There's good news from the Inyo National Forest for the hundreds of thousands of Southern Californians who hike or backpack in the gentle wilderness of the eastern Sierra Nevada. The U.S. Forest Service has decided to take back the operation of its wilderness permit system from private contractors.
Beginning next Jan. 1, hikers can reserve a permit by mail or fax for a fee of $5 for any time during the year 2000. Forty percent of the permits for each trailhead will be reserved for walk-up travelers at Forest Service offices from Lone Pine to Mammoth Lakes. This will be a boon for hikers who are not able to plan their trips far in advance. The system--which does not include the Mt. Whitney trail--is bound to be more convenient and efficient than it has been. The present reservation system will remain in use through 1999, however. Information is available by calling (888) 374-3773.
Some hikers may not be too happy that the Forest Service also is considering imposing a fee of $10 to $15 a person to hike the Mt. Whitney trail from Whitney Portal to the 14,495-foot summit of the nation's highest peak outside Alaska. But hampered by tight budgets, the Forest Service's Lone Pine staff is unable to maintain the trail, toilets, campsites and other facilities needed to handle the crowds. The revenue collected would pay for those services. The fee may be a burden for some. But for the cost of a movie, a bag of popcorn and a Coke, the Mt. Whitney trek provides a high-country experience that is priceless.