The Secret to Getting a John Muir Trail Permit
For such a catchy title you might assume, and rightfully so, that the answer comes in some form of a magic incantation. But no, it's actually very simple. Two words: persistence and flexibility. Give any of those two up and your chances drop to virtually zero.
Now, let's see how you can increase your chances for an awesome JMT permit.
We threw away the 29 unsuccessful permit applications we sent to the Yosemite National Park office when we applied in January of 2016. Bummer, they would have made a great cover for this post!
It's true, we sent 29 faxes, every single day for almost a month. I would wake up every morning, print the form, sign it, then fax it over. Around 11 am, I would receive the denial e-mail. Repeat that for 29 days until, one day, I got something different in my inbox. It was from the National Park Service, but it did not have the same format. My brain could not wrap around the fact that the response looked different. For a few seconds before starting to read I was trying to imagine reasons why, like a misspelled camp, or entry date, or something else wrong with the form. Then, I realized it was an actual permit. I could not be any happier, just imagine my excitement. After 29 days of insisting with my faxes, we finally got it!
This year, Yosemite NP has realized that sending a fax every day is painful for hikers. I can imagine how painful it must have been on the receiving end, where those faxes would be multiplied by the number of people sending them. From accounts I heard, they received applications in the thousands - every day. Imagine the poor ranger having to process that mountain of paper. The new application allows you to specify a date range for up to 3 weeks, which makes being persistent a whole lot easier. You see what I mean, sending a form every 3 weeks is way better than sending 29 every single day.
The 168-day rule
If you want to follow the classic John Muir Trail route, which is starting in Yosemite and ending on top of the highest peak in the lower forty-eight, Mount Whitney, you need to apply for your permit from the Yosemite NPS office.
They begin accepting application 168 days before your desired date. That's 24 weeks in advance. It's not rocket science, but it's annoying to start counting exactly when 168 days before you desired date is, so you can accurately apply. The park realized that and published a table to help you out. Check out this table called the Permit Reservation Window, and start applying 168 days before your start date.
What's your start date window?
Because of the 168-day rule, you need to know in advance when is the ideal time for you to start applying. Here's what went into our decision to go for a July 10 start date, a Sunday (we eventually got our permit for August 8, a Monday):
- We wanted to spend the month of August on the trail, with anytime from mid-July till mid-September being okay.
- July 10 is not as hot as August, it's snowier, and we might get more bugs, but it was acceptable.
- We wanted to start hiking on a Sunday because we would take Saturday to travel to Yosemite. We ended up getting a permit for Monday, which was even better because we got to spend an extra day acclimatizing at Tuolumne Meadows.
- A late July would be an ideal start.
- By mid-August we would have switched to going northbound or to choosing other trailheads, should we had not received a permit.
- So we chose our start window to begin on July 10, therefore we started our application process on January 22nd.
The second key word in my introduction was flexibility. I already touched a bit about being flexible in the previous section where I talk about your start date window. It's very important to be flexible with your start date, and that alone might get you a permit. But it alone may not be enough. Here's why.
Hugely important is the starting trailhead. We had our eyes on Happy Isles, which is the official beginning of the John Muir Trail. We ranked the starting trailheads and, for a couple of weeks, we sent our permit application in this order:
- Happy Isles
- Glacier Point
- Sunrise (pass through)
- Lyell Canyon (Tuolumne Meadows)
As we got disappointed after a couple of weeks of denials, we desperately switched the order and placed Sunrise in the first spot. After another week went by, we gave up and placed Lyell Canyon on top, and kept sending our application into the ranger's office. We were determined to not quit. That's how our application was written on day 29 when we finally received our permit.
In retrospect, should we have stuck with the original ordering? Should we had not panicked and not switched Lyell Canyon up to the first rank? Did we miss a chance to get a permit from Happy Isles? Yes, yes, and yes, I believe so!
So my recommendation is to stick with your best trailhead first, and list all other in the order of preference. You maximize your chances of getting a permit for your best trailhead while maintaining high chances for any of the other ones.
I suspect the bottleneck is Donohue Pass, more than it is the actual starting trailhead, so keep listing your preference first.
Yosemite throttles John Muir Trail traffic with a Donohue Pass daily quota of 45 hikers. To maximize your chances of getting a permit, stick with the smallest group size possible. I'm not saying drop folks of your party, not al all. But if you were planning to apply for the maximum allowed, think again. If you were planning to add a few spots to the permit "just in case" somebody else wants to join, think again. Keep it small and it will increase your chances of squeezing through the Donohue Pass quota. Imagine your application gets into a ranger's hand, and there are spots open for Happy Isles, but Donohue Pass has only 3 spots open and your permit requires 4 people. Bummer, next!
While we did not have to resort to this, there's always the option to hiking northbound. There's nothing wrong with hiking northbound. You could start either at Whitney Portal or Cottonwood Pass and you apply for a permit with the Inyo National Forest office. Permits for Whitney Portal are even harder to obtain than the one starting in Yosemite. Getting a permit from Cottonwood Pass, on the other hand, is a breeze, according to folks who've got them. So that might be a great plan B.
Most folks though, don't choose to hike northbound as their first option because of:
- Elevation: with both Whitney Portal and Cottonwood Pass you gain elevation very quickly. Ideally, you would want to spend more time at lower elevation camps to acclimatize before hiking Mt. Whitney, thus you need more time and food to take this route.
- Distance: with Cottonwood Pass, your trip is longer by thirty some miles. If the extra distance is a concern, this might be a problem, but if you're fine with the extra miles, this choice may make the trek more enjoyable.
Do I need only one permit?
Yes, regardless of where you get the permit from, being the Yosemite National Park or from Inyo National Forest, you only need to secure one. You don't need one for every park and wilderness you pass through, not even for Mt. Whitney. That would be too much.
Summary and Resources
Getting a permit to hike the John Muir Trail is a complex undertaking that takes time and a lot of reading, unfortunately. But being prepared with the right information gets you there on the trail and allows you to enjoy this wonder of the world that the JMT is.
Here are some additional resources to help you in your planning.
- Southbound (what we did):
- Northbound (Plan B):
Don't forget to set your reminder for next January. Happy permit hunting, and good luck!