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 (e.g. Google), but it’s not so easy within the Recreation.gov site. See “Direct Links” below for links to popular trailheads to access the JMT.
To find a trailhead that isn’t listed, search for the name of the trailhead in your 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. A good place to start is Inyo National Forest Trail List.
DATE, TIME, LOCATION
- 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.
- A-There will be an “A” to show availability, along with the number of open slots.
- X-If the date box is not clickable and has an “X” it means that either it’s too far in the future or too many permits are being requested in your group for the number available.
- R-“R” means all spots are already reserved.
- Dates open up 6 months in advance, by date, e.g. July 4 opens on January 4.
- Applications open at 7 a.m. PT/10 a.m. ET each day.
- You are not allowed to stay in one location longer than 14 days. This does not mean that there is a 14-day limit to camp in Inyo NP; it simply means you can’t stay in one single location for 14 days. You may stay in the wilderness as long as you wish.
- Note that the Whitney Portal exit quota applies to permits obtained through Inyo NF only. There is no exit quota for permits obtained through Yosemite NP (e.g. for a YNP permit, you may exit Whitney Portal without restriction).
GETTING THE PERMIT
- Obtain the permit for one night initially (if you are exiting anywhere EXCEPT Whitney Portal, which has an exit quota). This allows you to quickly secure your permit. You may then edit your permit details, including the exit date and the campsite locations.
- Initially, leave the Exit Point with the default value or enter any location and change it later. However, if you do want to choose a date more than 14 days from your entry date, you MUST change the Exit Point to a different location. The system will then allow you to enter any date you wish.
- You may choose any Trip Itinerary location for the first night because you can edit it later. If you are starting at Horseshoe Meadow, logical choices would be Chicken Spring Lake, SEKI-Rock Creek or one of the lakes, depending on whether you chose the Cottonwood Pass or Cottonwood Lakes Trail.
- Plan your itinerary on a spreadsheet before you sit down to finalize the permit reservation. You will need to select a campsite location from a dropdown list 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. See the Sample Itinerary below for “Inyo Friendly” camp names and click on the map image above.
- There is an “Other/Don’t Know” option at the top of the drop down. For a trip of more than 14 days, it will not accept all “Other/Don’t Know” options. You will bump up against the rule about not being allowed to stay in one location 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 identify the names of campsites where you plan to stay and use “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.
- You can revise the itinerary at any time online and when you pick up the permit.
- Campsites for your first night are presented in a limited list of sites close to the entry trailhead on the Recreation.gov website. Campsites for subsequent nights are listed alphabetically in a vastly longer list. 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.” See below for a partial list of potential northbound sites starting from Horseshoe Meadows. 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. A list of all Inyo campsite locations can be found below, under MAPS AND LISTS.
- Permit Types-There are several permit types to choose from.
- Overnight– Most people accessing the JMT from Inyo trailheads can choose this one unless they are EXITING through Whitney Portal. You can use this if you are summiting Whitney from the JMT and are returning to the JMT going either direction, but read the information in the Overnight Visiting Mt. Whitney section below. If you summit Whitney from the west and return the JMT, you will not get cited or fined with this permit. This has been checked and verified multiple times by multiple people, including myself, in 2017 and 2018.
- Overnight Visiting Mt. Whitney– Inyo NF prefers that you use this permit type if you are entering the Whitney Zone or Mount Whitney Management Area (e.g.around the Whitney summit). There is a small additional fee which supports the ranger activities in this highly impacted area. It is voluntary. If you are approaching the summit from Guitar Lake and returning to the JMT you may use either Overnight or Overnight Visiting Mt. Whitney.
- Overnight Exiting Mt. Whitney-this the permit you need if you plan to exit via Whitney Portal (east side). These are hard to get and are subject to the Trail Crest Exit Quota. This means that you will need an Inyo NF entry and exit permit, which are separate quotas. If you can’t get an Overnight Exiting Whitney permit, consider exiting further south over Cottonwood Pass to Horseshoe Meadow if you’re traveling southbound. You may obtain an Overnight permit exiting out of Cottonwood Pass; later you can try to adjust it to exit from Whitney Portal either by calling or getting it changed at the time you pick up your permit (walkup permits are available). Remember that you cannot apply for the Overnight Exiting Mt. Whitney permit until six months prior to your exit date, not entry date. More information about the Trail Crest Exit Quota can be found on the Inyo NF Forest Service site.
- Cross-Country-These permits are for adventurous explorers who plan to navigate without the benefit of a trail. The group size is limited to eight. Most JMT hikers will not get this permit. If you are doing Steve Roper’s Sierra High Route or variation you would get a Cross-Country permit. However, an Overnight permit is fine for solo hikers or small groups, even for cross-country routes as the only difference is the group size.
- Mt. Whitney Lottery-This is beyond the scope of this article and is only for people entering from Whitney Portal to climb Mt. Whitney (either as a day-hike, overnight hike or extending to the JMT/PCT). Lottery applications are accepted between February 1 and March 15. Use this link to find more information.
- Definitions of Cross Country/Overnight and other general information can be found on the Inyo National Forest page at Recreation.gov.
- 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 separate 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 two 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 from 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
Inyo Location Names-Complete List (Google Drive PDF: list by Yoshihiro Murakami)
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 (at a higher elevation). 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-Evolution Basin
- SEKI-McClure Meadow
- 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 trail quota). 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.
This page was reviewed for accuracy by an Inyo NF Ranger in 2018.
RELATED ARTICLES FROM INGA’S ADVENTURES
- 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
- 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.”
- Elizabeth Wenk’s supplemental printable maps from Horseshoe Meadow to Crabtree Meadows (find Wenk Cottonwood Map and Wenk Rock Creek Map).
- 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.