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. Before you request a permit, READ the information provided by Inyo National Forest.
To apply for a permit, go to Recreation.gov, Inyo National Forest – Wilderness Permits.
DATE, TIME, LOCATION
- You can apply for a permit six months before your start date. A Whitney Portal exit is subject to a Trail Crest Exit Quota and will require an exit permit.
- A number (e.g. 10) in the box under the date indicates the number of permits available.
- A “W” in the box means only “walkup” permits are available (either all the reservable permits have been taken or it’s a non-quota period [winter]).
- An empty box means that it’s too far out and is beyond the 6 month window.
- Click on the box with the number of permits listed for the date you desire, then click “Book Now” and follow the directions on the form. Note that if you selected a “Overnight Exiting Mt. Whitney” permit, you’ll need to select your exit date on the second tab.
- Dates open up 6 months in advance, by date, e.g. July 4 opens on January 4.
- Permits are reservable from the last Friday in June to September 15. From September 15 to the last Friday in June is a non-quota time but walkup permits are still required.
- Two hard and fast rules: you must start hiking on the exact date and trailhead noted on your permit.
- Applications open at 7 am Pacific Time 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 NF; 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 based on the last date you indicate on your permit.
- Note that the Trail Crest (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) or other jurisdictions.
APPLYING FOR THE PERMIT
- Know your entry point, at least the first night’s camping area and your entry and exit dates.
- Select your entry point (such as Cottonwood Pass or Cottonwood Lakes) from a list.
- For the first night from Cottonwood Pass, many people will choose Chicken Spring Lake or SEKI – Rock Creek (84) for a Cottonwood Pass entry and SEKI – Army Pass or #1 Lake (Cottonwood Lakes) for a Cottonwood Lakes entry. You can type any word such as “Chicken” or “Rock” to pull up locations with that word.
- Plan your itinerary on a spreadsheet before you start the application. You are only required to enter the first night to reserve the permit but you will need to edit it later to fill in the rest of your itinerary to be able to receive the permit. 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 are three “Other” options for camping locations: Other/Don’t Know, SEKI-Other, and Yosemite-Other. For long trips, it will not accept “Other” options for more than 14 days. 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 “Other” 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 or at least know your general route.
- You can revise the itinerary at any time online and when you pick up the permit or when they email it to you.
- 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,” “Yosemite-Other” 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.
- As of 2019, there are two type of default permits, “Overnight” and “Overnight Exiting Whitney”. Other permit types have been replaced by specific questions on the form.
- 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. 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. To be clear, you DO NOT NEED a specific permit to summit Whitney.
- Overnight Exiting Mt. Whitney-this is the permit you need if you plan to exit via Whitney Portal (east side) and is only necessary for permits issued by Inyo. The entry and exit permit can be obtained at the same time if you are starting at an Inyo NF Trailhead. These can be hard to get and are subject to the Trail Crest Exit Quota. You do not need a separate permit to summit Whitney but you do need this Trail Crest Exit Permit to descend via the east side to Whitney Portal.
- First step: Complete the process for the entry permit with the date and trailhead entry you desire.
- Next step: the screen for exit permit will appear when you proceed through the required fields.
- More information about the Trail Crest Exit Quota can be found on the Inyo NF Forest Service site.
- Remember that the Exit Permit is only required for permits issued by Inyo (needed for permits issued by Yosemite or other jurisdictions).
- There are 25 permits per day for Whitney Trail Crest exit, 15 of which are reservable in advance while the other 10 are held for walk-ins.
- 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.
- Inyo NF Wilderness Regulations
- Call Inyo NF to speak to helpful people who can answer questions: (760) 873-2483. International: 606-515-6777.
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. As of 2019, there are no exceptions.
International Travelers: If the automated system won’t accept entries such as your phone number or zip code, enter all 9s but make sure your email is correct as that’s how they’ll communicate with you. Phone format: 999-999-9999. Zip code format: 99999.
You may list up to three alternate leaders. This cannot be edited after you complete the application! It is strongly recommended to enter one or more names. If the leader is unable to participate, the permit cannot be issued to other members of the party unless they are listed as an alternate leader.
PICKING UP THE PERMIT (and Walkup Info)
Check this Permit Pickup Instructions link for the latest information from Inyo NF. In 2020, the ranger stations were not open for permit pickup due to Covid so permits were sent via email. It appears that this will be the case for 2021. This is not an automatic process! You must call or email them within 2-14 days before your start date and answer specific questions that are outlined on the web page.
Scroll down on the Inyo page to find information on how walkup permits are being handled.
FOREST SERVICE INFO
Here are some direct links to some popular Inyo National Forest trailheads (Forest Service sites are listed). These are just examples; there are other trailheads that access the JMT. These are in order from south to north.
COMPLETE LIST OF CAMPSITE NAMES
Map of Inyo NF Trails on Recreation.gov
List of JMT entry points within Inyo NF
List of Inyo JMT Campsites from Inyo NF
Alternate List of Inyo JMT Campsites
Inyo Location Names-Complete List (Google Drive PDF: list by Yoshihiro Murakami)
Map of Inyo Trailheads (PDF) – see p. 9. Or click on the Wilderness Planning Guide from this Inyo page.
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 and updated by the author in 2019 & 2020 to reflect the changes in the permit form.
- 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.
Horseshoe Meadow campground