Outdoor Blog

Deciphering the Inyo National Forest permit system for the JMT

Inyo National Forest trailhead map (Recreation.gov)

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 Trail List.

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.


List of Inyo NF Trails

Map of Inyo NF Trails


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.*

  1. Chicken Spring Lake
  2. SEKI-Rock Creek
  3. SEKI-Crabtree (you may want to enter this two nights in a row if you’re going to summit Whitney)
  4. SEKI-Tyndall Creek
  5. SEKI-Center Basin
  6. SEKI-Charlotte Lake
  7. SEKI-Twin Lakes
  8. SEKI-Upper Basin
  9. SEKI-Palisade Basin
  10. SEKI-LeConte Canyon
  11. SEKI-McClure Meadow
  12. SEKI-Evolution Basin
  13. Senger Creek JMT-Sallie Keys near Florence Lake
  14. Bear Creek Meadows, Upper JMT-Lake Edison
  15. Quail Meadows JMT-Lake Edison
  16. Virginia Lake JMT-Duck Pass
  17. Crater Meadow JMT-South of Devils Postpile
  18. Garnet Lake JMT-Thousand Island Lake
  19. Yosemite-Tuolumne Meadows/Lyell Canyon
  20. Yosemite-Cathedral Lakes
  21. 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.

Related articles:

Other resources:

Horseshoe Meadow campground

Horseshoe Meadow campground

39 thoughts on “Deciphering the Inyo National Forest permit system for the JMT”

  1. buzibu February 10, 2016

    Thanks, but: is it 180 days or 168 days before? that part isn’t clear. Also, perhaps a section on applying 180 days before the exit date for WP exit should be added?

    1. Inga February 10, 2016

      Thanks! I just caught the 168 day error and corrected it. I wasn’t sure of the details on the WP exit. Do you have a link? Or maybe it’s in one of the links I have. I’ll check that out. Thanks for the suggestions.

  2. laurie meade February 10, 2016

    Hi Inga. It’s still stating 180 days. One thing you might add in the second paragraph under “key things to know” is that campsites generally fall under an area basin. That’s what a woman in the Bishop office told me yesterday. It helped tremendously in filling out the boxes from the selection they offer. You might also explain SEKI.

    1. Inga February 14, 2016

      Thanks, Laurie.
      It’s 180 days for Inyo (168 for Yosemite). I posted a map of the basins so that might aid in locating campsites and added a complete sample itinerary. I explained SEKI (Sequoia Kings Canyon National Parks, which are operated jointly). Appreciate the comments!

  3. Suzanne February 14, 2016

    Hi Inga! Thanks so much for the helpful information. I have one additional question. Is it at 12:01am pacific time that you can started applying 180 days before a Whitney exit? Thanks for all of your help.

    1. Inga February 14, 2016

      Hi Suzanne, I’m not sure of the exact time but a Facebook poll indicates that it’s 7 a.m.. I tried to call but they are closed weekends during winter. I’ll call later but if you need the info soon call the office at (760) 873-2483

      1. Jim January 11, 2017

        The post about when the reservations would open for a specific day is from Feb 2016? Was there ever a definitive answer as to whether one should apply in the reservations website at 12:01 am or 7:00 am PCT six months in advance to have the best chance at a NOBO permit? Thanks, Jim

  4. Suzanne February 14, 2016

    Thank you, Inga! Last question, I promise :). So if we choose Overnight- visiting Mt. Whitney, does that mean we can still summit Mt. Whitney, but instead of using the crest trail, we’d exit through another trail like cottonwood pass? But we can still summit Whitney? Thank you for all of your help and advice!

    1. Inga February 14, 2016

      It’s very confusing and I had to call the permit office to clarify. If you are going to summit Whitney from the WEST (from the JMT/Guitar Lake) and are going to return to the JMT you only need “Overnight”. “Overnight Visiting Whitney is for those who are perhaps bagging other peaks that fall inside the Whitney Zone, which is administered by Inyo NF. The summit of Whitney is in Sequoia NP.

  5. buzibu February 15, 2016

    I just went through the Whitney Portal exit application today at 7 am PST (did snag permits, but what a weird setup, searching by exit date and then scrambling to pick available entry dates, many were already filled since those opened up several days ago)) and it was for Aug 15. So I think it is not actually 180 days as per the calculator (which is giving me Aug 13 for 180 days from today) but the calendar date, 6 months.

