Getting John Muir Trail Permits For Backpacking

Woman backpacking in the mountains
Woman backpacking in the mountains

After a few stressful weeks of being denied daily from the John Muir Trail permit lottery, I finally got a permit from Yosemite! And for my first choice trailhead no less! I’ll be hiking the JMT from Lyell Canyon (Tuolumne Meadows) to Mt. Whitney in August. Woop woop!


If you can’t tell, I’m really excited.


But before I secured JMT permits through the lottery, I got a few other “just in case” permits to ensure I’d be able to hike it this year. This is the year for me to finally hike it, I can just feel it.


Honestly, the permit system is basically a mess. Each national park and national forest have their own systems, it can be a headache to figure out and can be quite overwhelming. And since we’re being honest here, it can be such a bummer to be denied every day. But just because the permit system is a mess or you’re denied daily from the lottery, doesn’t mean you can’t hike it the year you want to.


Below I break down the whole permit system, including permits leaving Yosemite heading SOBO, permits heading NOBO, section hikes and basically every way you can get a permit to end up on the John Muir Trail.


Also to help with the planning process, I suggest getting this John Muir Trail map.


Let’s start with the most popular option, the JMT Lottery System. The John Muir Trail lottery is for hikes heading SOBO (southbound) and are leaving Yosemite over Donohue Pass. This is the most popular way to start the JMT.


The link to apply for the JMT Lottery.


There are 5 trailhead options to start on the JMT in Yosemite:
• Happy Isles to Yosemite Valley (this is the traditional and most popular route)
• Happy Isles to Sunrise/Merced Lake
• Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley
• Sunrise Lakes
• Lyell Canyon (Tuolumne Meadows)


How the lottery works:
• Applications are processed 24 weeks (168 days) in advance from your desired starting date. You can submit the application online, 2 days before the John Muir Trail lottery date (170 days in advance).
• Once received, your application will be entered into the JMT database and an email confirming entry will be sent to you. It can take a day or so to get this email. So if you don’t get it right away, don’t swear!
• Your application will then be entered into the daily lottery for each day specified within the date range. The MAXIMUM date range is 21 days.
• You will receive daily notifications, via email, informing you if your application has been granted or denied. If denied your application continues to roll to the next day’s lottery until the date range specified expires or your request is granted.
• Your application will be removed from the rolling lottery if 1) your request is granted 2) is manually canceled by applicant or 3) the date range has expired. If your application’s date range expires you will be notified, via email, at which time you may reapply for a new date range of up to 21 days again.


Cost of the permit:
$5.00 per person, plus $5.00 per transaction. You will have 14 days to pay before your reservation is canceled.


There is no charge for denied requests. A permit reservation is not valid until a successful payment occurs within the time-frame allotted or your reservation will be canceled. If your reservation is granted, you will receive an email notification requesting payment via a secure online platform.


What you’ll need to know to apply:
• Hike Start Date
• Starting Trailhead
• 1st Night’s Camp Location
• Group Size
• Trip Leader Contact Information
• Hike End Date
• Ending Trailhead


Alright, calling in. This is the number to the Yosemite Wilderness Office: 209-372-0740. Save it.


The Yosemite Wilderness Office is open 8:30am-12pm and 1pm-4pm PST Monday through Friday.


The Trailhead Report is not updated on a “live” bases but it is updated daily. To see availability for the SOBO JMT permits, scroll down until you get to a chart that looks like the one below.


Now to the fun part. Calling.


Their office gets overwhelmed with phone calls. So if no one is there, you will get to an answering machine, don’t leave a message, no one will answer it. But if the office is open, one of two things will happen, the call will drop or you will get through to someone. If the call drops, keep calling back. Excessively keep calling. My JMT hiking buddy and I tag-teamed called them until one of us got through.


Through this we booked just in case permits for early July if we didn’t get permits for August through the lottery, thankfully we did. This way you can book a “just in case” permit or if you completely don’t win anything from the lottery, call back every day until you get a cancellation. They happen more frequently than you would think.


Remember, John Muir Trail lottery winners have two weeks to pay or the permit goes back into the system, so if you’re trying to get a permit for late July, don’t call the day after the permit rolls for July 28th. Wait two weeks then call.


