Be Prepared for 2021 Hiking Regulations in Effect

Sisters Wilderness, Three Creeks
Looking up at Tam McArthur Rim

Fun, outdoor activities await everyone year-round in Sunriver and Bend, Oregon. Famous for its outdoor natural beauty, this scenic area seems made for exploration, but changes are coming in 2021. This is significant because it signals the last chance for many people to hike trails in Oregon’s central Cascades without a permit.

In 2021, permits will be required on several trails so you’ll have less hassle in early fall before permits are required. 

According to the Bend Source, trails falling under day-use permit requirements include Broken Top (max of 40 day-use permits), Crater Ditch (16), Devils Lake/Wickiup (100), Green Lakes/Soda Creek (80), Lava Camp (40), Obsidian (30), Scott Trailhead (12), Sisters Mirror (16), Tam McArthur Rim (80) and Todd Lake (12.)

The proposed 2021 guidelines have been put in place to protect the pristine trailheads. Before COVID made its impact felt around the world and turned everything on its head, the new regulations were originally scheduled to begin May 22 of this year. Forest officials initially delayed the launch date for the new permits. As a result of Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s stay-home order, developed recreation areas in national forests across the Pacific Northwest, including trailheads, were closed at that time.

Why Permits?

However, the new system of permits is now expected to take effect around the same time next year. The aim of the permits is to reduce the number of hikers allowed into the Mount Jefferson, Three Sisters and Mount Washington wilderness areas, to minimize overcrowding and human impact on these natural spaces.

The intention behind the permits is that the pristine characteristics of these areas must be protected and opportunities need to be given for people to enjoy solitude. It is expected that there will be less human effects on the wilderness, such as wildlife disturbance, vegetation trampling, trail development, garbage and human waste.

The number of permits issued per day will vary from trailhead to trailhead. Officials have indicated that day hikers will be charged $1 and backpackers $6 to secure a permit online at recreation.gov.

Important Dates

From the Friday before Memorial Day to September 30, limited entry permits are required for trailheads wilderness-wide in the Mount Jefferson, Three Sisters and Mount Washington wilderness areas. However, from October 1 to 31, unlimited free, self-issue permits will be required for trailheads in these areas.

The exception is at all trailheads where limited entry permits are not required, free self-issue permits are to be used from the Friday before Memorial Day to October 31.

Trailhead quotas for overnight use reflect the number of campsites that each area can sustain. Consideration was also given to the fact that overnight visitors are generally willing to travel farther than day visitors, particularly to access desirable locations. This means that limited entry permits are expected to be more effective if they are implemented wilderness-wide instead of in high-use areas alone, as overnight visitors may move to more pristine, less-used areas.

When visitation peaks in the summer of 2021 and beyond, the existence of a cap on visitors is anticipated to improve user experience as there will be less crowding and congestion, more freedom of movement, improved safety and reduced visible human impacts on the wilderness. 

From Tam McArthur Rim trail
From atop Tam McArthur Rim viewing Three Creeks Lake

Hunting

In accordance with state rules, hunting continues to be a valid use of the wilderness, and none of the five wilderness areas is off-limits to hunting. Since a limited entry permit system will affect certain hunting opportunities, hunters with the W. High Cascade deer tag (119A) will be allowed to hunt within these wilderness areas without needing to secure a limited entry permit, during the High Cascade hunt period.

The land base open to this hunting opportunity is primarily in the wilderness, and there is only a limited number of tags available anyway. All other hunts, when occurring in the wilderness during the permit season, will require a limited entry permit or self-issue permit, depending on location.

Areas Where a Limited Use Permit is Not Required

Overnight backpackers in the Diamond Peak and Waldo Lake Wilderness areas do not need to book a limited use permit. However, the number of unlimited free, self-issue permits used in these two wilderness areas will be tracked annually to identify emerging trends.

The decision to exempt these two areas from the limited use permit system was based on the fact that current use does not rise to the level of requiring limited use permits. Officials’ analysis indicates that if more pristine wilderness areas are harder to reach, have limited parking and are seen as less desirable destinations, they are more likely to remain pristine.

Todd Lake, early spring
Todd Lake in November

Loss of Spontaneity

Officials have pointed out that a large number of wilderness trailheads will remain free with unlimited access for day use. The introduction of a new permit system for specific areas was considered necessary in the face of increasing demand. This means that even those who live close to the National Forests and visit them regularly to enjoy the outdoors may no longer be able to do so at the spur of the moment, at least not in the three affected wilderness areas.

Those who want to engage in recreational opportunities in the Mount Jefferson, Three Sisters and Mount Washington wilderness areas will need to consider the new restrictions and plan ahead accordingly.

Timeframe for Permit Bookings

For those trailheads that will have limited entry, a proportion of permits will be allowed to be reserved in advance and the remainder to be available on the day or day before a trip starts.

For day use, the majority of permits will be available shortly before the trip starts. For overnight use, the majority of use will be reservable. The idea is to allow a greater opportunity for locals and visitors alike to access some of the most popular trails during peak season without much advance planning.

Final Thoughts

Whether you want to take a weekend trip to a family-friendly outdoor destination or you prefer to spend time in nature solo, Sunriver and Bend are ideal. It is understandably important to ensure that everyone can enjoy hiking, mountain biking, rafting, and other wilderness adventures while keeping the National Forests in pristine condition. 

Although it may take some getting used to, the implementation of a limited use permit system is the new strategy for managing human impact on the natural environment in high-use areas.

In a nutshell, if you plan to visit the Mount Jefferson, Three Sisters or Mount Washington wilderness areas, you should investigate the permit requirements ahead of time. There is still room for spontaneity, though, as some permits will be available even on the day of your trip.

Alternatively, there are other scenic areas you can explore instead without restriction, as long as you obtain a free unlimited self-issue permit. Whichever area you choose, a trip into Oregon’s spectacular Central Cascades is sure to be worth it.

Green Lakes trail looking at Broken Top