At Mount Rainier National Park, Mother Nature can undo even the best laid plans. Even months before a trip.
An early March storm critically damaged the park’s wilderness permit reservation system, leaving the park unable to process an estimated 2,000 requests for this year, park superintendent Randy King said Wednesday.
Instead, all wilderness permits, including those for the park’s iconic 93-mile Wonderland Trail, will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.
The free walk-up permits can be acquired no earlier than the day before to the start of a trip and must be secured in person at the park.
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The permit submission period opened March 15, but the park was not set to start approving permits until April 1. The $20 reservation fees had not yet been processed before the storm hit, King said. Those who mailed in payment with their requests will have their money returned.
“We’re sorry and we are offering an apology,” King said Wednesday. “But I think this (first-come, first-served permits) will work on some level, and people will still be able to have a good experience.”
Traditionally, about 70 percent of wilderness campsites could be reserved in advance. King said the change in policy for this year might keep out-of-town visitors away, but he said about 90 percent of the requests received were from the Puget Sound area.
(The power outage) corrupted the system in a way that we can’t even repair it, and, frankly, we don’t trust it. At this point, if we issued reservations and it crashed again, then we’d have a real problem.
Randy King, Mount Rainier National Park superintendent
The 16-year-old software the park used for permitting was damaged when the storm knocked out power and damaged the backup battery, King said.
“It corrupted the system in a way that we can’t even repair it, and, frankly, we don’t trust it,” King said. “At this point, if we issued reservations and it crashed again, then we’d have a real problem.”
The reservation system for front-country campgrounds was not affected.
Staff members met last week and again Tuesday to consider solutions. The person who helped develop the system was overseas and unable to help. The first-come, first-served approach was deemed the best solution.
King said the park used the approach once before after a malfunction, but that was before 2013, when permit requests spiked dramatically.
Before 2013, Permit requests received between March 15 and April 1 were measured in hundreds. In 2015, the park received more than 2,600 requests.
“Visitors shouldn’t let the lack of a permit reservation system keep them home,” King said. “The park employees who staff the Wilderness Information Centers work hard to help people and can generally put together a permit for those who can be flexible.”
The park already was working to develop a new reservation system with four graduate students from the University of Washington Information School. Park officials will test the program internally over the summer with the goal of launching it in March 2017.
The system will eliminate the need for visitors to mail or fax their requests.
SECURING A WALK-UP PERMIT
Walk-up permits, available on a first-come, first-served basis, will be required for all wilderness camping at Mount Rainier National Park.
The basics for getting a permit:
▪ Permits can be obtained the day before or the day of the start date.
▪ Permits must be obtained at the Longmire or White River wilderness information centers (open 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m.) or the Carbon River Ranger Station (hours vary).
▪ Visitors must provide emergency contact phone number, license plate number, make, model and color of vehicles left in the park.
▪ There is no fee for walk-up permits.