Let’s face it, planning for a long-distance hiking adventure can be daunting; there are a LOT of details to take into consideration. Before you can begin any overnight excursion out on the John Muir Trail (JMT), you will need to acquire a permit. This post offers a hassle-free step-by-step guide for obtaining a permit to hike one of the most iconic trails in the United States. As long as you have an open mind to hiking a non-traditional route (although it is becoming more and more desirable these days), then you can easily obtain your permit within a matter of hours…no waiting and no rejections.
These instructions pertain to a northbound (NOBO) route starting at Horseshoe Meadows, hiking over Cottonwood Pass Trail then up the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) until you intersect the JMT. You will need to travel east on the JMT to ascend Whitney and then back out retracing your path to continue up northbound on the JMT. This does add some additional miles to your trip (it is about 30 miles from Horseshoe Meadows to the Whitney Summit); however, this route does have its advantages.
- You don’t have to enter the John Muir Trail Yosemite Permit Quota/Lottery System and hope you are lucky enough to obtain a permit (this is for a southbound hike)
- Exiting the JMT at Mt. Whitney via Mt. Whitney Trail to Whitney Portal is subject to a daily quota. This complicates the planning process
- Entering the JMT via Whitney Portal is subject to a lottery system. These permits are in extremely high demand.
- A little-known perk for obtaining a wilderness permit starting at Cottonwood Pass is that your Inyo National Forest wilderness permit is valid for hiking Half Dome! No need to enter yet another lottery. This is one of only two exceptions allowed to hike Half Dome with a wilderness permit issued outside of Yosemite (the other exception is a wilderness pass issued for Cottonwood Lakes trailhead). IMPORTANT UPDATE!!!: This perk is going away after 2018, there will be no exceptions starting in 2019.
- You will be lightening the load of traditional entry points for the JMT (Happy Isles/Yosemite and Mt. Whitney/Whitney Portal)
- You will need to acclimate to altitude elsewhere before venturing out on this endeavor. Horseshoe Meadows and the walk-in campground resides at 10,000 feet above sea level. Therefore, you will not have the convenience of gradually acclimating to altitude as you would if you were to start in Yosemite Valley and hike southbound on the JMT.
- You will be adding some additional miles to your trip, and you will be re-hiking a segment of the JMT that you already hiked. It is approximately 30 miles from Horseshoe Meadows Campground to the summit of Mt. Whitney; however, if you were to enter/exit at Whitney Portal, you would have to hike about 9 miles along the Mt. Whitney Trail, so taking that into consideration, it adds only 20 miles to your trip.
Step I – Plan your itinerary
There is some advance prep-work that you will need to do before beginning the application process, which is the stage I found to be the most tedious. You will need to provide a detailed trip itinerary with your permit application; in other words, you will need to specify a campsite location for every night you are on the trail. This helps the forest service limit the traffic load on the trail at any given point and can also serve as a reference which can help to locate you in the event of an emergency situation.
The trip itinerary drop-down list is organized in alphabetical order. The list items do not necessarily correlate with any map, guide, or online resources that I have found to date and the list is exhaustively long, which makes item selection mind-boggling. However, I did discover an extremely handy SEKI (an acronym for Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks) Backcountry Zones Map that someone named ‘tomba’ posted on a High Sierra Topix Forum (thank you, tomba!). These zones are used in the drop-down list (grouped together using the prefix “SEKI”) for the wilderness permits to designate planned camping locations. This map will help you outline the majority of your hike for the permit.
I personally used a combination of different tools to plan out my hike:
- The principal instrument used is Guthook Guides for iOS. I have used Guthook’s apps for the AT, PCT, and JMT and found it a perfect complement to the other guides that I have used both for planning and on-trail navigation. It is the easiest way I’ve managed to calculate distances between A and B with taking terrain into account. You can easily create trip segments into realistic targets.
- National Geographic John Muir Trail Topographic Map Guide – This is a waterproof, tear-resistant, and compact guide that maps out the entire JMT. Not only can you visualize the terrain at-a-glance, but you can also see various landmarks that do not exist in the Guthook Guides.
- Elizabeth Wenk’s books ‘John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America’s most famous trail‘ and ‘John Muir Trail Data Book‘. These two items contain information (such as resupply information, campsite locations, and narratives that walk you through the trail) that is extremely helpful in planning your hike.
- Excel – I created a spreadsheet containing the dates and itinerary locations for my hike. Excel is very efficient because you can quickly calculate the mileage between any given points if you have the mile markers (which Guthook Guides and Elizabeth Wenk’s guides have). Not only can it crunch some numbers, but it also creates a very organized list that you can filter, sort, etc.
Between these three tools, I was able to plan out my hike and make an educated guess about which location items to choose for the itinerary.
Step II – Apply for your permit
Now that you have your itinerary all figured out, you can begin the permit application process. A few things that will be helpful to know before going to the Recreation.gov website to obtain your permit:
- As part of the checkout process, you will need to create an account with Recreation.gov to reserve your permit. The first time I applied for a permit I did it as part of the process, but you can save some time by doing it ahead of time.
- You can request your permit up to 6 MONTHS before your START DATE. The system will not let you apply for a permit sooner.
- You will have only 15 minutes to complete your application, so I highly recommend putting in the effort beforehand and completing STEP I first, otherwise you can run out of time and will have to start all over again. I’ve had this happen the first time I ever did this, and trust me, it’s incredibly frustrating!
