With the increasing popularity of the classic John Muir Trail (JMT), which goes from Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park to Mt. Whitney, more people are utilizing alternate routes. Many of these routes originate in Inyo National Forest and permits are obtained through Recreation.gov. This web-based system is relatively easy to use and has the benefit of being instantaneous, unlike the cumbersome fax-based process at Yosemite. However, the Recreation.gov site has its own idiosyncrasies.
I have found it fairly straightforward to search for trailheads and definitions from my search engine but it’s not so easy within the Recreation.gov site. To find a trailhead I search for the name of the trailhead from my search engine, e.g. “Inyo permit, Cottonwood Pass.” If you don’t know the exact name of the trailhead, try searching the Forest Service site to get maps and general information. Then go to Recreation.gov to get the permit. See below for links to popular trailheads to access the JMT. A good place to start is Inyo National Forest Trailheads.
The key things to know about the website are:
- You can apply for a permit six months before your start date unless you’re exiting through Whitney Portal. If you want to exit through Whitney Portal your EXIT date, not your start date, must be within the six month window and is subject to the Trail Crest Exit Quota. There will be an “A” in the date if space is available, along with the number of permits available. If the date box is not clickable and has an “X” it means that it’s too far in the future. “R” means all spots are already reserved. You can use an online calculator such as TimeAndDate.com to quickly find the date you need (enter the date you want to leave and subtract 180 days; if exiting WP subtract 6 months plus the number of days for your I’m trip). Applications open at 7 a.m. PT/10 a.m. ET each day.
- Plan your itinerary before you sit down to complete the application because you will need to select a campsite location from a dropdown for every night. It’s helpful to have the map in front of you as you may not be able to find the campsite as they may have different names. There is an “Other/Don’t Know” option at the top of the drop down but for a long trip it will not accept all “Other/Don’t Know” options. If your trip is longer than 14 days you can’t use all “Don’t Know” options as you are not allowed to stay in one place longer than 14 days and they can’t interpret where you’ll be (the computer will interpret 14 “Don’t know” entries as the same location). It’s best to try to find the campsites you plan to stay at and reserve “Other/Don’t Know” for the ones where you can’t find a name. You are not required to adhere to this schedule but it is useful in case of emergency so Search and Rescue can locate you. See the Sample Itinerary below for “Inyo Friendly” camp names and click on the map image above.
- Campsites for your first night are presented in a limited list of nearby sites on the Recreation.gov website. Campsites for subsequent nights are listed alphabetically in a much longer list, but one quirk is that all locations in Sequoia National Park/Kings Canyon NP (known as SEKI) are grouped together with a prefix of “SEKI.” Other useful names are “SEKI-Other,” “Inyo NF” and locations with the prefix “Yosemite.” A list of all JMT campsites (called “JMT Campsites along the Trail) can be found in the files of the John Muir Trail Facebook Group, though they aren’t necessarily names you’ll see on the Inyo list. See below for a partial list of potential northbound sites starting from Horseshoe Meadows.
- There are several permit types to choose from
- Overnight-most people accessing the JMT from Inyo trailheads will choose this one unless they are EXITING through Whitney Portal. You also use this if you are summiting Whitney from the JMT and are returning to the JMT going either direction. This has been checked and verified multiple times by multiple people, including myself. You only need “Overnight” if you start at Horseshoe Meadows/Cottonwood, summit Whitney from the west and return to the JMT. If you’re still not satisfied, read through the comments at the end of this post to see information provided from Inyo NF via phone and email communications with readers.
- Overnight Visiting Whitney-this permit type is only for those entering the Whitney Zone, which includes some adjacent peaks to Whitney. The summit of Whitney is NOT in the Whitney Zone or Inyo NF; it’s actually in Sequoia National Park. If you are approaching the summit from Guitar Lake and returning to the JMT you do not need this; choose “Overnight” instead. For people accessing Whitney from Horseshoe Meadow (from the south) or Wallace Creek area or other points north of Whitney, this would be a rare permit to get. Only the most adventurous types doing variants and peak bagging would need this permit The average JMT hiker looking to summit Whitney from the west, approaching from and returning to the JMT, does NOT need this permit, which costs more than an “Overnight” permit
- Overnight Exiting Whitney-this is what you want if you plan to exit through Whitney Portal. These are hard to get and are subject to the Trail Crest Exit Quota.
- Cross-Country (and other cross-country options relative to Whitney, not addressed here since most people will be on the trail. If you are doing Steve Roper’s Sierra High Route or variation you would get a Cross-Country permit.)
- Mt. Whitney Lottery-This is beyond the scope of this article and is only for people entering from Whitney Portal to climb Mt. Whitney.
Whitney Portal exit permits are subject to the Trail Crest Exit Quota and are harder to get. If you can’t get an Overnight Exiting Whitney permit, consider exiting further south over Cottonwood Pass to Horseshoe Meadow if you’re southbound. Definitions of Cross Country/Overnight and other general information can be found on the Inyo National Forest page at Recreation.gov. More information about the Trail Crest Exit Quota can be found on the Inyo NF Forest Service site. This information was verified by talking to an Inyo ranger at the permit office.