    1. Inga February 15, 2016

      Yes, someone mentioned that so I changed it to 6 months. Sorry, I hope that didn’t hang you up. This document is slowly getting better as I collect more info so thank you for the update.

  6. Roleigh Martin February 15, 2016

    Great writeup, Inga! I just discovered this writeup today. I’m adding a link to this in the JMT Permit FAQ.

    1. Inga February 15, 2016

      Thanks, Roleigh.

  7. Nathan February 17, 2016

    Thanks for your help. When I did this it told me to wait for a response in March. I’m hesitant to stop applying in case I’m denied. Did you mention that it should be an immediate response?

    1. Inga February 21, 2016

      Hi Nathan, are you applying for a Whitney Portal exit? Those are subject to lottery and I’m not an expert in that area as I’ve never applied for one of those. Those are processed in March and you should know by April 1. http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/inyo/passes-permits/recreation/?cid=stelprdb5150055. If it’s NOT a Whitney Portal exit you should have instant confirmation.

  8. Richard Russell March 14, 2016

    Thanks for making this excellent web page Inga. After getting lots of rejections for a SOBO permit, I found your web page and used it to book a NOBO from Cottonwood Lakes-JM39. No faxes, no lottery! And there were 30 other permits available that day. So easy!

    1. Inga March 22, 2016

      Richard, I’m so glad the article was helpful. Have fun on your NOBO adventure!

  9. Stephen April 1, 2016

    What trailhead entrances can overnight permits be reserved from the Mammoth Lakes area for Northbound JMT travel, if we wanted to spend a couple weeks northbound JMT through to Tuolumne Meadows or Happy Isles? (i.e. Could one use a “Fish Lake” trailhead overnight permit to enter the JMT, even though that trail doesn’t connect to the JMT?

    1. Inga April 1, 2016

      Hi Stephen, I’m not an expert on every trail around Mammoth and I’m not familiar with Fish Lake Trail. Do you mean Fish Creek Trail? The ones I’m familiar with around Mammoth that would get you north on the JMT are Rush Creek (north of Mammoth-on the bus line), Agnew Meadow, Devil’s Postpile North, Red’s Meadow, Duck Pass. Your best bet might be to call the Ranger at the number I provided in the article. Good Luck!

  10. Stephen April 1, 2016

    Thanks, Inga, I had a momentary senior moment and so I guess I had meant Fish Creek. But thanks to your excellent enumeration of those trailheads, we have successfully made reservations for Duck Pass, and it appears that connects into the JMT and we can head north from there and meander our way north for a couple weeks, taking various day trips (I’m assuming that’s OK, right? Once you’re “on the JMT” you’re not restricted to any itinerary?)

    When we did that JMT segment south from Red’s Meadow in 2012, it was the summer right after a devastating 100 MPH wind storm had flattened miles of trees! JMT sections north of Mammoth were closed until mid-summer, due to impassable downed trees. It was also the first year of the drought, with only 50% of normal snowfall — many marked streams were DRY! One hopes this year will be a little wetter…

    Do you find there’s any essential difference hiking NOBO vs SOBO?

    1. Inga April 7, 2016

      Hi Stephen, That’s great that you got your permit. You’re correct, once you enter the correct trailhead on the correct date listed on your permit you are free to wander like John Muir did. Duck Pass does connect to the JMT and you’ll see some of that tree devastation–it still reflects the amazing power of Mother Nature. This year has had normal rain/snow so the streams should be replenished. The section you’re doing is beautiful–one of my favorites. I haven’t hiked NOBO (I have a 6 day NOBO section planned for this summer) so I can’t offer any advice there. Have fun!

  11. Rob June 2, 2016

    Hi Inga, I’ve been emailing (out of country so can’t call) with a ranger from Inyo National Forest, and he is telling me that with my current permit (plain overnight, leaving from cottonwood pass trailhead) I will not be allowed to summit Mt. Whitney. He is saying that I would need the “visiting Mt. Whitney” permit type, and that the Whitney zone extends to the west of guitar lake so it is not possible to summit without the “visiting” permit. It seems a little strange considering all of the maps I’ve seen of the Whitney Zone do not include this area to the west of the summit. Thanks for all of your great info about the trail!

