The United States is one of the best hiking destinations in the world, claiming iconic trails such as Half Dome, Mt Whitney, the Grand Canyon, and the PCT (to name just a few!). Given the sheer popularity of many bucket list hikes in the USA, the National Park Service has made permits a requirement for certain trails to reduce crowding and protect natural resources.
Navigating these permit systems is not for the faint of heart, and we’ve combed the internet to simplify the process. Here is our complete USA hiking bucket list, with useful dates and tips for securing permits. Grab your camping must-haves and hit the trail!
2023 USA hiking bucket list
1. Mt Whitney Trail
Famous for its distinction as the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney is located in California and stands at a colossal 14,505 feet tall. An absolutely beautiful yet grueling 22.5-mile out-and-back trail with a 6,656-foot elevation gain, the Mt Whitney Trail is well maintained. It does not require any technical experience so long as it is not covered in snow and ice (often the case until early July). Be sure to check weather conditions and arrive prepared.
Do you need a permit to hike mt whitney?
A Wilderness Permit is required year-round for all day hiking and overnight backpacking taking place in the Mt Whitney Zone. However, between the 2nd of November and the 30th of April each year, no quota is enforced, and hikers can collect their permits directly from the visitor center. Be forewarned that Eastern Sierra winters are treacherous and should not be attempted unless highly experienced. Alternatively, between the 1st of May and the 1st of November, quotas are strictly enforced, and hikers and backpackers are strongly encouraged to apply for permits via the annual lottery.
When is the Mt Whitney Lottery in 2023?
The online lottery is open for permit applications between the 1st of February and the 1st of March 2023. Successful applicants will be notified on the 15th of March and have until the 21st of April to confirm their reservation and pay the required fee. Any unconfirmed reservations will be released online at 7:00 AM PST on the 22nd of April and tend to disappear quickly. Following the 22nd of April, your best bet is to check online regularly for cancellations.
Mt Whitney Permit Types
During quota season, 100 permits are issued per day for Mt Whitney Zone day hikers, and an additional 60 permits are issued per day for Mt Whitney Zone overnight backpackers. Overnight permits can extend more than one night.
What are the Mt Whitney Lottery Odds?
Mt Whitney permits during quota season are competitive. Only 34% of group leaders were awarded the date of their choice in 2019.
Mt Whitney Permit Fee
$6 transaction fee + $15 recreation fee per person
How to Apply for a Mt Whitney Permit
Apply and pay online at Recreation.gov.
Extend the Adventure
2. Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim Hike
Among one of the seven natural wonders of the world, completing the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hike is a top bucket list item for hiking and backpacking enthusiasts spanning the globe. An incredible 21.6-mile point-to-point trail with a 5,298-foot change in elevation, the linking North Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails are well maintained and broken up by three campgrounds that are equipped with water faucets, compost toilets, and emergency phones (Cottonwood, Bright Angel, and Indian Garden campgrounds). If planning to complete the trail over multiple days (as most hikers do), a backcountry permit is required.
Best Time to Do Grand Canyon Rim to Rim
Backcountry permits are required year-round for camping that takes place below the rim. However, the North Rim is closed to all vehicles between December 1st and May 15th, so keep in mind that a rim-to-rim trip may need to be extended into an out-and-back rim-to-rim-to-rim adventure during this period. For those planning to tackle the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hike in just a day, permits are not required. Just beware that during summer, temperatures at the bottom of the canyon typically exceed 100 ºF (38 ºC) and can prove lethal to those forced to hike in the heat of the day.
2023 Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim Permit Dates
For the best chance of obtaining a Grand Canyon Backcountry Permit, all requests should be received by fax, mail, or walk-in no later than 5 PM MST on the 1st of the month, four months prior to the proposed start date. For instance, if hoping to secure a start date falling in May, applications should be submitted no later than January 1st (visit the NPS website for a full breakdown of when to apply). Permit applications require up to three weeks for processing. Should any spots remain following the earliest consideration period, requests will be accepted as late as two weeks before a start date, and a limited number of walk-up permits may be available the day before your hike.
What are the Grand Canyon Lottery Odds?
Grand Canyon backcountry permits are fairly competitive during high season – which runs from April to early June and September to October due to favorable weather conditions. Roughly 45% of applicants were successful in 2019. Alternatively, during the low season – which runs from July to August (due to extreme heat) and December to February (due to snowfall), nearly all applicants were successful in securing permits.
