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Venturing Into the Backcountry of the National Park System


Solitude is easily found in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Some of my best trips to national parks have involved walking, or paddling, away from the front country and vanishing into the wilderness. Exploring the large lakes of Yellowstone National Park is a favorite adventure, as is following the Snake River through Grand Teton National Park.

Still on my "to do" list are visits to the waters of Isle Royale National Park and Voyageurs National Park, to the high peaks of North Cascades National Park, and to the sprawling backcountry of Kings Canyon National Park.

These trips guarantee solitude and an experience that more than 90 percent of park visitors miss. They get you quickly away from roads, buildings and crowds and out into forests, mountains, lakes and rivers. Once out in the backcountry you often increase your odds of spotting wildlife. Plus, the night skies are incredibly dark in the backcountry of a park -- some of the darkest in the country can be seen lying on your back in the 13-site campground at Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah -- and so the nightly star shows are among the best you'll ever see.

On top of all this, backcountry vacations are a heckuva lot cheaper than staying in a lodge and dining in a restaurant and will almost certainly leave you with stronger memories of your visit. (That said, I do try to end my backcountry trips with a night in a nice lodge -- there's something to be said for a hot shower, good meal, and soft bed after roughing it.)

And now, even though the snow continues to pile up in various parts of the country, is the time to begin planning these types of backcountry escapes into the national park system.

Most, if not all, parks offer backcountry planners that you can find online. These publications help you figure out where and when to go and answer many of your questions, particularly how much will it cost, what will the weather be like, and how bad will the insects be?

Yellowstone is one of the parks where you'll need a reservation for a backcountry campsite. Now, you can test the odds and show up the day you want to head into the backcountry and see what sites are available, or you can fill out a form prior to April 1, request specific sites, and hope that you'll land them.

Under the park's backcountry reservation system, all applications received prior to April 1 are randomly prioritized by computer and then assignments are made. While this might sound like somewhat of a gamble, I've had great luck receiving my preferred sites. In the one or two instances where I didn't get those sites, a backcountry ranger called me and we worked through what was available to come up with a great trip.

Now, I've also seen a couple walk into Yellowstone's South Entrance ranger station without any reservations and walk out 45 minutes later with reservations that allowed them to head out onto Shoshone Lake without skipping a beat.

Most backcountry trips will require a fee of some amount. At Yellowstone, for example, each individual trip reservation (regardless of the number of folks on the trip or how many days you'll be out), costs $20. At Isle Royale, there is no fee for a backcountry permit. At Sequoia National Park, they charge a $15 "wilderness camping fee."

A backcountry trip that you might not normally think of involves climbing. You can sign on for a class that will culminate with a climb to the top of the Grand Teton in Grand Teton National Park, or to the top of Mount Rainier in Mount Rainier National Park.

These are incredible experiences and, understandably, require some training. Spots are limited, too, so if one of these climbs sounds appealing, now is the time to make reservations with the climbing companies that will lead you to the summit.

So, while summer is still a few months away, now is the time to begin planning your backcountry vacation.


If you ever want to plan that Kings Canyon trip, let me know. I'll find a club or a non-profit to take you there who'll be just as qualified as a commercial guide service, minus the luxury fee. (Who knows, I might even be the leader.)

If you enter Sequoia/Kings Canyon park(s) from a non-park trailhead, such as from Forest Service land, there's only the (usually) free wilderness permit to contend with.

I usually don't have trouble getting a desirable route plan in my permit on a walk-in basis at either Yosemite, Sequoia/Kings Canyon, or anywhere else in the Sierra Nevada. Of course, I know where the interesting trails are that aren't on a 10-most-popular list.
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The front county is just a place to register, get some last minute supplies, and bump into hordes of people and traffic. The backcountry is where the real beauty & excitement are at!

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