***Updated for 2019***
Obtaining a permit to hike the John Muir Trail is arguably the most difficult and frustrating aspect of planning for a JMT thru-hike. In previous years, aspiring backpackers needed to submit their permits via fax, snail mail, or by phone if they planned on heading southbound (SOBO) from Yosemite Valley. New for 2019, aspiring backpackers will be able to use the new online permit request form that includes a rolling lottery! This doesn’t mean that your chances of scoring a permit get any better though. In fact, it might make them worse.
The SOBO permit application process can be pretty disheartening. Unlike your planning and prep for gear, fitness, footwear, etc., the permit application process takes a bit of luck. And for the most part, it’s completely out of your control. It’s important to keep in mind that 97% of all applications are denied (I’d expect submission odds to decrease even more given recent statistics). With this guide, I hope to walk you through the new online submission process and help you get your JMT dream off the ground.
Step 1: Decide On A Date And Apply 168-170 Days In Advance
The first step you’ll need to take while planning for your JMT thru-hike is deciding on a date. This is an important step for most of us, as vacation time needs to be requested far in advance for work. If you’re still a student or have summers off, your permit submission timeframe will be a little more flexible and you will benefit from the 21 day rolling lottery.
Applications are processed via a random lottery 168 days (24 weeks) in advance of your desired entry date. For a July 1 start date, you would need to submit an application on January 13, with the drawing set for January 14. Applications for a July 1 start date would close January 14 at 7:30 AM before the lottery drawing. Here is a table on the NPS website to help you schedule your permit submissions: Wilderness Permits Reservation Window
Applications can also be submitted online 2 days before the lottery date, or 170 days in advance.
Step 2: Fill Out A Permit Reservation Application And Rank Your Preferred Trailheads
Application Step 1/8: Introduction
The first step to take is to open the new online permit application form and read through the introduction.
Application Step 2/8: Selecting Entry Trailheads
The next step is to choose a starting trailhead. There are 5 trailhead options for a John Muir Trail permit application. These are the only 5 trailheads that have access to Donohue Pass. Rank your preference from 1 to 5, with your first entry being the most desirable. You will also be required to enter your “First Night’s Camp Location” which I will provide more information on below.
Trailheads With 1st Night’s Camp Location: In previous years, applicants could select trailhead locations on their own. Now there are five static options. Hiking the JMT SOBO from Yosemite Valley will take you over Donahue Pass, which as of 2017, has an exit quota of 45 hikers per day. These five options will all take you up and over Donahue pass and are subject to the 45 hikers a day quota.
- Happy Isles to Sunrise/Merced Lakes Pass Through
- Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley
- Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley
- Sunrise Lakes (Tenaya Lake South)
- Lyell Canyon
As I mentioned above, a total of 45 permits are available each day for trailheads exiting over Donahue Pass. I haven’t been able to find confirmation on the allocation of permits for 2019, but for previous years, they were as follows:
*For options 1-4 (Happy Isles to Sunrise/Merced, Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley, or Sunrise Lakes), permits for 20 people will be made available each day by reservation.
*For option 5 (Lyell Canyon), permits for 25 people will be made available each day, 15 by reservation, and 10 for walkups
A look at the Entry Trailheads (View This Yosemite NP Trailhead Map For Reference):
- Happy Isles to Sunrise/Merced Lakes Pass Through – People ask a lot of questions about this option and how it differs from the Happy Isles to LYV listed above. From the NPS website: “For long-distance hikers, to pass through the Little Yosemite Valley/Half Dome area and camp beyond that, in the direction of either Merced Lake or Sunrise High Sierra Camp…” This is a better option than HI to LYV in my opinion, as it allows hikers to get a lot more distance in on day 1, and feel a little bit of freedom once they get past the Half Dome junction. Look at the entry for HI to LYV below for more details on this option.
- Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley – The Happy Isles trailhead is the most popular and sought after starting point for SOBO JMT hikers, as it is the official start of the John Muir Trail. It also allows for hikers to start in Yosemite Valley, and begin their trek with views of Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, and options to scale Half Dome and Clouds Rest. You’ll need a separate permit for Half Dome if you plan on making that hike, so make sure to fill out that section of the permit application accordingly. If you receive the HI to LYV permit, your campsite for the night will be Little Yosemite Valley. It is for this reason that I would avoid this option. At only 4.5 miles from Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley, it’s a bit of a wasted day. Even if you include a hike up to Half Dome, you’ll only be getting in about 12 miles.
- Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley – This permit has hikers starting at Glacier Point and continuing on towards Little Yosemite Valley to join up with the John Muir Trail. This first leg from Glacier Point to LYV is about 7 miles as opposed to the 4.5 of Happy Isles to LYV. The positive is that it drops 1,000ft instead of the 2,000ft climb from the valley floor. This option is a non-starter in my opinion, as it’s a bit of a logistical headache. This option limits your first day to 7 miles, as your campsite for the night will be Little Yosemite Valley.