Grand Canyon Backcountry Permit Fee
$10 per permit + $12 per person per night camped
How to Apply for a Grand Canyon Permit
Extend the Adventure
3. John Muir Trail
The 200+ mile John Muir Trail (JMT) weaves its way through California’s Sierra Nevada and includes iconic destinations such as Yosemite, Sequoia, and Mount Whitney. Most of the JMT falls within High Sierra backcountry and wilderness areas, following the same footpath as the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for almost 160 miles. Named after the famous naturalist, there are far more hikers interested in this trail than the area can handle.
Depending on your pace, the full JMT can take 10 to 30 days. Hikers can start at the Northern Terminus heading Southbound (starting in Yosemite and ending at Mt Whitney) or the Southern Terminus heading Northbound (starting at Mt Whitney and ending in Yosemite). The permit system differs depending on which direction and trailhead you choose. Regardless of your starting point, completing the JMT is on virtually every backpacker’s bucket list, and it’s an experience that will stay with you forever.
When to Hike the John Muir Trail
For most backpackers, the best time to hike the John Muir Trail falls between July and September due to snowfall during other parts of the year. June and October may also be mostly snow-free, but it all depends on the snowfall in California during a given year (which varies widely). While a permit is required year-round to hike the JMT, permits for late fall, winter, and early spring dates are less competitive but fall in mountaineering season and should not be attempted unless extensive winter backcountry experience has been acquired. Many of the typical re-supply points are also closed during winter, creating an added logistical challenge.
When to Apply for JMT Permits
Application dates for JMT permits vary depending on whether you’re planning to start at the Northern Terminus (also known as SOBO – or Southbound) or the Southern Terminus (also known as NOBO – or Northbound).
For those hoping to depart from the Northern Terminus in Yosemite (the more popular option), a Yosemite Wilderness Permit is necessary. You can apply via the lottery system up to 24 weeks in advance of your start date. Use this table to help determine your necessary application date. In 2022, some permits were also set aside for release on a first-come, first-served basis seven days in advance of your start date. It’s unclear whether this will remain the case in 2023.
For those planning to depart from the Southern Terminus near Mt Whitney (via Whitney Portal or Horseshoe Meadows), you’ll either be applying for a Mt Whitney permit (if starting from Whitney Portal) or an Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permit (if starting from Horseshoe Meadows). You can apply for the Mt Whitney lottery between February 1st and March 1st in 2023 and the Inyo National Forest lottery up to six months in advance of your intended start date. Some Inyo National Forest permits are also available online on a first-come, first-served basis two weeks before your start date.
What are the JMT Lottery Odds?
Whether you plan to start your hike from a Northern or Southern Terminus, JMT lottery applications are extremely competitive. Approximately 97% of applicants are unsuccessful. Your odds increase if you’re flexible on your start date and/or if you apply via both the NOBO and SOBO permit systems in the hopes that one of the two is successful.
2023 JMT Permit Cost
For SOBO backpackers departing from Yosemite on a Yosemite Wilderness Permit, successful applicants are required to pay a $10 lottery fee and an additional $5 per person if successful. Reservations must be confirmed within the same week you receive your successful outcome notification by no later than Thursday at 11:59 p.m.
For NOBO backpackers departing from Horseshoe Meadows on an Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permit, permits require a $5 fee per person and a $6 transaction fee. For NOBO backpackers departing from Whitney Portal on a Mt Whitney Permit, you’ll pay a $6 transaction fee and a $15 recreation fee per person.
How to Get John Muir Trail Permits in 2023
To apply for SOBO permits departing from Yosemite, visit the Yosemite National Park Wilderness Permits page. For NOBO permits departing from Whitney Portal, visit the Mt Whitney permit page. To apply for NOBO permits departing from Horseshoe Meadows, visit the Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permit page.
Extend the Adventure
For SOBO hikers, tack a few days in Yosemite National Park onto the beginning of your trip, and decompress in Mammoth Lakes or Sequoia at the end. For NOBO hikers, do the opposite! Mammoth Lakes is a great place to acclimate in preparation for your start date.
