Traversing Trails: Preparing for the John Muir Trail

By Rachael Medina October 05, 2019

The comfortably familiar scent of pine needles wafts through the breeze while the crisp air fills your lungs; sparrows and woodpeckers can be heard in the distance as migrating flocks fly overhead; and you find yourself content amongst the conflicting feelings of excitement and nervousness as you stand at the trailhead, ready to hike each section of the John Muir Trail (JMT).

The JMT extends between Yosemite Valley and Mount Whitney, following the Pacific Crest Trail for the majority of the way. Complete with panoramic views, lush forests, and handfuls of mountain passes, the JMT is the perfect backpacking destination. 

Most thru-hikers spend about three weeks completing the JMT and tend to cover between 10 and 12 miles per day. Some experienced hikers are able to complete the trail in two weeks, but this requires averaging about 15 miles each day and leaves less room for enjoying the scenery. Since the JMT is located in the Sierra Nevada, it is recommended that hikers allot extra time to tackle this trying trek. But no matter how quickly you complete the adventure, it is a worthwhile outing, so we’ve compiled everything you ought to know before hiking the John Muir Trail.

Tucked away in the Sierra Nevada, the John Muir Trail is a scenic yet strenuous trek spanning 211 miles between the Yosemite Valley and Mount Whitney. 

John Muir Trail Length 

The John Muir Trail spans 211 miles through the Sierra Nevada, running in conjunction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for the majority of the journey (about 160 miles). Unlike many other thru-hike trails that wander through the state—including the PCT and the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT)—the entirety of the JMT is contained within the borders of California. The official northern and southern terminuses are located at the Happy Isles trailhead in Yosemite Valley and at the summit of Mount Whitney (respectively). Since the end of the JMT is located at the top of a mountain, the trip down is required to fully complete the hike, adding another 11 miles and resulting in an excursion of 222 total miles. 

Cathedral Peak is a dramatic granite monolith rising nearly 11,000 feet above the lush Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite National Park.

Do You Need A Permit To Hike The JMT? 

Much like hiking the PCT, the TRT, and the Lost Coast, permits are required to hike the John Muir Trail in an effort to help preserve the surrounding wilderness.

Wilderness Permit

A wilderness permit is required to hike the John Muir Trail. A different permit is needed depending on which direction you plan to travel. 

Starting the John Muir Trail in Yosemite

If you wish to hike from north to south, a Yosemite National Park wilderness permit is necessary and can be acquired up to 24 weeks in advance. Make sure to apply exactly 168 days before your trip to have the best odds of securing your dates; only 45 permits are administered per day due to the national park’s exit quota for Donohue Pass, and for the peak hiking days, the park can receive 600-plus applications. Of these, 25 are issued for the Lyell Canyon trailhead, and the remaining 20 are issued for the Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley, Happy Isles pass-through, and Sunrise Lakes trailheads. 

Hiking the John Muir Trail from Mount Whitney

If you want to hike from south to north instead, an Inyo National Forest wilderness permit is required. These permits are in high demand and are thus issued via lottery. Applications are accepted from February 1 through March 15, and there is a fee of $6 per permit. The results of the lottery are posted on March 24—with most dates from July through September filling up entirely—and require a reservation fee of $15 per person to claim the awarded date. After the lottery, any remaining spaces become available online on April 1 and can be claimed up to two days prior to any trip either online or over the phone, with the fee being due at the time the reservation is made. All permits must be picked up from the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine, about 22 miles east of Whitney Portal.

California Campfire Permit

While there is no guarantee that fires will be allowed at all points along the trail—fire danger ratings vary from day to day—this free permit generally allows thru-hikers to use camp stoves in the backcountry. Permits can be obtained here and expire on the last day of the year in which they are issued.

Half Dome Day Permit

Yosemite’s Half Dome is so close to the JMT that many hikers choose to take a detour to experience it. Since this iconic destination is popular for hikers and rock climbers, permits are required for both day-use and wilderness thru-hikers. But Half Dome permits are in short supply, so it is best to specify on the Yosemite wilderness permit reservation that you also want a Half Dome permit so that both will be valid during your entire trek. 