- Be conservative when choosing your end date! If you complete your hike ahead of schedule, that is not a problem; however, if you try to hike through Yosemite with an expired permit (because you took longer than expected), then this could present an issue…especially if you decide to camp at the Backpacker Campground in Tuolumne Meadows.
- A permit can only be picked up by the group leader or the person specified as the alternate leader on your permit. If you are hiking with multiple people, you may want to designate alternative leaders as a backup.
The step-by-step process
- Go to the Recreation.gov website and type ‘Inyo National Forest – Wilderness Permits’ in the search field. Select the wilderness permits selection from the drop-down and then on the next screen, click on the ‘Check Availability’ button. (*if you’d like a more direct route to look for available permits starting at Cottonwood Pass, scroll all the way to the end)
2. On the next screen, make your selections under the ‘Find Permits’ section on the left-hand side. If you plan to summit Mt. Whitney, you will need to choose “Overnight Visiting Mt. Whitney”. There’s been much debate about these choices in the past (Overnight vs. Overnight Visiting Mt. Whitney). However, this year the forest service has made it very clear on the website that you will need to choose the “Overnight Visiting Mt. Whitney” permit (which costs more) if you plan to summit Mt. Whitney.
3. If you’re unfortunate enough to have no availability for the date you selected, choose “Find Next Avail. Date” You could always take the Cottonwood Lakes trail, which also starts in the Horseshoe Meadows area, but it is a more difficult trail and a little bit out of the way.
4. If there is an ‘A’ for the date you’ve selected, you may go ahead and click ‘Book Permit’.
- Note: the number under the ‘A’ indicates the number of permits available
- An ‘R’ indicates that all online permits have been issued
- An ‘X’ indicates that permits are not available yet
5. On the Permit Order Details page, enter your exit point (Happy Isles – Yosemite Valley) and the date you expect to complete your hike. When you do this, the trip itinerary section will populate with fields that you will need to fill in with anticipated camping locations. As I mentioned in ‘STEP I’, the drop-down list is cumbersome and you will be tempted to select the option “Other /Don’t Know”. If you choose this option too many times, you may not be able to complete your application. Also, it will provide no useful information for SAR (search and rescue) in the event of an emergency.
- Select your travel method and whether or not you are bringing any animals (this does not include pets, they are not allowed)
- Select the permit issuing station where you would like to pick up your permit (this can be changed later on if necessary)
- Assign alternate leaders who will be able to pick up the permit in the event you cannot
- Acknowledge that you’ve read the information for the permit and continue to shopping cart to checkout
Congratulations! You have obtained the wilderness permit you need to hike the JMT!
You may pick up your permit up to 2 days in advance at the issuing station that you selected on your application.
Don’t forget to obtain a California Fire Permit for your hike on the JMT. A special permit is required on the National Forest sections of the JMT for the use of the stove you will most likely be using to rehydrate your food. You can obtain your California Campfire Permit online or at any Forest Service, BLM and Cal Fire office in the state.
- Half Dome Permits for Backpackers – Link to the Yosemite National Park website containing information for Half Dome Permits for Backpackers
- Permit Itinerary Drop-Down List – This is an exhaustive list (in screenshot form, I was unable to export to text) that may help with planning your trip. I apologize for the multiple pages, but as I said, it is a LONG list.
- SEKI Backcountry Zones Map – A convenient SEKI Backcountry Zones Map that someone named ‘tomba’ posted on a High Sierra Topix Forum
- Cottonwood Pass Trail Information – Some info about the Cottonwood Pass Trail on Inyo National Forest website
- Cottonwood Pass Trail Recreation Guide (pdf)
- Cottonwood Pass Walk-In Campground Information – Information on the Inyo National Forest website
- Horseshoe Meadow Area Campgrounds Guide (pdf)
- Horseshoe Meadow Area Trail Map (pdf)
- Guthook Guides iOS app
- Inyo National Forest Service Wilderness Permits & Reservations Information – Wilderness permits are required year-round for the following:
- All overnight /multi-night trips in the Ansel Adams, John Muir, Hoover, or Golden Trout Wilderness
- All overnight /multi-night trips that start in Inyo National Forest and will travel in Yosemite, Sequoia or Kings Canyon Wilderness
- Day use into the Mt Whitney Zone
- Cottonwood Pass-PCT GT60 permit (overnight visiting Whitney) – This link takes you directly to the Recreation.gov website page that allows you to check for Cottonwood Pass permit availability. The ‘Overnight Visiting Mt. Whitney permit selection is set by default.
- Inyo National Forest Service Permit Pickup Instructions
- National Geographic John Muir Trail Topographic Map Guide – A handy compact tear-resistant, waterproof map that you can purchase on Amazon.com
- ‘John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail’ by Elizabeth Wenk – A guide that provides all the necessary information you will need to plan your JMT hike. It contains details about food resupplies, trailhead amenities, and travel from nearby cities (note: this book is written for going north to south. If you want a version that is for going south to north, you will need to download the Kindle version).
- ‘John Muir Trail Data Book’ by Elizabeth Wenk – (can be used north-south/south-north) – This is a scaled-down version of the ‘John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail’ that you can carry with you. It contains on-the-trail information, including custom-made topographical maps, elevation profiles, data tables, and labeled panoramas from prominent passes.