4. Havasu Falls Hike
Located in the Grand Canyon (but outside the national park), Havasu Falls (or Havasupai Falls) lie within the Havasupai Reservation and are managed directly by the Havasupai Tribe. Renowned for their magnificent turquoise color, the falls require a 10-mile hike into the canyon (20 miles out and back) that comes with a 2,155-foot change in elevation. While a Havasu Falls permit is not required to complete the trek, a lodge or campsite reservation is, and they are extremely difficult to secure. Day hikes are not permitted, so all visitors should plan for a multi-day adventure.
Will Havasu Falls Open in 2023?
Yes! The Havasupai Tribal Council has confirmed that they will welcome visitors back to their lands in 2023 for the first time since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
When Do Havasu Falls Permits Go On Sale?
Reservations will open on February 1, 2023, for existing permit holders. No new permits will be issued in 2023, and the only way to secure a new reservation is to purchase one from the official transfer list.
Campground reservation dates have not yet been announced for 2024 but typically open annually on February 1st. In 2020, online reservations opened at 8 am on February 1st, and all availability was fully booked within hours. It is strongly recommended that you create an online account before bookings open for any chance of securing a spot.
Havasupai Lodge reservation dates have also not been released for 2024. Typically, lodge reservations open in June the year prior to an intended stay. For instance, for planned 2020 stays, lodge reservations opened at 8 am on June 1st, 2019. Although rates are extremely steep, securing a booking is no easy feat, and reservations are exceptionally competitive.
How Much Does It Cost to Visit Havasu Falls?
There is no budget way to visit Havasu Falls, and rates seem to increase year-on-year. Also, keep in mind that with effect from 2019, camping reservations must be made for four days and three nights, so hikers must be prepared to pay for a 3-night stay. In 2019, rates were $100 per person per weekday night and $125 per person per weekend night. So in 2019, a camping reservation cost between $300 and $375 per person. Rates have not yet been released for 2023 or 2024.
Havasupai Lodge reservations also require a 4-day / 3-night stay. In 2020, rates were $175 per room per night, with each room allowing for a maximum of four occupants. So, a lodge reservation cost $525 per room hosting 1 to 4 people. However, 2023/2024 rates have not been confirmed. An additional entrance fee of $90 per person is charged on arrival.
How to Make a Havasu Falls Reservation
All Havasupai reservations must be made online after creating an online account. In the past, all Havasupai Lodge reservations were made telephonically, but this is no longer the case. Any lodge-related queries may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can You Helicopter to Havasu Falls?
It is possible to reach Havasupai Lodge without hiking via helicopter. However, if you have a camping reservation, you will still need to hike the two miles from the lodge to Havasupai Campground. Helicopters only operate during certain parts of the year and fly on certain days, so planning is required. However, it is not possible to book the actual helicopter journey in advance, and all flights are handled on a first-come-first-served basis. Flights are operated by Airwest Helicopters and depart near the trailhead. A one-way flight currently costs $85 per person.
It is also possible to ride a horse to the falls or book a pack mule to carry your gear (i.e., backpack) if you’re looking to lighten your load. However, there is much debate around the ethics of using horses and mules in the Grand Canyon due to reports of sub-standard treatment. Do your own research and proceed with caution.
Extend the Adventure
5. Pacific crest trail (PCT)
Stretching 2,650 miles from the Mexican border to Canada and passing through 25 national forests and seven national parks, the PCT soared in popularity following the release of Cheryl Strayed’s blockbuster book-turned-film Wild. Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail takes roughly five months (for the moderately fit hiker), and many opt to complete just a section of the trail due to time constraints. If hiking more than 500 miles of the trail in a single trip, a PCT Long Distance Permit is required. For hikes less than 500 miles, permits must be obtained via each local agency you will be hiking through.
When is the Best Time to Hike the PCT?
Permits are required year-round if planning to hike more than 500 continuous miles of the PCT. Unless you’re a backcountry skier or have significant winter backcountry experience, it is strongly recommended that you confine your hike to the warmer, snow-free months – which generally fall between July and early October. Still, if completing the full PCT and starting from the Mexican border, it’s also important to start your hike before the desert becomes scorching hot. For northbound hikers aiming to backpack the full 2,650-mile trail, it’s generally best to start your journey in mid-April or early May to only reach the Sierra Nevada mountains (miles 700 – 1150) in July.
How Many PCT Permits Are Issued Each Year?