- Sunrise Lakes – Sunrise Lakes is an option from the Tuolumne Meadows area starting at Tenaya Lake. This trailhead misses the first section of the JMT by starting in Tuolumne Meadows, but that’s easily remedied if you’re okay with big days. Julia and I fastpacked the 25 miles from Little Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows, which does not require a permit. If you had a Sunrise Lakes permit, you could do the same. Hike from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne, catch a ride to Tenaya Lake, and continue on. The hike from the Tenaya Lake trailhead to Sunrise Lakes is a little over 3 miles with 1,300ft of gain. This would be your first night campsite for filling out the application form. You could also decide to just start your JMT hike from Tenaya lake and forego the Yosemite Valley section of the JMT.
Lyell Canyon (Tuolumne Meadows) – This is one of the best choices in my opinion, as it gives applicants a better chance of success when compared to the other options. If you still want to hike the entire JMT from Yosemite Valley, you can do like I did, and day hike from Happy Isles to Tuolumne Meadows in one day, stay at Tuolumne Backpacker’s Camp after grabbing your permit, and continue on. From Tuolumne Meadows, Lyell Canyon is a mostly level and flat hike until you start the climb up to Donahue Pass. There are a lot of nice campsites along the Lyell Fork in Lyell Canyon, which is what you’ll enter for your 1st campsite on the application form.
Here is an example of how the entries might look.
Application Step 3/8: Selecting Exit Trailhead
Unless you plan on a shorter section hike of the JMT, you’ll want to select Whitney Portal as your exit trailhead.
Application Step 4/8: Selecting Exit Trailhead
The fourth step of your online application will be to select your date range and trip duration. You can now submit just one application for a 21 day period.
According to the NPS website: “…you will submit one application for a range of dates up to 3 weeks (21 days) long. Your reservation application will be placed in each day’s daily lottery for the date span you provide. You will be notified of lottery results each day via email. If denied, your application will roll to the next day’s lottery. The application will be removed from the rolling lottery if 1) your request is granted 2) is manually cancelled by applicant or 3) the date range has been exceeded…”
Trip Length (Nights): Enter the number of nights you plan on spending on the John Muir Trail. It is much better to overestimate your desired itinerary here.
Application Step 5/8: Selecting A Group Size
The next stage is to select your desired group size and the minimum number of people you’d find acceptable on the permit. The maximum group size is 15
Application Step 6/8: Adding Half Dome
For all of the starting trailheads except Lyell Canyon, you can also apply for a Half Dome permit. For this you just select yes/no and the group size.
Application Step 7/8: Guided and/or with stock?
For step seven, you select yes/no for if your trip is guided and/or will be traveling with stock. For almost all applicants this will be no and no.
Application Step 8/8: Trip Leader Information
The final step is to provide all of the relevant contact information for the group leader.
Step 3: Submit Your Permit And Wait
Once you’ve finished completing the 8 steps of the permit application process you’re done! Unlike previous years that required applications to be faxed in, you don’t need to take any additional steps after this point!
For all granted application requests, there is a non refundable fee of $5.00 per person in the group. There is also a $5.00 charge for each transaction. So you’d be looking at $25 for a successful 4 person application. There is no charge for denied requests.
Your permit reservation will not be valid until you successfully pay for it! If your application is successful, you will receive a payment email and will have 14 days to pay before your reservation is cancelled.
Step 4: Wait For A Response
Within 24 hours of the lottery application draw date, you should receive an email stating whether or not your request was successful. If you’re successful, congratulations! If you fail, your application will be rolled over into the dates that you selected.
Step 5: Pick Up Your Permit At One Of The Five Yosemite Valley Wilderness Centers
For successful applicants, you can pick up your permit the day of or the day before your hike. There are 5 wilderness center options in Yosemite NP to choose from The permit will be held until 10am on the day of your trip so don’t be late. If you’re going to be late, make sure to call ahead and let them know (209-372-0308). Yosemite NP has backpackers camps available for permit holders, so my advice is to pick up your permit a day ahead, stay in a backpackers camp, and then start hiking on the day of your allotted time.
Options To Consider If Your SOBO Application Is Not Successful
1.) My top pick for options after a failed SOBO application would be to consider hiking Northbound (NOBO). This is a much more difficult hike, as you’re starting at high elevation and taking on the JMT’s difficult passes in the first few days. There are also fewer resupply options in the Southern half of the JMT.
These permits are based on a lottery system as well, and can also be completed online. The submission timeframe is from February 1 to March 15, which comes after most people would be applying for the SOBO permits (March 15 would be a start date of August 30 for SOBO).
2.) The other option if you fail to obtain a standard SOBO JMT permit is to get creative. You can start in Yosemite Valley and avoid Donahue Pass (Mono Pass, Fernandez Pass, etc), or you can join the JMT south of Donahue Pass from a connecting trailhead. You can apply online for these options as well.
I hope you have found this John Muir Trail Permit guide helpful. Make sure to check out the rest of my John Muir Trail Guide for planning and trip preparation. Feel free to leave me any questions or comments that you have.
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