A the limited entry permit system designed to reduce congestion on central Oregon’s most popular hiking trails is operational. There were a few initial bottlenecks and some confusion on the system, but experienced trail users have so far been happy with the experience. âIt seems to be going pretty well,â said Jake Wiley, an REI employee and frequent trail user. âThere is still some confusion among customers as to where permits are required. ”
Wiley said he and other REI employees had helped customers who had questions about the permit system and trails, using information provided by the Forest Service as a guide.
The number of hikers on the trails in central Oregon has skyrocketed in recent years to the point that the environment along many trails has degraded with garbage and even human waste. The permit system is designed to reduce the number of visitors using the trails.
Snow is still covering some trails and it is not yet the peak tourist hour, so it is still a bit early to compare the difference in crowd numbers, but it is not too early to assess how easy it is of using the new online reservation system, Wiley said.
The deployment of the system went relatively well, said Jean Nelson-Dean, spokesperson for the Deschutes National Forest. The only problem was the early confusion over how nighttime permits worked. Some hikers accidentally booked just one night when they wanted more.
âWe also had issues with people booking trails at times when the roads to these starting points were not open,â said Nelson-Dean. “We have worked with people to correct these issues and overall it seems people are doing fine with the reservation system.”
It took several years to get there. Deschutes National Forest began collecting data for the permit system in early 2017 and made a final decision in May 2019. The program was scheduled to start a year ago, but has been postponed due to the pandemic.
The day-use permit system affects 19 of 79 trailheads between May 28 and September 24 in the Mt Jefferson, Mt Washington and Three Sisters wilderness areas.
Some of the affected trailheads include Broken Top, Tam McArthur Rim, and Todd Lake.
During the same period, night use permits will be required for all trails in the three wilderness areas. Hikers who already hold a Pacific Crest Trail long-distance license are exempt. There are also exceptions for hunters holding certain types of permits and Forest Service volunteers.
Some permits went on sale ahead of the season, which ends September 24. In order to allow for spontaneity, the majority of permits also become available within a seven-day reservation period, on an ongoing basis.
Nelson-Dean said there was an initial bottleneck when the system first went live last month, and many pre-purchase permits have been sold. Dedicated hikers and tour groups have picked up many of these permits as they become available.
But the seven-day advance permits have leveled the playing field and allow anyone to jump online and see what’s available for the week ahead.
âDuring the early booking period which opened on April 6, there was a kind of panic buy and many popular trailheads were booked very quickly,â said Nelson-Dean. âNow that the system is up and running under the seven-day sliding window reservation system, there appears to be a fair amount of availability for people to book. “
âAs we move into the high demand periods of July and August, we will continue to assess this availability, but this weekend there were still permits available for even some of the most popular trails,â he said. she added on Monday.
Wiley, the camping department manager at the REI store in Bend, said the system was “well thought out” and allowed for some flexibility.
âYou don’t have to travel a particular route once you get your license there,â he said.
Bend resident Jana Hemphill has used the permit system on recent hikes to Duffy and Marion Lakes. She had some initial setbacks using the system, but quickly learned to navigate the site.
âOverall I have been lucky so far. It was a good experience, âsaid Hemphill, who has been hiking the Cascades for six years.
She said there will be an adjustment period for not being able to hike at some point.
âIt will be quite a change, not being able to get in on a whim or just decide that the day is really nice and going up. But I also understand the Forest Service’s need to protect public lands, âshe said.
But this need to plan has an advantage: the trails will stay in better condition, with fewer people. Nelson-Dean said foot traffic on some of the most popular trails, including Green Lakes, Devils Lake, Broken Top and Tam Rim, has increased 300% to 500% over the past five years.
âThese trails were just becoming loved to death,â Wiley said. âWe all need to step up and make sure these places are wild for future generations, so we fully support (the permit system). “
Are the trails better off for the system and is there a noticeable improvement in the environment? It’s too early to tell, Wiley said.
âIt’s not an overnight process,â he said. âIt will take years for these trails to recover after being so heavily used for so long, so we won’t see it right off the bat. “
Hikers requiring a permit can visit Recreation.gov and search for available dates in the areas they wish to visit. Reservations can also be made by calling 1-877-444-6777. Permits are also available from the Willamette and Deschutes State Forests offices.