HOW TO APPLY FOR A SOUTHBOUND JOHN MUIR TRAIL PERMIT IN 2020
Navigating the John Muir Trail permit process for going south out of Yosemite National Park can be confusing. Which trailhead to start on? When to apply? Will you even be lucky enough to get a John Muir Trail permit?
These are all questions I asked as I was planning my southbound thru-hike on the John Muir Trail. With over 70% of JMT permit requests being denied over the last few years, it’s important you follow the JMT application directions to a T.
Luckily, I did my research, and when I went to apply for my John Muir Trail permit, I snatched one up for my first-choice date and trailhead out of Yosemite. That said, the permit application process has changed over the last couple of years.
In this post, I share how to apply for a John Muir Trail permit in 2020, relevant resources and links you’ll need, and tips for increasing your chances for snagging one of these coveted southbound permits.
As it goes in all of the destinations we share, please practice good trail etiquette and remember to Leave No Trace. This means packing out all of your garbage, being respectful to others on busy trails, and following the established rules.
2020 Southbound John Muir Trail Permit System
No matter where you start your hike, anyone who is hiking along the John Muir Trail is required to carry a wilderness permit. You only need one permit for the entire trip and how you obtain your permit depends on which trailhead you will use to access the John Muir Trail. If you plan on starting the JMT in Yosemite, you need to apply for your permit directly from Yosemite National Park. To apply for a permit, you must know your desired start date, where you will camp the first night, and your exit location and date.
How the John Muir Trail Permit System Works
John Muir Trail permits are issued via a lottery system. Interest in hiking the JMT has grown rapidly in the last decade, and more people want to hike the trail than the trail can handle, so a quota (or cap) has been set and a lottery system has been implemented. This helps prevent crowding on the trail and helps protect the area from overuse.
Permits are managed by a quota-based system in Yosemite, where the Park limits the total number of JMT thru-hikers entering across all trailheads to 45 per day. They do this by capping the number of JMT hikers going south over Donahue Pass each day. Of those 45 spots:
- 15 will be available through the advanced lottery for JMT hikers leaving from the Lyell Canyon Trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows
- 20 (total) will be available through the advanced lottery for JMT hikers leaving from Happy Isles, Glacier Point, or the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead.
- 10 will be available for walk-ups the day before the departure date from the Lyell Canyon Trailhead.
- No other JMT walk-up permits will be available for any of trailheads, except in the rare case of last-minute cancellations – which are not common.
How to Submit a John Muir Trail Permit Application
In the past, you had to fax a paper application in, but now the application process is entirely managed online. You can access the JMT Rolling Lottery Application here.
John Muir Trail Permit Cost
For granted reservation requests, a nonrefundable processing fee of $5.00 per person plus $5.00 per transaction is due. If your reservation is granted, you’ll receive an email notification requesting payment via a secure online platform. You will have 14 days to pay before your reservation is canceled. Don’t forget to pay if your permit is approved. A permit reservation is not valid until a successful payment occurs within the time-frame allotted or your reservation will be canceled.
Half Dome permits are $10 per person and can be added on to your JMT trip if starting from Yosemite Valley or Glacier Point (more on this later).
When to Apply for a JMT Permit
Each lottery occurs exactly 24 weeks (168 days) before the desired starting date, and permit applications are accepted 2 days before the lottery (170 days before your start date). That means if the lottery for your start date is on a Wednesday morning, you can apply online as early as the Monday morning prior.
To figure out the exact date you need to submit your application, check out this chart on Yosemite’s website.
If you end up missing the deadline for the lottery for the date you want to start hiking, check the Full Trailheads Report on this page before you submit your application to see which dates are full for which trailheads. If a trailhead and date are listed on this report, it means there are no more advanced permits available.
How to Fill Out Your John Muir Trail Permit Application
In past years, JMT hikers used the same wilderness permit application as all other Yosemite hikers. Over the last few years, Yosemite has rolled out a separate permit application system for JMT hikers which is now managed entirely online. Gone are the days of faxing in the application.
On your JMT permit application, you must indicate the following:
- Which trailhead you want to start at
- Your desired entry date
- Your first night’s camping location
- Your trip length
- Your exit trailhead
- The number in your party
- Whether you also want to apply for a Half Dome permit
Below, I will go through each of the different parts of the JMT online application process.
