Permit Season!

This story featured in the March 2012 issue.

Photo: Erik Boomer

By Eugene Buchanan

River permits are a blessing and a curse. We just hate that government bureaucrats in green pants decide what rivers we can paddle, and when. On the other hand, the rarer the permit, the more desirable the river run—as if time spent on the river with good friends in a beautiful canyon isn’t reward enough.
So, don’t waste another minute. This March issue of C&K comes out Jan. 20 (don’t ask us why), which, if your letter carrier is any good, leaves you about a week to get your lottery applications in. Our advice? Apply for everything, but don’t stake your hopes on the big-name rivers. Hedge your bets by applying for these lesser-known classics, and playing the angles—cancellations, shoulder seasons—like a true river rat. Because, let’s face it: Unless you’re a five-star cook or look good in a bikini, you’re not likely to get invited along on somebody else’s permit. So you’d better play the permit game. Here are nine rivers where the odds are in your favor.

Bruneau, Idaho
Application Deadline: None

If you enjoy miles of boogie water and rock formations like something out of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, point your shuttle rig to northwest Nevada, where the Bruneau River begins its 69-mile plunge through southern Idaho’s Owyhee Plateau to the confluence with the Snake River. You’ll need a permit and about five days to enjoy this high-desert classic. Luckily, thanks to an axle-stomping shuttle and hard-to-predict flows, Bruneau tickets are ridiculously easy to score. Just download yours from the BLM website, or self-register at the put-in or takeout. Technically, you’ll start on the West Fork Bruneau, which joins with the Jarbridge to become the Bruneau proper, 24 miles north of the Nevada line. (Put that one on your list also—though generally considered too small for rafts, the Jarbridge-into-Bruneau is among the all-time best wilderness self-supports for skilled kayakers.) On the Bruneau, expect plenty of read-and-run whitewater, wild flow fluctuations, whacko weather, logjams and portages—especially in Five Mile Rapids, a multi-mile section of constant Class III-IV. Season: April to mid-June (late May peak). Optimal flows: 800-2,000 cfs (Bruneau gauge). Hint: bring calamine lotion, and a spare tire for the shuttle. Info: blm.gov; (208) 384-3300.

Photo: Erik Boomer


Cataract Canyon, Utah
Application Deadline: None

Want a taste of Grand Canyon-style river running, without the seemingly impossible lottery odds? Try Cataract Canyon, which offers similar big-water thrills and permits to the first 4,000 people who ask for one, starting on the first business day in January. Why? One word: flatwater. Fifty-three miles of it, whether you start at Mineral Bottom on the Green River, or Potash on the Colorado. The fun begins after the confluence, with 14 miles of big-water Class III-IV numbered from 1 to 23, including the notorious Big Drops 1, 2 and 3. The trip ends with (what else?) more flatwater, as you float into Lake Powell and your takeout at Hite Marina. Only hard-core rubber pushers need apply, which suits us just fine. Info: nps.gov/cany; (435) 259-4351

Photo: Leon Werdinger


Gates of Lodore, Green River, Colorado
Lottery Deadline: Feb. 1

Forget about getting a Lodore permit during the May-to-June main season—the Park Service issues only 300, split between Lodore and the Yampa, which share the same takeout in Dinosaur National Monument. But here’s the thing: Playing the high-season lottery gets you on the waiting list, which lets you call in to nab cancellations and late-season permits. And savvy river rats know that thanks to steady releases from the Flaming Gorge Dam, late-season Lodore trips are like money in the bank. Inspired by the dramatic cleft where the Green River pierces the Uintah Mountains, John Wesley Powell named this stretch after Robert Southey’s poem The Cataract of Lodore. Powell also named many rapids during his 1869 descent, including Hell’s Half Mile, Disaster Falls and Greasy Pliers. Hint: Don’t miss the hikes to Whispering Cave or “Butt-crack” Falls. Info: nps.gov/dino; (970) 374-2468; $15 application fee.

Photo: Nicole Gentempo


San Juan River, Utah
Lottery Deadline: Feb. 1

Early season Southwest canyon trips don’t get better than the San Juan’s 84 miles of moderate whitewater, flowing through serpentine southern Utah canyons from Bluff to Clays Hills (shorter trips of 27 and 57 miles are possible using an intermediate access at Mexican Hat). From November through February, San Juan permits are free and easy; from March to the end of October they’re distributed by lottery, with the cost depending on your planned group size and river stretch. Your odds of scoring a permit outright are only fair-to-middlin’, but even a losing application allows you to call in for cancellations and unallocated launch dates. Hint: The trip is all about the side-hikes—Hit John’s, Slickhorn, Grand Gulch and Oljeto Wash canyons. If you don’t draw the San Juan, try your luck on Desolation/Gray canyons on the Green, which offers a similar family-friendly float. Info: blm.gov; (435) 587-1544; free to apply.

