Sometimes you submit an application for a permit with a three day start window for one of the most popular trails in the United States Park system on a whim. And sometimes you’ll just win that golden ticket on the first try. That’s the short story of how I took a long unpaid leave in the summer of 2018 and spent it walking through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
This is part 1 of my John Muir Trail (JMT) trip report series. You can navigate to the other parts in the index below.
The permit to hike southbound (SOBO) on the John Muir Trail (JMT) out of Yosemite National Park is known as the golden ticket since only 45 permits are allotted per day. This is part of the protection measures against overcrowding on the JMT and trails in Yosemite in general. With the increasing popularity of the National Parks and get outdoors, the chances for getting the SOBO permit was slim, hence the golden ticket.
There were several events that lead me putting in that application, but mainly I wanted to get back into the mountains of western United States and it has been a while since I returned to California, where I lived for a few years after undergrad. Based on some youtuber documenting their adventures walking through the Pacific Crest Trail covering California, Oregon, and Washington, the portion of that seemed most interesting to me was the Sierra Nevada Mountains to which the trail was shared by the JMT. The JMT going through a big amount of the Sierra Nevada from Yosemite to Whitney would allow me to see a great deal of what I missed and became something I wanted to do.
At that point in our travel plans, we had already had booked flights to Peru for a trip in the Summer of 2018. Based on the day I was looking into the permits, I really only had few day window to apply for the JMT permit that would allow me to finish and make my flight to Peru. I didn’t really expect to get it when I faxed in my application on a random winter day in 2018 and received a confirmation of receipt for my application.
And that was the last I heard from Yosemite. The next three days passed and nothing, so my exceptions of not getting it was satisfied. I had read that Yosemite would send you rejection email everyday you fail to win and I didn’t get those either. I figured their systems were just overwhelmed. It wasn’t until about a month later when I was checking my credit card bill that I saw a charge from Yosemite National Park, which confused me since I was under the impression that only happened if you won a permit. After consulting the JMT facebook group and spending a few hours trying to get through to the permit office, I found I had won the golden ticket. It was a permit from Lyell Canyon in Tuolumne Meadows and that they had sent the confirmation to a wrong email address, which they corrected.
Even though we had moved on with plans in the summer and I didn’t fully commit to the idea of actually doing the JMT until the last minute, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity with the golden ticket in hand.
A sentiment of the John Muir Trail (JMT) I saw both online and during my hike was the prospect of over planning. I can understand that sentiment for a long thru hike with so many unknowns and that sentiment can be exacerbated for first time overnight backpackers/trekkers, which I found at a surprisingly high rate on the trail. Thus, I am in no way advocating that over planning is the wrong way to approach it, but that’s not the way I approached it and I am very happy I didn’t.
In fact for experienced trekkers, I would say that it may be better to plan less for the JMT than some of the shorter treks where I am on more of a schedule or I know I have to hit certain checkpoints with my time limit. Since the typical duration for the JMT is so long relatively, anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks, there is more flexibility on how the thru hike can be divided up in comparison to a short trip. That is your mileage per day can vary depending on how you are feeling, external factors, and learning experiences as you hike on. So, I am advocating that the JMT ought to be approached from a more unstructured and play it by ear attitude rather than a fully planned trek. It’s the same idea of being able travel more unstructured when you are there for 3 weeks rather than a long weekend, when you are just trying to hit all the sights.
Of course you may not feel comfortable with my level of planning I undertook or not have any experience backpacking/trekking, so do what you need to do to feel good about it. Each of us is different and you need to walk your own walk. But that also brings me to a big part of backpacking: learning both about yourself internally and the external surroundings you are walking through, then making adjustments to fit what works for you. Even for those of us that have backpacked and trekked before, we could always use a few days of shakedown to figure things out. Adjusting to how aggressive the trail was, how to deal with smoke from nearby fires, how to deal with unexpected hail, how to fit all my food into a bear canister, how my body feels switching to a backpacking diet, how my body craves for specific foods, and how my body deals with the altitude are just some questions that is hard if not impossible to plan for. The first hiker box on the Appalachian Trail is littered with discard items to that same effect as you can’t plan for what you will learn. So the inherent learning and adapting qualities of backpacking/trekking is best reason for approaching the JMT in an unstructured manner.
