Obtaining a permit to hike the John Muir Trail is arguably the most difficult and frustrating aspect of planning for a JMT thru-hike. Unlike the online lottery application for hikes like Half Dome, aspiring backpackers need to submit their permits via fax, snail mail, or by phone if they plan on heading southbound (SOBO) from Yosemite Valley. I’m not going to lie, the SOBO permit application process can be exhausting and disheartening. Unlike your planning for gear, fitness, footwear, etc., the permit application process takes a bit of luck, and for the most part, is completely out of your control. 97% of all applications are denied (I’d expect submission odds to decrease even more given recent statistics). With this guide, I hope to give you a few key pointers, and links to resources that I found useful in submitting for a permit on my John Muir Trail thru-hike.
Step 1: Decide On A Date And Apply 168-170 Days In Advance
The first step I took in planning for my JMT through hike was setting 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. I knew I could start my workleave in the first week of July, and would be able to use 10 weekdays of vacation time.
Applications are processed via a random lottery 168 days in advance of your desired entry date, but faxes can be submitted up to two days prior (170 days). For a July 1 start time, I would need to submit an application from January 11-13, 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
When I submitted for a permit in 2015, I was not successful on my first attempt, and continued to apply in the following days. Luckily, the NPS has made a huge change for 2017. Applicants with flexible dates can now submit a permit request for a 21 day timeframe. I will have more on this below.
Step 2: Fill Out A Permit Reservation Application And Rank Your Preferred Trailheads
Below you will find information to help you fill out the JMT permit application form. You can view and download the permit form here: JMT Permit Application. This new permit form has a section for Date Range. This allows hikers to apply for a 21 day range with only one application.
Entry Preference: There are now 5 trailhead options for a John Muir Trail permit application. Rank your preference from 1 to 5, with 1 being most desirable. Use each number only once, and use a 0 for a trailhead you are not interested in. You will be required to start at the trailhead assigned by your permit.
Trailhead 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 static 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 trailhead exiting over Donahue Pass. I haven’t been able to find confirmation on the allocation of permits for 2017, but for 2016 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 top table of your application form might look.
Exit Trailhead: Select Whitney Portal as your Exit Trailhead.
Date Range: This is a new addition for 2017 that allows applicants to apply for a 21 day date range using only one permit. 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.
Half Dome: If you would like to also enter the Half Dome lottery, make sure to select that option on the permit. Make sure to also select that they process your permit request even if you’re not selected for Half Dome.
You can view the trailhead quota information here: Trailhead Quota Information
Step 3: Submit Your Permit Via Fax, Phone, or Mail
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to submit your application online through the NPS website. You can, however, complete the entire process online. Once you have the form filled out, head over to Hello Fax and sign up for a free account.
Fax: Print and fax your application form or use an online fax service like Hello Fax to (209)372-0739. Remember to submit 168-170 days in advance of your desired departure date. Reference this table for send dates.
Phone: You can try calling if faxing doesn’t work for you, but keep in mind that the staff are very busy during this permit application period. When you call in, have your entire form filled out so that you can give all of the requisite information. The phone number is 209-372-0740 and the office is usually open from 8:30 to 4:30. Phone calls are usually only suggested if your trip will be within a two week period of the call. For the JMT, this more than likely means you won’t be getting a permit. Plan early, and use fax.
Mail: You can complete the form and mail it to the address listed below. Keep in mind that “Applications received more than two weeks in advance of the earliest reservation date (that is, more than 26 weeks in advance of the hiking date) will not be accepted.”
PO Box 545
Yosemite, CA, 95389
Step 4: Wait For A Response And Reapply if Necessary
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, keep trying. After a week of failures, I was starting to lose hope, but in my case, persistence paid off. The odds are not in your favor, so expect to have more than a few failures before you have a successful submission.
Step 5: Pick Up Your Permit At One Of The Five Yosemite Valley Wilderness Centers
You can pick up the permit the day of or the day before your hike. 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 your starting at high elevations 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, but at least it can be all done 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 get 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. Here is a link to a great table if you’re looking for alternate permit options.
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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