Backcountry Permits Demystified: What You Need to Know About Trip Planning In GCNP

So you’re thinking you finally ought to start planning that backpacking trip in Grand Canyon National Park you’ve always dreamed about.  You’ve started your research, studied the maps, refreshed your geologic history of the southwest, and begun coveting the latest in outdoor gear and fashion including that new pair of boots you should’ve bought many hikes ago.  You’ve found flights and a place to land with a hot shower after you emerge from the backcountry.  Now all you need is that permit…What wait?  A permit?  You need a special permit to go walk around and camp on public land (your land?) for a few days?


The bad news is that the backcountry permitting process at Grand Canyon perhaps like many government processes, can at first seem overly bureaucratic and cumbersome if not downright confusing–and yes, you really do need one.  And, they can be hard to get.  The good news is that in reality, it’s not that complicated if you plan ahead; and there are ways that you can increase your odds of having your permit request granted.  So, if you’re thinking of joining us for a backpacking adventure, this post explains the permitting process and how we can best help plan your trip!

Why is it so complicated?

In 2016 Grand Canyon National Park received over 6 million visitors for the year.  With that many people visiting the park, the Backcountry Information Center receives up to 800 permit requests daily for overnight backcountry use.  The canyon is huge, but that is a lot of people who want in.  In order to adequately preserve the parks resources and ensure a quality experience for all visitors, some regulation is necessary.  The National Parks Service limits the number of people that can camp at a given location on any given night to avoid unnecessary impact and overcrowding.  In the end, that’s a good thing–who wants to hike over 4000′ down into this wild landscape to show up at a camp feeling like you’re in Disneyland?

CUA’s and VCL’s for NPS at GCNP

Say what? It’s no hidden secret that the parks service loves their acronyms, but these ones really only apply to guide services and outfitters.  Just to be clear, anyone can apply for a permit to camp in the backcountry at the national park; and Rubicon Outdoors or other commercial outfitters don’t get any preferential treatment for getting requests approved.  We have to apply for your permit via the same system that everyone else does.  The advantage for you is that we do the leg work of the application on your behalf, and we can help you design a trip we think is more likely to be granted.  In order to apply for a permit for your group and take you into the canyon, the National Parks Service requires us to have a Commercial Use Authorization.  That’s just their way of keeping tabs on who’s operating in the park; and it lets you know that our quality of service and credentials have been reviewed and approved.  Each authorized company is required to submit a Verified Client List with each application, naming the specific clients that have directed us to apply for a permit on their behalf.  This prevents guide companies from applying for multiple permits ahead of time and saving spots for hikers in the future that may not actually show up in the park.  This is a good thing too–it keeps public access fair and equitable without giving the advantage to commercial outfitters.  But, that means we do need to plan trips well in advance in order to ensure adequate time to apply for these permits.

So How Does it Work?

For the last ten days of every month, the good folks at the Backcountry Information Center who are in charge of permitting begin compiling a list of applications for start dates 4 to 5 months away.   At the end of the first day of every month, they take that list, scramble it into random order, and issue permits until the cap for each area is reached.  After the first, if there are any available spots left they’re issued on a first-come, first-served basis.  So, for example if you wanted to go on a trip any time in the month of April the best time to submit a permit request is during the 10 days leading up to January 1st.  Later than the first and we’re just picking up scraps.  Then, it usually takes anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks to get confirmation.

Better Odds than Vegas

In the eight years I’ve lived in Arizona, never have I made the four-hour drive to Las Vegas, nor been interested enough to find out how to better your odds on the strip for that matter–though I hear that playing the slots has by far the worst odds compared to…well, nevermind.

What we have figured out is how to increase the likelihood of being granted one of these coveted permits for Grand Canyon.  On top of submitting requests early, there are a few things that can help:  Since caps are filled by use area, applying for itineraries in some of the lesser-traveled parts of the canyon means that there are likely fewer people competing for those spots.  For example, hiking rim to rim has become super popular (for good reason) but because of this, the chances of getting a trip approved are slim to none.  Tell you the truth, the entire canyon is pretty dang awesome and worth seeing.  It’s just that most people have only heard of a few major trails in the park.  And, “rim to rim” has this really nice alluring-yet-hard-core ring to it.

Same goes for avoiding the most popular seasons for backpacking here.  There are often many more dates available from late fall to early spring compared to the peak spring-summer season.  Another factor is group size.  The park puts hiking groups in two categories–6 or less and 7-11.  Since there are fewer large group sites available in each camp area, keeping your group small (6 or less with guides) increases the chance of there being space for your group.  Having a flexible itinerary can also be a big factor.  You can submit as many alternate itineraries as you want–the less attached you are to particular campsites and dates (within a few days) the more likely something will be available for your trip.

Timing is Everything

Still ready to plan that trip?  Good.  Start by giving us a call and we’ll help you find the best route and itinerary that’s right for you and your group.  Pick some dates and pick some friends.  Then we can apply for permits on your behalf (remember 5 months beforehand).  In a few weeks, once we’ve heard back we can help you make travel arrangements and find accommodations for you in the park.  Think it’s too early to start planning a trip for Fall 2017?  Think again.  Permit applications for September 2017 will be processed on (yep, you got it) May 1st–meaning we can submit requests starting on April 21.  That’s only 2 months from now!

And for crying out loud get those boots already–you’ll be happy they’re broken in next fall when you start your adventure into the depths of  Grand Canyon!






What's New


Behind the Scenes: Grand Canyon Backpacking

Ever wonder exactly what goes into planning and preparing for a Grand Canyon backpacking trip?  Even if you've been backpacking before, putting together a trip on your own can cer

Northern Arizona Highlights is a guided hiking tour that includes Grand Canyon and Sedona.  

Guided Northern Arizona Highlights

After arriving in Phoenix, an easy 2 hour drive delivers you to Prescott and your comfortable downtown hotel.  Your guided hiking tour starts here. Once the capital of Arizona, Pr


The Micro-Climates of Grand Canyon

When I first decided to move to northern Arizona in 2009, I had absolutely no intention of staying any longer than it would take me to finish the remaining two years of undergradua