The Ultimate USA Hiking Bucket List (and How to Score Permits in 2021)

Jenna Becker

Jenna Becker

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The United States is often revered as one of the premier hiking destinations in the world, specifically the American West and Southwest. For decades, eager hikers have laced up their boots and hit the trails in search of unparalleled beauty, self-discovery or the challenge of pushing oneself — more often than not each hiker is in search of all three.

Before going on this long-awaited adventure, hikers must begin the long and often grueling permit application process. Not for the faint of heart, we’ve combed the internet in an attempt to make the process simpler. Without further ado, here is our complete USA hiking bucket list, with useful dates and tips for securing permits for each. 

ULTIMATE USA HIKING BUCKET LIST

Hiker on Mount Whitney Trail - USA Hiking Bucket List

Click on a link below to skip directly to a specific trail

USA Hiking Bucket List - View from Trail Crest on Mount Whitney Trail

1. MOUNT 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 and does not require any technical mountaineering experience so long as it is not covered in snow and ice (which is often the case until early July). Be sure to check weather conditions and arrive prepared.

MOUNT WHITNEY PERMIT SEASON

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 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 1st of November each year, quotas are strictly enforced and hikers and backpackers are strongly encouraged to apply for permits via the annual lottery.

2021 MT WHITNEY LOTTERY DATES

The online lottery is open for permit applications between the 1st of February and 15th of March each year. Successful applicants are notified on the 24th of March and then have until the 30th of April to confirm their reservation and pay the required fee. Any unconfirmed reservations are released online at 7:00 AM PST on the 1st of May, and tend to disappear quickly. Following the 1st of May, your best bet is to check online regularly for cancellations.

MOUNT 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.

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.

MOUNT 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

A Mount Whitney summit attempt makes for an epic addition to a California National Parks Road Trip. If you don’t have time for a multi-week adventure, tack on a few days in Mammoth, Death Valley or Yosemite.

USA Hiking Bucket List - Indian Garden Campground, Grand Canyon Rim to Rim Hike

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 the vast majority of hikers do), a backcountry permit is required.

GRAND CANYON RIM-TO-RIM PERMIT SEASON

Backcountry permits are required year-round for all camping that takes place below the rim, i.e. all campgrounds that fall along the North Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails, which comprise the most popular rim-to-rim route. However, the North Rim is closed to all vehicles between the 1st of December and 15th of May, 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 one 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.

2021 GRAND CANYON RIM-TO-RIM PERMIT DATES

For the best chance of obtaining a Grand Canyon Backcountry Permit, all requests should be submitted 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 the 1st of January (visit the National Park Service website for a full breakdown of when to apply). Permit applications typically require at least three weeks for processing. Should any spots remain following the earliest consideration period, requests will be accepted as late as two weeks prior to a start date and a limited number of walk-up permits may be available the day prior to your hike.

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 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 RIM-TO-RIM PERMIT FEE

$10 per permit + $8 per person per night camped

HOW TO APPLY FOR A GRAND CANYON PERMIT

Complete a Grand Canyon Backcountry Permit Request Form and submit via Fax, Mail or Walk-in. Find more information here.

EXTEND THE ADVENTURE

The Grand Canyon is an essential stop on a Southwest National Parks Road Trip Itinerary. Don’t forget other must-sees in the area such as Sedona, Page and Zion.

USA Hiking Bucket List - John Muir Trail

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 anything from 10 to 30 days to complete. 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.

JMT PERMIT SEASON

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. It is possible that June and October will also be mostly free of snow, 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 and October through June are less competitive, late Fall to early Spring attempts fall within mountaineering season and the trail 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.

2021 JMT PERMIT DATES

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), you’ll be applying for a Yosemite Wilderness Permit. You can apply via the lottery system 24 weeks (i.e. 160 – 170 days) in advance of your start date. Use this table to help determine your necessary application date.

For those planning to depart from the Southern Terminus near Mt Whitney (either 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 15th each year, and an Inyo National Forest Wilderness permit (there is no lottery for this option) up to six months in advance of your intended start date.

