Sitting, waiting, wishing…

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” -John Muir

It’s permit time!

But wow, applying is no simple task. In fact, sorting out this whole permit process feels a lot like trying to find your way through John Muir’s famous wilderness itself. As the John Muir Trail has gained in popularity, obtaining permits has become much harder (click here for an explanation on how the NPS is handling this issue), resulting in an application rejection rate of up to 90% during the peak season. Talk about nerve-wracking!


The Application Process:

To hike into and through the many national parks, forests, and wilderness areas of the John Muir Trail, every person must carry a permit. Which permit you need, and where to apply for it, depends on the route you choose to take.

Northbound (NOBO) hikers must apply to enter the Inyo National Forest via a Whitney Portal permit. Applications are accepted online on at from Feb 1 – March 15 and are granted by a lottery system. Any spaces not filled by the lottery will then be opened to the public on April 1st, and can be obtained through the Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permit Office. From Whitney Portal, an 11-mile hike will take hikers to the summit of Mount Whitney, the official southern terminus of the John Muir Trail.

The traditional, and more popular, Southbound (SOBO) route – the one we plan on taking – requires a Yosemite wilderness permit, which can be applied for via fax, phone, or mail. Only 45 JMT permits are issued per day. Since fax is the preferred method, and also the most specific, we will try to break it down a bit!

  • When filling out the application, the top three trailhead choices must be listed, along with 1st night’s camp location. The 45 permits per day are divided among the several trailhead options.
  • JMT Permits must exit Yosemite National Park via Donahue Pass.
  • Applicants must fax their application no more than 168 days in advance – before we all hurt our brains with mental math, the NPS site provides a chart displaying the right date to fax, based on the desired start date. Applications are entered into a daily random lottery, and accepted applications will be notified via email in 1-2 business days. Time to cross your fingers and toes and hope for the best!


Choosing A Trailhead

The 45 Southbound permits issued per day are divided among five trailhead options. We had to consider our trailhead choices carefully, as this impacts our first night’s camp location, as well as our probability of getting a permit.

yosemite trailheads
The Yosemite trailheads and major trail landmarks.

Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley

This is the “classic” JMT option, and therefore the most popular. This trailhead starts at the famous mileage sign ending at Mount Whitney. Hikers must camp their first night at the Little Yosemite Valley backpacker’s campground, a hike of only 4.5 miles. This is a great option for those wishing to hike Half Dome, a 7 mile side trip from LYV (permits for this are included on the wilderness permit application).

Only 211 miles to go!

Happy Isles “pass through” to Sunrise/Merced Lake

This permit starts at the same Happy Isles trailhead, but hikers must “pass through” Little Yosemite Valley and camp in the areas beyond. Depending on  how much mileage you want to put in on your first day, campsites begin at the 6 mile point, and continue to Sunrise High Sierra Camp at the 13 mile point. Half Dome is still an option with this permit, as this route passes right by the trailhead junction.

Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley

This trailhead has a different start point than the traditional Happy Isles, but links hikers up to the JMT only 3 miles beyond the Happy Isles trailhead, via the Panorama trail. Hikers must camp at the Little Yosemite Valley backpacker’s campground their first night with this permit, a roughly 6 mile day. Again, Half Dome is still an option with this permit.

Glacier Point Overlook with a view of Half Dome and the valley- not a bad place to start!
The infamous Half Dome cables used to climb to the top.

Sunrise/Tenaya Lakes

The Sunrise/Tenaya Lakes trailhead is located in Tuolumne Meadows, an area of Yosemite National Park just east of Yosemite Valley. This trailhead meets up with the JMT roughly 13 miles downtrail from Happy Isles. Some people prefer this permit as it bypasses the hard climb out of Yosemite Valley. However, Half Dome no longer becomes an option, since the trailhead is behind this starting point. Since this trailhead is different from the classic start point, permits are somewhat easier to obtain.


Lyell Canyon

Lyell Canyon also joins the JMT in Tuolumne Meadows, about 20 miles downtrail from Happy Isles, and is similar to Sunrise Lakes in permit strategy.

John muir in Lyell Canyon (2)_0


Our Application


Since we have some flexibility with our start date and can afford to be rejected a couple of times, we are going for the classic Happy Isles routes. We would also be happy with a Glacier Point permit, since it is so close to the traditional start point. We chose these three  trailheads in order to fully experience Yosemite Valley, and hopefully be able to climb Half Dome along the way!

In reference to strategy, all three of us will submit an application daily with our name as Trip Leader, and a different trailhead as our #1 choice (betwen HI-LYV, HI Pass Through, and Glacier Point). We are applying for Half Dome permits, but will allow our JMT application to be processed regardless of whether or not those are granted. We will start applying for a July 25 start date, with an ideal start of August 1 (Jamie’s birthday!). We will continue to apply into mid-August if we still haven’t received a permit, and will consider the other, easier to obtain trailheads if we reach that point.


Here we go… wish us luck!!




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