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11 Famous Hiking Trails with the Hardest Permits to Get in the US

So you want to go hiking at The Wave or climb Mt. Whitney? You’re going to need persistence, attention to detail and a good bit of luck because these places and some of our other favorites require a permit.

Listed below are the 11 Hardest Permits To Get as well as any tips or tricks we know of that will help you obtain one.

The Wave Famous Hiking Trails in the USPin

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Last Updated: June 23, 2020

11 Famous Hiking Trails and Hardest Adventure Permits to Get in the US

Experience has taught us that it’s best to have low expectations so that you can be pleasantly surprised if you find your number is called. You should also have a backup plan in the event that it isn’t.

Also, don’t forget to pick up an America the Beautiful Pass to save money on park entry. It gets you into National Parks, National Forests, BLM land, and more.

Half dome is one of the most famous hiking trails, especially for day hikers. It’s not that there is a shortage of permits available (300 people per day are allowed beyond the base of the Sub Dome), it’s just that demand is so very high for the Half Dome Cables Route! 

There are daily lotteries and a pre-season lottery, where applications are taken from March 1 – March 31.

Pro Tip from Stephan: A popular work around for the lottery that is starting in Yosemite or Whitney Portal is to start further south in Horseshoe Meadows. It adds about 20 miles to the trip, but those permits are wide open and guarantee you a Half Dome permit.

Hiking Half Dome + Traveling to Yosemite National Park? Take a look at these 11 best hikes in Yosemite National Park. These Yosemite hiking trails are also some of the best hiking trails in California and the US that you’ll want to add to your hiking bucket lists. They take you to some of the most beautiful places and best views in Yosemite. // Local Adventurer #localadventurer #yosemite #california #nationalpark #visitcalifornia #visitca #findyourparkPin
Yosemite Half Dome Hike // localadventurer.comPin

2. John Muir Trail, California

The John Muir Trail (JMT) is 210.4 miles long and has an elevation gain of about 47,000 feet. This is not for the faint of heart! It passes through Yosemite, Kings Canyon & Sequoia National Parks and for about 160 miles is also part of the longer Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

Permits for the John Muir Trail are hard to get because of its increasing popularity. From 2011 to 2015, there has been a 100% increase in JMT permits requested. The current solution is an exit quota (45 permits per day) over Donohue Pass. 

Recently the park system has changed their application process and is letting people submit one application for a longer range of dates. That way, if you’re flexible about when you can start, you have a greater chance of getting a permit. (Note: This only applies to John Muir Trail Hikers that are exiting Yosemite over Donohue Pass.)

Nevada Falls, John Muir Trail, Yosemite National Park + 11 Most Difficult Hiking Permits to Get in the US //

The Wave Rock Formation is located in Coyote Buttes North, which is part of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona. The trailhead is located in Utah, and you hike over the border where you’ll arrive into the permitted area.

There are 20 people allowed onto the Wave per day. 10 people are awarded permits online and 10 are awarded at a walk-in lottery. We were lucky enough to get a permit on our third day for the in-person lottery.

The Wave AZ - a sandstone rock formation popular among hikers and photographers. They only allow 20 people in per day and it's by lottery //

4. Mt. Whitney Trail, California

Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in the “lower 48”. It’s also the most frequently climbed mountain peak in the Sierra Nevadas, and can be one of the most difficult permits to get. In 2016, there were 13,638 applications!

There are two places to obtain permits: The Inyo National Forest and Sequoia & Kings Canyon. The Inyo National Forest is far more difficult to get than the one offered by Sequoia and Kings Canyon.

Mt Whitney - 11 Most Difficult Backcountry Permits to get in the US (photo: trailkrum) // Local Adventurer

photo: trailkrum

5. Enchantments, Core Zone, Washington

224 campers are allowed per night (28 groups of up to 8 people) in this area, which offers high alpine lakes of a gorgeous blue color at 7,000-8,000 feet of elevation. The wilderness here is virtually untouched. Sound good?

Here’s the scoop: In 2016, the U.S. Forest Service extended the season for required, limited-entry permits for overnight camping. The application period runs from February 15 to March 2 and 75% of those permits are issued through a lottery. The permit season now runs from May 15 to October 31.

Enchantments Washington + 11 Famous Hiking Trails with the Hardest Adventure Permits to Get in the US

Many people think that the falls are part of the Grand Canyon, but they’re actually part of a side canyon called Havasu Canyon which is outside of the National Park. The Havasupai Tribe manages the land and there are multiple checkpoints once you arrive at Supai Village.

As of February 2017, the Havasupai Tribe launched a website where they are taking online reservations. They take reservations for the year at the beginning of February at 8:00 am and they sell out within a couple of minutes. In the past, it was done through a phone line but now it’s all done online here.

Lodge reservations start the year before. For 2020, it started on June 1, 2019, and they’re already completely sold out. See more tips on how to get Havasupai permits on our updated post here

Mooney Falls, Havasupai Indian Reservation, Supai, Arizona //

The Denali Road Lottery is a four-day event in September that allows winners the chance to purchase one day-long permit which lets them drive as much of the Denali Park Road as the weather conditions allow.

If the park has seen early snow, the Park Road might only be open as far as Savage River (mile 15). Otherwise, you will typically be able to drive all the way out to Wonder Lake (mile 85).

