The John Muir Trail (JMT) is a classic trail that covers 211 miles of scenic beauty in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. The trail starts at Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park (YNP) and ends on the summit of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States at 14,500 feet. However, there are no roads to the summit so the trail is effectively 11 miles longer, ending at Whitney Portal. In practical terms, that brings the total to 222 miles. Most of the route is shared with the much longer Pacific Crest Trail.
This was originally published in The Trek.
General Permit Information
This trail has exploded in popularity so getting a permit can be a challenge. Planning ahead can be helpful, generally starting about six months in advance. However, walkup permits are available in many locations so if you’re a last-minute kind of planner, that’s a good option.
The traditional direction is north-to-south (SOBO) but northbound (NOBO) is also popular. One challenge with going NOBO is that the elevation is significant with a start at 10,000 feet for one of the most popular entrance trailheads. Allowing some time to acclimate prior to the hike is recommended. The biggest passes are in the southern section. For SOBO hiker, it allows time to acclimate and get trail hardened for the most difficult sections. For the NOBO hiker, you can get the hardest parts out of the way first and then cruise to the finish. There are pros and cons to each direction.
The hiking season generally runs from around June through early October with peak season being mid-July through late August. The ideal start date depends heavily on the amount of snow received in the preceding winter so it can vary from early June to mid-July or later. Those hiking in late season should check resupply closing dates, which vary.
While we often speak of a “JMT permit,” there is no such thing. Permits in this region are issued for trailheads, not trails. When we talk about a JMT permit, it’s shorthand for a permit to access the JMT. Permits may be issued by a variety of jurisdictions, including National Parks and National Forests, for a large number of trailheads that start on or lead to the JMT. There are two National Parks (actually three but Sequoia and Kings Canyon are operated as one unit) and two National Forests that touch the JMT. Each has its own procedures and rules for obtaining a permit. Information is presented for the four agencies, including Yosemite National Park, Inyo National Forest (INF), Sierra National Forest (SNF) and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park (SEKI). Most people will obtain their permit from either Yosemite National Park or Inyo National Forest. Each agency recognizes permits issued by other agencies for travel that crosses national park or national forest boundaries as long as travel remains within the trail system.
Permits are required year-round for all the agencies involved. The permits themselves are free (e.g. if you get a walkup) though there is a nominal fee for the reservation, generally $5-10 per reservation plus $5 per person. Some charge an additional $15 if you exit Mt. Whitney via Whitney Portal.
2021 Special Procedures due to Covid-19
As of January, we don’t yet know if the procedures implemented in 2020 due to Covid-19 will carry over into 2021. In 2020, most agencies suspended in-person permit pick-up procedures as well as in-person walkup permits. Permits were issued online after an online group ranger briefing (Yosemite NP) or phone call to the ranger station (Inyo NF). “Walkup” permits were released online 1-2 weeks ahead of time. Stay tuned for 2021 procedures and check the respective websites for last minute changes. See the Yosemite “How will Covid-19 affect my visit” updates page; for other agencies, visit the links provided below.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is the most popular park to start the trail because Happy Isles is the traditional starting trailhead. From 2011 to 2015, Yosemite experienced a 100% increase in applications to hike the JMT. There are a number of restrictions that have been implemented in response to the increased traffic so doing some homework before applying for a permit will pay off.
Quick Facts (YNP)
There is a JMT-specific permit form that allows you to request a range of dates. Permits may be reserved 168 days in advance from only four trailheads (five options among those trailheads). Permits are assigned by daily lottery. There is a pass-through quota for Donohue Pass (the first big pass you will encounter just before you cross the Yosemite boundary), meaning that only 45 hikers a day may exit the park via Donohue Pass. If you want to hike Half Dome, a popular side trip, you can request a permit with your application. You will need to note your first night campsite (see below). If you are selected for a permit, you will receive confirmation by email. Your confirmation will include instructions for payment. You still don’t have a permit; it’s a permit confirmation and you’ll need to pick up the paper permit at a Wilderness Permit Station in Yosemite before your hike.
Details and Links (YNP)
Yosemite Permit Application
- Wilderness permit overview from Yosemite National Park.
- Permit Information from Yosemite Conservancy (the agency that issues permits)
- Permit application for the rolling lottery for trailheads that access the JMT (make sure you use this JMT-specific application that allows you to select a range of dates). This is only used to obtain a permit more than 168 days in advance.
- Permit application for any other Yosemite trip, if you don’t need a Donohue pass-through permit or if you are applying for a JMT trailhead less than 168 days in advance.
- Covid information from Yosemite National Park.
