How to Apply for a John Muir Trail Permit in 2018
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 2014 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 has changed over the last couple of years with the most recent update for 2018. In this post, I share all of the information about how to apply for a John Muir Trail permit in 2018, relevant links on Yosemite’s website, and tips for increasing your chances for snagging one of these coveted southbound permits.
2018 Southbound John Muir Trail Permit Quota 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 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. The reservation costs $5 per person, and you are only charged if your application is successful.
Permits are managed by a quota-based system in Yosemite, where the Park limits the total of 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 a last-minute cancellations – which are not common.
How to Fill out your JMT permit application
In past years, JMT hikers used the same wilderness permit application as all other Yosemite hikers. This year, Yosemite has rolled out a separate permit application for JMT hikers.
On your application, you must indicate which trailhead you want, your desired entry date, your first night’s camping location, your trip length, exit trailhead, the number in your party, and whether you also want to apply for a Half Dome permit. I filled out the application below as an example, and I will go through each of the different parts of the JMT application below.
Choosing a Date Range
The major thing to take note of is the Date Range section circled in red. In past years if you had flexible dates, you would have to fax in a new application every single day. In 2017, they have made it a lot easier for those folks who have flexible start dates within a 21 day range. Say you can start the John Muir Trail anytime in August. You would list 8/1/17 as your first desired start date and 8/21/17 as your last desired starting date. If you are unsuccessful in the lottery for August 1, you will automatically be entered into the lottery for August 2nd. This continues each date thereafter until you are either successful or you reach the end of the 3 week range. Everyday, 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.
Choosing a JMT Entry Trailhead
In Yosemite, there are several options for accessing the John Muir Trail. The first thing I recommend you do is pick up the John Muir Trail topo map pack by Tom Harrison. These maps will come in 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. I used a different allowed trailhead, the Sunrise Lakes trailhead, to access the JMT. The table below provides the details on these different options, as well as the quota for each trailhead. The total quota refers to the number of people.
If you are open to more than one trailhead, you can include all of them in your application and put them in order of priority. If you don’t want a trailhead – Glacier Point, for example – put a “0” next to it.
Here’s what your first day on the John Muir Trail will look like depending on where you start. Also note, that starting at Glacier Point has a net elevation drop of 1,100 feet, but there is still a decent amount of uphill.
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 on your 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. For the Sunrise/Merced Lake option, you are allowed to camp anywhere along Sunrise Creek past the junction to Half Dome.
Hiking from Happy Isles, spending your first night at Sunrise Creek is preferable. 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 on 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. 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 Tenaya Lake. 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. We 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, wet 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 Tenaya Lake 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 at Tenaya Lake. Then on day 3, you pass by your car again. You may think of this as a slight buzz kill, 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 dropping off some gear that we determined to be unnecessary.
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. Second, it avoids the brutal climb out of Yosemite Valley.
From the Lyell Canyon trailhead, the first 10 miles of trail are 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.
Choosing an Exit Trail and Trip Length
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.
You also need to list your 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 early, so I would recommend giving yourself a little leeway here. Once you know the exact number of days you plan to be on the trail, you can adjust your exit date when you pick up you permit from the rangers station in Yosemite.
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.
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. If you prioritize those trailheads, then I’d recommend checking the box to apply for a Half Dome permit as well. Note that where it says “If Half Dome permits are not available” make sure to choose “Please process this request.” If you choose the other box it means that if your Half Dome permit is unsuccessful, your JMT application will not be processed.
Where & When to Submit your JMT Permit Application
The lottery occurs exactly 24 weeks (168 days) in advance, 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 send your application in as early as Monday morning.
All applications should be submitted by fax to (209) 372 -0739.
You can either print and fax or submit using an online fax program.
If you end up missing the deadline for the lottery, 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 advanced permits available.
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 will no longer be available for Happy Isles, Glacier Point, or Sunrise Lakes.
For each day, 10 walk-up permits will be available for the Lyell Canyon Trailhead at the Tuolumne Ranger’s station. Walk-up permits become available the morning 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 camping in line for a walk-up permit sounds too risky, 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.
If you plan on accessing the JMT somewhere south of Yosemite, check out question #5 on the NPS JMT Permit page for information about trailheads & corresponding agencies that you would need to apply for a permit through.
The Yosemite portion of the trail is indeed fantastic, and some people are dead set on hiking the whole trail at once. That said, the Yosemite portion is also the most crowded, and there are plenty of amazing things to see on JMT once you leave Yosemite. So if you are denied a Yosemite permit, you can still have an incredible experience even if you miss out on the first 40-50 miles. Plus, it gives you a reason to come back in a later year and explore Yosemite in all its glory.