Teddy Roosevelt once recalled a near-religious experience he had “lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.”
The great conservationist president was reflecting on his visit to California’s Yosemite Valley in 1903. But he could have been describing the bliss countless visitors have found at Mount Rainier — a crown jewel of the National Park System.
If Mount Rainier is a cathedral, then the Wonderland Trail is its grand vestibule. The 93-mile loop trail carries wilderness lovers through rolling glacier-carved sanctuaries along the Carbon and Puyallup rivers, up to divine subalpine heights such as Summerland and Klapatche Park.
This year, however, pilgrims will have a more difficult time accessing the mountain’s hallowed spaces. Mount Rainier officials announced that due to a freak software glitch caused by a power failure, they’re canceling all backcountry reservations for the 2016 season.
Park staff, who normally sort through requests and issue permits in the early spring, will instead issue them on a first-come-first-served basis no more than a day before a hiker sets out into the wilderness.
The snafu is an embarrassment for the National Park Service in the year it’s celebrating its 100th anniversary.
Before 2013, the number of people filing permit paperwork at the start of the reservation period numbered in the hundreds; last year, requests filed in that period soared to 2,600.
Now, backpackers who had planned to take a week or two to circumnavigate Rainier will have to drive to a park ranger station and hope for a walk-up permit. Coordinating transportation, food resupply, distances between available campsites and other logistical details is not usually left to chance.
Park Superintendent Randy King said that he’s disappointed about the system breakdown.
But he’s excited that University of Washington graduate students are developing an online registration system that could be up and running by next year. It will replace the old-school fax-and-mail system that Mount Rainier (and several other national parks) have used for years to handle backcountry reservations.
President Obama last month proposed an additional $250 million for the entire NPS as it celebrates its centennial, including more money for repair and infrastructure projects. But even if every one of those extra dollars were given to Mount Rainier, it wouldn’t cover the $285 million maintenance backlog at the park.
King said key projects being done at Rainier this year include utility upgrades at the Ohanapecosh and Cougar Rock campgrounds. Crews also will complete the Nisqually Road project.
Rainier officials ought to consider a fee for backpackers to obtain overnight permits or an annual wilderness pass. Reasonable hikers should have no quarrel providing revenue to help support trail maintenance, wilderness information centers and backcountry ranger pay.