- Call Inyo NF to speak to helpful people who can answer questions: (760) 873-2483.
Half Dome (Yosemite National Park): As a side-note, if you want to climb Half Dome in Yosemite you’ll need a specific permit from Yosemite, with the following exceptions. From the Yosemite website: “If you’re beginning your backpacking trip outside of Yosemite, you’ll need a Half Dome permit, which you can apply for using the lotteries.There are two exceptions to this rule: if you’re hiking the John Muir Trail and starting at Cottonwood Lakes or Cottonwood Pass trailheads, your Inyo National Forest wilderness permit is valid for hiking Half Dome. These are the only two trailheads outside Yosemite that have this exception.”
Here are some direct links to popular Inyo National Forest trailheads (both Recreation.gov and Forest Service sites are listed-note that there are 2 links per location. Use the “permit” link to obtain the permit; use the Forest Service link to get additional information). These are just examples; there are other trailheads that access the JMT. These are in order south to north.
- Cottonwood Pass-PCT GT60 permit
- Cottonwood Pass Forest Service
- Cottonwood Lakes-JM39 permit
- Cottonwood Lakes Forest Service
- Mt. Whitney Trail-JM35 permit
- Mt. Whitney Lottery-Forest Service
- Duck Pass-JM01 permit
- Duck Pass Forest Service
- John Muir Trail-South of Devils Postpile AA15 (SOBO) permit
- JMT-South of Devils Postpile (SOBO) Forest Service
- JMT-North of Devils Postpile AA10 (NOBO) permit
- JMT-North of Devils Postpile (NOBO) Forest Service
- Rush Creek-AA 05 permit
- Rush Creek Forest Service
MAPS AND LISTS
Here is a list of “Inyo friendly” campsite names to get you started, going South-to-North (NOBO or northbound). This assumes a starting point at Horseshoe Meadow Campground (a good place to acclimate to altitude as it is located at 10,000 feet) via the Cottonwood Pass trailhead. An alternate route from Horseshoe Meadow starts at the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead and goes over New Army Pass. You can use the same location, even “Other/don’t know,” more than once if needed in this itinerary.*
- Chicken Spring Lake
- SEKI-Rock Creek
- SEKI-Crabtree (you may want to enter this two nights in a row if you’re going to summit Whitney)
- SEKI-Tyndall Creek
- SEKI-Center Basin
- SEKI-Charlotte Lake
- SEKI-Twin Lakes
- SEKI-Upper Basin
- SEKI-Palisade Basin
- SEKI-LeConte Canyon
- SEKI-McClure Meadow
- SEKI-Evolution Basin
- Senger Creek JMT-Sallie Keys near Florence Lake
- Bear Creek Meadows, Upper JMT-Lake Edison
- Quail Meadows JMT-Lake Edison
- Virginia Lake JMT-Duck Pass
- Crater Meadow JMT-South of Devils Postpile
- Garnet Lake JMT-Thousand Island Lake
- Yosemite-Tuolumne Meadows/Lyell Canyon
- Yosemite-Cathedral Lakes
- Yosemite-John Muir Trail-Little Yosemite
*Adapted with permission from Tim Seymour’s itinerary.
It is mandatory to start on the correct date and trailhead as specified on your Inyo NF permit, but after that you have the freedom to camp wherever you want and exit when you want (with the exception of the Whitney Portal exit limitations). You are not required to adhere to your itinerary but it can help in finding you if something happens and you’re reported overdue or missing.
- John Muir Trail: Permits, Planning and Prep
- Top 10 maps, apps and guides for the John Muir Trail
- Meal Planning for the John Muir Trail
- Ralph Burgess breaks SoBo John Muir Trail record
- Preventing altitude sickness on the John Muir Trail
- John Muir Trail: Getting Started (Examiner.com)
- Northbound (NOBO) Route and Permit, HikingtheJMT.com by Heather Goudreau. This blog post has an excellent visual guide to completing the permit using the Inyo website.
- John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail by Elizabeth Wenk. Many JMT hikers have this guidebook. In the back is a chapter called “JMT Lateral Trails and Nearby Towns.” There is a description of “PCT South, from Crabtree to Cottonwood Lakes” and “PCT South, from Crabtree to Cottonwood Pass.”
- Halfmile’s PCT Maps. Halfmile has free downloadable topo maps for the entire PCT. The section from Whitney to Horseshoe Meadows/ Cottonwood Pass or Cottonwood Lakes, which isn’t depicted fully on most regular JMT maps, is contained in Section G.
- Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks Recreation Map, Tom Harrison Maps. Covers Cottonwood Pass north to Muir Trail Ranch. It also contains the entire High Sierra Trail, an east-west trail that goes from Crescent Meadow at Sequoia National Park to Mt. Whitney.
- Tim Seymour’s excellent video, The John Muir Trail—One Man’s Walk, of his NOBO JMT trek starting at Cottonwood Pass. He does a nice job blending Google earth images, video and stills.