Preparing to Hike the John Muir Trail

Continued from, A Brief History of John Muir and the John Muir Trail

I was originally inspired to hike the JMT thirty years ago when I first climbed Mount Whitney. On the mountain, I met a man who was just start ting his weeks-long trek of the JMT. I was hooked, but it took awhile for me to get back to that item on my ever-lengthy bucket list.

Preparation to hike the JMT starts months in advance. I found that obtaining a wilderness permit can be the most difficult and confusing part of the whole process. There are very strict quotas for entering the Sierra Nevada wilderness, and the entry points are controlled by lottery systems and somewhat complex bureaucratic paperwork.

Obtaining a Wilderness Permit

Backcountry wilderness permits are required for anyone staying overnight in the wilderness and entering the wilderness from a trailhead (originating in either a national park or national forest). Each national park or national forest has their own lottery system.

Here’s a list of national parks and forests the JMT passes through with links to their wilderness permit pages:

Yosemite National Park (Yosemite Valley or Tuolumne Meadows with access over Donohue Pass)

Sierra National Forest (West-side access near Florence Lake and Lake Edison)

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (Road’s End, Mineral King)

Sequoia National Forest (Kennedy Meadows, Golden Trout Wilderness)

Humboldt/Toiyabe National Forest (Twin Lakes, north of Mono Lake)

Inyo National Forest (Mount Whitney – Whitney Portal, Cottonwood via Horseshoe Meadow and others)
The Yosemite National Park lottery system (for Happy Isles trailhead in the valley) works by faxing an application (the PDF is available on their website) to the park service 168 days in advance of your chosen departure date. In this process, you are only making a reservation to get a permit, not actually securing a permit. Hence, if you do not show up to pick up the permit, it becomes available for others on a walk-in basis.

Walk-in permits: 60 percent of Yosemite National Park permits are available through the reservation process. The other 40 percent are available on a walk-in basis. For highly desired dates, you may need to get in line for a walk-in permit during the wee morning hours the day you want to hit the trail. Read up on this process on the Yosemite National Park website noted above and watch this YouTube video for more information.

The Inyo National Forest lottery (Mount Whitney and surrounding trailheads) occurs through the federal reservation system and begins on February 1each year. Identical to the process for Yosemite National Park, you are only making a reservation to pick up a permit, and failing to do so allows others to claim the permit on a walk-in basis.

Walk-in: Permits not claimed are then available on the day of trailhead entry on a walk-in basis. Use the link to Inyo above for more information.

Are You Northbound or Southbound?

Because of the difficulty in securing a permit, I ended up getting permits for my friend and me to enter the backcountry well south of Mount Whitney, at a place known as the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead in Horseshoe Meadow (click here for map). This southern entry point resulted in two additional days (thirty-to-forty extra miles) being added to my complete journey. My friend planned to return to the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead after accompanying me for the first few days, rather than walk the 211 miles to Yosemite with me. I couldn’t really blame him!

The location of the entry point also determines the direction of the trek. In my case, this meant I would be traveling northbound (NOBO) on the JMT, which is opposite of what most people see as the proper direction, southbound (SOBO) from Happy Isles trailhead in Yosemite Valley. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but either way the trail is amazing, covers the same distance, and requires the same amount of work.

Come Prepared! 

As I’ve addressed in previous posts, you must train to meet the goal. I routinely walk, run, cycle, or go to the gym six days a week. This twenty-year-old habit gives me the physical foundation to take on something like the JMT. I have this attitude about my training and my outdoor endeavors: “Do what you set out to do, and then some.” If I go out for a ten-mile run, I’ll take the long way home to make the mileage just a bit more. Having to walk an extra thirty-to-forty miles to even begin hiking on the John Muir Trail was not as big a deal as it could have been, thanks to adequate preparation! See my blog post, How To Train For The John Muir Trail, for more specific advice.

Finally, you’ll need proper gear and sufficient food. A gear list is a must for me, and I plan every detail. I believe that most things must have more than one purpose. Pack becomes pillow; pot becomes tea mug; trekking poles become lean-to poles, etc.

Don’t forget about the resupply logistics. A thru-hiker—someone walking a trail in total—cannot carry all the food from the beginning, it would simply weigh too much. Not only that, the bear-proof food container (required by federal regulations) cannot hold all that one needs for weeks on the trail.

The BearVault™ 500, fully loaded for my first nine days on the JMT. Photo credit: Brien Crothers

Resupply must be dealt with in some way. Before beginning my trek, I mailed a resupply bucket to Muir Trail Ranch, which is near the midpoint of the JMT. When I needed to resupply, I left the JMT for a couple of hours, reclaimed my bucket from the friendly folks at the ranch, repacked, left trash in their collection cans, purchased a new fuel canister, and returned to walking the trail that same day.

Resupply storage building at Muir Trail Ranch near the midpoint of the official JMT route. Photo credit: Brien Crothers

I started this process in January and hiked the JMT in August of the same year. The permit process may take months, and your training may last a long while to best prepare you for the trail. But once all the pieces are in place, “There’s nothing to it, but to do it,” as they say.

Coming up next in this series, A look at my typical day of hiking on the John Muir Trail

2 comments on “Preparing to Hike the John Muir Trail

  1. […] Preparing to Hike the John Muir Trail: Training, Gear, Permits, and Other Realities […]

  2. […] Continued from, Preparing to hike the John Muir Trail […]

Leave a Reply