The John Muir Trail is a life long dream for many hikers. With incredible views and challenging terrain, hiking this 213 mile trail can be a life changing experience. As such, getting permits for the John Muir Trail is very difficult as they are highly competitive and sought after.
The popularity of the JMT has been increasing significantly and steadily since 2011. So in order to protect the trail and the experience for hikers, a quota has been set for the total number of hikers allowed to pass through the trail in one day, which is why they’re so competitive.
In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about getting a permit, including:
Since 97% of permit applications are denied, it’s important that you include all of the necessary data when submitting your application, so make sure to go through all of these steps before you start trying to apply. If you’re one of the lucky chosen ones, you don’t want a paperwork error to keep you from getting your permit!
Choosing Your Route
Before you do anything and even think about trying to apply for a permit, you need to choose your route. Are you going to hike North to South (SOBO) or South to North (NOBO)? This will impact where you go to even apply for your permit.
There are pros and cons to both directions. One of the biggest factors to keep in mind when making this decision is the elevation profile of the trail:
North to South (Southbound – SOBO)
- The more common route, so permits are more difficult to get
- Overall elevation is moving slightly uphill for the entire hike
- Consistent increase in elevation allows you to slowly get use to the elevation change
- Can start earlier in the year. You don’t need to wait for the snow on Mt. Whitney (highest elevation on the trail) to melt before starting your hike
- Hiking into the sun during the day
South to North (Northbound – NOBO)
- Less common route, but permits are still extremely difficult. If you’re wanting to hike Mt. Whitney, you’ll also be competing with Mt. Whitney hikers for permits, which makes this almost impossible. BUT if you’re willing to skip Mt. Whitney and start at a nearby campsite instead, then these permits are easier to get.
- Overall elevation is moving slightly downward the entire hike. This causes less fatigue, which means you can cover more miles per day, and complete the hike in less time.
- Recommended to start July or later due to snow on Mt. Whitney
- Hiking with the sun at your back most of the time
- Extremely brutal first day (if hiking Mt. Whitney): 5,239 ft over 8.2 miles up the east side of Mt. Whitney. Going from 8,361ft to 13,600ft in elevation – when you’re not acclimated, the least conditioned, and probably carrying the trip’s heaviest load
- End in Yosemite which has more amenities like general stores with cold drinks and pizza
Choosing Your Starting Trailhead & First Campsite
Once you’ve chosen which direction you want to hike, then you’ll need to chose your starting trailhead as you’ll need this information when applying for the permit.
Choosing an Entry Trailhead In Yosemite (Going SOBO)
If you plan on starting in Yosemite and will be hiking southbound, you have 4 options for which trailhead to use as your entry point to the John Muir Trail. The most popular are Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley and Lyell Canyon in Tuolumne.
This is the most popular and most competitive trailhead when it comes to getting a permit as it’s the “official beginning”. If you’re really really lucky, you just might be able to secure a permit starting here, but odds are it’ll be easier with a different starting point.
If you start here, your first day will include a steep hike up to Vernal Falls, which is approx. 2,000ft elevation gain. The JMT technically runs parallel to The Mist Trail during this section, but if you’re never done The Mist Trail before, you might want to chose this option instead as it’s quite an experience and you’ll end up at the same place. This is one of the most popular and most crowded trail in Yosemite, and also one of the most beautiful!
If you want to hike Half Dome, you’ll need to check the appropriate box in your application as a separate permit is needed for the cables on Half Dome.
This trailhead is slightly less competitive for getting a permit and still gives you the experience of hiking the “full trail”. Glacier Point starts almost directly above Happy Isles – 3,000ft above it on the top of the ridge above the valley floor.
If you start here, your first day will be on the Panorama Trail, which is a really picturesque nice trail. It follows the top of the ridge, sending you through a series of hills and valleys before meeting with The JMT at the top of Vernal Falls.
