Between the Crown of the Continent in the Rocky Mountains and the Wilderness Coast, the Pacific Northwest Trail traverses three amazing national parks. It also crosses seven national forests and many other public lands, including state, county and municipal parks.
Camping regulations will vary in each of these places. You can help protect the PNT and ensure a better wilderness experience for everyone by learning about these regulations before you go.
On our national forests, at-large or dispersed camping is generally welcome, but it is not allowed in the national parks, Washington State Parks and some other public land sites along the Pacific Northwest Trail. If you plan to stay overnight on the PNT in Glacier, North Cascades or Olympic National Park, you will need to have a valid backcountry or wilderness permit before you reach the trailhead.
On the Pacific Northwest Trail, backcountry permits are required for long-distance hikers too. At this time, there is no coordinated permit available (like what is offered for the Pacific Crest Trail) for long-distance hikers on the PNT.
To get a backcountry permit, you must follow the application process used by each national park. Some permits may be available online while others may be reserved for same-day walk-up registration at a designated permitting location. Failure to possess and display a valid backcountry permit may result in a fine and/or immediate removal from the national park.
Backcountry permits must be obtained in advance of an overnight trip on the PNT in our national parks. Policies and fees will vary. Some parks allow permits to be reserved in advance online for a fee. They may also offer walk-up permits for in-person registration.
Either way, applying for a backcountry permit on the PNT takes planning in advance. Before you apply for your permit, you should consider making an itinerary to help you choose the specific backcountry campsites that you would like to reserve. A valid backcountry permit will specify the campsites you will stay at each night you spend within the boundaries of the national park.
Thinking carefully about daily mileage, terrain, elevation change and other factors can help you choose the right combination of campsites that will allow you to traverse the park at a pace that’s right for you. Because some sites may not be available, you’ll also need to be prepared with a plan b, and plan c in the event that your first choice has already been reserved.
Changes to Special Accommodations for Thru-Hikers
To assist thru-hikers who are traveling on foot, and can not easily visit permitting locations, North Cascades and Olympic National Park typically make a special exception to allow PNT thru-hikers to make reservations by phone. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, only North Cascades National Park will offer this courtesy during the 2021 season.
Glacier National Park
In Glacier National Park, the route of the Pacific Northwest Trail makes a spectacular east-west traverse of the Rocky Mountains tracking just south of the US-Canada border.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, only the west side of the national park is currently open. The east side of the park is closed to all access. The closure includes 34 miles of the Pacific Northwest Trail between the eastern terminus and Brown Pass, located on the Continental Divide.
There is no guarantee that full access to Glacier National Park will be restored this year. The park tentatively plans to “offer 2021 wilderness permit advance reservations as it has in the years prior to 2020. Park managers are hopeful that ‘normal’ wilderness access will resume this summer, however managers will assess all park operations in light of the evolving COVID-19 situation.”
Until the east side of the park reopens, an east-west traverse of the national park between the Chief Mountain border crossing and Polebridge is not possible.
Trip Planning in 2021
Those planning to visit the PNT in Glacier National Park this season should consider making alternative or back-up travel plans and trip itineraries. Visiting the PNT in Northwest Montana involves traveling great distances through remote mountainous terrain. Traveling between trailheads, permitting locations and trail towns around Glacier National Park can be challenging during a typical year as many locations, including Polebridge and the eastern terminus, are not serviced by public transit or by park shuttles.
During the 2021 season travel around the park is likely to be even more difficult. Traffic congestion was a big issue in the park during the 2020 season and a major highway construction project will impact travelers this year. The status of Glacier National Park’s free shuttle service and the fee-based hiker’s shuttle has not been announced for the 2021 season.
Communities west of the park in Polebridge and Eureka, Montana may serve as alternate destinations for PNT visitors in 2021. Polebridge is a very remote off-grid community with a permit-issuing ranger station. It is currently possible to plan loop hikes on the PNT in the open, west side of Glacier National Park or to explore the trail to the west of the park on the Flathead or Kootenai National Forests.
Know Before You Go
PNT hikers should arrive in Montana prepared to follow bear safety precautions and to store their food properly in grizzly bear country.
Early season visitors may also need to be prepared for snow travel and other shoulder season hazards. The PNT crosses multiple areas with known snow hazards in Glacier National Park. Special snow travel equipment like microspikes and an ice axe — and the knowledge and experience to use them correctly — may be required to safely traverse the PNT and to be granted a permit by park staff.
Glacier National Park will begin accepting advance reservations for backcountry permits on Wednesday, March 17th. All other aspects of the advance reservation process will remain the same as in previous years.
“Securing an advance reservation before you get to Glacier can eliminate the stress of competing for a walk-in permit at the height of the busy summer season.”
PNT hikers should note that there is a limit of 16 miles-per-day on advance reservation applications. Higher mileage permits may be granted to walk-in applicants only. In a typical year, 50% of backcountry permits are reserved for walk-in registration.
Successful applicants will receive an email confirmation letter with their permit itinerary and instructions for permit pickup. Advance reservations must be picked up in person at a permitting location before traveling to the trailhead.
Walk-in Permitting in Glacier National Park
In Glacier National Park, wilderness permits may be available the day before, or on the day of, a desired trip start date. Approximately half of all sites in a backcountry campground are set aside for walk-in campers. However, that does not mean those sites will be available at all times. Backpackers on longer trips (4 or more nights) may have taken walk-in sites well in advance.
