Saturday, February 11, 2017

Embracing the Dry, or, Hunting up an Elusive Grand Canyon Permit

"Dammit," I snarled. Once again, there was an unwelcome email from the Grand Canyon Backcountry office, informing me that my permit request was denied. It cheerfully went on to remind me that I should have applied three months ago, and that late March was one of the most popular months to hike. It warned ominously that there could be a slim possibility of getting a walk-in permit, but that it could take up to three days of haunting the Backcountry office to secure one.

Dear Park Service, why must you have such an archaic system? You still have to use a fax, for Pete's sake. You have no idea of what use areas have vacancies, save for the corridor campgrounds, and only new hikers really want those. Your request could be denied for one campsite in the middle of your trip; you never really know. The poor rangers take up to three weeks to process the request, and by the time they write you back, other places have filled up. You can't do it over the phone, either. 

This graph from nps.gov is depressing. Probably better not to look at it. 
The NPS has a pretty tight lock on numbers too. For most use areas, some of which are really big, they only allow two parties per night. So even if there are two groups of one person each, that's it (I guess that's why the canyon is so much cleaner than other places though). 

I've been sending in requests since January, and finally I resorted to a shameful email plea to the rangers. I may or may not have promised brownies. The ranger who responded said that there was an area with openings, so I faxed in that request, knowing that it could easily fill up before they got to it.

Success after ten requests! However, there was a mistake--the rangers had given me a 17 mile day instead of the more sane number of miles I had requested (while 17 miles on the PCT is a short day, the Grand Canyon not so much). The Backcountry office phone rings busy most of the time, but the hiking gods were with me and I got a real person, who talked me through some choices (if it is their mistake, they can change your permit on the phone). I ended up with an itinerary close to what I had asked for (in a perfect world I'd go to Hermit Rapids, but that was snatched up back in November, I'm guessing).
2015 camp in Monument, which had a small trickle of water at the time.
This means a dry camp for two nights, but I'm not afraid of dry camps. I used to be before I hiked the California desert of the PCT. I have to laugh when I recall one day in our John Muir Trail thru hike when we grew unaccountably nervous about six miles without water. Since then I've hiked many waterless miles, including one 32 mile stretch. Dry camping is totally manageable.Yes, you can't wash up, and yes, you will probably end up with too much water because you will be afraid that you don't have enough. The reward is usually a scenic camp lacking condensation, bugs, and too many other people. Dry camps are also better for wildlife, since they avoid water when people are camped there.

My formula is typically to allow one liter per five miles of hiking, unless unusual circumstances prevail (really hot, really hard climbing). If you don't take a stove, and you don't drink coffee, you use much less water at camp. You will want one to two liters at camp depending on when you get there. I have passed up some nice dry camps because it was only one in the afternoon and it meant too much sitting and drinking up all the water I had. Generally I like to arrive at a dry camp about six or later, thus minimizing this. If I have two liters at camp, one for the evening and morning rituals, and the next to get me to water, I feel like I'm doing pretty well. If you leave camp in the morning, when it's still cool, this means you will drink less. 
A great dry camp in the Castle Crags (CA)
There are people who hike through the canyon in one day, but I'm not one of those people. Not because I couldn't, but because there is just something magical about spending at least one night below the rim. In the past four years, I've been back five times (If you really want a permit, December is pretty easy to get). 

So if you really want to go and you are lucky enough to be able to plan ahead, the best thing is to put your request in at the right time: four months ahead (if you want a permit in March, you can apply on November 1). Steer clear of the main camps. Trust me on this, unless you want a loud family waking you up at 4 am, eating breakfast loudly and preparing to hike to the rim. Embrace the dry camps! You might never go back.

20 comments:

  1. Congrats! You win the award for persistence. It's such a waste of resources to manually process requests. GC needs to get with the program. It's not like the systems haven't already been invented and perfected. Geez! I recently saw Havasupai implemented online reservations. I believe Rainier switched this year. Maybe GC will be coming soon. It's insane playing the blind guessing game.

    Once I was introduced to dry camping, I found FREEDOM! Oh those ridge views, and miles til I'm tired camps.

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    1. It is amazing how persistent you can be with vacation time. I haven't gone anywhere for my own time since August. And I agree, once you break away from the "need" for water, it is very eye opening.

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  2. WOW!That is one thing I could not tolerate, having to get permission to hike here or there. I have never had to have a permit to go anywhere. I understand their reasoning because, there are so many people wanting to experience the back country. I applaud you for putting up with so many people. I could never do it.