ONLINE APPLICATION – You can access the JMT Rolling Lottery Application & detailed instructions here
Choosing a JMT Starting Trailhead
In Yosemite, there are several options for accessing the John Muir Trail. The first thing I recommend you do is to pick up the John Muir Trail topo map pack by Tom Harrison. These maps will be extremely handy both in your planning and once you are out on the trail. In the meantime, use this Yosemite map to help you decide on your entry trailhead.
There are four trailheads that can be used to access the JMT under the current permit system. The most popular trailheads are Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley and Lyell Canyon in Tuolumne. Here is a table listing your first day’s distances and elevation gain for the different JMT starting trailheads.
When filling out the application, you can list up to 5 choices for your JMT Entry Trailhead. Along with your entry trailhead, you also have to list your first night’s campsite. Below is an example. When you are filling this out, you should list your desired JMT entry trailheads in order of preference.
If you plan to hike the entire JMT, list the Whitney Portal as your exit trailhead on your permit application. You do not need an additional permit to summit Mt. Whitney.
Here is more info on each of the trailheads and what the first day of your JMT hike will look like:
The classic and complete north-to-south John Muir Trail route begins at the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley. This means that in the past, this has also been the most competitive trailhead in terms of getting a permit. If you start here, you are in for a tough climb your first day, but you will pass some of Yosemite’s most iconic landmarks, including Nevada Falls, Vernal Falls, and the junction to Half Dome. If you want to actually summit Half Dome, make sure to check the appropriate box when you submit your online application as a separate permit is needed.
On your permit application, you will need to specify where you plan to camp the first night. Starting at Happy Isles, the two options for the first night’s campsite are Little Yosemite Valley or Sunrise/Merced Lake pass-through. For the Sunrise/Merced Lake option, you are allowed to camp anywhere along Sunrise Creek past the junction to Half Dome, but you are not allowed to camp in Little Yosemite Valley.
Hiking from Happy Isles, spending your first night at Sunrise Creek is preferable, although it’s a little ways past the junction to Half Dome. While neither of these sites are going to offer solitude, the sites along Sunrise Creek are slightly more spread out. But more importantly, the additional distance you cover on day 1 means that you will arrive at Cathedral Lakes at a decent hour on day 2, giving you plenty of time to set up camp, swim, and enjoy the amazing scenery at this pair of gorgeous lakes.
This is the trailhead I used to access the JMT when I hiked it. The Sunrise Lakes trailhead begins at the bottom of Tenaya Lake, a 15 minute drive west from Tuolumne Meadows on Tioga Pass Road.
I chose this trailhead for several reasons. In a previous trip to Yosemite, I had done the hike up to Half Dome from Happy Isles. Earlier in the season, when water levels are high, the hike up from Happy Isles is appealing because of the magnificent waterfalls. However, in late August, when I started the JMT, most of the waterfalls in the Valley were drying up. For that reason and to see some new territory, I chose Sunrise Lakes.
The downside is Half Dome isn’t as much of an option when starting from the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead. However, it does allow you to make a convenient side trip on your first day up to the top of Clouds Rest, which doesn’t require an additional permit. So on our first morning, we quickly hiked up to Sunrise Lakes, dropped our packs, set up camp, and then hiked up to Clouds Rest for the afternoon. The views were incredible and are considered some of the best in all of Yosemite.
On day 2, we met up with the John Muir Trail at the Sunrise High Sierra Camp (mile 13.7 of the JMT), which meant that we were still able to camp at Cathedral Lakes on our second night.
A final advantage of starting at Sunrise Lakes is that your car will be parked at the Ranger station in Tuolumne Meadows. From the ranger station, you take a free park shuttle to the trailhead. Then on day 3, you pass by your car again. You may think of this as a slight buzzkill, but for us, it was a huge advantage. We were able to leave some of our food in the bear locker by our car, cutting down on our weight for the first couple of days, and we also ended up dropping off some gear that we determined to be unnecessary after our first days of hiking.
This trailhead brings hikers past Illilohuette, Nevada, and Vernal Falls, and offers vast views of Yosemite Valley. In the past, JMT hikers who chose this trailhead did so due to the fact that it was easier to get a permit. However, leaving from Glacier Point poses additional logistical challenges since the trailhead is located about an hour from the Yosemite Valley Ranger Station where you pick up your permit. Now that the permits for Glacier Point are lumped in with Happy Isles and Sunrise Lakes, the only advantage of starting here is a different vantage point and the fact that you begin at a much higher elevation, avoiding the climb out of Happy Isles.
