Permits: Getting the Golden Ticket

Planning for the John Muir Trail requires time, and a lot of it. Depending on the person (i.e. how much of a procrastinator you are), planning should begin anywhere from 3-6 months AHEAD of time. Due to a significant increase in the number of visitors to the area each year, backcountry permits are REQUIRED for use of the trail. Depending upon your itinerary, either beginning in Yosemite and going south (referred to as SoBo), or beginning at Mount Whitney and going north (referred to as NoBo), the permit application process can differ.

|| Going SoBo ||

The traditional manner in which the JMT is traveled is from north to south, beginning at Yosemite National Park’s Happy Isles campground and culminating at Mount Whitney (via Whitney Portal), the continental United States’ highest peak at 14,508′. This route allows for hikers to acclimatize to the high alpine conditions of much of the trail. Beginning at 4,305′ at Happy Isles, hikers quickly climb up to the Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite National Park, which lies at around 8,500′. Much of the trail, from this point onward, lies above 8,000′, making the possibility of elevation sickness a real concern at times. However, going SoBo allows for a gradual ascent to Mt. Whitney, making acclimatization to the high alpine environment much more achievable.

The demand for permits going SoBo, however, is HIGH. Backcountry permits for a SoBo itinerary must be applied for through the Yosemite National Park office via a lottery system. You may apply for permits 168 days ahead of time (24 weeks), and my advice is that you apply as soon as that window opens. The new lottery system allows you to apply for a “range” of flexible entry dates to maximize your possibility of receiving a permit. Due to high demands, the Yosemite Conservancy limits permits exiting the park via Donahue Pass to 45 per day, which makes backcountry permits from Happy Isles to Whitney Portal a luxury few get to enjoy. My advice: don’t get your heart set on touching every single millimeter of the JMT from start to finish.

There ARE alternate permitting options that are much easier to pull. Out of Yosemite the main options for JMT access are:

  1. Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley (the highest demand permit so. . . good luck)
  2. Happy Isles to Sunrise/Merced Lake Pass Through
  3. Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley
  4. Happy Isles to Illilouette Basin
  5. Sunrise Lakes Trailhead
  6. Lyell Canyon

The “official” start of the JMT lies at the Happy Isles trailhead, thus, permits out of the Happy Isles are will be in highest demand. The two permitting options out of Happy Isles will BOTH be nearly impossible to get. The hottest ticket, Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley, allows for camping within Little Yosemite Valley, which lies around 4-5 miles along the JMT up from Happy Isles. The Sunrise/Merced Lake Pass Through STRICTLY requires that hikers do NOT camp in the Little Yosemite Valley, which makes the first night a bit trickier. The Glacier Point trailhead IS a great alternate option for access to the JMT; instead of climbing UP out of Happy Isles, the initial hike out of Glacier Point is a descent, and meets up with the JMT after around 3-5 miles. Another option that few realize is Happy Isles to Illilouette Basin, which REQUIRES that hikers make camp in Illilouette Basin on their first night, which can be accessed off of the Panorama Trail Junction approximately 2.5 miles up from Happy Isles.

For those who are not set on beginning within Yosemite Valley, options are much easier to access. Permits out of Sunrise Lakes, which can be accesed by hiking in via Tenaya Lake, are generally available; using this permitting option only cuts off approximately 12 miles of the JMT. The most accessible permitting option is out of the Lyell Canyon trailhead; these permits can also be pulled by walk-up permit at the Tuolomne Meadows Ranger office. However, if you wish to get a walk-up permit you MUST get there early if you wish to get a permit.

|| Going NoBo ||

An option that few JMT hikers realize until they go through the Yosemite lottery process is the option of going NoBo, beginning at Cottonwood Lakes (near the Mt. Whitney zone) and going north towards Yosemite National Park. This is the same direction that PCT thru-hikers follow on their trek from the Mexico border to Canada, so no reinventing of the wheel is necessary. Some of the benefits of going NoBo include:

  • Pulling a NoBo JMT permit is MUCH easier than going SoBo. Permits can be reserved via Recreation.gov with the click of a mouse.
  • The sun will be at your back, not at your face, when hiking NoBo.
  • According to some hikers, climbing up to the alpine passes is easier going NoBo, as well as a descent of the Golden Staircase, instead of an ascent.

The main difficulty with the NoBo itinerary is the quick climb to high elevations; instead of culminating the 200+ mile trek with an ascent of Whitney (14,505′), NoBos quickly climb to the Whitney zone, risking altitude illness before even beginning the JMT. Many NoBOs deal with this issue by climbing from Cottonwood Lakes via either Cottonwood Pass or Military Pass, using those hikes as acclimatization.

Another difficulty of the NoBo itinerary is the availability of resupply options. For NoBos, the first resupply option comes at the Kearsarge Corridor with access to Independence, CA. In this area pack trains and other hiker services can meet you with food cache, as well as shuttle down to Independence, CA. However, the Kearsarge corridor comes around 30ish miles into the trek, not counting the additional miles just to get to the JMT from the Cottonwood Lakes area.

|| Mileage ||

In order to get a sense of how many days you wish to spend on the JMT, it is necessary to have a sense of how many miles you wish to hike each day. Some people have a sense of how many miles they can put in throughout a day, others may not. Ultimately, when planning out your hike ahead of time, understand that your itinerary will most CERTAINLY change once you get out on the trail, whether it is because of weather, injury, or just morning laziness.

Experienced hikers will have a sense of their “pace”, meaning how fast they can hike on average. For those who do not know their own pace, a good conservative estimate is about 2 miles per hour. However, this is flat terrain pace; for changes in elevation a good estimate is to add 30 minutes per every 1000 feet of elevation gained. So, for example, a 4 mile hike with 2000 feet of elevation change might take around 3 hours (2 hours flat terrain consideration, add 1 hour for elevation). However, this is HIKING TIME. This does not account for stopping/starting due to snack/lunch/water breaks, photos, etc. Additionally, this estimation does not account for the difficulty of certain types of terrain. For example, scrambling up a mountain pass will take you longer than walking through a canyon will. My advice: use the 2 mph, 30 mins for 1000 ft estimate as a baseline, and understand that it will probably take you longer than you think.

Another thought to implement into your mileage planning is how much light you will have per day. In the summer Sierra the sun generally rises around 530 AM and sets around 830 PM, allowing for nearly 15 hours of daylight! This gives plenty of time to get those miles in. However, I strongly recommend getting up early, close to when the sun rises, and getting those miles in early for a number of reasons:

  1. Afternoon storms are common in the Sierra, and you do NOT want to get caught out exposed.
  2. In snow-covered conditions, afternoon post holing (meaning falling through loose snow) is the WORST. Spare yourself the misery and get up early so you can travel on the hard-crusted morning snow.
  3. Get into camp early and allow yourself some time to enjoy the scenery. While hiking your eyes are more focused on your next step rather than the absolutely stunning landscape around you.
  4. By giving yourself more daylight you can hike slower and enjoy more of the views. It is not a race out there.