With that in mind, the information that I’ll cover in my planning section will be specific to my trek and the planning I put into it. The terms of my thru hike was that I didn’t plan much beyond how to getting there, how to get back out, and overall knowledge of the route with no resupplies mailed in. As much as I would like to say the main reason for this approach was based on the arguments I’ve made above, but in actuality the above was part of the lesson I learned. My lack of commitment to actually undertaking the JMT due everything going on in my life was the main reason I didn’t plan. So, much of my actual planning took place as I went, as I found out more information from talked to others, and was changed based on my situation. I will mostly continue to discuss some of those lessons, as I have already done, going forward in this article and I will have some general information to help you plan, but I will leave it to resources that is linked throughout to provide much more complete preparation materials.
To sum it up, the goal this planning section to provide a more minimal but sufficient approach to hike the JMT without any pre-planned food and equipment drops. Should you get the opportunity to do the JMT a week out or tomorrow, this might help you out.
traditional southbound (SOBO)
To apply for the SOBO permit, the agency is Yosemite National Park (FAQ on the permit). Basically, the application is to enter a lottery requires the submission of the form (Yosemite Conservancy) by fax to 209.372.0739 up to 2 days before the lottery for your desired start date, which takes place 168 days or 24 weeks before each start date (Yosemite calculated it for you). I’m not completely sure about the exact lottery cutoff time, so it is safer to submit it early.
*EDIT 2018-11-29: So a days after published this, I found that they have made the lottery application process for the JMT available online now: Yosemite Conservancy. So it’s much easier to apply for the SOBO permit on a whim.
The fax form is still available and was the process I went through. The questions are still the same and most everything else should be consistent other than the need to fax.
The the application form (Yosemite Conservancy) provides a pretty conclusive instructions on filling out and submitting the form. Ranking of preferred starts to the JMT is probably the only section that may need a little extra information. Below was my filled out part 1 of the application:
If you are like me where you’ll take what you can get, just don’t put 0 for any of the options.
As for the rankings, the traditional JMT starts at Happy Isle starting out of Yosemite Valley and the form has 2 options with the only difference of how far you’d have to hike on the first day before setting up camp. Glacier Point start is similar start to Happy Isle, just starting higher up at Glacier point and easier as it excludes the first climb out of Yosemite Valley at the cost of a few more miles. These three permits are probably the most popular and thus hardest to get. Next is Sunrise Lake start and it avoids the Yosemite Valley as a whole, which may be good if you don’t want to see the typical day hiking crowd. All these four options as specified allow for a Half Dome permit. Lyell Canyon is the last option and starts out a portion of the way into the tradition JMT at Tuolumne Meadows. This option pretty much heads straight out of Yosemite. As such it is the least popular, easiest to get, and, as specified, doesn’t allow for Half Dome permit since you’d start well after that point. Tuolumne start is the only one with some first come first serve permits as I’ll get to in a second.
The permit asks where you plan to camp for the first time, which doesn’t have to be an well planned answer and can be changed later. I just put something generic and it may be Yosemite’s version of a captcha to make sure you give some sort of reasonable response.
As for the size of your group, you have a better chance with a smaller group. For my permit, I submitted it for 3 people, but accepting of 2 people. The original plan was for Meg and I with the possibility that a friend my join us for the entire hike or part of it. These plans were thrown off based on believing we didn’t get the permits and finding out we did later on, as specified earlier and I’ll discuss how specifically later.
