonderland Trail has exceeded supply by more than 100 percent,” said King. “Even though we had 2,000 requests (already this year) when we took the action to go to the walk-in basis, not all would have received a permit.”
Demand for campsites at Camp Muir and Camp Schurman, used as base camps for climbers going to the peak, has not exceeded supply to the same degree, though many climbers prefer an advance reservation for planning purposes. Commercial guide services already had their summer reservations before the system failed, King said, so their patrons are “good to go.”
King noted that the park had problems with its reservation system in 1999 and had to revert to a walk-in system that year.
“It was a manageable situation,” King said. “What a reservation does is provide some assurance for the dates a person chooses, and we know there is value in that. It is especially important for those traveling from out of town, and spending money to get here. They want to know a permit is waiting for them.”
Those coming from the Puget Sound region, which represents about 90 percent of the permits issued, might do best to plan their park visit for midweek, rather than on a weekend, to avoid the longest lines at ranger stations.
“I would encourage people to look at it with a bit of flexibility in terms of start dates,” King said. “We issue around 13,000 permits annually, which includes those who come in the summer to camp at many other places we have to offer, as well as in the winter to places like Paradise.”
The Wonderland Trail is a challenging hike that encircles Mount Rainier. Its 93 miles includes 22,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. The trail has 18 trailside wilderness camps and three non-wilderness campgrounds.
“Our peak visitation months at the park for backcountry use is July through September,” King said.
This year there is significant snow coverage on the ground in the subalpine areas the Wonderland Trail traverses. Depending on how much snow melts in the spring the trail system won’t likely be accessible until mid-July.
“That kind of situation will concentrate the demand on permits,” King said.
A new reservation system should be in place by this time next year. The park has been developing an online reservation system in partnership with the University of Washington Information School.
The new system will be tested this summer with a launch in March 2017. It will eliminate the old mail-in and fax-based system.
“The process we have in place is labor intensive, where we’re literally handling thousands of permit requests,” King said. “To have this new software system in place will make it much easier on everyone.”
Any reservation requests sent in by mail or fax this season will be returned unprocessed, and no fees will be assessed.
No fee will be charged for walk-up permits, which can be issued up to one day before a trip start date or on the start date. Wilderness permits must be obtained in person at the Longmire Wilderness Information Center and the White River Wilderness Information Center from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., or the Carbon River Ranger Station (hours vary, so visitors should call first: 360-829-9639).
To avoid potential issues this summer, campers should call before heading to a ranger station. For Wonderland Trail updates, see 1.usa.gov/21KQ4aG.
Information needed to obtain a permit include: an emergency contact phone number; license plate number of any vehicle being left in the park; and make, model and color of the vehicle.
The wilderness reservation system failure doesn’t affect the reservation process for “front-country campsites” at Ohanapecosh and Cougar Rock campgrounds. They can be processed through www.recreation.gov.
Seattle Times outdoors editor Brian J. Cantwell contributed to this report.