How to Get a Permit to Hike the John Muir Trail

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 Mount 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.

John Muir Trail Permit General Info

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, walk-up 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 hikers, 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 walk-up) 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 Mount Whitney via Whitney Portal.

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

Trailheads and 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 walk-ups (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.

Full Trailhead Report. If you don’t get a permit, check this daily to see if there a spot opens up (be sure to look at BOTH the full trailheads and further down, Donohue Exit Quota permits).

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 a.m. the day of the hike.

Mount Whitney. Your permit from Yosemite National Park (or any agency other than Inyo NF) allows to you summit Mount Whitney and exit via Whitney Portal as long as this is listed as your exit.

Call: If you have questions, 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 midnight Pacific Time and may be taken within seconds for peak season dates. Permits involving entering or exiting via Whitney Portal are not easy to get due to demand. Many people start 20 miles farther 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 drop-down 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 at 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. See the John Muir Trail Entry Points chart for a succinct list ordered by alphabet and location and the Wilderness Trail Names and Quotas chart for quota information (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 an annual lottery or apply online for any spots that might still be available after the lottery. There are no walk-ups for Whitney Portal. 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 drop-down 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.

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)

Permits are issued beginning in January and up to three weeks in advance of a hike. Apply by mail using a printable form on the website and a check for payment. You will receive your permit confirmation in the mail. 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. This national forest has a straightforward, if old-school, process.

Sierra National Forest Permit Application. Print the one-page form, complete the information requested, and mail it in. For trailheads around VVR, use the High Sierra Ranger District address in Prather, CA (listed on the form).

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
  • Florence

Mount Whitney. Your permit from Sierra National Forest allows to you summit Mount 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 noon on the day of your hike. The VVR shuttle will stop in Prather.

Call: If you have questions, call the High Sierra Ranger District at 559-855-5355.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Nearly half of the JMT goes through Sequoia and 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)

The one-page permit application on the website may be submitted via email or mail beginning March 1 or up to two weeks in advance of a hike. You will receive your permit confirmation via email with a link for payment.

Details and Links (SEKI)

Wilderness permit information. SEKI has information on the permit, payment and pick up.

Permit Application Form. Complete the form and send it to SEKI by email.

Trailheads and Quotas. Quotas are included in this Wilderness Trip Planner. Quota season is late May through mid-September. Most JMT hikers use the High Sierra Trail (Lodgepole area), which starts in Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park, joins the JMT heading south and ends on top of Mount 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 major trails are described but the link to the High Sierra Trail provides a detailed, day-by-day description that is one of the best resources out there for the trail. Note that the High Sierra Trail is distinct from the cross-country Sierra High Route, though people often mix up the names.

Trailhead Reservation Availability. This is updated during quota season.

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 and Visitor Centers are listed here.

Mount 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).

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Comments 5

  • Varun Sharma : Feb 17th

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  • Dave : Feb 24th

    Hi . Where can I find the info on how long these hikes and individual trail sections typically take to complete, for the “average” hiker. What would be the best links to gather that info, I’d love to read more from folks that have completed a lot of the trails you have listed.

    Reply
    • Inga : Feb 25th

      My colleague, John Ladd, does an annual survey of JMT hikers and his data show an ave pace of 12-13 miles per day, though it varies quite a bit. At 12 mpd, it would take 18.5 days so 3 weeks is a good starting point if you think you might want to allow for some zero days or a few shorter days. I also see itineraries for 1, 2 or 4 weeks. A PCT hiker hitting the Sierra after 700 miles of hiking can probably do 20 mpd in the right conditions. To get more info, join our John Muir Trail Facebook Group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/JohnMuirTrail/ or the John Muir Trail IO group at [email protected]. There are many blogs and You Tube videos from JMT hikers and I wrote an account of my trip in my book, “Highs and Lows on the John Muir Trail.”

      Reply
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