Trailheads & First Night Campsite
- Happy Isles to Sunrise/Merced Lakes Pass Through (first night camp: Sunrise Creek, about 5 miles from trailhead)
- Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley (first night camp: Little Yosemite Valley, about 3.5 miles from trailhead)
- Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley (first night camp: Little Yosemite Valley, about 7 miles from trailhead)
- Sunrise Lakes (first night camp: Sunrise Lakes, about 3 miles from trailhead)
- Lyell Canyon (first night camp: Upper Lyell Canyon, about 10 miles from trailhead)
Trailhead Quotas. See this chart for quota information for each trailhead. Sixty percent of permits are reservable with 40% being available for walkups (first-come, first-serve on the day before the hike). Quotas are in place year-round.
Yosemite Trailhead Map. Helpful for understanding the direction of travel requirement and where camping is allowed the first night (must camp beyond the arrow).
Wilderness Permits Reservation Window (168-Day Chart). Use this chart to make sure you submit your application on the correct date. Submit the application one day before the 168-day target.
Trailhead Report. If you don’t get a permit, check this daily to see if a spot opens up from cancellations. Submit an application online using the regular permit application (not the rolling lottery) if you see any openings.
Half Dome Permit Information. Find information for backpackers and hikers.
Permit Pick Up. Pick up your permit at any Wilderness Permit Station the day before or by 10 am the day of the hike. During Covid-times, the permit was sent via email after attending a mandatory ranger-led group video conference up to two weeks before the start date. If this is the procedure, you will receive an email from Yosemite with the information.
Mt. Whitney. Your permit from Yosemite National Park (or any agency other than Inyo NF) allows to you summit Mt. Whitney and exit via Whitney Portal as long as this is listed as your exit.
Walkup Permits. For Lyell Canyon trailhead, 60% (15) of permits are reservable and 40% (10) are held for walkups on a first-come, first-serve basis. Note that all of the JMT permits are reservable from Happy Isles, Glacier Point and Sunrise Lakes trailheads; the only way a walkup permit is available from these trailheads is if any permits were cancelled. During Covid times, there were no physical walkup permits; all “walkup permits” were released online a couple of weeks in advance.
Call: If you have questions, use the contact form or call the Wilderness Reservation Office at 209-372-0740.
Inyo National Forest
Inyo National Forest covers a large swath of land that affects the JMT, not because the JMT lies within so much of it, but because Inyo contains so many lateral trails that provide access to the JMT. Highway 395 runs along the eastern edge of the Sierra and provides road access to many trailheads in Inyo National Forest. Unlike Yosemite’s lottery system, Inyo uses Recreation.gov to obtain permits so you can see right away whether there is space. Sound easy? Not so fast. Inyo’s system also has some nuances, so again, it pays to do some research ahead of time so your application process goes smoothly.
Quick Facts (INF)
Permits may be reserved six months in advance (not complicated—if you want a permit on July 15, apply on January 15). Permits drop into the online system at 7 AM Pacific time and may be taken within seconds for peak season dates (the time keeps changing between midnight and 7 AM PT but in 2021, it’s 7 AM). Permits involving entering or exiting via Whitney Portal are not easy to get due to demand. Many people start 20 miles further south at Horseshoe Meadow to avoid these restrictions. When you apply for your permit, you will be asked to select a non-binding campsite from a dropdown list for each night of your trip. Consult the links below for sample itineraries to prepare for this step as the system will time out if you take too long. Your permit confirmation is not your permit.
Details and Links (INF)
Inyo Wilderness Permit Information. Read this to get a head start on Inyo regulations before you apply for a permit.
Permit Application from Recreation.gov. Start with “Explore Available Permits.” Thru-hikers will select “Overnight” for the type of permit while those exiting via Whitney Portal will select “Overnight Exiting Whitney.”
Trailheads and Quotas. The number of Inyo trailheads is vast. These charts list the JMT trailheads and quotas (reservable and walkup). Quota season is from May 1-November 1. Most thru-hikers start at Horseshoe Meadow (10,000 feet elevation), choosing either the Cottonwood Pass or Cottonwood Lakes Trails to avoid having to participate in the Whitney lottery. See below if you want to start or end at Whitney Portal. Thru-hikers may summit Whitney with a regular “Overnight” permit as long as they return to the JMT. If you’re doing a section hike of the JMT, you may start at a wide variety of trailheads so consultation with a map is in order.
Whitney Portal. If you want to start at Whitney Portal, you will need to participate in the Whitney annual lottery or apply online for any spots that might still be available after the lottery. There are no walkups for Whitney Portal but you can make a web reservation up until the day before your hike. If you are starting at another trailhead in Inyo and want to end at Whitney Portal, you will need an additional exit permit. When you apply for an overnight permit through the Recreation.gov link, select the “Overnight Exiting Whitney” permit type. This is a difficult permit to get. The “Overnight Exiting Whitney” permit is only required for hikes starting in Inyo; permits from other parks include exiting to Whitney Portal. If you start at any other trailhead in Inyo National Forest, you may summit Whitney from the west with no other permit as long as you return to the JMT/PCT.
