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Plan ahead or be left behind on adventures

Sun., Jan. 20, 2013

British Columbia’s West Coast Trail hikers plan early for a permit. (Rich Landers)
British Columbia’s West Coast Trail hikers plan early for a permit. (Rich Landers)

Apply soon to reserve spots for rafting, camping, hiking …

Procrastinators lose in the quest to bunk in a Forest Service cabin along the St. Joe River, float a prized Idaho wilderness river or backpack through certain prized wilderness areas.

This is the season for thinking ahead to summer adventures that require a special permit or reservations.

Campers seeking a stay at popular national park or national forest cabins, lookouts and campgrounds generally can make reservations up to 180 days in advance to the date of arrival. That means on-the-ball planners already are making reservations as far out as the third week in July at popular parks such as Glacier and Yellowstone or nifty rooms with a view such as Gem Peak Lookout in the Kootenai National Forest.

River rafters and paddlers seeking coveted permits for the Selway, Snake, Salmon and Middle Fork Salmon rivers must submit their applications to the Salmon-Challis National Forest for the lottery drawing by Jan. 31.

Backpackers planning a trek into the Enchantment Lakes area of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness near Leavenworth must apply for a lottery on the National Recreation Reservation System (NRRS), (877) 444-6777 or

However, not every choice destination is onboard with the national online system. For example, backpacking the classic Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier requires sending applications by letter or fax to the park.

Entering the lottery for reserving the Red Ives Cabin on the St. Joe River requires a letter of application to the ranger district.

Following is a sampling of the reservation and application considerations to make soon for popular public land destinations:

National forests have many historic cabins and fire lookouts in their popular rental program, including the Red Ives cabin on the St. Joe River District and the Kelly Forks Cabin on the North Fork Clearwater River. Both are accessible by vehicle.

The Clearwater National Forest, for example, also offers the Surveyor Ridge fire lookout accessible by vehicle as well as the Liz Creek Cabin off the Lolo Motorway in the Weitas Creek drainage, accessible by trail. Liz Creek Cabin won’t be available until Aug. 11 this year.

Cabin fees start at $40 a night, although a $55 fee is being charged for the Kelly Forks Cabin and $60 for Red Ives because of their choice locations along popular fishing streams.

• Red Ives cabin reservations are assigned in a lottery drawing. Applications are accepted early January through Feb. 28. The application is available from Forest Service offices or online at; click on the Red Ives Quick Link. Successful applicants will be notified by the end of March.

More than 500 applications were received for the 2012 season but only 50 applicants could be selected for reservations. Info: (208) 245-2531.

• Kelly Cabin, Surveyor’s Ridge lookout and Liz Creek cabin are on the NRRS,

• Hogback Homestead on Montana’s Rock Creek east of Missoula, also available through the NRRS, is another coveted cabin on a popular trout stream.

National Parks campsites and lodging can be difficult to find in peak season without a reservation, which can be made six months in advance.

Most reservations for cabins, lookouts and campgrounds can be made on the NRRS.

• Yellowstone Park, however, is one of the rare exceptions with its own reservation system at or call toll-free, (866) 439-7375.

State parks have their own reservations systems, with great options ranging from Oregon Coast campsites to Idaho yurts.

• Quartz Mountain Lookout in Mount Spokane State Park is a hot local item with a premium price of $88 a night for a room with a view. Reservations are accepted up to nine months in advance for the June 15-Oct. 15 season. Make reservations by phone at (888) 226-7688.

River runners looking for slots on the region’s world-class streams sometimes can obtain no-show permits. Also, a portion of available permits may be held back and issued daily at ranger stations.

But locking in a reservation for a major river trip is key to planning.

Savvy trippers get a group of people to apply for dates to boost their chances in lottery drawings. Maximum group size on the rivers generally is around 30. Midweek launch dates tend to be easier to get than Friday-Sunday dates.

Following are some of the most sought-after permits in the region.

• Idaho’s Selway, Salmon, Middle Fork Salmon and the Snake River in Hells Canyon.

Deadline for applications: Jan. 31. Details:

• Montana’s Smith River, a classic 59-mile multiday floating and fishing experience in Central Montana.

Deadline for applications: Feb. 15. Details:

Backpackers destined for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area’s Enchantment Lakes Basin, plus Stuart, Colchuck, Snow and Eightmile lakes areas near Leavenworth, require a permit for overnighting June 15-Oct. 15.

Applications may be filed online Feb. 15-March 2. The drawing is set for March 6. Application fees are $6. If drawn, a successful party is charged $5 per person before the permit is issued.

A similar permit lottery system has operated online for years at Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The online system will provide area information and alerts to notify people as their trips draw near about special conditions such as the wildfires that closed the area temporarily last year.

Apply on the NRRS website.

For more details on the permit system, go to

• Mount Rainier National Park requires permits for wilderness campsites along the 93-mile Wonderland Trail that circumnavigates the mountain.

Applications received by letter or fax between March 15 and April 1 are processed in random order. Applications received by the park after April 1 are processed in order after the early applications are assigned. Details:

British Columbia’s top hiking and paddling destinations are mostly surely available to adventurers who have their travel itineraries ready to apply the minute online reservations are accepted. High on the advance planning list are:

• Lake O’Hara, a heavily restricted hiking paradise in Yoho National Park near Field, allows visitors to book campsites up to three months in advance starting in April. Info:

• West Coast Trail, a challenging but classic trek in Pacific Rim National Park, will be taking reservations online or by phone starting in mid-April for the entire prime hiking season, June 15-Sept. 15. Info:

• Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit, a classic weeklong paddling loop formed by lakes and rivers, requires backcountry reservations that can be made for the entire summer season starting on Jan. 2. Info:

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