In terms of figuring out the duration of my trip, I mainly had a hard deadline of finishing by August 5th since the flight of my previously planned trip on August 6th at night from the east coast. Based on the day I looked into submitting the permit, the longest duration was 19 days. The entirety of the JMT is about 220 miles so I figure the lowest number of days I probably can do was 14 days as the upper end of my comfortable hiking distance is probably around 14-16 miles each day assuming decent trails and no difficulties (220 miles/15 miles per day). So that lead me put the range of 7/18 to 7/23 starting date. The number of days you specify isn’t that important and the instructions tell you to just overestimate the number since the quota system is based on your start date. If you don’t have the backpacking experience to estimate the time you’ll need, plan for as long as possible to allow you to learn as you go. It also doesn’t hurt to finish early, take zero days (where you don’t hike any miles and can relax), or just have a short day and enjoy the views.
Faxing the application is probably the most annoying thing about the process. I was able to do it from work and the system prints out a confirmation that the fax went through. Their system may be busy, so make sure you get a confirmation. There are also online fax services you can use for a cost.
Speaking of cost, you will only be charged if you win the lottery. That that point, it is USD$5 for the application and $5 per person. If you include Half Dome permit, it is an additional USD$8 per person.
Once Yosemite National Park received your fax and you are entered into the lottery, you should receive the following confirmation email.
The permit that I won was starting from my last choice of Lyell Canyon for 7/19/2018. You should receive a confirmation email as seen below if you won the lottery. This isn’t the permit itself, which should be picked up from the Yosemite Permit offices starting the day before the scheduled start date to 10am of your scheduled start date.
If you didn’t win, you should receive a rejection email (imgur) for everyday that you didn’t win. However there may be certain special circumstances where emails may not go out (reddit). If you didn’t receive any emails at all, check your credit card statement for charges from Yosemite National Park.
If there was a charge, you did win and you should call them at 209-372-0740 (Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.) to confirm and have your reservation resent, as I did.
A couple of detailed guides on permits that I used were Trailove and Bearfoot Theory.
SOBO options without winning the lottery
So you didn’t win the golden ticket or are reading this well after the lottery date of your intended start. Many would go with the Northbound (NOBO) option, but there still exists the possibility of the SOBO hike.
Your first option is to keep an eye out for openings from cancellations on the Yosemite NP page in the Donahue Pass section. Cancellations will pop up, especially closer to the date of the hike. If you find an opening that fits your schedule, call until you are blue in the face (Yosemite’s phone lines are usually busy).
*EDIT 2018-12-9: I haven’t tried it myself, but someone with username dhimmel wrote a script called hackjohn (github) that will send notification of permit openings.
Other external factors may also lead to large number of permits becoming available. Around the time I entered Yosemite, there was a large number of JMT cancellations because of the nearby Ferguson Fire, which was first called the Mariposa Fire when I started. So first come first serve permits were plenty including ones from Happy Isle. Of course it wasn’t the ideal conditions and it maybe a crap shoot depending how much of the hike will be affected by natural disasters. As you’ll see in my trip report, I was pretty fortunate regarding the fire once I was out of Yosemite Valley.
Secondly, walk up SOBO permits may not be that difficult to get if can get yourself in line super early at the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center. Yosemite holds 10 walk up permits starting from Lyell Canyon (Tuolumne Meadows) for first come first serve starting the following day (see Yosemite NP JMT FAQ). In comparison to online applications, the number of people that actually do this is merely a fraction. I also default to Bob Shattuck, who I met on my hike and have completed the JMT more than 17 times, in that he never applies for permits ahead of time and the longest he had to wait to pick up a permit was 1 day. If you are ever on the JMT facebook page, you’ve met him.
*EDIT 2020-6-11: COVID-19 reopening for 2020 first come first serve permits changed to 14 day advanced lottery, see NPS.
Perhaps the risk aversion that comes with the possibility of not getting the permit is the reason for the low number of people that take this approach. As I mentioned above, many people online seem to have the over planning mentality and leaving the first step up to chance definitely seems very daunting. However, having a flexible here can also be advantageous allowing you to pick up a permit without winning the lottery.
