John Muir Trail; Permit Strategy

It’s often said that the hardest part of hiking the John Muir Trail is getting a permit.  The Yosemite FAQ page explains that there was a 100% increase in requests between 2011 and 2015, which some speculate was due to a couple of trail-related movies (i.e. Wild).  The National Park Service added an “interim” quota on JMT permits as a result, limiting southbound exits over Donohue pass to 45 per day.  With requests spiking to 700 per day in 2016, that’s about a 6% chance of getting one.  Fortunately, in 2017 they introduced a new JMT permitting process to make life a bit easier.

In the old system, you had to fill out a request for one entry day, and FAX the form exactly 170 days prior to that date.  That had to be repeated with a new request form every day until you either got a date, or gave up trying.  The new process allows you to submit one form for a 21-day entry range; FAX it in 170 days prior to the first date, and it rolls automatically into the lottery for the next day if you’re not drawn.  Of course, you need the freedom to leave for the trail on whatever dates your permitted for.

Our strategy allowed for any start date in the 21 days requested, but we also prioritized the trailheads based on the following facts; 25 permits are issued for Lyell Canyon, while 20 are split between Happy Isles, Glacier Point, and Sunrise Lakes trailheads.  Given these numbers and the assumption that most applicants would make Happy Isles their first priority, we set Lyell Canyon as our first priority per below.  Regardless of what trailhead we received, our mileage plan would likely require hiking Happy Isles to Tuolumne Meadows (or the reverse) in one big 24 mile day hike.  The first application went in on January 12, 2017, and rolled until the 20th when we won the lottery for a July 7 permit.  Not a bad start date, in a normal snow year.


We marked our calendars, and began enthusiastically planning the trip, keeping an eye on ever-increasing snow depth reports.  By March, snow reports were at 200%+ levels for the first time since 2011, making July 7 too early for a fast-pack trip of 11 days.  A second application entered the lottery on March 29th, and rolled until April 7th when we received our 9/22 start date from Lyell Canyon.  Maybe we should have been playing the real lottery too?

The 9/22 date is considered late season and introduces a new set of risks and questions that need to be managed.  One key concern was the closing date at Muir Trail Ranch, where we intend to resupply.  A quick email confirmed that we’ll be through MTR one day prior to their closing this year (whew!).  We would likewise pass through Red’s Meadow before they closed down.

Now, we just need to plan for chilly fall weather, and how to keep pack weight down while carrying the right clothing!


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