We didn’t let getting denied for six straight weeks in the lottery system deter us. There are more ways than one to get a permit for the John Muir Trail, and with a little bit of flexibility in your schedule you can almost guarantee scoring a permit.
Method #1: Traditional Lottery System (60% of permits)
Thankfully, it’s all online now. Gone are the days of sending in a fax or paper letter with a permit request, all you have to do is submit one application that will last up to three weeks. The application is free, and only if your permit is picked will you be charged $10 to live in the Sierra Nevada backcountry for three weeks. Seems like pretty reasonable rent to me. Using the Yosemite website, you can fill out an application with your desired starting trailhead, number in the party, exit date, and whether or not you would like to request a permit to climb Half Dome as well.
Rolling applications must be submitted 168 days in advance of your first desired start date. After this first date, you can choose to have your potential permit window extended up to three weeks, and the permit will be reentered into the lottery each day. So, for example, if you are seeking to start the John Muir Trail any time from July 1st – July 21st, you would submit your application 168 days before July 1st (which would be January 15th). I used this nifty tool to do all of that tedious counting for me. From the date your application is submitted until your three week window is up, you will get an email every day alerting you of whether or not you scored the permit.
This gives you ample time to prepare for your JMT hike. As soon as you get that reservation confirmation six months in advance, the preparation can begin! Plus, with the new rollover system, you don’t have to submit a permit every day, increasing your chances of getting your ticket any of the 21 days.
We went through this process, twice, and were denied for six straight weeks. Obviously lucky people are out there getting those permits, but that was not the case for us. Thankfully the totality of our summer plans ended up changing and we decided to do the JMT in September instead of July, but there is an incredibly large volume of permits submitted via the online lottery system.
Method #2: Walk-up Reservations (40% of permits)
This is how Alex and I wound up on the JMT. Coming off of our summer road trip, we were already unemployed and in shape to attempt something like 240 miles in the Sierra backcountry, so we had no problem with the idea of hanging out in Yosemite until we could get a permit. Because the large majority of people prefer to submit an online application and have their date booked months in advance, it’s actually much more likely to get a walk-up permit. However, there are a few caveats to be aware of.
In addition to a John Muir Trail permit, you need a permit to go over Donahue Pass. Due to rising environmental impact in the area, the quota for exits over Donahue Pass is limited to 45 per day – and this is where we almost got caught up. The JMT permits were readily available when we showed up at the Yosemite Wilderness Center, but it was only by some stroke of absolute chance that there were two cancellations that allowed us the permit to exit Donahue Pass. The only trailhead which guarantees an exit permit with it is to start at Lyell Canyon. To get this permit, you would go to the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Station.
We weren’t aware of this technicality, so we went straight to the wilderness center in Yosemite Valley – gunning for permits starting at Happy Isles Trailhead. Because of the miracle cancellation, we were able to complete the JMT start to finish. Otherwise, our choices would have been to go to the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center the next day or to somehow find a way to skip over Donahue Pass and reenter at Mammoth.
For an aspiring thru-hiker with a flexible schedule, this basically guarantees that you will get the permit eventually if you’re willing to hangout in Yosemite an extra day or two. Plus, don’t all great trips start with a healthy dose of uncertainty?
Alex and I left the Bay Area at 3:00 am to get in line for permits. With the whole first-come, first-serve scenario comes the physical waiting. The situation was a bit confusing – at 8:00 am the wilderness center opened and they took everybody’s names down, but they don’t actually issue you a permit until 11:00 am. I don’t know why, but it’s just the system and we must accept it. In line in front of us were hikers going for Half Dome permits and a few hopeful overnight trips, I’m pretty sure most of which got their permits. For those who are willing to wait and take a chance, first-come first-serve is a wonderful option.
Click here for a full description of the first come, first serve options. But, it basically boils down to this:
“Your best chance for first-come, first-served permits is at the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center (for Lyell Canyon trailhead).”
Method #3: Vigorously checking the Yosemite website and scouring for cancellations (varies by how many hours you’re willing to dedicate to this)
As long as there are people who hike the JMT, there will be people who cancel their reservations. When there is a cancellation, it will show up on the recreation.gov reservation calendar in the John Muir Trail section. After religiously checking every single day, Alex found a cancellation for two permits that would work with our time frame, but when we called someone had already snagged them. I would not suggest on relying on this method, but if you’re planning to go for first come first serve, it’s worth it to check in on the reservation calendar daily to make sure there’s not a permit up for grabs.
The John Muir Trail is a bucket-list item that many find daunting because of the complicated permit system. One of the most common questions we’ve heard is how we managed to get a permit with our lack of prior planning. On the trail, I can’t remember meeting any other hikers who had taken advantage of those first come first serve permits that are available both Southbound and Northbound. In the future, Alex and I plan on continuing to take advantage of this system. If it worked for one of the most popular trails in the country, I would place bets in our favor that we’ll be able to snag permits for a certain trail in Washington we have our eyes on…
If you missed last week’s video, check out the full documentation of our summit attempt of Mt. Wood in Montana. There’s something so special about watching two confident climbers head into the backcountry only to return chewed up and spit out by the unforgiving Beartooth range in Montana.