JMT Itinerary Location Names. This chart has the names of camping locations that you’ll find in the dropdown list on the application.
Permit Pick Up Locations and Instructions. You’ll pick up the permit one or two days before or by 10 am the day of your hike at one of the four ranger stations. During Covid times, permits were emailed up to two weeks in advance. You must request the permit. Follow the instructions provided in the link.
Walkup Permits. Visit any Inyo Forest Service ranger station to obtain walkup permits. During Covid times, walkup permits were only released online, in advance using the regular permit system on Recreation.gov.
Half Dome: If you want to hike Half Dome in Yosemite, you’ll need to apply through Yosemite as if you were a day hiker (reciprocal permits are no longer honored).
Call: If you have questions, call the Wilderness Permit Office at 760-873-2483.
Sierra National Forest
Sierra National Forest is located between Yosemite and SEKI, to the west of Inyo. It is only used by hikers approaching from the west, which is not as popular as east-side entrances due to a lack of convenient roads. The often single lane, winding Kaiser Pass Road leads to Lake Thomas A. Edison where a popular JMT-hiker resupply spot, Vermilion Valley Resort (VVR), is located. VVR operates a shuttle from Fresno to the resort. Muir Trail Ranch, another popular resupply location, is a few miles away. To enter at Sierra National Forest means that you’re accessing the JMT in the middle.
Quick Facts (SNF)
Starting in March 2021, Sierra National Forest will issue wilderness permits through Recreation.gov, replacing the mail-in form. The process will be similar to that of Inyo National Forest. There is a quota but permits are easy to get. Sixty percent of permits are reservable and 40% are available for walk-ups.
Details and Links (SNF)
Sierra National Forest Permit Information. Starting in March 2021, Sierra National Forest will issue wilderness permits through Recreation.gov.
Trailheads and Quotas. This chart lists the trailheads and quotas (reservable and walkup). Quotas are in place year-round. JMT hikers could use the following trailheads:
- Mono Creek Trail
- Bear Ridge
- Bear Diversion
Mt. Whitney. Your permit from Sierra National Forest allows to you summit Mt. Whitney and exit via Whitney Portal as long as this is listed as your exit. An extra fee is charged for a Whitney Portal exit.
Permit Pick Up: Pick up the permit from the High Sierra Ranger District office in Prather up to 48 hours before or by 12 noon on the day of your hike. The VVR shuttle will stop in Prather. During Covid times, call to inquire about pickup procedures.
Walkup Permits: Visit any Sierra National Forest ranger station to obtain walkup permits. During Covid times, call to inquire about walkup procedures.
Call: If you have questions, call the High Sierra Ranger District at 559-855-5355.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
Nearly half of the JMT goes through Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks (SEKI), which are administered together, but the trail hugs the eastern side of the parks. To approach from the west, there are a couple of options through this rugged part of the Sierra. There are no trailheads to the east of SEKI as a thin strip of Inyo National Forest contains all of the eastern trailheads.
Quick Facts (SEKI)
Like Inyo National Forest, Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park uses Recreation.gov to obtain permits. This procedure started in January 2021.
Details and Links (SEKI)
Wilderness permit information from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
Permit Application at Recreation.gov. The quota season runs from late May 28 through mid-September. During the non-quota season, self-issue wilderness permits available at visitors centers and not subject to daily entry limits or fee.
Trailheads and Quotas. Quotas are included in this Wilderness Trip Planner. Quota season is late May through mid-September. Most hikers use the High Sierra Trail (Lodgepole area), which starts in Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park to join JMT and ends on top of Mt. Whitney. Hikers may elect to head north on the JMT from the High Sierra Trail. Other trails that access the JMT include Woods Creek and Bubbs Creek Trails from Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park.
Wilderness Trail Descriptions. Brief descriptions of the trails are provided but if you follow the link to the High Sierra Trail, you’ll find one of the best planners for this trail.
Permit Pick Up. Your permit confirmation will state where to pick up your permit after 1 pm the day before or no later than 9 am the day of your hike.
Permit Stations. Visitor Centers and Ranger Stations are listed.
Mt. Whitney. Your permit from SEKI allows to you summit Mt. Whitney and exit via Whitney Portal as long as this is listed as your exit.
Call: If you have questions, call the Wilderness Office at 559-565-3766.
There are many trails that access the John Muir Trail and many ways to hike the trail. You may want to hike the trail starting at either end or complete one section at a time. Some even choose to start in the middle, hike north and then return to their beginning and hike south. For the adventurous explorer, there are routes that can be created that parallel the John Muir Trail that access equally scenic areas that may be lightly traveled (and less maintained).
Photos by Inga Aksamit