Who needs permits and who can apply
Wilderness Permits are required for all overnight trips (including climbing bivouacs), all through-hikes of the Virgin River Narrows and tributaries, any trip into the Left Fork of North Creek (the Subway), and all canyons normally requiring the use of descending gear or ropes.
The person who obtains the permit must be 18 years of age or older, and must participate in the trip. The person named on the permit is held responsible for the actions of the group and for compliance with permit conditions and wilderness rules and regulations.
Quotas and Group Size Limits
In 2002, the Park instituted Interim Use Limits for all technical canyons, in order to limit use while the backcountry planning process is under way. Limits (quotas) vary from canyon to canyon. It is fair to say that ALL Zion canyons are popular and can be difficult to obtain a permit for during busy times of the year (especially summer and holiday weekends). Make reservations early, obtain your permit as early as possible, and have alternate plans at hand. Fridays and Saturdays are the most popular days.
How to Get a Permit
There are four ways to get a Wilderness Permit in Zion, as explained below. The option(s) you choose will be determined by:
1. Where you want to go. The Use Limit Chart (above) details how many permits can be issued per canyon, per day. Choose a canyon with no limit (i.e. not on the list), and your odds are a lot better than a canyon with a 12-person daily limit.
2. When you want to go there. Weekend are busy, and so are summer months. Summer weekends are REALLY busy. If you want to increase your odds, plan on weekday descents in the shoulder seasons, where we often see nobody in the canyon.
3. How far ahead you plan. With permits, the early bird catches the worm. Know your plan three months ahead of time, and you can score your permit online fairly easily.
4. Your luck. If you enter one of the two lottery options, fate decides your descents. Feeling lucky?
Lottery Permits - A Special Process for The Subway and Mystery Canyon
Because of their huge popularity, a lottery system for permits for the Left Fork of North Creek (The Subway) and Mystery Canyon is in effect. Lottery applications cost $5.00, are non-refundable, and are limited to one request per individual per month. Lottery entrants have the opportunity to request three prioritized trip dates. All other backcountry areas area available by a calendar reservation or walk-in permit request.
Online Wilderness Reservation Systems - Up to 3 months in advance
For each trail or canyon, half the allotted permits are reservable for backpacking, climbing, and canyoneering trips online via the Wilderness Reservation System, up to 3 months ahead of the use date. Read the Park's Backcountry Reservation System page for the latest rules and regs.
Online via Last Minute Drawing - Between 7 to 2 days in advance
The other half of each day's permit allotment are available between 7 to 2 days before the reservation date via the Last Minute Drawing. The drawing happens at 1 PM, two days before their desired date. Any permits remaining after the Last Minute Drawing are available in person via the Wilderness Desk at the Zion Visitors Center.
In Person at the Wilderness Desk
After 1 PM on any day, you may inquire about permit availability for any canyon. For example, if you show up at the Wilderness Desk on Wednesday, you may only secure a permit for Wednesday or Thursday. If you seek a high-demand permit, success is unlikely. MANY times of year, however, I have scored walk-up permits without a problem. Timing and flexibility are everything.
Once You Secure Your Permit Reservation
You're almost legal, but you still must physically obtain your permit IN PERSON at the Zion Canyon Wilderness Desk or the Kolob Visitors Center (435-586-9548). This helps Zion Rangers update you on current weather conditions and possible closures. Know the Wilderness Desk hours and permit prices before you go. Once you have the physical permit, you must carry it with you on your adventure, as Park Rangers may ask to see it at any time.
Polite Note: The Wilderness Desk staff is not responsible for the inconvenient rules and regulations that manage use of the backcountry canyons. Please grant them respect and civility. If you have frustrations to take out, write a letter to the Park Superintendent.