Hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT) is an amazing outdoor adventure, however getting a permit to do so is tough. The John Muir Trail Southbound route is the more popular route; starting from Happy Isle in Yosemite Valley and ending on the top of Whitney. With the growing popularity of this trail, it’s very important to get the paperwork done right. Per the National Parks Service website, over 97% of applications are denied.
Registration starting from Yosemite National Park opens 168 days (24 weeks) in advance, and are accepted for trips from May through October.
You can make a reservation by fax, mail, or phone; I’ll talk primarily about faxing since that is the best option for applying. Applications should be faxed to (209) 372-0739.
Yosemite National Park uses a JMT Lottery Request Application, specifically for the JMT. This format is easier because it allows you to provide an available date range to start. In the past, you had to send an application for each start date, which meant you would fax an application every day that you don’t get approved. My friends and I were on the old application system, and each of us faxed an application every day for three weeks before we got a permit).
If you’ve provided an email in your application, you will receive email confirmation/denial within 24 hours. Otherwise, it may take up to two weeks to receive a response letter by mail.
Here is an example of the JMT Lottery Request Application I have filled out:
Deciding on John Muir Trail Entry Trailhead
When choosing a trailhead, I highly recommend looking at a map to get an idea of where the trailheads are. I used Sierra Mapper to plan my trip, but if you prefer paper maps for planning, I used Tom Harrison’s John Muir Trail Map during my trip.
Quotas are determined by an exit quota over Donohue Pass. The park allotted 45 people per day; 35 permits are available for reservation, and 10 are available for walk-up.
- Lyell Canyon is allotted 15 for reservation, and 10 for walk-up.
- 20 permits are allocated across the other four entry trailheads.
There are many factors to consider in choosing an entry trailhead, but here are some basic information below to help you decide what’s best for you:
|Trailhead||First night’s camp||Distance|
|Happy Isles->Sunrise/Merced Lake (pass through)||Sunrise Creek||~5.10 miles; +2,215 ft elev. gain|
|Happy Isles->Little Yosemite Valley||Little Yosemite Valley||3.54 miles; +2,260 ft elev. gain|
|Glacier Point->Little Yosemite Valley||Little Yosemite Valley||7.12 miles; -1,076 ft elev. change|
|Sunrise Lakes||Sunrise Lakes||~3 miles; +1,153 ft elev. gain|
|Lyell Canyon||Upper Lyell Canyon||~10.8 miles; +1,785 ft elev. gain|
Happy Isle is the most sought after starting point for the JMT, as it is considered the actual starting point to the JMT. It’s a pretty rough start for the first day or two since you are climbing out of the valley to Tuolumne Meadows. You’ll be able to pass by the iconic Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls on your way up.
Happy Isles->Sunrise/Merced Lake (pass through)
With this permit, you must make it past Little Yosemite Valley (beyond the backpacker’s camp) on the first day and head up towards Sunrise Creek Trail. This means, you cannot camp in Little Yosemite Valley, but you are allowed to camp along Sunrise Creek beyond the Half Dome Junction.
Happy Isle -> Little Yosemite Valley
This permit does not allow you to camp beyond Little Yosemite Valley on your first night. For those who aren’t charging through, this would be a great permit to start with since you’ll have plenty of time to explore the area around your campsite or go up to Clouds Rest.
The downside to this trailhead is that it is an hour away from the Yosemite Valley Ranger Station, where you pick up your permit. The upside to this trailhead is that it’s easier to get, and you pass through Illilohuette, Nevada, and Vernal Falls.
This trailhead begins very close to the Tuolumne Meadows Ranger Station. The benefits of this trailhead is the probability that you will get a permit, and the ability to do a walk-up permit. The first 10 miles is a very gentle slope upwards but ends with a slightly brutal climb up and out of the canyon. There are plenty of campgrounds around the foot bridge.
Long story short, we were in Yosemite a couple days early, so we did our first section as a day hike, and got a walk-up permit at Lyell Canyon Trailhead so we could start earlier.
The trailhead starts east of Tenaya Lake off Tioga Pass Road and goes up a gentle slope to Sunrise Lakes. If you’d like to add more mileage to your first day, you can make the trek and camp at Cathedral Lakes instead of Sunrise Lakes.
Unfortunately, with this permit, hiking Half Dome is not an option.
The permit for my trip was for a start at Sunrise Lakes Trailhead—not out of preference, but because it was the only one we were able to get. Having gone from Happy Isle to Clouds Rest and back as a training hike for the JMT, we were completely okay with skipping that part.
As noted earlier, we arrived in Tuolumne a couple days early, so we day hiked our first from Sunrise Lakes to Tuolumne Meadows. We left our packs at the backpacker’s campground, took the earliest shuttle from Tuolumne Campground to Sunrise Lakes Trailhead, and hiked all the way back to the campground.
John Muir Trail Hiking Date Range
Always take into consideration the winter snowpack that occurred, as it will affect your travel time, gear, and water supply. If you start earlier in the season (i.e. May), I’d like to highlight the fact that I was skiing in Mammoth in June of 2015. If it’s a heavier snow year, you may have to consider snowshoes and warmer gear. Also, river crossings may be higher the earlier you start. That being said, getting drinking water would not be an issue. I started my trip in late August, and there was only one 5-miles section where there weren’t a lot of water.
As mentioned earlier, the application provides a date range of 21 days that you can start, which allows you to say “I can start any day between July 1st through July 21st”. If you don’t get the permit for July 1st, you are entered into the lottery for July 2nd. You will receive an email confirmation every day notifying you whether you were denied or received a permit.
Other Options if You Didn’t Win the JMT Lottery
- Do a walk-up permit at the Tuolumne Meadows Ranger Station for Lyell Canyon. You’ll have to figure out other arrangements on doing the Happy Isle to Tuolumne Meadows portion, but at least the transportation in that section is much easier.
- Go Northbound instead of Southbound.
- Enter from a different location outside of Yosemite. Here is a list of all entry trailheads and their corresponding agencies that handle their permits.
More details about the John Muir Trail Lottery Application can be found on the NPS website here.