5 Epic Hiking Trails That Require a Backcountry Permit

And 5 Off the Beaten Path Alternatives

Getting out into the backcountry is more popular than ever these days. It is great that so many people are developing an appreciation for nature. But with so many people heading out into the wilderness, it is becoming more and more difficult to snag some of the most desirable backcountry permits. What are the epic hiking trips that you need to plan early for? And what are some off-the-beaten path alternatives if you don’t snag one of those coveted permits?

Half Dome

Half Dome
Half Dome is the iconic granite wall staring down at Yosemite Valley. Every day, 200 people make their way from the valley floor up 6000 feet to ascend to the top. The last 400 feet are straight up the side with only the cables to hold onto. Looking over the rest of Yosemite National Park from the top of Half Dome is a bucket list item for sure.

Getting a Backcountry Permit

Reservations open in January and it is a lottery. You can see from historical data which dates you are most likely to get a permit on. Alternatively, if you are willing to make a backcountry trip, there are a certain number of extra permits for backpackers. If you do not manage to get a reservation, there is a limited number of walk in permits available. Be ready to get in line well before the backcountry office opens, though!

Off the beaten track alternative: Granite Dome in Emigrant Wilderness

Emigrant Wilderness is the wilderness area just to the north of Yosemite National Park. Because of the close proximity, Emigrant shares many of the features of Yosemite. The hike to Granite Dome is significantly less strenuous than its more famous counterpart. The main challenge of this hike stems from the off-trail travel required to get to the base of the dome.

If you choose to attempt this hike, please be considerate of your abilities. This trip requires cross-country navigation skills.

Mount Whitney

The tallest mountain in the lower 48, Mount Whitney is attempted by 200 people every day in summer months. In order to have a successful summit, most day hikers start before the sun comes up. Since the round trip is 20 miles with about 7000’ of climbing, this hike will take most of your day and most of your energy.

Getting a Backcountry Permit

Like Half Dome, permits for Mount Whitney also operate on a lottery system. One interesting quirk about the Mount Whitney permits is that if you get through the lottery, you have to officially claim your permit. In April, all unclaimed permits enter a pool that is first come first served. This can be a great way to snag a reservation ahead of time if you find something in the leftover pool that will work for you. If not, there are still a number of permits reserved for backpackers, and also some reserved for walk-ins.

Off the Beaten Track Alternative: Mount Langley

Another 14er, Mount Langley is south of Whitney but still considered Class 1 scrambling. This mountain also has a beautiful approach. You can pair your summit with a backpacking trip to the cottonwood lakes. This is considered one of the easiest 14ers after Whitney in California, but don’t let that fool you.  Acute Mountain Sickness can strike anyone at any time. If you have never ascended above 14,000 feet before, be sure to take it slowly and stay hydrated.


Havasupai is the place of dreams. Turquoise waters flow through a deep orange canyon; can it be any more magical? Unfortunately, that dream becomes more and more restrictive each year. Despite the loops to jump through, the trip down to the waterfalls is something everyone should do at least once.

Getting a Backcountry Permit

Havasupai is managed by the Havasupai tribe, and they manage their online reservation system as well. Every year, usually in February, they open up and allow reservations to be made online. Using this system requires an account, so be sure to sign up for one ahead of time. For the last few years, the tribe implemented a minimum stay of 3 nights. If you don’t manage to secure camping permits, there is a lodge at the bottom of the canyon. It is of course expensive, but a fallback if you really want.

Off the Beaten Track Alternative: Coyote Gulch

Coyote Gulch is a canyon that crosses between Grand Staircase-Escalante and Lake Powell National Recreation Area. Unlike Havasupai, the water is not a bright Turquoise but don’t let that dissuade you! Hiking down Coyote Gulch gives you the opportunity to go deep into the canyon system with the canyon walls towering around you. Plus, there are some epic campsites next to some equally epic arches.

The Enchantments

Usually when someone is talking about going to the Enchantments, they are referring to the core zone of Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington. This part of Alpine Lakes is one of the most stunning sections of alpine meadows I have ever seen. Because of the fragility of the meadows, it is also very important that the area does not receive too much impact.

Getting a Backcountry Permit

Just like Whitney and Half Dome, the Enchantments operate on a lottery system. Unlike Whitney or Half Dome, the core zone of the Enchantments allows only a handful of visitors every day. This means people are fighting for way fewer spots. To add even more of a challenge, you are only able to camp in the core Enchantment zone if that is the permit you have received. There are a few permits that are reserved for walk-ins, but they will definitely require an extra early start. If you are fit and unlucky, it is possible to do the thru-hike in a day.

Off the Beaten Track Alternative: Spider Meadow

To the north of Alpine Lakes Wilderness, you will find Glacier Peak Wilderness. One of the gems in Glacier Peak Wilderness is the trip to Spider Meadows. While it may not pack the same punch as the core Enchantment Zone, the hike to Spider Meadows offers stunning Cascade Peaks and beautiful Alpine Meadow. Plus, this is a trip that can be combined with several others in the cascades, allowing you to explore much more of the beautiful area.

The Teton Crest Trail


The Teton Crest is the Classic Grand Teton backpacking trip, and for a good reason! With over 8,000 feet of climbing, this trip takes you to some pretty spectacular viewpoints. With lush meadows and craggy peaks, bison and grizzlies, this trail really offers the full range of what the Rocky Mountains has to offer.

Getting a Backcountry Permit

Grand Teton National Park begins taking reservation requests early in the year. You have a window of time to request the itinerary that you are interested in. If you didn’t get what you wanted, roughly ⅔ of the permits are available for walk-ins.

Off The Beaten Track Alternative: Cirque of Towers

Teton Crest Trail
Cirque of Towers

Just a bit to the South East of Grand Teton National Park is the Wind River Range. Home to Gannett Peak, the tallest mountain in Wyoming, the Winds are the Tetons wilder cousins. You really cannot go wrong with any route you choose, but one of the most spectacular is the Cirque of Towers. The roughly 9 mile hike will take you into one of the most epic mountain amphitheatres in the world. With so much to explore, there are a ton of options for side trips or more exploration.

Exploring the Great US Outdoors 

Backpacking Crown Point Loop

Backpacking Crown Point Loop

Backpacking Crown Point Loop – a ~20 mile (ca. 32 km) hiking trail in the Hoover Wilderness – makes for an awesome overnight hiking trip.

Backpacking the Four Lakes Loop

Backpacking the Four Lakes Loop

Backpacking the Four Lakes Loop, one of the premier backpacking routes of Trinity Alps. 16-20 miles through lush meadows and peaks.

Best Road Trips for Hiking

Best Road Trips for Hiking

What are the best road trips for hiking in the US? The United States has so many amazing road trips, and here are a few of my favorites.

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