Lyell Canyon (Tuolumne Meadows)
The Lyell Canyon trailhead leaves straight from the Tuolumne Meadows Ranger station. There are a few reasons people choose this trailhead as an alternative to Happy Isles. First, there’s a chance the permit process could be slightly less competitive, but I have no evidence of that. Second, it avoids the brutal climb out of Yosemite Valley.
From the Lyell Canyon trailhead, the first 10 miles of trail is completely flat, giving you an easy first day to warm up. If you go this route, your first night’s camp will be Upper Lyell Canyon.
The major downside of accessing the John Muir Trail via the Lyell Canyon trailhead is you miss out on some of Yosemite’s most spectacular scenery. Cathedral Lakes, which you would bypass, was a highlight of the JMT for me, and I think it would be a shame to miss this spot.
Check out my 8-Step John Muir Trail Planning Guide to get ready for your hike!
Choosing a Date Range
You can submit one application for a range of dates up to three weeks long. This means if you have flexible dates, you only need to submit a single application!
Say you can start the John Muir Trail anytime in July. You would list 7/1/20 as your first desired start date and 7/21/20 as your last desired starting date. If you are unsuccessful in the lottery for July 1, you will automatically be entered into the lottery for July 2nd. This continues each date thereafter until you are either successful or you reach the end of the 3-week range. Every day, you will be notified by email whether or not you got a permit. At the end of those 3 weeks, if you never got a permit, you can submit for the next 3-week window.
You also need to list your JMT trip length on your application, which is the total number of days you plan to be on the trail. The key is that you cannot be on the trail after your exit date. However, it is ok if you finish a day or two early, so I would recommend giving yourself a little leeway here. I took 22 days to hike the JMT, and I thought it was the perfect pace.
Number of People in Your Party
Make sure to list the accurate number of people in your John Muir Trail party, since each person counts towards Yosemite’s trailhead quota. New for this year, you can put in a desired number in your party, along with the minimum party size you’d accept. So say you are a couple and you want to invite another couple to join you…but if there is only room for a party of 2, you’d accept that. You can put that in your application.
Half-Dome Side Trip
If you’ve never been to the top of Half Dome, it’s a worthy side trip….but it only makes sense for those starting in Yosemite Valley or Glacier Point, and it actually isn’t an option if you start from Lyell Canyon.
If you prioritize those trailheads and you’ve never hiked to the top of Half Dome, then I’d recommend applying for a Half Dome permit as well. Just make sure you put the number of people in your group who also want Half Dome permits.
The permit costs an additional $10 per person. Note that if you don’t get the Half Dome permit, it doesn’t mean you won’t get your JMT Permit.
Next you have to indicate whether this is a guided trip and whether or not you are traveling with stock. I assume for most of you reading this JMT Permit blog post, the answer is no.
Trip Leader Info
The final step before submitting your application is to enter your trip leader info. This is the person who will be present to pick up your JMT permits and must actually hike the hike.
What Happens Next?
Once you submit your application you will receive an email notification confirming that your JMT permit request has been received. Then once the lottery takes place, you will receive daily updates via email with the JMT permit results. If you don’t get your first desired date, then your application will roll over to the next day until the 21 day date range on your application expires or you receive a permit.
After the 21 day period, if you are still unsuccessful, you can submit another application for another 21 day period.
What to Do if Your John Muir Trail Permit Request is Unsuccessful
If you are denied a permit under the new system, your options are pretty limited, since walk-up permits are not available for Happy Isles, Glacier Point, or Sunrise Lakes.
First, keep an eye out for cancellations. Check the Yosemite Full Trailhead report to see if there are any dates that are not full.
Next option: For each day, 10 walk-up permits will be available for the Lyell Canyon Trailhead at the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center. Walk-up permits become available at 11am prior to the day of your hike. There are reports of people camping out at the Rangers Station to get permits, so be aware that even walk-up permits can be quite competitive.
If a walk-up permit sounds too risky or the logistics with resupply are too complicated, the only option you will have is to access the JMT from one of the trailheads south of Yosemite. There are several access points just south in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Reds Meadow near Mammoth at mile 59 is also a sensible option since most JMT hikers stop here to resupply. However, people accessing the JMT at different access points is becoming a problem and is resulting in a very crowded trail. Alternatively, you can find a different trail altogether, hike the JMT in shorter sections, or wait for another year.
What other questions do you have about the John Muir Trail permit process? Leave them in the comments below or join the conversation in the Bearfoot Theory Outdoor Adventurers Facebook group.
For more information on the John Muir Trail, visit my JMT Archives and follow my Pinterest board below.