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New Permit Rules for the Pacific Crest Trail Target Overcrowding

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A section of the Pacific Crest Trail near the Snoqualmie Pass in Washington 
Photo by Tobin Akehurst/Shutterstock

A section of the Pacific Crest Trail near the Snoqualmie Pass in Washington 

The changes aim to address sustainability along the increasingly popular trail, but they also raise safety concerns for through-hikers.

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Hoping to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) next year? You may find a few new obstacles in your path to success. In an effort to reduce crowds and to manage the trail more sustainably, the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) announced on October 1, 2019, that there would be new restrictions on permit numbers and timeframes starting with the 2020 season.

Permits are first-come, first-served based on planned date of departure and are only required for long-distance hikes. And while limiting the number of permits per day will relieve pressure on fragile ecosystems and unclog popular campsites, many are concerned that a new, shorter timeframe for northbound travelers passing through the notoriously difficult southern Sierra section could put hikers in danger. 

The changes come as a response to the PCT’s increased popularity, which has had negative impacts on both the environment and the trekking experience, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. Since the 2012 release of Wild, the best-selling memoir (later a film) about author Cheryl Strayed’s life-changing experience along the 2,650-mile trail, the number of people attempting to follow in her footsteps has exploded from about 300 annual long-distance hikers to 7,300 last year. 

Hikers can tackle their five-month journeys either by traveling north from the Mexican border or south from the Canadian one. There will be changes to permits for both directions this year. 

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Most controversial is a change that requires northbound permit holders to hike continuously through the notorious southern Sierra section. The difficult area is prone to snow drifts and high rivers early in the season and many hikers—including Strayed—opt to skip it, intending to return after they reach the Canadian border. Smart for hikers, not so good for the southern Sierra, which then becomes overrun with more than the expected numbers when hikers with early-season permits return and join their compatriots who started later in the season. 

According to the Chronicle, the new rule has many familiar with the trail worried that hikers will opt to push through the section in dangerous conditions rather than lose their PCTA-issued interagency permit, which allows them to pass through the different state- and federally managed lands along the route with one piece of paper. Of course, those who really want to skip the southern Sierra can forgo the PCTA’s permit and instead brave the bureaucratic hell of obtaining all the relevant permits from the site-specific agencies separately.

Since 2012, the PCTA has limited the number of northbound permits issued per day to 50. But this year, southbound hikers will have to contend with permit limits as well: Only 15 permits will be available to long-distance and section hikers departing from the northern terminus each day from June 15 through July 31.

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Skeptics question how federal land managers and the PCTA intend to enforce these changes to a permit system that already has a number of loopholes. Many hikers report only seeing rangers two or three times along the trail, which is also used, in some areas, by day-hikers and by section hikers in both permited and nonpermited areas. This may not be the last change we see to the PCT permit system as it tries to navigate its newfound popularity. 

The 2020 permit season opens on October 29, 2019, for northbound hikes starting from the Mexican border and on January 14, 2020, for everything else.

>>Next: 6 Dream Hikes in the United States (and How to Score the Permits)

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