New Permit System Aims to Protect Wilderness Areas in the Central Cascades

By Geoff Nudelman

The Central Cascades offer some of the most popular and breathtaking trails and scenery not just in the Willamette Valley, but across the entire Pacific Northwest. 

What were once under-the-radar gems are now star attractions with outdoor adventurers coming from far and wide to enjoy Mt. Jefferson, the Willamette National Forest, and much more. With increased use comes increased impact on these fragile environments, spurring the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to create and implement a new permitting plan to protect the most used areas. 

Summer 2021 marks the introduction of the Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System, which establishes strict limits on how many groups can hike or overnight in certain areas of the Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington and Three Sisters Wilderness areas in the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests. (The program was originally planned to start in May 2020, but COVID-19 uncertainty put initial implementation on hold until this season.)

With so many changes this season, we’ve put together a short guide answering some of the most common questions about the plan.

Photo by Alison Smith

When are permits required?

Permits are required May 28-September 24, 2021 (with the general season being the Friday prior to Memorial Day to the last Friday in September).

Which trailheads and areas will require a permit?

In all, 19 trails will require day-use permits, and all 79 trails across the three wilderness will require overnight permits. Those trailheads include: 

  • Mount Jefferson Wilderness: Breitenbush Lake, Duffy Lake, Marion Lake, Whitewater, Pamelia Lake and South Breitenbush & Crag (Note that many trails in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness were impacted by wildfire in 2020 and remain closed in 2021.)
  • Mount Washington Wilderness: Benson Lake and Tenas Lakes, and the Pacific Crest Trailhead at McKenzie Pass (which accesses Little Belknap Crater)
  • Three Sisters Wilderness: Broken Top Trailhead, Crater Ditch, Devils Lake/South Sister, Green Lakes/Soda Creek, Obsidian, Quinn Meadow, Scott, Sisters Mirror, Tam McArthur Rim and Todd Lake

Limited-entry permits are required for all overnight stays in the Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington, and Three Sisters Wilderness areas.

Photo by Joey Hamilton

Why is the USFS implementing this plan?

These fragile areas have seen increasing use over the last decade and record use in the last two years. This permitting system aims to limit traffic to protect sensitive areas and spread out use throughout the week, as opposed to weekends and holidays alone. 

How much will permits cost?

There will also be a $1.00 fee per individual for day-use permits and a $6.00 processing charge per group (for up to 12) for overnight-use permits. These fees help fund the operating costs of the system. 

How many permits will be available, and how many people can use one permit?

Each trailhead has a different number of day-use and/or overnight permits available. The USFS has shared a full list of impacted trailheads (and how many permits are available for each) here. Each day-use permit covers one person, while 12 people may use one overnight permit at the same time when traveling as a group.

It is worth noting that 60 of 79 day-use trailheads in the Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington, and Three Sisters wildernesses will not have trail quotas and only require a self-issued, free permit that can be found at the trailhead.

When will permits go on sale and where can I buy them?

Reservations for limited-entry permits opened at 7 a.m. April 6, 2021.

All reservations can be made one of two ways: throughrecreation.gov or by calling (877) 444-6777.

What will permit availability look like for the various permits?

Overnight use and day-use permits are separate. 

Overnight permits fall into two categories:

  • Initial permits released in early April (for the whole summer season)
  • Permits released on a rolling basis seven days prior to the start of a trip.

There is one day-use permit. An initial allocation was released in early April and the remainder will be available on a rolling basis, seven days prior to the start of a trip. 

Overnight Use Availability:

  • 40% of a trailhead’s full season was made available on April 6.
  • 60% will be made available on a seven-day rolling window throughout the summer.

Day-Use Availability:

  • 20-50% of a trailhead’s full season was made available on April 6.
  • 50-80% of a trailhead’s permits will be made available on a seven-day rolling window throughout the summer.

Will the Northwest Forest Pass or daily recreation pass be required at trailheads? 

If a trailhead currently requires a recreation pass (such as the Northwest Forest Pass or a daily recreation pass), the limited-entry permit does not cover that requirement, and visitors will need to display the appropriate additional pass in their vehicle.

Where can I find more information?

The USFS explains the permitting plan and system in detail here and has posted an FAQ document (PDF) with in-depth information here.

What if permits are sold out?

If you can’t obtain a permit, don’t fret. There are plenty of other incredible outdoor areas to explore within the Willamette Valley. Check out some of our favorite hikes here.