Staff Writer Rachael Medina
Rachael Medina is the senior content writer and operations manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests o…See full bio
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.
With everything packed away, you’re ready to head out on the JMT!
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