JOHN MUIR TRAIL LOTTERY ODDS

Regardless of 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.

JMT PERMIT COST

For SOBO backpackers departing from Yosemite on a Yosemite Wilderness Permit, successful applicants are required to pay a $5 recreation fee per person and a $5 transaction fee. Fees must be paid within 14 days or your reservation will be cancelled. 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 along with a $15 recreation fee per person.

HOW TO APPLY FOR JMT PERMITS

To apply for SOBO permits departing from Yosemite, visit Yosemite Conservancy’s JMT Rolling Lottery Application 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 at the end. For NOBO hikers, do the opposite! Mammoth Lakes is a great place to acclimate in preparation for your start date.

USA Hiking Bucket List - Havasu Falls Hike

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.

HAVASU FALLS RESERVATION SEASON

Havasupai Campground reservations are generally available between February / March and November each year. 2021 dates have not yet been released due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Havasupai Lodge reservation dates have also not been announced for 2021 and differ from year to year. Keep in mind that summers can be brutally hot (often exceeding 100 ºF / 38 ºC) and winters can be chilly, which may not be ideal for swimming. Monsoon season falls between July and August, which can lead to flooding and possible need for evacuation.

2021 HAVASU FALLS RESERVATION DATES

Dates for making a Havasupai Campground reservation have not been announced for 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing tourism suspension in the region. In 2020, online reservations opened at 8am on the 1st of February and all availability for the year 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 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Typically, lodge reservations open in June the year prior to an intended stay. For instance, for planned 2020 stays, lodge reservations opened at 8am on the 1st of June 2019. Although rates are extremely steep, securing a booking is no easy feat and reservations are exceptionally competitive.

HAVASU FALLS RESERVATION COST

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 4 days and 3 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.

Havasupai Lodge reservations also require a 4 day / 3 night stay. 2021 rates have been set at $660 per room per night with each room allowing for a maximum of 4 occupants. So, a lodge reservation currently costs $1,980 per room hosting 1 to 4 people. Rates include all permits, fees and taxes and are paid up-front and non-refundable.

HOW TO MAKE A HAVASU FALLS RESERVATION

All Havasupai Campground reservations must be made online after creating an online account. In the past, all Havasupai Lodge reservations were made telephonically. However, with effect from 2021 all lodge reservations will be made online after creating an online account. Any lodge-related questions may be directed to support@havasupailodge.com.

HOW TO GET TO HAVASU FALLS WITHOUT HIKING

It is possible to reach Havasupai Lodge without hiking via helicopter, though 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 of the week so advance 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. Still, there is much debate around the ethics of making use of horses and mules in the Grand Canyon due to reports of their sub-standard treatment. Do your own research and proceed with caution.

EXTEND THE ADVENTURE

Grand Canyon National Park is a necessary addition to any Havasu Falls adventure.

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)

5. PACIFIC CREST TRAIL (PCT)

Stretching 2,650 miles from the Mexican border to Canada and passing through 25 national forests and 7 national parks, the PCT soared in popularity following the release of Cheryl Strayed’s blockbuster book-turned-film Wild. Hiking the full PCT 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 in required. For hikes less than 500 miles, permits must be obtained via each local agency you will be hiking through.

PCT PERMIT SEASON

Permits are required year-round if planning to hike more than 500 continuous miles of the PCT. However, unless you’re a backcountry skier or have significant winter backcountry experience, it is strongly recommended that you hike during 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, with the aim of only reaching the Sierra Nevada mountains (miles 700 – 1150) in July.

2021 PCT PERMIT DATES AND QUOTAS

In early January, the USDA Forest Service and Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) announced that they will be issuing long-distance PCT trail permits in 2021 despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Online permit applications will open January 19th, 2021 at 10:30am PST. Still, it is requested that permit-holders adhere to all local, state and federal safety guidelines and stay-at-home orders. Regulations can change at any time and may require backpackers to abandon their trip prematurely.

Northbound permits for trips starting between the Mexican border and Sonora Pass will be issued at 50 permits per day for peak season dates falling between March 1st and May 31st. Southbound permits starting from the Canadian border will be issued at 15 permits per day for peak season dates falling between June 15th and September 15th. While it may be tempting to apply for an available permit falling outside of these dates, note that 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.

