Permits and Processes
There are basically six kinds of land in the Sierra Nevada. Each one has a different set of regulations, and a different kind of permit process. In our lists of trails, hikes, and destinations, we’ve tried to indicate which one of these applies, and where to go to get your permit.
Private Land: Not open to the public. Generally, you cannot camp, hike or trespass on this land without the permission of the landowner. Fishing access is generally limited to the stream bed at high water. But there are some private campgrounds that offer a place to sleep the night before or after a backpacking trip, if you need one.
PG&E Land: These really should be included below, under the National Forests, but they are recreation areas around reservoirs and hydroelectric facilities in the National Forests. They often offer campgrounds (usually inexpensive on the honor system, much like the National Forests) and trailheads to some great hikes. Fisherman often plan whole weeks to visit these reservoirs. You may not like your utility bill arriving in the mail, but some of these lakes and hikes are really a wonderful by-product of our hydroelectric power system.
California State Parks: Open to the public, at least as long as the state budget holds. Most California State Parks charge an entrance fee, and after you pay that fee, other services and uses are free, with the exception of camping overnight. Camping is allowed only in designated sites and in developed campgrounds—and in many parks, reservations are either recommended or required. The State Parks outsource this reservation system to a private contractor. Hiking may be specifically limited to established trails in state parks. There are only a few State Parks in California with really established backpacking destinations—most are primarily for day-hiking.
National Forests: These are managed by the US Forest Service, and over the past few years the USFS has put together a really nice set of websites to help you enjoy these lands. In general, National Forests have developed campgrounds that are open to the public, do not require (or allow) reservations, and charge relatively low fees for camping. These fees are usually collected on the honor system, but some campgrounds also have a campground host who will make sure the system is observed. The USFS also allows camping anywhere in the National Forest without a permit, for free, outside of these developed campgrounds. But you do need a campfire permit to make a fire. These permits are usually available from the National Forest information offices—conveniently located on the primary highways up to the National Forest in question. (You can also get these fire permits from any CDF station, which makes things really convenient.) But be aware that outside of developed campgrounds (and even inside some of these campgrounds) you will have to provide your own water, and follow regulations concerning human waste. Note that there are DIFFERENT regulations for Wilderness Areas, discussed below. There are wonderful trails, great fishing, and lovely lakes in the National Forests. And once you get a water filter and learn how to use it, you will really come to enjoy what these have to offer.
For any of the regions above, you may only need a campfire permit--which you can get at just about any office of any of the agencies. You can also get them at any Cal Fire CDF station, or you can go here http://www.preventwildfireca.org/Permits/ and get yours on-line!
National Parks: There are four major National Parks in the Sierra Nevada: Yosemite, King’s Canyon, Sequoia, and Lassen Volcanic in the North where the Sierra Nevada meets the Cascade Range. Entrance fees are required at all National Parks, and camping is allowed only in designated spaces in developed campgrounds. There is an additional fee required for overnight camping in these campgrounds, and the reservation system is often overloaded at key times of the year. But almost all of these parks also have some campsites that are available on a first come, first served basis. Wilderness permits are required for any overnight camping outside of these developed campgrounds. In most cases, you must be 2-4 miles from the nearest road before you can camp under your wilderness permit. There are lots of regulations and restrictions—most aimed at trying to preserve the wilderness experience for everyone. And if you have a wilderness permit for a backpacking trip, they also have designated camping areas that you can use the night before and after your backpacking trip. They are a national treasure. So are the rest of these lands. Treat them accordingly.
Wilderness Areas: For the backpacker in the Sierra Nevada, this is as good as it gets. These areas have further restrictions that limit uses to hiking and backpacking in most cases. Most of these abut National Parks, but are managed by the US Forest Service. You will need a permit to go backpacking in any Wilderness area, and this may or may not include permission to make a campfire. Some areas restrict you to only a gas stove for cooking, to limit the fire danger. These wilderness areas are each managed very differently, depending on the kind of use the area gets, and the National Forest jurisdiction under which it falls. (See IMPORTANT NOTE below.) Desolation Wilderness, between I-80 and I-50 west of Lake Tahoe, is very heavily used. There are fees for permits, trail quotas, and a reservation system for backpacking here. And south of Carson Pass, in the Mokelumne Wilderness, there are even numbered and designated campsites and visitor quotas at certain lakes. On the other hand, Emigrant Wilderness just north of Yosemite is much simpler, with no quotas, reservations or fees required. (You still need a permit.) Our experience with the staff of the USFS offices in the mountains has been really, really good, both on the phone and in person. The offices usually have a great collection of topo maps ($6 each, or so) to help you on your trips. These people are helpful, service oriented, and work hard to get you out into the mountains where you can enjoy yourself.
Don’t forget to thank them!
*IMPORTANT NOTE: As of 2021, there is a new policy in most of the National Forests in the Sierra about permits. Most of the wilderness areas in the Sierra are now issuing backpacking permits via an on-line system at recreation.gov. And those permits become available six months before the starting date of your hike.
So if you are reading this in the spring or summer and you want a permit for a popular trailhead this summer, those permits are probably already gone--reserved by people who knew the system and acted early. 60% of all permits are being listed this way, and it's a little frustrating to sign on to the recreation.gov website and see how few permits are available for the summer.
(One important note here. If you ARE lucky enough to get a permit, and then decide that you are not going to use it, or not have as many people as you thought, PLEASE let them know! They can use those spots for other deserving hikers who also love the wilderness.)
What happens with the other 40% of the permits? There is hope, but again, it's harder to come by. In years past, any permit that wasn't reserved was available on a first-come, first-served basis. You could walk into the wilderness office the day before, and chances are you could find a permit. Again, not any more. Now those walk-up permits are being held until two weeks before the date, and then released through recreation.gov. So you still have to be on your toes and think ahead--at least two weeks ahead--and use that computer mouse. And hope for the best.
And yes, there are still a few wilderness areas where permits are easier to get, or at least don't require a quick trigger finger on your computer six months before you want to hike. But we'll let you find those on your own...
A final note about these various areas and jurisdictions: while there are clear boundaries between each of these lands, it should be noted that many trails cross from one type of land into another. Usually, you will need a wilderness permit from the jurisdiction that manages the trailhead itself, and that wilderness permit will then be valid for the rest of your trip. But please do some research to make sure that your permit will allow you to go where you want to go—and start where you want to start!
For another persepective on permits, read this entry from our blog. But here is a spoiler: the route we chose went into an area that did not require a permit after all: