What is a southbound John Muir Trail permit & why do I need one?
Permits are used to manage the high volume of people using the national parks and everyone hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT) needs to have one.
The majority of thru hikers apply for a JMT permit to walk southbound (SoBo) along the trail. This generally means starting somewhere in Yosemite and heading towards Mount Whitney.
I may be biased (I was SoBo), but I think it’s the direction that makes most sense:
- You start at a lower altitude and slowly acclimatise.
- The terrain gets tougher as you become more of a badass.
- There are a number of ‘bailout’ points and some facilities in the first half, so you get to ease in, in terms of remoteness.
- You get to ‘finish’ at the top of Mount Whitney, which was the absolute highlight of my trip.
However, there are advantages to going Northbound (NoBo):
- It’s easier to get a permit.
- The trail will be a bit quieter (although I met a lot of NoBo’s).
- You have more exit points towards the end.
From 2011 to 2015, there was a 100% increase in southbound JMT permit requests starting in Yosemite National Park and the trail’s rising popularity began to have a negative impact. Issues included overcrowding, day and overnight visitors to the park not being able to get a permit, damage to the trail and threats to wildlife.
As an interim solution, the park implemented an ‘exit quota’ in 2015 which effectively caps the number of SoBo JMT thru hikers to 45 per day. It does this by limiting the number of people who can exit Yosemite over Donohue Pass (where the trail leaves the park).
This quota is split across the four trailheads (access points to the trail):
- 15 advance permits (via lottery) for JMT hikers starting at Lyell Canyon.
- 20 advanced permits (via lottery) for JMT hikers starting at Happy Isles, Glacier Point, or Sunrise Lakes.
- 10 ‘walk-ups’ from Lyell Canyon.
Whilst the new quota makes it harder for SoBo thru hikers to get a permit, it’s crucial in terms of protecting the trail and the national parks for future users. I wouldn’t recommend hiking the JMT without a permit.
Six steps to securing a SoBo JMT permit
The permit process is a little confusing, especially if, like me, you’ve not needed to apply for a hiking permit before. To help other newbies, I’ve used my experience to break the lottery down into six steps.
1) Decide on your ideal start date & the latest that you can finish
The National Park Service (NPS) updated the reservation system in 2017 by introducing a rolling lottery. This is fantastic if you are flexible on when you can start, as it means you can apply once for a starting date range of up to three weeks, rather than having to submit a new form every day. Your reservation application will be automatically placed in the lottery every day for the date range you provide, and you will be notified of the result via a daily email. If denied, your application will roll over to the next day’s lottery.
I put my earliest start date as the 8th July 2017, and as I was quite flexible on when I could do the trail, put my latest start date as three weeks later.
You will need to state the length of your hike too, but this can be amended when you collect your permit, so don’t worry about it too much for now. Just make sure that you have a rough idea of what this is, so you don’t put too big a start date range.
If you are not sure when to start the trail, or how long you will need to complete it, have a read of this first.
2) Decide on your entry trailhead & where you will camp on your first night
This is the ‘classic’ start of the JMT and where I was very lucky to get my permit from. This was a great place for me to start. It’s really easy to get to the trailhead by public transport and it meant that I got to see some of the most well-known sights in Yosemite Valley including Nevada Falls. It was also ideal for climbing Half Dome, which I’d originally intended to do on my second day.
The only downside is that it’s understandably quite crowded from people wanting to see the most famous sights of the park. It also means a pretty huge climb on your first day which was a baptism of fire for me!
From this trailhead you will spend your first night at Little Yosemite Valley or carry on to Sunrise/ Merced Lake. I had a permit to camp at Little Yosemite Valley (my second choice), which worked well for me, as I was completely exhausted by the climb, despite having only made it about five miles along the trail.
Regardless of where you’d prefer to camp, make sure that you include both on your form to increase your chances of getting a permit.
The Sunrise Lakes trailhead begins at Tenaya Lake. This can be reached by shuttle bus from Tuolumne. You can get to Tuolumne by YARTS, or by car.
This trailhead wasn’t really a great option for me, as it would have meant missing Nevada Falls and Half Dome. However, if you aren’t so interested in (or perhaps have already seen) the Yosemite Valley sights, it could be ideal. You’ll miss the ‘worst’ of the crowds and will have the chance to do a side trip to Clouds Rest on your first day, a good alternative to Half Dome. And, if you are leaving your car at Tuolumne, you’ll pass through a couple of days later, meaning you can drop off a couple of things you no longer want to carry, or pick up some snacks. If you begin at this trailhead you will spend your first night at Sunrise Lakes.
This trailhead wasn’t ideal for me, as it can only be reached by car. However, if you can get a lift there it could be idea as you’ll miss the massive climb out of Yosemite Valley, whilst still seeing the beautiful sights. Your first night will be at Little Yosemite Valley.
This trailhead has some advantages. It’s easy to access from Tuolumne, you miss the climb out of the valley, and you’ll have an easier, flat first day.
I didn’t want to start here as it would have meant completely missing the sights in Yosemite Valley (including a trip to Half Dome) and Cathedral Lakes, which were a real highlight for me. It also means not completing the trail in its entirety by quite a few miles, which I was really keen to do, coming from so far away. However, if you have seen those sights, or are more easily able to see them in the future, this could be a good option. If you start at this trailhead you’ll spend your first night at Upper Lyle Canyon.
3) Download & complete the permit request form
You can download the form and detailed instructions from the NPS here.
In addition to ranking your entry trailhead by order of preference, and adding your dates and trip length, there are some other key things to consider.
Decide whether you’d like to climb Half Dome
Most people will need an extra day to do this, so be sure that you have time. I had originally planned to climb it, but after how challenging I found the first day, I decided to continue onward and give myself a bit more time to get to Red’s Meadow.
You’ll have amazing vistas of Half Dome if you come up from the valley, so you won’t totally miss out if you don’t do it, but I did hear some great feedback from people who did.
If you apply for a Half Dome permit, remember to select ‘Please process this request’ so that your JMT reservation is still processed if Half Dome permits are not available.
Number of people
The maximum group number is 15, but the NPS website states that some trailheads won’t be able to accept this number. I’m pretty sure that smaller groups or individuals are more likely to secure permits due to the small volume available.
If some people in your group are unsure about whether they can make it, you could put in a smaller number for ‘minimal number of people acceptable’.
For all SoBo JMT thru hikers, this is ‘Whitney Portal’. It can be amended when you collect your permit and you won’t be stopped from leaving at an earlier point should you need to.
Personal & payment details
This section is pretty self-explanatory. It costs $5 per person requested, plus $5 for the reservation itself. You will only be charged if you are confirmed. My confirmed permit reservation cost £18, as I also had the Half Dome permit.
Note that the person whose details are given is the ‘trip leader’ and responsible for the permit on the trail, but you can change this when you collect it.
My completed form (excluding the personal and payment details section) looked like this:
4) Fax your form
The NPS prefer the form to be faxed, but I don’t know anyone who still has a fax machine. Fortunately, there are a number of online fax applications that you can use for free. I used Fax Zero, which worked really well. You just need to print your form, scan it, and then upload it to their website and enter the ‘fax’ number: 209.372.0739. The NPS state that you should not add a cover note and that you should only enter once per application window, and per group.
Applications are processed 168 days (24 weeks) ahead of your earliest start date, but may be submitted up to two days in advance. This meant that for my start date of the 8th July I needed to apply for my permit on the 21st January (and could have sent it as early as the 19th January). I put a reminder in my diary for a week ahead of this, to give me plenty of time to get the form filled out.
It’s probably a good idea to submit it in the two days before the 168 day guidance date, so that it’s one of the first ones into the lottery, although I can’t be sure. Check the time difference if you’re applying from far afield, to ensure that you’re actually sending it on the day you that you think you are. I used the iPhone ‘world clock’ feature and added Los Angeles.
Make sure that you get the automated email confirming that your application has been received. I was so busy at work that I didn’t realise that my application had been lost in the ether for a week or two (doh!). Fortunately, I was able to just apply again as I was really flexible on when I started, but this may not be the case for everyone.
5) Cross your Fingers & wait for your confirmation email to roll in
I received many a ‘denied’ email before my confirmation came through. It was a great day when I saw that pop up in my inbox! Remember to check your junk mail.
6) Collect your permit
The confirmation email is only your reservation. You will need to collect the actual permit before you begin your hike. Full details of when and where are given in the confirmation email.
What if I don’t get a SoBo permit through the lottery?
Don’t worry – there are a few other options.
I met quite a few people who had gone for a NoBo permit after missing out on the SoBo lottery. I think it’s a good option, particularly if you are really restricted in terms of when you can hike. You will need to apply through Recreation.gov. Search for ‘Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permits’ and work through the steps.
NoBo hikers generally begin from the Cottonwood Pass Trail or Cottonwood Lakes trailheads, camping at Horseshoe meadow the night before. You can reach Horseshoe Meadow by car or private shuttle from Lone Pine.
2) Starting outside of Yosemite
If you have an extra couple of days to play with, you could consider applying for a permit leaving from the Chiquito Pass or Quart Mountain trailheads. There are a lot of permits available and they are not covered by the exit quota. A friend who I met on the trail began at Chiquito Pass and joined up with the JMT at the end of his day two (my day one), camping at Little Yosemite Valley. He was a big fan of this option as he was able to get his permit a year in advance, allowing for more planning time. The only downside is that the trailheads can’t be reached by public transport, so you’d need someone to drop you off.
To get a permit you can apply through Bass Lake Ranger District – 559-877-2218.
3) ‘Walk Up’ permits
The ‘walk-ups’ available from the Lyell Canyon trailhead weren’t an option for me as I wouldn’t have felt comfortable coming from so far away without a permit reservation. However, if you have time to play with and nerves of steel, you could give this a go. I didn’t meet anyone with a ‘walk up’ permit so I’m not sure what the process is like, although I’ve read about very long ques and people sleeping out for multiple evenings. It reminds me of the Boxing Day sales *shudder* (very British reference).
Aside from very unlikely last-minute cancellations no other walk in permits are available at other Yosemite trailheads.
4) Permit voodoo
There are some more – increasingly complicated – options that you can look at. I haven’t included them as they involve things like getting two permits, walking to Tuolomne in a day, or doing loops back on yourself.
If you want to look into these options in more detail check out the Raymond E Rippel e-book, ‘Planning your thru-hike of the John Muir Trail’.
Whatever you decide to do – good luck!