Advance planning required for cabins, lookouts, permits
Snooze and you 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 wildly popular parks and wilderness areas.
Winter 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 of 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 Sex Peak or Gem Peak fire lookouts in the Kootenai National Forest.
Camping areas for large groups also can be booked in advance, including the Bartoo Island group site at Priest Lake.
River rafters and paddlers seeking coveted permits for the Selway, Snake, Salmon and Middle Fork Salmon rivers must submit applications for the lottery drawing by Jan. 31.
Backpackers planning a trek into the Enchantment Lakes area of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness southwest of Leavenworth also must apply for a lottery drawing between Feb. 15 and March 3.
These and other reservations, including many of the lottery drawing applications, are made on the National Recreation Reservation System, (877) 444-6777 or recreation.gov.
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.
Reserving the Red Ives Cabin on Idaho Panhandle National Forests – a lair especially popular with fly fishers – requires submitting an application to the St. Joe River District between mid-January and Feb. 28. The application is available from Forest Service offices or online at www.fs.usda.gov/ipnf; click on the Red Ives Quick Link. Applicants successful in the lottery drawing will be notified by the end of March.
More than 500 applications for the Red Ives cabin were received for the 2013 season but only 50 applicants could be selected for reservations. Info: (208) 245-2531.
National forests throughout the country have many historic cabins and fire lookouts in their national rental program. Most are accessible by road but some must be reached by muscle power on a trail.
The Idaho Panhandle forests offer reservations for six lookouts – Arid Peak, Deer Ridge, Little Guard, Lunch Peak, Shorty Peak and Surveyors Ridge. Also available are three cabins in a range of sizes – Avery Creek, Magee, and Snyder.
The Clearwater National Forest has two lookouts for rent – Bald Mountain and Castle Butte – and five cabins, including Cold Springs, Kelly Forks, Liz Butte and Liz Creek. The Walde Lookout Cabin is available only during winter to people who can get there by snowmobiles, skis or snowshoes.
National forest 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.
Hogback Homestead, offered by the Lolo National Forest on Montana’s Rock Creek east of Missoula and available through reserve.gov, is another facility on a nationally famous trout stream.
National park campsites and cabins also can be made through reserve.gov, but there are major exceptions.
Yellowstone Park, for example, has its own reservation system at tinyurl.com/YNPreserve 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.
Washington State Parks rents yurts, teepees, cabins and rustic shelters at 23 sites across the state, from Mount Spokane to the ocean beaches. While some can be easy to reserve in the off season, they’re very popular during summer. Make Washington State Parks reservations online or by phone at (888) 226-7688.
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.
River permits for the region’s world-class rafting streams are among the most coveted reservations. River runners 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: tiny.cc/4rivers.
• Montana’s Smith River, a classic 59-mile multiday floating and fishing experience in Central Montana.
Deadline for applications: Feb. 20. Details: fwp.mt.gov.
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.
Enchantment Lakes applications may be filed online Feb. 15-March 3 through reserve.gov. 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 have temporarily closed the areas in past years.
For more details on the Enchantments permit system, go to tinyurl.com/ALWenchant
Mount St. Helens climbing permits, which go on sale at 9 a.m. on Feb. 3, are administered by Mount St. Helens Institute, mshinstitute.org, through an online vendor.
Mount Rainier National Park requires permits for climbing and wilderness campsites, and reservations are recommended. About 70 percent of the available wilderness permits can be reserved while the remaining 30 percent are issued on a first-come, first-served basis.
All campsites along the 93-mile Wonderland Trail that circumnavigates the mountain are so popular, a special lottery is held. Applications received by letter or fax March 15-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: tinyurl.com/WonderTrail.
British Columbia’s top hiking and paddling destinations are most 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 starting April 1. Call in the morning of the day three months in advance of your preferred reservation start. Info: tinyurl.com/OharaCan.
• 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: tinyurl.com/WCTinfo.
• 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 each year on Jan. 2. Info: tinyurl.com/Bowron.