Want a coveted permit to hike Angels Landing or another overcrowded trail? Here's what to know

When a trail becomes overcrowded, what's a national park to do? Lately parks are turning more and more to permit systems that limit the amount of people who can visit.

Gripping a metal chain built into the red rocks of Zion National Park, Sara Bracero scooched down the Angels Landing trail in her purple workout tights.

She carefully chose every move. One slip and she could be seriously hurt or worse; some of the narrow half-mile trail has 1,000-foot drops on either side.

“I was just thinking, ‘Make it down safely. You made it up, make sure you make it down,” said Bracero, an HR benefits manager who lives in Harlem. “I spent most of the time on my butt sliding down and that gave me more confidence.”

As the 33-year-old New Yorker took her last brave steps to safety, she ran into the arms of her friend Mike and burst into tears.

Bracero had just realized a five-year dream to conquer Angels Landing, one of the most popular hikes in the country at one of the most popular national parks in the country.

It’s a bucket-list experience that is now available to fewer people because of a new permit system that began on April 1 as part of a pilot program in response to overcrowding along the perilous trail. The new permit system is part of a growing number of national parks taking steps to limit crowds and improve the experience for those who are able to go.

Zion saw visitors skyrocket in recent years, jumping from 2.8 million in 2011 to more than 5 million last year. The new permit system now allows for 800 hikers daily at Angels Landing, but Zion spokesman Jonathan Shafer refused to put a number on how many people used the popular trail before the system. 

On April 1, the first day the new permit system was in place, the once-Disneyland-like trail was largely quiet, with only about 10 people at the end of the arduous hike around 3 p.m.; there were roughly a few dozen others along it.

►Conquering Angels Landing:  What it's like to take on the precipitous trail at Zion National Park

Three friends celebrate conquering the Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park as their feet hang over a precipitous drop on April 1, 2022.

Bracero said she was upset when she first learned of the permit system.

“I applied and I said, ‘If I get it, great. If I don't I guess I'm not going to do this hike because I don't want to deal with the whole madness of permitting,” she said.

But after doing the hike in person, she’s a convert.

“Without the permit system, I'm not confident that I would have been able to do it,” she said. “I would have been too afraid because the chains can be shaky, and you want to have space between people ... I’m already conquering a fear of being 1,500 feet high. I don’t need 10 people around me to make that harder.”

Zion permit system forces tech into nature, critics say

Others feel like the permitting system, which relies on online applications, creates an uneven playing field for people who may not be computer-savvy or have Internet access.

Tim Higdon, a 52-year-old software developer living in Norman, Oklahoma, said hiking Angels Landing became a dream of his when he went to Zion for the first time in July 2020 and found the trail closed due to concerns about COVID-19.

He had been planning a 16-hour road trip from Oklahoma to do the hike but then he heard about the permit system.

“I want to do it before I die and I don’t know if I’ll get to,” he said. “I'm hoping they disband it and that it’s a massive failure so the trip that's already kind of hard to plan doesn't become more hard to plan.”

Hikers face a steep climb on the Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park on April 1, 2022. Metal chains built into the red rock help guide their way and get them down safely.

Higdon thinks the parks should be easily accessible to the public like they were when he was a kid and he and his family would pile into a station wagon and go to Yellowstone National Park.

“You don't want people to fall out of love with going to the parks,” he said. “I just think of John Muir, the way he pioneered these parks and fought for them. Can you imagine him going to a park and having to get on a computer and request a time to go?”

Kristin Adams Zuckerman of Whitefish, Montana agrees that permit systems have eliminated some spontaneity from the parks but that ultimately, she appreciates a more serene experience.

She hiked Angels Landing in April 2021 before the permit system and again on April 19 this year.

Before the permit system, “it was crowded.”

“So you’re managing your fear of heights with having to stop for people every 2 feet,” said the 45-year-old real estate broker. “Trying to go up and down where the chain is your best friend on that hike and then having to shimmy around people every couple of feet really just added to the difficulty level and I think probably increased the dangerousness of it, too.”

When she went this year, she welcomed the difference: “It felt much safer.”

“The reality is it had to be done because our parks are so overcrowded and being loved to death,” she said. “The price you’re paying is the spontaneity but you’re get a much better experience overall.”

How to get Zion Angels Landing permit

People who want to hike Angels Landing can apply for a permit two ways. The first is a lottery in which people apply the day before they want to do the hike. The second is a seasonal lottery in which people can apply for up to seven different dates in hopes of increasing their chances of winning.

Seasonal permits already have been awarded through Aug. 31. The next seasonal lottery to hike Angels Landing between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30 will be open for applications starting on July 1. 

To enter either lottery, users must sign up for an account with reservation.gov and pay $6 to apply. An additional $3 is automatically charged if an applicant wins a permit.

This map shows how where visitors must exit from a shuttle bus to access the Angels Landing Trail, a short climb at the end of a longer and more moderate trail. Zion Canyon Scenic drive is currently closed to vehicle traffic except for park shuttle buses.

More coverage of our National Parks from USA TODAY