Below you will find the top 10 once in a lifetime hikes that require a permit in the United States! What’s the catch? These are also some of the hardest permits to snag in the hiking world! Want to hike Mt. Whitney? Be ready to be patient and persistent, because it could easily take years to win the annual lottery! All 10 of these hikes will make you work for it, in terms of chasing them down, but the payoff is so worth it!
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Table of Contents
The Top 10 Hikes that Require Permits in the United States
- The Narrows in Utah
- The Subway in Utah
- The Wave in Arizona/Utah
- Angels Landing in Utah
- John Muir Trail in California
- Half Dome in California
- Mount Whitney in California
- The Enchantments in Washington
- Kalalau Trail in Hawaii
- Havasu Falls in Arizona
Location of the Top 10 Hikes that Require Permits in the United States
Anyone else notice the trend here? All these hard to snag permit hikes happen to be west coasters! I guess that’s one advantage the East Coast has!
To be clear, when I say that all these hikes require permits, I’m not talking about just spontaneously popping into the ranger station to pick up your permit on the way in. I’m talking about the 10 hardest hiking permits to secure in the United States. Most of these hiking permits are only secured through annual, daily quota-ed, online lotteries. Now let’s take a deeper dive at each of these 10 hikes, and find out just what it takes to secure those coveted permits!
Utah has 4 of the top 10 hikes that require permits in the United States: The Narrows, The Subway, The Wave, and Angels Landing.
#1: The Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah
The Narrows is one of the most mesmerizing canyon hikes out there! Anyone can day hike the first half of the trail, but to hike the entire thing from bottom up (16 total miles) requires a wilderness permit. Permits are required for single day hikes and overnight backpacking trips. Permit reservations are available online for a 2 month timeframe. On the 5th day of the month, reservations for the next month become available. If available, reservations can be made up until the day before your intended hike, but know that spaces for the next month are usually reserved within minutes of opening on the 5th day of every month. There is a last minute drawing for one day permits (no overnights) for 7 up until 2 days before a trip.
#2: The Subway in Zion National Park, Utah
Permits are required for hikes between April and October. The annual lottery is open from February through August. You have 3 options to go with for securing a Subway permit. There is an advance lottery held 2 months in advance for hikes in April – October. There is a reservation system available for any remaining spots not claimed in the advance lottery held 1 month in advance. And there is a last minute lottery held 7 – 2 days before.
#3: The Wave in the Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, Utah/Arizona
The Wave is a fascinating rock formation that straddles the Arizona and Utah border. The trailhead is actually located in Utah, but you will cross the border hiking in.
The Wave has a very small daily quota of only 64 visitors, one of the smallest. 48 of these daily permits are awarded through the online lottery, and 16 are awarded in a walk up lottery that is first come first serve at the Grand Staircase Escalante Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah. Permits are drawn monthly, and this monthly lottery takes place 4 months in advance. So for example, if you want to hike in May, apply in January. The lottery for daily walk up permits takes place 2 days in advance. Note that all permits are for day use only, and no overnights.
#4: Angels Landing in Zion National Park, Utah
Another win for Zion National Park! Whereas the Narrows takes you through one of the most stunning slot canyons, Angels Landing takes you to dizzying heights and breathtaking panoramas!
The Angels Landing permit process is relatively new, and was just put into place in April of 2022 to help manage the insane crowds! There is a seasonal lottery that awards permits 4 times a year, and also a day before lottery. Permits for Angels Landing require that you choose both your specific day and specific time of day!
***Since all 4 of these hikes above are found in Utah’s amazing National Parks (Zion, ), hiking one (or more) of these trails also means that you can check off another National Park from your National Parks Checklist!
Next up is California, with 3 of the top 10 hikes that require permits in the United States: John Muir Trail, Half Dome, and Mount Whitney.
#5: John Muir Trail in California
The John Muir Trail has dramatically increased in popularity over the past several decades, which is one reason this is such a tough permit to snag. There are 45 daily permits given for this 210 mile long trail, that passes through the 3 National Parks of Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia. Permit reservations become available via lottery 24 weeks in advance of the anticipated hike date. This accounts for 60% of the awarded permits. The other 40% are given as last minute, in person, first come first serve permits the day before your anticipated hike date.
It is also important to note that if you are going southbound from Yosemite National Park, you will need to apply for a permit from Yosemite National Park.
If you are going northbound from Mount Whitney, you will need to apply for a permit from Inyo National Forest. This is the same process as applying for a Mount Whitney permit (see below).
#6: Half Dome in California
300 people are allowed to hike Half Dome each day, and while that may seem like a lot, it turns out to not be so much, due to the enormous popularity of this hike. Half Dome is one of the most recognizable and iconic landmarks in California, and there is a big draw to hike it.
The “cable route”, which is when the cables are up on Half Dome to assist those hikers with the final 400 vertical feet, is open from late May – Mid October, which is the timeframe that permits are required. The preseason annual lottery takes place between March 1st – March 31st, with winners being notified in mid April, but there is also a second chance daily lottery. 225 daily permits are awarded through the preseason lottery, and an additional 75 are awarded at the second chance daily lottery.
Insider Tip: one way to get around not securing a permit is to approach the Half Dome route an alternative way. If you start from Horseshoe Meadows, it will add about 20 additional miles to your hike, but you are guaranteed a permit.
Also, you can hike to the base of the cables without a permit. That alone is still an awesome trek, and one that provides views of Vernal Falls and the Yosemite Valley!