The number of applicants fluctuates each year (last year there were 12,600 applicants) but there are only 1,600 winners (400 per day). Your odds of winning are about 1-in-7. Applications are accepted from May 1 to May 31.

Best Things to Do in Denali National Park Alaska

Grand Teton National Park is an incredible experience. It’s a popular destination for everything from mountaineering and hiking to backcountry camping and fishing.

If you want to get away from the crowds, though, consider backcountry camping. To reserve a backcountry reservation for the summer season, you have to apply for a permit during a certain period: the first Wednesday in January (starting 8 am MST) through May 15.

Grand Teton National Park + 11 Most Difficult Adventure Permits to Obtain in the US // Local Adventurer

You may have heard about the Narrows in Zion National Park and for good reason. This hike is one of the best around! Anyone can hike the bottom-up half of the trail as a day hike, but you’ll need a Wilderness Permit to do the full top to bottom hike.

The Narrows at Zion National ParkPin

10. Selway River Rafting, North Central Idaho

Idaho’s Selway River may not be as famous as the Colorado River when it comes to rafting, but the permits are much more difficult to get (if you can imagine that). In typical years, 2,000 or more parties apply for just over 60 private trip permits. That’s not good odds. It’s been said that a Selway River permit might be the hardest in the U.S. to score.

If you’re not wedded to the idea of running it yourself, pay for a guided trip, where your odds are much better. The Selway River is one of four rivers that are part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The limited permit season is annually from May 15 to July 31.

Selway River Raftin Permits + 11 Hardest Adventure Permits to Obtain in the US (photo: Aaron of Idaho Fish and Game) // Local Adventurer

Yellowstone National Park in the wintertime is fierce while also being a wonderland of beauty. If you are interested in snowmobiling through the park, have grit and like to take risks, the payoff is sublime beauty and the ride of your life! 

The program allows only one non-commercially guided group per day (maximum of five snowmobiles per group) to enter Yellowstone from each of its four winter entrances.

Yellowstone Snowmobile Lottery + 11 Most Difficult National Park Lotteries // Local AdventurerPin

Map of the Hardest Permits to Get

Have you had any luck getting a permit to one of these spots? If so, how’d you do it? Can you think of any other famous hiking trails we missed?

Did you enjoy this post? Pin it for later

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The Wave Permits + Other Famous Hikes in the US that Have Competitive Lotteries // localadventurer.comPin
Half Dome Permits are incredibly difficult to get + The 11 Most Popular Hikes in the US // localadventurer.comPin
11 Hardest Hiking Permits to Get in the US (photo: trailkrum) // localadventurer.comPin
The Wave Famous Hiking Trails in the USPin
Caroline + ErinPin


They are freelance web designers and photographers who love finding adventure, both big and small. The two make a daily practice of sharing vulnerabilities, truth-telling, and side-splitting laughter. They’ve honed the art of traveling fast and doing all of the things that an adventurer can do in a day or two. The couple lives in Asheville, North Carolina and spend as much time as possible in the mountains.

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This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Hannah Klausman

    My husband and I just came back from Havasupai. The website reservation system works wonderfully and is still running, however almost all of the permits sell out within ten minutes of the website reservation system opening on February first. It helps to be flexible as it is kind of a grab and go situation. The campground closes at the end of November, and when we were there I would say it was about half full, which was perfect.

  2. Stephan Stockwell

    We are doing the JMT this year and a popular work around for the lottery that is starting in Yosemite or Whitney Portal is to start further south in Horseshoe Meadows. It adds about 20 miles to the trip (not something I am upset about in the least) but those permits are wide open and guarantee you a Half Dome permit.

    1. Esther JuLee

      Thanks, Stephan! :) Will add your tips to the post. When are you doing it?

      1. Stephan Stockwell

        We leave this Monday July 23rd flying out to Reno and we will be on trail the 25th.

  3. Judy

    So lucky to have done 3 on my bucketlist last year… The Wave, Havasupai and Whitney! Still waiting for the Halfdome result on a April 12. Keeping my fingers crossed! Love your blog!

    1. Justin

      Just came back from Half Dome in October, I did not win the lottery and there were no walk up permits due to changeover in and it was the last week for the cables. Tip for 2019, if you hike to the sub dome where the ranger is checking permits and get there early enough, maybe 8-9AM, you can wait for a group that has an extra permit and they will let you join that group and group leader. Keep in mind you need the group leader and once that permitted is checked it is void so don’t waste your time asking everyone you pass by on the way down if they have an extra permit, it won’t work, I know from experience and had to hike up to subdome again the next morning from the valley. Hope this helps someone, cables and views from Half Dome is worth it!!

  4. Emily

    I’d love to do so many of these hikes. Maybe one day! Thank you for the info; I didn’t know it would be so hard to do some of these!

    I saw a video going around on FB about Havasupai and tons of friends going “let’s go!” and I sent them your posts on it. I doubt they understood all that would be involved and how hard it is to get to.

    1. Esther JuLee

      Which one are you trying to do next? Havasupai is so tricky. The time to call is starting up soon – the beginning of Feb. The good thing is even if you can’t get them on the phone, there are plenty of people that reserve for more people than they need. You might be able to have your group tag along. When we used disqus tons of people were leaving comments to put together groups on this post: I think it might be starting up again!

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