PCT PERMIT 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.

HOW TO APPLY FOR PCT PERMITS

You can apply for your PCT permit here on January 19th, 2021 at 10:30am PST. 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.

The Appalachian Trail

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 complete 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.

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 generally between early March and mid-April, with the aim of finishing 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.

2021 APPALACHIAN TRAIL PERMITS

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.

APPALACHIAN TRAIL COST

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.

USA Hiking Bucket List - Half Dome Trail in Yosemite

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.

HALF DOME PERMIT SEASON

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 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.

2021 HALF DOME PERMIT DATES AND QUOTAS

The Half Dome cable pre-season lottery falls between the 1st and 31st of March. 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 are released on the 12th of April. Successful applicants have until April 23rd to confirm and pay for their permits. During pre-season, 225 permits are available each day and each application can include up to six people.

For those that miss the pre-season lottery, a daily lottery is also available between May 26th and October 10th (weather conditions permitting). Applicants can apply for a permit via the daily lottery two days in advance of their desired date anytime between midnight and 1pm PST. Applicants will be notified if they were successful later the same day. Multiple applications by the same person are not allowed. At least 50 permits are available via the daily lottery each day and each application 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 here.

HALF DOME LOTTERY ODDS

In 2020, 28% of pre-season lottery applicants were successful in securing permits and 23% of daily lottery applicants were successful. However, in typical (non-pandemic) years, only about 7% of daily lottery applicants are successful.

HALF DOME PERMIT 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 April 23rd. For the daily lottery, the $10 recreation fee is automatically deducted using the credit card provided at the time of application.

HOW TO APPLY FOR HALF DOME PERMITS

Apply and pay online at Recreation.gov.

The Wave in Coyotes Buttes North, Arizona.

8. THE WAVE

Located in Coyotes Buttes North (a section of Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness), The Wave lies on the Utah-Arizona border and 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 that includes 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 rated as moderately difficult.

PERMIT SEASON FOR THE WAVE

Permits are required year-round for The Wave. All issued permits are day-use only and no overnight camping is allowed. In terms of 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.

2021 DATES AND QUOTAS FOR THE WAVE

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 each day via the online lottery and an additional 16 permits and / or 4 groups (whichever comes first) are available via a walk-in lottery. Each application can include a maximum of six people.

To apply in advance via the online lottery, applicants can submit their application at any point during the calendar month falling four months prior to 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 1st of the following month (so in the example above, results would be released on February 1st) at which point payment is due.

To apply via the walk-in lottery, visit the Kanab Center (located at 180 E 100 N, Kanab, Utah) the day prior to your intended hike. Applications are accepted at 8:30am and the lottery runs at 9:00am. Between mid-March and mid-November, the walk-in lottery runs seven days per week. Between mid-November and mid-March, the lottery runs Monday through Friday, aside from major Public Holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.

PERMIT COSTS FOR THE WAVE

For those applying via the online lottery, there’s a $9 non-refundable fee associated with each application. For successful applicants, a $7 fee per person (or dog) is also payable. There is no application fee for the walk-in lottery. However, the $7 recreation fee still applies to successful applicants. All fees paid are non-refundable and non-transferrable.

THE WAVE LOTTERY ODDS

In 2019, only 3.5% of applicants were successful in securing permits.

HOW TO APPLY FOR PERMITS TO THE WAVE

For the online lottery, apply and pay online at Recreation.gov. For the walk-in lottery, apply at 8:30am the day before your intended hike date at the Kanab Center (located at 180 E 100 N, Kanab, Utah).

EXTEND THE ADVENTURE

The Wave is an epic and easy addition to a Southwest National Parks Road Trip.

Teton Crest Trail - One for the USA Hiking Bucket List

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. On our list of future additions include The Narrows in Zion National Park, Teton Crest Trail in Wyoming, The Enchantments in Washington and the Kalalau Trail in Hawaii. Any others we missed? Shoot us a mail with your recommendations!

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