#7: Mount Whitney in California
The obvious appeal of Mount Whitney is that it is the highest point in the lower 48 states. You can’t go wrong with those views. This tough 21 mile long 14’er with over 6,000 feet of elevation gain boasts and equally tough and competitive lottery system for its permits.
The annual lottery starts on February 1st each year, and ends on March 1st, with 100 day hike permits awarded daily, and 60 overnight permits awarded daily. So before you even apply, you MUST decide whether you will hike Mt. Whitney in 2 days, or attempt to hike Mt. Whitney in 1 day! Whichever you choose, this hike DEMANDS proper advance training, and an important inventory of specific hiking gear! The application process also requires you to choose a specific day of your intended hike, but you are able to also select up to 15 alternative dates with your application.
Insider Tip: you can hike PART of the Mt. Whitney Trail without a permit! The first 3 miles of the trail, up to Lone Pine Lake, does not require a permit, for those that just want a sampling of this iconic trail without the logistics.
While hiking Mount Whitney is the obvious draw to this particular area of California, rest assured that there are actually a handful of really fun and intriguing things to do in Lone Pine, California, during your “down time” at the base of Mount Whitney!
Rounding out our list of the top 10 hikes that require permits in the United States are the Enchantments in Washington, the Kalalau Trail in Hawaii, and Havasu Falls in Arizona.
#8: The Enchantments in Washington
The good news about the Enchantments in the Cascades range of Washington is that you can day hike to your heart’s content with a free permit that you can self issue at the trailhead. However, if you want to CAMP in the area between May and October, you will need a hard to get permit. Permit season in the stunning alpine Enchantments is May 15th – October 31st. The annual application period for one of the 224 camping permits that are allowed per night runs from February 15th – March 2nd.
Insider Tip: if you don’t win a permit, you can always try for an in person same day permit, which are issued in limited amounts at the Leavenworth ranger station.
#9: Kalalau Trail in Hawaii
Only 60 people are allowed on this trail at any given time, and these permits are only issued 3 months (90 days) out. Whether you are planning to day hike only, or camp overnight, you need a permit for either! But it is hard to argue that the views along the northern shore of Kauai aren’t among some of the most beautiful in the country!
#10: Havasu Falls in Arizona
Havasu Falls is one of the most stunning landmarks in a state that is not short on stunning landmarks! So what’s the deal with these falls requiring a permit?
Although Havasu Falls is often described as being in the Grand Canyon, it is important to not that it is NOT actually in the National Park! Havasu Falls is actually located on tribal land, and run by the Havasupai Tribe, and they also administer the annual lottery process for permits. Each year the online reservation system opens in February, typically February 1st, and the entire quota of permits is usually sold out within minutes of opening!
It is important to note that a minimum 3 night stay is required. You can book a room at the Havasupai Lodge, or camp at the Havasu Falls Campground, which is a 10 mile trek in.
While Havasu Falls is undeniably one of the most beautiful hikes in the whole state of Arizona, I’d be remiss not to mention some of the other obvious standouts you should make time to see while you are in the state! You simply can’t pass up the chance to hike at the Grand Canyon, whether that is a short jaunt around the South Rim, a more challenging trek down to the Colorado River on a Rim to River hike or a Rim to Rim hike, or a visit to the under-rated North Rim and some of its stellar trails, like the Widforss Trail!
- Have a backup plan – there are very good odds on most of these hikes that you won’t snag a permit on your first try. Have a backup plan, and then try again! For example, out of 3 entries into the Mount Whitney Lottery, I only won once. I am still winless on Half Dome and Havasu Falls after entering lotteries. And the list goes on.
- Be flexible – some lotteries allow you to put in alternate dates. Then there are the last minute lotteries and the walk up lotteries. And then sometimes there are alternate plans that can still satisfy your craving, like hiking Half Dome to the base of the cables without a permit, or hiking the first 3 miles of the Mount Whitney Trail without a permit.
- Be patient and persistent – being flexible is hard, being patient and persistent is even harder. But trust me, just keep trying! Patience is a required part of applying for one of these hikes that require permits.
- Might as well grab an America the Beautiful Pass – it’ll save you money in the long run!
- After all the anticipation that goes into pulling off one of these sought after and fought after hikes, make sure that nothing goes awry with the planning stage! Use a hiking gear checklist and/or a backpacking gear checklist to make sure that you have EVERY SINGLE ITEM of gear that you need!
- Just FYI, none of these top 10 hikes that require permits are classified as easy. I know it’s cool to enter these lotteries dreaming of seeing those epic sights, but it comes with a dose of responsibility on your part to be ready for those hikes! That means training! The reality is, don’t apply for a permit to hike a trail like the 22 mile long, 6,000 + feet of elevation gain, 14’er Mount Whitney, unless you are ready and willing to put in the legwork to get physically ready for it months in advance. Luckily, there are great hiking training calendars to help you out with this part! Aren’t lucky enough to be blessed to live in Colorado and have access to uphill hiking training all the time? Fortunately for you (and me as a native Texan surrounded by mostly flat land), there are 6 hiking training exercises you can do no matter where you live!
- Finally, be safe! Don’t assume based on the popularity of these hikes that something can’t go wrong on the trail. Research and get to know them in detail before you step on the trail, if you are lucky enough to snag one of these tough permits! Use a hiking itinerary planner to make sure you don’t skip over or forget any important pieces of info for your particular trail! On the morning of your hike, do this one simple step: take 2 minutes to fill out a wilderness hiking safety card, and leave it in your car. This one quick and easy step could buy you much needed time if something were to go wrong, and expedite rescue. In fact, it could even help save your life!
PIN for LATER!