While you don’t get the up-close waterfall experience like you do with The Mist Trail, you do still get to see some of Yosemite’s greatest sites such as Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls, just from a different angle. And you still have the option of hiking Half Dome if you’re able to get the add-on permit.
The only downside to using Glacier Point as your trailhead is that it adds a little extra logistical issues in that you have to pick up your permit from the Yosemite Valley Ranger Station (at the valley floor which is also where you can leave your car), and somehow then make your way 3,000ft up to Glacier Point to start your hike (which is about an hour drive if by car) without there being a shuttle to take you.
This trailhead starts a little further north along the JMT. It’s not particularly more difficult or easier in terms of getting permits, it falls more in the middle.
If you start here, it will knock about 13mi off of your trip, but also bypass some of Yosemite’s greatest sights. You’ll miss Nevada and Vernal Falls, and Half Dome isn’t really a possibility from here as it’s too far out of the way. You could instead take a side trip to Cloud’s Rest, which doesn’t require an additional permit, and also offers some incredible views.
Also if going this way, you’ll be picking up your permit and leaving your car at The Ranger station in Tuolumne Meadows and then taking the shuttle to the trailhead to start from there. This offers an unusual advantage in that The JMT will end up passing right by the ranger station (and your car) a few days later, which allows you to leave supplies in your car to pick up later so that you can have less weight for your first few days.
This trailhead is the furthest north out of the available four on the trail and will cut approx. 20mi off of total. While you’ll avoid the steep climbs to get out of Yosemite Valley which comes with the other 3 entry points, you’ll also bypass on pretty much all of Yosemite’s scenery. You’ll not only skip the waterfalls, Half Dome, Cloud’s Rest, but also Cathedral Lakes as well.
If you start here, you’ll have a pretty mellow first day. The first 10mis of this trail is completely flat as you head for Upper Lyell Canyon (where your first night will be).
When filling out your permit application, you need to include your entry trailhead as well as your first night’s camp site when applying for the permit from Yosemite. As with everything in Yosemite, there’s a quota (or cap) for how many people can stay at each of the available campsites per night, which can also affect your chances of getting the permit you’ve applied for if your first night campsite doesn’t have any available spots. Lyell Canyon has the most available spaces and is the least competitive out of the four but Happy Isles is technically the “beginning” of the trail.
Depending on which trailhead you want to use for your entry point, you’ll have limited options for your first night’s campsite. Here are the available options as well as their quotas:
|Trailhead||First Night||Distance (mi)||Gain (ft)||Reservation Quota||Walk Up|
|Happy Isles||Little Yosemite Valley||4.5||2,100||20 (across all 3)||0|
|Happy Isles||Sunrise/Merced Lake||6.5||3,200||20 (across all 3)||0|
|Sunrise Lakes||Sunrise Lakes||3.3||1,300||20 (across all 3)||0|
|Glacier Point||Little Yosemite Valley||6.6||-1,100||20 (across all 3)||0|
|Lyell Canyon||Upper Lyell Canyon||10||100||15||10|
Choosing an Entry Trailhead at Mt. Whitney (Going NOBO)
If you plan on starting at the south end of the trail and will be hiking north, you have 2 options for which trailhead to use as your entry point to the John Muir Trail.
Mt. Whitney Portal
The “official start” of the trail if going Northbound would be from Mt. Whitney Portal as the trailhead. But this is almost impossible to get a permit for – even more competitive than a SOBO JMT Permit because you’re also competing for those permits with everyone who just wants to hike Mt. Whitney too. But you’re welcome to try!
Since Mt. Whitney Portal permits are so competitive, the workaround for this is to start at one of the nearby trails which will connect you to the JMT instead. These trailheads are so non-competitive, that you’re almost guaranteed to get a spot while still being able to hike the full JMT.