John Muir Trail hikers can take a slight detour through Yosemite National Park to witness the gorgeous vistas of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and other famed landmarks.

What You Need to Know Before Hiking the JMT

The John Muir Trail is much shorter than many of the other popular trails in California and is located within the mountains for its entirety, so gear can be much more consistent. While snow and ice are always possible, there is no shortage of water in this region, making for a simpler excursion than other thru-hiking trails in California. Here’s what else you need to know.

Hiking

  • Though it doesn’t really matter which way you hike, most thru-hikers choose to travel from north to south along the trail.
  • The best time to hike the JMT is generally between July and September, though the accessibility and specific dates shift from year to year.
  • Cell service is not reliable on most sections of the trail.
  • The total elevation change along the JMT is approximately 47,000 feet—the equivalent of summiting Mt. Whitney just over three times.
  • The trail follows the PCT three-quarters of the way.
  • Bear canisters are required for parts of the trail, but it’s easier to hike with them the whole way and not rely on hanging the food from tree branches, as much of the trail is above the treeline. 
  • The trail is strenuous, so make sure to familiarize yourself with your gear and to practice your backcountry skills ahead of time.

 

Weather

  • Thunderstorms are very common in the High Sierra during peak hiking season, so it’s important to get up and over the mountain passes before noon.
  • Always be prepared for snow; the high elevations and north-facing slopes often carry snow and ice—even in July and August.

 

Camping

  • Camping is never allowed at trailheads.
  • Plan to camp 100 feet away from the trails and 200 feet away from water sources, but stay within 300 feet of the trail corridor.

 

Cooking

  • Camp stoves are allowed with the proper permits, but alcohol and wood-burning stoves regularly have additional restrictions due to fire risks.

 

A glacier-carved canyon bursting with wildflowers and alpine lakes, Little Lakes Valley makes for a spectacular stop along the John Muir Trail.

Resupply Locations Along the John Muir Trail

There are various resupply locations along the trail that hold packages and provide opportunities to purchase meals and groceries. 

  • Tuolumne Meadows: This destination is home to a general store and a post office, but they are not open year-round, so check the hours in advance.
  • Red’s Meadow: Red’s Meadow Resort and Pack Station holds packages for a fee and also offers a small selection of food.
  • Mammoth Lakes: Slightly off the trail, Mammoth Lakes features plenty of amenities such as hotels, supermarkets, and outdoor gear. 
  • Lake Thomas A. Edison: Vermilion Valley Resort provides a free shuttle boat across the lake and holds resupply packages for a fee. Rooms, showers, laundry, trail food, and hot meals are also available for purchase.
  • Muir Trail Ranch: This wilderness base camp offers rooms and meals and even holds resupply packages. Camping and hot springs can be found nearby.

 

*Note: Caching food along the trail is illegal, and these drops are often confiscated by rangers. 

*For more convenience, horse packers can be hired to bring in resupplies of food along the trail. This should be arranged prior to hiking the trail.

In addition to a map and compass, all John Muir Trail trekkers should pack high-quality hiking boots, layers of clothing, a tent, sunscreen, and ample food and water for the journey. 

What to Bring on the John Muir Trail 

  • Hiking boots
  • Sandals or water shoes
  • Layers of quick-drying clothing with extra socks
  • Waterproof and fleece clothing
  • Whistle
  • LED headlamp (and extra batteries)
  • A pack that is large enough to hold a bear canister
  • Bear canisters containing all the food needed for the journey (canisters can be rented from REI)
  • 3-season tent 
  • 15°F rated sleeping bag and a sleeping pad
  • Bear spray (optional and prohibited in Yosemite National Park)
  • Mineral sunscreen
  • Water bottle
  • Water filter to treat drinking water
  • Camp stove
  • Freeze-dried and dehydrated foods
  • California-made snacks and energy bars
  • John Muir trail map outlining the planned hiking route
  • Compass
  • Permits

 

With everything packed away, you’re ready to head out on the JMT!