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    1. I've worked for the Forest Service forever so I get it. I have carried so much crap out of the woods people didn't want to bring out, have seen so much used toilet paper, campfires in meadows, I could go on. The rules are what keeps it nice. And I doubt I will see many people at all on this route, since most people congregate on the main trail. So I get the rules. I just object to the method ..it could be online so it would be easier.

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  3. Congratulations. You got smarts AND patience. And determination. And maturity. Sometimes that works.

    Last summer I wanted to hike around the Three Sisters in the Bend, OR area. To do this you need to pass through the Obsidian Limited Access Area, for which a special permit is required.

    I guess you can do this online, from home, but I didn't know the area or the route, or my exact schedule, and it wasn't fully clear what the process was, or if or when there were open slots, so I waited until I got to Oregon.

    You can't get a permit at a Forest Service office.

    I tried anyway, in Sisters, OR, only a few miles from the trailhead, after I bought a map in Bend and finalized my plans.

    Nope. Even though the offices are there, they have electricity and lights and computers and printers and phone lines. Nope.

    So, in that office's parking lot, after being refused, I sat in my car and called the special secret Obsidian Limited Access Area phone number.

    Options:

    (1) Make a reservation by phone, and then they send your permit by email, and then you simply print it out, and carry that piece of paper with you. Unless you don't have a computer and printer with you. Ah! No probs! Even simpler! See other option!

    (2) Make a reservation by phone, and then they send your permit by U.S. mail. You only have to wait 3 to 5 days, or a week, or maybe two weeks, or more, and then carry your paper permit with you.

    Anyway, screw it, I thought. I just went.

    I figured I'd pay a fine if it came to that. So when I got to the OLA Area, guess what? A sign. Saying that it's OK to walk right through the OLAA, which is what I had in mind anyway, as long as you stay within 250 feet of the trail. Either to one side or the other - your choice. Shucks. None of them official people knew that. Not on the web site either, as far as I know. Big arfing secret.

    So the deal is, you can't make a reservation and get a permit number over the phone or by email, and just carry that permit number in your head or on a scrap of paper. I guess rangers aren't allowed to themselves carry a smart phone, tablet, or just their own piece of paper with hiker info on it.

    Nope, nope, nope. Can't do it. Too newfangled.

    Each and every hiker has somehow to get and then carry a separate printed official form instead, even if it takes weeks to get it through the mail. Makes fax machines sound like 23rd century Star Trek tech.

    Other than that, it was a pretty nice hike.

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    1. Unfortunately the people at the front desks are paid less than ten dollars an hour and sometimes do not have the right info. I don't get it either. I'm glad it worked out. I hope to hike through there this fall.

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  4. It seems most of the popular places are so overrun by people you either have visit on the off season or plan your vacation months in advance. I guess there's something to be said for choosing the difficult, dry routes.

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    1. Yes, when I go to a popular place, which isn't that often, I just have to change my mindset. And realize that at least they're out there, not at home on the couch.

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  5. Thankfully we don't have this problem here yet, except for holiday weekends in the major parks. Glad you had success Mary.

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    1. This really isn't the case everywhere. But the Grand Canyon is so iconic, and everyone wants to see it. The main trails are pretty easy, so people try to get permits for them way ahead of time. If you hiked where I live, for example, you would hardly see anyone most of the time.

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  6. I've found that some of the best camping, trail running, etc. is in the national forest lands/BLM/state parks adjacent to the national parks. Good examples: Bryce, Redwoods, Lassen, and Denali. Less people, fewer rules, and virtually the same scenery minus the iconic landmarks.

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    1. When I worked for the park service we snobbishly said goin to work for the blm was going to the dark side. Then when I worked for them I found that wasn't the case at all. They are much less uptight about people visiting their lands though.

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  7. Each branch of federal land management has its uses, and the Parks ARE good for something. See McSweeney's Internet Tendency, January 27, 2017: "Initial Meeting of the National Parks Revolutionary Coordinating Committee", by Kate Washington, at http://bit.ly/2kbaizm

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    1. Oh I agree, I didn't mean to imply otherwise. I worked for them, the BLM, the USFS, and FS, and the NPS mission is actually doable, unlike the others where something always seems to lose (multiple resources is hard and the lobbies are strong).

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  8. Yeah!!!! The squeaky wheel gets oiled! Adventure awaits!

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  9. Congrats Mary on the permit, from a GC addict. Can u share your itinerary?

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    1. Grandview to South Kaibab with a day trip to the river in there since I have two nights in Cremation use area. I haven't been on this route before. Excited!

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  10. Camping on these kind of beautiful places would be awesome.
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  11. I hope that you had enjoyed your stay on such kind of beautiful places.
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    ReplyDelete

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