If you’re going this “work around” route, you’ll want to start at Horseshoe Meadow as your trailhead. From Horseshoe Meadow there are two trails, which are roughly the same distance, that will take you to The JMT via The PCT – Cottonwood Lakes Trail and Cottonwood Pass Trail. Cottonwood Pass Trail is slightly shorter and considered a little easier while Cottonwood Lakes Trail is more scenic and difficult. Both intersect at Soldier’s Lake and will then take you to The PCT, when then goes to The JMT.
First Night’s Campsite
If you’re trying to secure a permit starting from Mt. Whitney Portal, the most popular first night campsite is trail camp. Outpost camp is another possibility, which would make for an easier first day will less elevation change. It doesn’t really matter which site you choose in your application as your first night’s spot at the 60 available permits for this trailhead include all of the campsites.
If you’re starting at Horseshoe Meadow you have a few options for a first night campsite depending on how much ground you think you’ll be able to cover. You can camp at Solider Lake, which is roughly 10-12 mi from each of the trailheads. If that’s too much ground to cover, then each trail as a closer camping option around 5mis from each of the trailheads.
From Soldier Lake it’s then about 10 miles to Crabtree Meadows/Ranger Station. Many NOBO hikers will spend two nights at Crabtree and then day hike Mt. Whitney, which is a 15mi round trip hike from this campsite.
|Trailhead||First Night Campsite||Distance (mi)||Gain (ft)||Reservation Quota||Walk Up Quota|
|Mt. Whitney Portal||Trail camp||6.8||3,600||60 (all Whitney Portal)||0|
|Mt. Whitney Portal||Outpost camp||3.8||2,020||60 (all Whitney Portal)||0|
|Cottonwood Pass||Chicken Spring Lake||5||1,486||24 (all Cottonwood Pass)||16 (all Cottonwood Pass)|
|Cottonwood Pass||Soldier Lake||10||2,350||24 (all Cottonwood Pass)||16 (all Cottonwood Pass)|
|Cottonwood Lakes||Cottonwood Lake #1||5||1,299||36 (all Cottonwood Lakes)||24 (all Cottonwood Lakes)|
|Cottonwood Lakes||Soldier Lake||12||2,450||36 (all Cottonwood Lakes)||24 (all Cottonwood Lakes)|
Estimating How Long It Will Take & Your Itinerary
Now that you know your route and where you want to start, you can start to put together your itinerary and how long you expect to take on the trail.
A lot of this will depend on the pace that you’re comfortable with. On average, most people will take at least 3 weeks (21 days) to hike the full JMT, which comes out to about 10 miles per day (not including any side trips). If you plan on hiking Mt. Whitney or Half Dome, add an extra 2 days to that estimate.
It’s a good idea to plan for a few extra days beyond what you expect your itinerary to be when you apply for your permit. Especially if you’re applying for a SOBO permit, you will need to enter the exit date on your application. You can always leave the trail earlier than that day, but you can’t be on the trail any later than that day, so add a few extra days just in case.
Choosing Your Start Date
Your start date is going to depend a lot on which direction you’ll be hiking and how much weather you can withstand, and how long you expect to be on the trail for.
If you’re hiking SOBO, you can start earlier in the year since you don’t have to wait for the snow on Mt. Whitney to melt. Whereas if you’re hiking NOBO, you won’t be able to start until probably around July. You also don’t want to get caught in the snow either depending on how long you expect to be on the trail. So make sure that not only your entry date, but also your expected exit date will likely have good-enough weather.
The best dates to hike the JMT in terms of weath are from mid June to Sept:
And of course this is also when more people are trying to get permits to be on the trail as well:
Applying For a Permit: The JMT Lottery & Where to Apply
Now that you’ve done all of the above, you’re ready to apply for a permit and cross your fingers!
If you’re starting in Yosemite and going south (SOBO), you need to apply for your permit directly from Yosemite National Park. If you’re starting from the south and going north (NOBO), you need to apply for your permit from the Inyo National Forest.