Assuming you’re looking to summit Mt. Whitney as part of the hike, you have two choices. First, hike from Cottonwood Lakes/Pass with a visit to Mt. Whitney and then continue on your journey to Yosemite, or whichever other exit trailhead you’ve selected.


To get a NOBO permit from either Cottonwood Lakes or Cottonwood Pass (they’re different trails), go to recreation.gov.

Type in “Inyo National Forest – Wilderness Permits” into the search bar and click on the first result.

To the left, click “explore available permits.” Let them if you’re a commercially guided trip, know which dates you’re looking for and how many people. Then look for the trailhead you want to start on. Look for available permits, click on it. Let them know where you plan on exiting, and your rough itinerary, and proceed to checkout.

For permits starting on Mt. Whitney, you will need to go through a similar process but you would do it after the permits go on sale after the Mt. Whitney Lottery on April 1st. If you don’t see your ideal Mt. Whitney entry date on April 1st, check back after May 1st. The deadline for people to pay for their permit from the lottery is on April 30th, so after that, you should see a lot more permits.


There are a variety of options to enter and exit the JMT at various points on the trail. Some of the points are fairly close to the JMT and you only need to hike in a few miles, others you may need to hike in 10+ miles. If you’re section hiking from Yosemite, you will need to follow the process above. But if you’re section hiking anywhere out of Yosemite, you will need to get permits through recreation.gov. Below I go through the more popular points of entry for a JMT section hike.

Rush Creek Trail

This trailhead is by Silver Lake in June Lake. It’s about an 8.5 mile hike to where the Rush Creek Trail meets the John Muir Trail. You’ll hike past three waterfalls, and then up a trail that takes you past two dams. Past the second dam is Gem Lake. It glitters under the summer sun, it’s so beautiful. Past that you keep hiking past Waugh Lake to where you meet the John Muir Trail.

Devils Postpile

This section starts from Mammoth Lakes and it’s about 1 mile from the John Muir Trail. It’s also a popular resupply point!

Muir Trail Ranch

This section starts from the Muir Trail Ranch outside of Bishop. It’s about a 2 mile hike to the John Muir Trail. This is also a popular resupply point.

Vermillion Valley Resort

Although this is also a popular resupply point, it’s a little further off the John Muir Trail. It’s about a 7 mile hike to where this connects to the John Muir Trail. They also offer a water taxi which runs from about 9 am to 4 pm and saves almost 5 miles off your hike.

Bishop Pass

This section starts from South Lake in Bishop. It’s 11 miles to where the trail meets the John Muir Trail at Le Conte Canyon. You hike from South Lake past several other lakes up and over Bishop Pass, down to Dusy Basin and to Le Conte Canyon. This is a beautiful hike!

Kearsarge Pass

If you’re heading SOBO, this is pretty much the last entrance to point to the John Muir Trail before Mt. Whitney. It’s about 10 miles from the trailhead to where it connects with the John Muir Trail. The trail starts from Onion Valley right outside of Independence. You hike past a few lakes including one shaped like a heart and over Kearsarge Pass. Over the pass you keep hiking pas Kearsarge Lakes and Bullfrog Lake until you reach the John Muir Trail.


For most, this one is harder to do, especially on long hikes like the JMT. But if you have a job that will allow you to be flexible with taking time off and relying on a walk up, this option would be great for you!


The Yosemite wilderness office, Mt. Whitney ranger station and the Inyo National Forest ranger stations all save a certain amount of permits for walk up plus anyone who doesn’t show up or cancels last minute.


You go either the day before or the day you want to start hiking and get a walk up permit. These also can go fast to make sure to be there early when they open. Also, every station has different hours when you can pick up a walk up permit. So make sure to call ahead so you’re there right in time!


For more on hiking and trail permits, be sure to check out my backpacking and hiking blog here. If you like what you see, subscribe to my email newsletter to stay up to date on all of my hiking guides.


Here is a list of the Inyo National Forest visitor/ranger stations.


  • Brad

    March 3, 2020

    This was informative-Thanks! I’ll be retiring next year and so will have a lot of flexibility in applying for a JMT permit and I will keep your advice in mind. Two questions (1) does anyone know the success rate for walk-up permits? (2) Is it possible to start at a point north of Yosemite on the PCT and hike south to avoid the JMT permitting process? THANKS!! Brad


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