    1. Inga June 3, 2016

      Hi Rob, there is a lot of mis-information out there and some of it comes from well-meaning rangers or volunteers manning info lines. When you get back, call again to (maybe a couple of times) and see if you get another story. I believed what you were told for a long time, but after researching it extensively, I believe that it is legal to summit Whitney from Cottonwood as long as you don’t exit to Whitney Portal. The wording is unfortunate and leads to confusion.

    2. Inga January 21, 2017

      Rob, Yikes, sorry for the ridiculous delay but I was having some issues with my website and I guess I wasn’t getting notified of comments. Anyway, for others reading later, you were getting incorrect information from the ranger you were emailing with, provided that you were NOT exiting at Whitney Portal. If you enter from the west, e.g. Guitar Lake, summit, and return to the west, you are fine with the Overnight permit. See my later comment with a quote from a ranger.

  12. Bor August 5, 2016

    Hi Inga! First of all thanks fort the excellent write-up! I now at least have an inkling of an idea on hot to get my permit. But I have some additional questions. I’m planning to hike the JMT NOBO next June/July, but a little bit extended. I want to start at Walker pass and finish in Yosemite. If I understand correctly, the Inyo National Forest is the first protected area the PCT crosses northbound from Walker Pass. If so, I need to get an »Overnight« pass from recreation.gov starting at Kennedy Meadows TH? Is that right? Is that the most southerly TH? In addition I then only need a California fire permit form my gas stove and I’ll be good to go? If this is the case I only have one follow up question. Permits for the Kennedy Meadows TH are designated as “w” as in “Available at the Facility”. What Facility is it referring to? Thank you for your replies and have nice day! Bor from Slovenia

    1. Inga August 21, 2016

      Hi Bor, Thank you for your post. I am not as familiar with the permit requirements south of Whitney and I looked around on the Inyo site but couldn’t determine the answers to your questions. I’d recommend calling the Inyo Ranger Station (phone # is in my original post) if you can. They usually answer their phones are are quite helpful. Or, if you have found some PCT forums they may be able to help more. If you really get stuck, write back and I can call for you. However, I’m just getting ready for two big trips and will be out of town for the next month. But since we have plenty of time I can help do more research in the fall. Good luck!

  13. John Muir Trail: Permits, Planning and Prep | Inga's Adventures December 31, 2016

    […] If you want to go Northbound the permit will be issued from Inyo National Forest through Recreation.gov. The traditional route would start at Whitney Portal and include the summit of Whitney. An alternative to this popular route, which is subject to lottery, is to start a little further south, at Horseshoe Meadow, going over Cottonwood Pass or New Army Pass. This adds approximately 20 miles to the JMT and is described in Wenk’s guidebook in the section called “Lateral Trails.” A topo map for this section can be downloaded for free from Halfmile (CA Section G).  You can also enter at many mid-way points, almost all in Inyo NF. I find that the easiest way to search the Recreation.gov site is to enter the name of the pass + permit, e.g. “Cottonwood Pass permit” or “Cottonwood Lakes permit. You’ll usually select “Overnight” options rather than “Cross Country”, which are described in the Permit General Rules document. You may select options to visit Mt. Whitney (approaching from the west and returning to the JMT/PCT) vs exiting Mt. Whitney (traveling west to east and exiting at Whitney Portal). For more information see Deciphering the Inyo National Forest Permit System. […]

  14. Lisa January 8, 2017

    That permit application process was just painful. Since I’m going NOBO from Cottonwood Pass, I was able to use your sample itinerary as a guide, however I could not find out how to locate the sites listed in the drop downs anywhere! I tried various maps, guide books, and apps; however, there was nothing anywhere that had the same names as the recreation.gov reservation system had in their itinerary item drop downs. That was just awful! They really should put the items in order by location, not alphabetical; it would be so much easier!

    1. Inga January 26, 2017

      I agree that it’s challenging to correlate the campsite names they use with other maps. Once we hiked it and I became more familiar with the terrain it got easier but that’s hardly helpful when you’re planning your first hike.