In 2023, Northbound permits for PCT trips starting south of Sonora Pass will be issued at 50 permits per day for start dates falling between March 1st and May 31st. Southbound permits starting at or near the Canadian border will be issued at 15 per day for start dates falling between June 15th and July 31st. 1,400 permits will also be issued for section hikers overlapping the John Muir Trail, and 600 permits will be issued for those starting in the Southern Sierra.
While it may be tempting to apply for an available PCT permit falling outside these dates, doing so may prove dangerous for the average hiker. Both summer heat in the desert and snow season in the Sierras can quickly turn lethal.
The USDA Forest Service and Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) announced that the 2023 permit season would open on November 15th, 2022, for all hikes starting near the Mexican border. All other itineraries will open on January 10th, 2023.
How Much Do PCT Permits Cost?
PCT permits are free of charge. However, a full thru-hike of the PCT typically costs hikers between $4,000 and $8,000 in supplies, food, stopovers, etc.
When Do PCT Permits Open in 2023?
Northbound hikers starting south of Sonora Pass can apply for permits on November 15th, 2022, at 10:30 am PST, when 35 permits per day will become available. If you’ve missed this date, you can apply on January 10th, 2023, at 10:30 am PST, when the remaining 15 permits per day will be issued. For Southbound PCT thru and section hikers, permit applications will open on January 10th, 2023, at 10:30 am PST.
You can apply for your PCT permit here. The permit application system makes use of an online queue. When you arrive any time before 10:30am, you will be assigned a random place in line. Arriving early does not improve your odds, but those arriving late (after 10:30am) will be placed at the back of the queue.
6. Appalachian Trail
Crossing through 14 states and extending 2,193 miles between Georgia and Maine, the Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking-only trail in the world. For thru-hikers planning to tackle the trail from start to finish, doing so typically takes five to seven months, and only one in four successfully completes the endeavor. Still, for those starting to grow weary of the phrase “permits are highly competitive,” the Appalachian Trail is a fantastic option, as a permit is not required. However, some campsites along the route charge a fee, and certain national and state parks require a permit upon entry.
When Is The Best Time to Hike the Appalachian Trail?
Most thru-hikers opt to complete the Appalachian Trail from south to north, starting in Georgia. For northbound hikers, the best time to start is between early March and mid-April, intending to finish the trail before mid-October. For southbound hikers starting in Maine, the best time to start falls between early June and mid-July, with the aim of completing the trail by September or October.
Do You Need a Permit to Hike the Appalachian Trail?
No permits are required for thru-hikers aiming to complete the Appalachian Trail. However, certain national and state parks along the route require permits or camping fees. For a full breakdown of permits and fees along the trail, visit the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website. Thru-hikers are also encouraged to register their hike here.
How Much Does It Cost to Hike the Appalachian Trail?
A full thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail typically costs hikers between $3,000 and $6,000 (excluding gear) over the course of their 5 to 7-month trek.
Extend the Adventure
After conquering the highest elevation point along the Appalachian Trail (Clingmans Dome), spend a few nights off trail in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg, TN, two outdoor towns known as gateways to the Great Smoky Mountains.
7. Half Dome Trail
Looming 4,737 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor, Half Dome is one of the most iconic landmarks in the world. A stunning yet taxing 14 to 16-mile out-and-back trail with a 4,800-foot elevation gain, most hikers opt to approach Half Dome via the Mist Trail (with the alternate option being the John Muir Trail). During cable season, permits are required to proceed beyond the dome’s base. The approach to the summit is not for the faint of heart, and it is not uncommon to hear of hikers falling to their death. Between 2005 and 2015, 12 deaths and 140 search-and-rescue operations were reported. Still, for those who persist, the views from the top are nothing short of spectacular.
2023 Half Dome Permit Dates and Quotas
When the cables are up, a permit is required to hike beyond the base of Half Dome. Typically, cables go up towards the end of May (usually the Monday before Memorial Day) and are taken down in mid-October, subject to weather conditions. During the rest of the year, permits are not required, but scaling Half Dome without cables is only for those with extensive rock climbing experience and should not be attempted by the average hiker.
225 permits are available daily for those intending to use the cables during cable season.
How Can I Get a Half Dome Permit in 2023?
The Half Dome cable pre-season lottery falls between March 1st and 31st. Applicants can apply for the lottery at any point during this period (i.e., there’s no advantage to applying earlier versus later), and results will be released by mid-April. Successful applicants have until May 8th, 2023, to confirm and pay for their permits. Each application can include up to six people.
