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How wilderness permits changed the Central Oregon wilderness experience

Bradley Parks

The trail to Tam McArthur Rim starts on the side of a lumpy gravel road in the Three Sisters Wilderness.

On the last Friday in September, just over a dozen cars had gathered at the trailhead by 9 a.m. A U.S. Forest Service employee said it looked to be a slow day.

The agency launched an ambitious program in the Central Oregon Cascades this year to thin crowds at some of the state’s most popular trails, including Tam McArthur Rim. It was one of 19 trailheads across the Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington and Three Sisters wilderness areas that for the first time this year had capacity limits.

OPB sent a reporter out on the final day of the season for Central Cascades Wilderness Permits to ask hikers how wilderness permits changed their wilderness experience.

Karen Burkhart had come from Marysville, Washington, to hike in the Central Oregon Cascades with her daughter and son-in-law, who live in Medford. They hiked to No Name Lake on Broken Top to celebrate Burkhart’s 60th birthday and saw no crowds. She was the first one up to Tam McArthur Rim the next morning.

“I turned around and came back and there’s like 20 people coming at me, and I’m like, ‘Whoa, what happened?’” she said.

That’s a much smaller contingent of hikers than in years past.

Tam McArthur Rim is only accessible for a few months a year, after the snow has melted. Before the permit system was implemented this year, the trailhead saw about 20,000 visitors annually, which is a ton for a place with limited parking and no facilities.

Some hikers aren’t bothered by crowds that size, others even welcome it, but the toll taken by that many people is evident on parts of the trail.

Edges of the sandy path on portions of the hike have eroded to the point where it’s hard to even see the trail in some spots. Carefully laid branches try to remind people where it should be.

The Forest Service hopes that by reducing the number of people on the trail at any given time, it can limit damage like this. But the quotas and ahigh number of no-shows have frustrated some Central Oregon locals like Greg and Janell Ginsburg, who live in Bend.

Buying permits usually required at least a week of advance planning, and the wildfire smoke that blanketed much of Central Oregon late this summer made it hard to do so.

“Part of the unfortunate thing is you can’t be real spontaneous anymore,” said Janell. “Like it’s a beautiful day, there’s no smoke in the air, doesn’t look like there’s thunderclouds, let’s go for a hike.”

Dozens of hikers and campers shared with OPB their experiences in the Central Oregon wilderness this year. Virtually all of them were pleased to see the trails get some relief from overcrowding, even if they occasionally couldn’t land a permit for their favorites.

“It’s kinda a little frustrating we can’t just get up and go,” Greg said. “But something had to be done because the trails were getting beat up and overcrowded. That’s just the reality of the population increase, you know?”

On the wind-swept top of Tam McArthur Rim, about 10 hikers stood pointing to the Cascade peaks that crested the horizon like snow-dusted humpback whales.

“I don’t think there is much more spectacular than this,” said Susan, who gave just her first name. “This is pretty incredible.”

She said it was precisely what she wanted from a wilderness experience: a beautiful view and not very many people to share it with.

Snow will be on its way soon to cover Tam McArthur Rim and much of the Central Oregon wilderness. When the snow melts and hiking season begins anew, crowds of permit-holders will be there to greet the trails again.

Smaller crowds, of course.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.