SOBO Permit Application Process: A Rolling Lottery
Due to the amount of people who want to hike this trail every year, SOBO John Muir Trail permits are issued via a lottery system. Permits are limited to (regardless of your entry trailhead) 45 per day for “exiting over Donahue pass” (the boundary between Yosemite National Park and the Ansel Adams Wilderness). So you don’t need this permit if you’re just going to hike a portion of the JMT within the boundaries of Yosemite itself, but only for when you exit Yosemite to continue with the rest of the trail. Of those 45 available daily permits:
- 15 are available for hikers starting at the Lyell Canyon Trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows
- 20 are available for hikers starting from Happy Isles, Glacier Point, or the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead
- 10 are held for walk-ups the day before the departure date from the Lyell Canyon Trailhead
The odds of getting this permit is roughly 3%.
Lottery winners are chosen for each available entry date 24 weeks (168 days) before that start date. For example, the winners to start hiking on June 15th are pulled from a lottery which happens on Dec. 29th. Permit applications are accepted the day before the lottery (169-170 days before your start date). So if you wanted to start on June 15th, you’d need to submit your permit application on Dec. 28th.
You can enter the lottery for a maximum of 21 sequential days (3 weeks) with just one application. If you don’t get the first date you requested, then your application will roll over to the next day until the 21 days expires. After those 21 days, you would then need to re-apply if you weren’t successful in getting a permit. As lottery winners are chosen daily, you will receive an email with your results for each day that you entered letting you know if you’ve won a permit or not.
You only need one permit for the entire trip and the pick up location will depend on which trailhead you’ll use as your starting point for the trail.
To apply for this permit, you must know and be able to fill out:
- Your starting trailhead
- Your desired start date
- Your first night’s camping location
- The length of your trip (you cannot be on the trail after your exit date)
- Your exit trailhead (if you plan on hiking the entire JMT, this would be Mt. Whitney Portal. Note that you don’t need to get another permit to summit Mt. Whitney if you’re successful in getting this JMT permit)
- Number of people in your group
- Your trip leader (whose name will be on the permit and must be present to pick it up and actually hike the hike)
- If you also want to apply for a Half Dome permit
Walk Up Permits
If you don’t get your permit and are set on hiking SOBO on a specific date or date range, then you can try to get a walkup permit. For each day, 10 walk-up permits are available at the Lyell Canyon Trailhead. Walk up permits become available at 11am the day before the start date of the hike. Even so, these are still very competitive and there have been reports of people camping at the ranger station to try to get a walk up permit.
NOBO Permit Application Process
Many people will enter into the SOBO permit lottery and then also try to get a NOBO permit as a backup.
If you want to do the “full JMT”, which includes the summit of Mt. Whitney, there are 100 permits available per day (60 overnight permits/ 40 day hike permits), which are again available via a lottery – BUT you’re also competing for those permits with everyone who just wants to hike Mt. Whitney too.
You can enter the online lottery from Feb. 1 – March 15th. Start dates in July, August, and September usually fill completely from the lottery. After the lottery has been completed, the remaining spaces are made available online starting April 1st. From April 1st until 2 days before a trip start date, reservations can be made online or by calling the Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permit Office (1-760-873-2483).
If you’re not set on climbing Mt. Whitney and are starting at one of the nearby campgrounds instead, there will be between 24-36 spots available depending on where you choose to start. Even though this seems like a small number, these spots are not nearly as competitive as the other permits and depending on the time of year, are usually pretty available. Plus, you’re not waiting for the results of the lottery and can see right away which dates are open or not. These permits are available directly from the Inyo National Forest.
To apply for this permit, you must know and be able to fill out:
- Your start date
- Your exit date
- Your intended itinerary (roughly estimate where you will camp each night – you don’t have to stick to this)
- Your exit trailhead (Happy Isles – Yosemite Valley if you’re hiking the whole JMT)
- Your group size
- If you want to visit Mt. Whitney
This permit can be picked up two days before your start date at the issuing station that you selected on your application.