For those that miss the pre-season lottery, a daily lottery is also available between May 24th and October 8th (weather conditions permitting). Applicants can apply for a permit via the daily lottery two days before their desired date, anytime between midnight and 4 pm PST. Applicants will be notified if they were successful later the same day. Multiple applications by the same person are not allowed, but each can include up to six people.
Backpackers who wish to summit Half Dome can apply for a Half Dome permit along with their Wilderness Permit. More information is here.
How Hard Is It To Get Half Dome Permits?
In 2020, 28% of pre-season lottery applicants successfully secured permits, and 23% of daily lottery applicants were successful. However, in typical (non-pandemic) years, only about 7% of daily lottery applicants are successful.
How Much Do Half Dome Permits Cost?
Each lottery application requires a $10 non-refundable fee. For successful applicants, a $10 recreation fee is also charged for each hiker. For the pre-season lottery, the $10 recreation fee is due on or before May 8th. For the daily lottery, the $10 recreation fee is automatically deducted using the credit card provided at the time of application.
Where Can I Get Half Dome Permits in 2023?
Apply and pay online at Recreation.gov.
8. The Wave
Located in Coyotes Buttes North (a section of Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness), The Wave lies on the Utah-Arizona border. It is one of the most photographed natural features in the United States. It’s exceptionally difficult to visit, given the limited number of permits issued per day.
Still, getting a permit is only part of the adventure. The Wave lies in a backcountry wilderness area with no developed trails or facilities en route. Permit holders will be given a route description and photo map with GPS coordinates. Basic navigation skills are recommended, particularly if you’re contending with the extreme heat of summer. The journey is 6.4 miles round-trip and is rated as moderately difficult.
Do You Need a Permit for The Wave?
Permits are required year-round for The Wave. All issued permits are day-use only, and no overnight camping is allowed. Regarding the best time to visit The Wave, summers can be scorching hot, with temperatures often exceeding 100 ºF (38 ºC). Alternatively, during winter, the weather can be unpredictable. Still, permits are so competitive that hikers are generally happy to visit any time of year regardless of conditions.
How Does The Wave Lottery Work?
A maximum of 64 people per day are permitted to visit Coyote Buttes North (the area that includes The Wave), and permits are extremely competitive. 48 permits and/or 12 groups (whichever comes first) are available daily via a seasonal online lottery. An additional 16 permits and/or four groups (whichever comes first) are available via a new mobile-based day-of lottery. Each application can include a maximum of six people.
To apply via the online lottery, applicants can submit their application at any point during the calendar month falling four months before their intended hike date. For instance, those hoping to visit in May should apply via the online lottery any time during January (there’s no advantage to applying earlier in the month versus later). Results are released on the first day of the following month (so in the example above, results would be released on February 1st), at which point payment is due.
To use the new mobile-based lottery (which recently replaced the walk-in lottery that used to take place in Kanab), apply through the recreation.gov app two days before your intended hike date between 6 am and 6 pm Utah time.
To apply, you MUST be within the set geofence, which includes areas such as Page, Vermilion Cliffs, Kanab, Orderville, Glendale, and East Zion (see here for full geofenced region). You will not be able to apply via this method if you are not physically located in one of these areas. Successful applicants will be notified by 7:15 pm Utah time and must collect their permit at 8 am the following day.
The Wave Permit Costs
There’s a $9 non-refundable fee associated with each application. For successful applicants, a $7 fee per person (or dog) is also payable. All fees paid are non-refundable and non-transferable.
How Hard Is It To Get a Permit for The Wave?
In 2019, only 3.5% of applicants were successful in securing permits.
How To Apply For The Wave Lottery
Extend the Adventure
More For the USA Hiking Bucket List
This USA hiking bucket list is a work in progress, and popular US hikes are constantly being added. Our future additions include The Narrows in Zion National Park, Teton Crest Trail in Wyoming, The Enchantments in Washington, the Kalalau Trail in Hawaii, and Angels Landing in Zion National Park (which will require permits from April 2022). Any others we missed? Shoot us a mail with your recommendations!
Up and Away Magazine is reader supported. This means that when you make a booking via one of our affiliate links, we earn a commission at absolutely no additional cost to you. In this way, we are able to bring you content for free. Your continued support is greatly appreciated. Adventure on!