Park staff recommend that you arrive early the day before your intended trip start date for the best campsite availability. No reservation fees are charged for walk-in permits, only the $7 / night / person camping fee is charged.
Permitting Locations Convenient for Eastbounders Include
- St. Mary Visitor Center
- Two Medicine Ranger Station
Permitting Locations Convenient for Westbounders Include
- Polebridge Ranger Station
Other Permitting Locations
- Apgar Backcountry Permit Center
- Many Glacier Ranger Station
North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park Service Complex accepts advance reservations online starting March 15 through April 15 for camping between the dates of May 15 through September 30. This time frame accommodates most trips on the PNT during the prime hiking season.
Advance reservations can be made for up to 60 percent of the park backcountry camp capacity. The remaining 40 percent are set aside for walk-up permits.
In North Cascades National Park, walk-up permits may be available the day before or the day of a desired trip start date. Approximately 40% of all sites in a backcountry campground are set aside for walk-in backpackers. However, that does not mean those sites will be available at all times. Available permits are issued on a first-come first-serve basis in-person at the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount, Washington on Highway 20.
Park staff recommend that you arrive early the day before your intended trip start date for the best campsite availability. No fees are charged for walk-in permits.
Converting a Reservation to a Permit
Advance reservations must be converted to a backcountry permit before the start of the trip. Reservations can be picked up at the park station closest point of entry, and must be picked up by 11 am of the trip start date or the reservation will be canceled and the sites made available to other visitors.
“Backcountry permits protect your wilderness experience by preventing overcrowding at camps or climbing routes, providing for opportunities for solitude and a quality backcountry experience, and protecting natural resources so that all visitors – including future generations – can enjoy them. Permits also serve an important safety function in the event of an emergency or wildfire, and allow park managers to gather data important for planning and decision making.”
Special Accommodations for PNT thru-hikers
To assist thru-hikers who are traveling on foot, and can not easily visit permit-issuing ranger stations, North Cascades National Park grants a special exception to allow PNT thru-hikers to make walk-in reservations by phone.
To apply for a permit, PNT thru-hikers may call the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount at: 360-854-7245. The PNTA asks that you always show respect for park staff and this special courtesy by calling no later than one hour before closing. Keep in mind that ranger stations can be extremely busy during peak season. Before calling, have an itinerary ready and other resources on hand to help plan your trip, like a backcountry trip planning map that shows backcountry campsites. Be aware that your first choice may already be reserved. Be prepared with a back-up itinerary with alternate sites and dates, just in case.
It is recommended that westbound thru-hikers call the WIC from Oroville, Washington and eastbound hikers call from the Puget Sound area to ensure reliable cell service.
Thru-hikers who make advance reservations online must call the WIC to activate their permit by 11am the first day of the reserved itinerary, or the sites will be released to others. If thru-hikers will arrive in North Cascades National Park a little off schedule, park rangers at the WIC can assist them in making the necessary changes to their permit.
Olympic National Park
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Olympic National Park has also made several changes to the Wilderness Camping Permits system for the 2021 season.
Olympic National Park will not offer walk-up permits in 2021. Their reservation system will be 100% online. Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance.
All WIC locations are closed to the public, but WIC staff will be available to answer telephone calls and assist with permit questions/issues. The WIC will also provide bear canister rentals this season.
Accommodations for PNT thru-hikers
WIC staff will be available to answer telephone calls and assist thru-hikers with permit issues. Westbound thru-hikers that expect to arrive in the park a little off of the schedule specified on their advance permit can get assistance by calling the WIC at (360) 565-3100.
PNT hikers should note that there is a 16 miles-per-day limit on advance reservation applications. Higher mileage permits may be granted by calling WIC staff.
The PNTA asks that you always show respect for park staff and this special courtesy by calling no later than one hour before closing. Keep in mind that ranger stations can be extremely busy during peak season. Before calling, have an itinerary ready and other resources on hand to help plan your trip, like a backcountry trip planning map that shows backcountry campsites. Be aware that your first choice may already be reserved. Be prepared with a back-up itinerary with alternate sites and dates, just in case.
Directions and Transportation
Visiting the PNT on the Olympic Peninsula can involve traveling great distances to remote trailheads. For those traveling without personal transportation, it can be challenging to get around. You can learn more about the public transit and private shuttle services available on the Olympic Peninsula on our blog.
Temporary Trail and Area Closures
Visitors should be aware that two areas in Olympic National Park along the Pacific Northwest Trail are currently closed to the general public.
The coastal area of Olympic National Park at La Push (Second Beach and Third Beach) and Shi Shi Beach remain closed until further notice. These area closures include the parking lots, trails, and beaches. PNT hikers can bypass these closures by following along La Push and Mora Roads (Stage 49A).
Know Before You Go
PNT hikers should arrive prepared to follow park rules for food storage. Some areas along the Pacific Northwest Trail in Olympic National Park require a hard-sided bear canister. This season, bear canisters can be rented from the WIC in Port Angeles and from private businesses in Forks, Washington.
Visitors to the Wilderness Coast section of the PNT may also need to be prepared for the hazards of coastal travel and to plan their trip around the tides.
In Section 10, the PNT crosses 15 headlands that require low tides for passage. Other headlands along the coast can never be rounded safely. In these situations, the PNT leaves the beach and climbs steep trails over land. Careful planning is needed to take advantage of the low tide and to safely traverse the PNT along the Pacific Coast.