  15. Inga Aksamit January 19, 2017

    A reader, Jennifer Swann, was given info from an Inyo NF representative that didn’t sound right so she kept pursuing it, finally getting a call back from a ranger who provided a lengthy explanation. I’m not sure it’s that satisfying but Jennifer and I thought this should be shared. Bottom line, either Overnight or Overnight Visiting Whitney permits are OK.
    “Had a great conversation with Cindy Gervasoni at Inyo NF today. She explained everything beautifully. She said that there are actually two different Whitney zones. There is a Whitney Waste Management Zone and a Whitney Permit Management Zone. The Whitney Permit Management Zone does not include the summit when accessed from the west. The Whitney Waste Management Zone includes the summit and all of the mountain, plus adjacent areas (including Guitar Lake, but not Crabtree). So, if you summit from the West, you could legitimately argue that you are not in the Whitney Permit Management Zone…but you are in the the Whitney Waste Management Zone. The whole purpose of the extra $10 is waste management, therefore, the ethical thing to do would be to select Overnight Visiting Whitney for your permit, since you are indeed visiting the Whitney Waste Management Zone. Also, (as you and I already know) they provide the waste disposal kits and suggest you carry one (regardless of how you get to the top), since you may need to use it between Guitar Lake and the summit. She also made it clear that you do not have to select Overnight Visiting Whitney, as they cannot, by law, force you to pack out your waste. She compared the concept to LNT practices. Not enforceable, but hopefully practiced. She also said that by selecting Overnight Visiting Whitney, it is a method of education and outreach. When a person picks up an Overnight Visiting Whitney permit, they are issued a different set of rules and recommendations regarding waste management procedures in the Whitney Zone. You do not receive this if you do not select Visiting Whitney, as a different set of rules/recommendations apply. So, if an uninformed JMT hiker does not select Visiting Whitney, and summits Whitney, they may be unaware of the waste management expectations/recommendations should they need to “go” between Guitar Lake and the Summit. Cindy was clear that ultimately, either permit option is acceptable, however, they encourage Overnight Visiting Whitney, as it allows them to continue to educate, manage, and enhance the waste management program. So, this simply means that it is up to each of us as an individual to select the option that feels right to us.”

  16. Lori L Ritter January 21, 2017

    Hi Inga
    Thank you for the information it has been very helpful. I have noticed on recreation.gov that it looks like permits may not be offered for overnight Mount Whitney beyond the 22 of July. There is no longer the number 15 below the X. I tried calling Inyo in Bishop but no luck. Maybe it is some kind of glitch in their system. Any help suggestions much appreciated.

    1. Inga January 26, 2017

      Hi Lori, You are probably getting past the 6 month window. You can only apply for a permit 6 months in advance.

  17. Inga Aksamit January 23, 2017

    Additional nuances regarding the starting dates for quotas for Cottonwood Pass vs Cottonwood Lakes: Cottonwood Pass is in the Golden Trout Wilderness (quota starts last Friday in June) and Cottonwood Lakes is John Muir Wilderness (quota starts May 1).

  18. James Smith January 27, 2017

    Thank you so much for this write-up. By far one of the best for NOBO information. The sample itinerary is really a lifesaver for first-timers.

  19. Matt Schick February 22, 2017

    Thanks for the amazing walkthrough. After getting turned down left and right from the Yosemite lottery, it was so satisfying to just go and book a permit through Inyo

  20. Michael L. March 13, 2017

    Thank you Inga for the great write-up, it’s been very informative and helpful.

  21. Inga March 14, 2017

    More on the question of the “Overnight” vs “Overnight Visiting Whitney” permit. This is from an Inyo Ranger to Heather Goudreau.
    ———- Forwarded message ———-
    From: Gervasoni, Cindy -FS
    Date: Tue, Mar 14, 2017 at 2:11 AM
    Subject: RE: WWW Mail: Permit
    To: “hikingthejmt@gmail.com”
    You are allowed to summit from the Crabtree side with either permit. Both will work correctly for our quota system.
    With the visiting Mt Whitney permit type, Inyo National Forest uses the funds for higher costs of servicing the Whitney area.
    This includes staffing trail rangers, who are trained in emergency first aid and search and rescue, operating the visitor center where you will pick up your permit, and funding the wag bag program. We even pay for the wag bags provided at the trail junction near Crabtree Meadows Ranger Station!
    Cheers, Cindy
    Cindy Gervasoni
    Wilderness Permit Office and Web Team
    Supervisory Visitor Services Information
    Forest Service
    Inyo National Forest, Supervisor’s Office
    p: 760-873-2483
    351 Pacu Lane
    Bishop, CA 93514
    Caring for the land and serving people

  22. Greg April 29, 2017

    Thanks for all your hard work and making it easier for us!

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