Photo: Dawn Kish


Rio Chama River, New Mexico
Lottery Deadline: Jan. 31

The 31-mile stretch of the Rio Chama from El Vado Ranch to Chavez Canyon gives meaning to the New Mexico state motto: Land of Enchantment. Punctuated by Class II+ rapids, this Rio Grande tributary will usher you deep into a sandstone-walled wilderness and through Ponderosa forests that inspired Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings. Best of all, getting a permit to run this Wild and Scenic River is easy. Permits for summer weekend launches are distributed by lottery (May 1 through Labor Day; applications due by Jan. 31), but all you need to do to score a weekday launch is call and ask the BLM Taos Field Office any time after April 1. No permits are required between Labor Day and May 1, or for the Chavez Canyon day-run. Info: blm.gov; (575) 758-8851; $6 application fee.

Photo: Whit Richardson


Main Salmon, Idaho
Lottery Deadline: Jan. 31

The Middle Fork gets all the hype, but the Main Salmon is a classic in its own right, renowned for its stunning mountain scenery, Class III whitewater and large, Frisbee-friendly beaches. The 82-mile stretch from Corn Creek to Carey Creek has everything you expect in a classic Idaho multi-day—except the long odds to score a permit. A lottery doles out four private launches per day for the high season from June 20 through Sept. 7, and permits are yours for the asking during the off-season. Also, playing the lottery allows you to call in for cancellations. En route, expect dousings in rapids like Devil’s Teeth, Salmon Falls, Growler and Big Mallard, which can all be washed away in a riverside soak in Barth hot springs. Info: recreation.gov; (208) 865-2700; $6 application fee.


Rogue River, Oregon
Application Deadline: None

For gals in ski towns, they say the odds are good, but the goods are odd. Both are good on Oregon’s Rogue, one of the best wilderness floats in the country. The 34-mile, Class III+ stretch (except for Class V Rainie Falls, which is usually portaged or lined) from Grave Creek to Foster Bar is worth every gray hair you might get worrying about a permit. Though it’s a lottery system, the odds are good—especially for cancelations. The trick: After the lotto, available spaces are given away over the phone beginning April 1; cancellations are given out the morning afterward; confirmations showing fewer people than permitted for are given out; and if permit holders don’t confirm 10 days before their launch, the spaces are also given away by phone (hint: count back nine days from your preferred launch date and start calling). Permits: blm.gov/or/resources/recreation/rogue/about-permits.php. (541) 479-3735; Permit Season: May 15-Oct. 15 ($3.75 application fee plus $10/person, applications taken Dec. 1 to Jan. 31.) Max group size: 20.

Photo: Kyle George


Salt River, Arizona
Lottery Deadline: Jan. 15

Arizona’s Salt River offers 52 miles of saguaro-lined Class III-IV wilderness whitewater, culminating in once-notorious Quartzite Falls. (A misguided river guide dynamited the drop in 1994, changing the grueling mandatory portage into an ordinary Class IV rapid.) The lottery season runs from March 1 through May 15, when this fickle desert classic usually has water. Cancellations are announced and awarded online (cancellations.saltriverpermits.com). You can also watch the snowpack in the Southern Rockies and grab an off-season permit if the melt comes early or late. (The C&K staff used this strategy to bag a high-water run in January 2010, which has become legend in the cube-farm.) However you get your hands on the Forest Service permit, you’ll also have to obtain a separate permit from the White Mountain Apache for the first part of the trip, which flows through tribal land. Info: saltriverpermits.com; (928) 402-6200; $10 application fee. White Mountain Apache tribal office: (928) 338-4385

Photo: Tony Hafkensheid


Sidebar: Permit Dreamin’
As Dirty Harry would put it, you just got to ask yourself, “Do you feel lucky?”

Grand Canyon, Arizona
Lottery Deadline: Feb. 23 for 2013 Launch Dates

A self-guided trip through the Big Ditch is as transformative as it is rare: just 273 noncommercial Grand Canyon permits are issued each year, and nearly every boater in the world applies for one. Put your name in the hat now (applications cost $25 and are accepted only during the month of February), and keep trying, because under the “weighted lottery” scheme you get an extra chance for each year that you enter and don’t win.

Yampa River, Colorado
Lottery Deadline: Feb. 1

A splendid deep canyon, worry-free whitewater and short high-water season (May 14 to July 9 this year) means your chances of scoring a prime-time permit are about 6 percent. But any chance to experience this three- to five-day run through Dinosaur National Monument is worth the $15 lottery ticket.

Selway River, Idaho
Lottery Deadline: Jan. 31

Your odds of drawing a permit for the May 15 to July 31 are about 1 in 226, but don’t let that deter you. This is one of the best river trips in the world.

Salmon River, Idaho, Middle Fork
Lottery Deadline: Jan. 31

Call it the Selway’s sister run, just as sweet and just as hard to score a date with. Keep trying. It’s worth it.

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