Thirdly, consider starting from outside of Yosemite or don’t go over Donahue Pass since it is the quota control point. Carl, a local to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and have been hiking the JMT for years, enlightened me to this aspect while we were camped out at the drainage of Duck Lake (If you ever read this Carl, I hope that you don’t mind me sharing this with the internet and that your knee is healed up fine for your hike next year!). He said for permitting, he just stops by the local National Forest office and work out a route with the ranger there to get onto the JMT. Even Yosemite National Park specified the permitting tip of starting outside Yosemite here, under number 5.
Based on the area Carl said he was from, my guess is that his permitting office was in the Stanislaus National Forest and they even have a section about exiting Whitney and hiking the JMT. From the eastern side of the Sierras, a possible way is jump on the JMT from Inyo National Forest with some options skipping Donahue Pass and joining around Thousand Lakes. With some creative map and planning, you may be able to route through Yosemite. Permits from the Inyo National Forest can be reserved 6 month ahead of time at recreation.gov. For those of you looking ahead, this is the exact same process for one of the NOBO starts (jump to section). My information on these approaches are limited and some from hearsay, so I would suggest further research should you chose to approach this option. The webpage Tahoe to Whitney seems to have more permitting experience and information regarding the national forest permitting process.
*EDIT 2019-2-5: To find a forum to discuss alternatives or variants to the JMT itself that covers the Sierras between Yosemite and Mt. Whitney, “A John Muir Route” group was started on facebook. This may help you find alternative experiences of the Sierra Nevada Mountains as John Muir may have intended.
If you end up with a SOBO permit out of Lyell Canyon (Tuolumne Meadows) like I did and really want to hike the section from Happy Isle starting from Yosemite Valley for completeness sake, you can do so by pick up a separate wilderness backcountry permit from Yosemite National Park to do so. Since Happy Isle is a popular starting point, applying early is a must (Yosemite Wilderness Permit). The process is pretty much the same as the JMT permit requiring a fax (*edit 11-29-2018 the application is also available online now from the Yosemite Conservancy) and a lottery 168 days before the start date.
Unlike the JMT permit, there are many more walk up first come first serve permits available out of all trail heads (Yosemite National Park). Again, each first come first serve permit is permitted to start the following day. The question of when to arrive to line up is a popular question on reddit regarding yosemite. For a popular start such as Happy Isle, you’d want to be first in line. Of course, the time you’ll want to arrive depends on the day with holidays and weekends being earlier. One reddit thread specified people typically show up around 6am. During our attempt for first come first serve permits on the Saturday in mid July, we arrived way too early at 5am as the next person didn’t arrive until 7am.
As you can see, I did apply for a separate wilderness permit preceding my JMT hike. The first reasons for this was that I hadn’t been back to California is a while and though a backpacking Yosemite would be a good way to spend some quality time with everyone. The second was the self serving reason of bumming a ride into Yosemite and the start of my JMT hike. A third benefit I found later was that it allow me to do a shakedown run for a few days to learn and adapt to the Sierra Nevadas. I’ll get into the specific of our planned backcountry itinerary my trip report for the Illilouette Basin. For the permitting process, I was able to reserve 3 spots starting from Glacier Point up into the Illilouette. However there were 6 of us, so we needed another 3 person permit for the same start. Since we were first in line by a long shot, it wasn’t a problem.
The NOBO permit is considered as an easier to reserve ahead of time by internet community since there isn’t a Donahue Pass exit limit leaving Yosemite SOBO.
There are several starting options for those heading NOBO. The most popular and most difficult to reserve is starting from Whitney Portal, the traditional exit point for SOBO JMT hikers. Mount Whitney is a popular starting point for non-JMT backcountry treks and day hikes so there is a lottery for spots (general dates are: submission Feb 1 – Mar 15, lottery Mar 24, remaining reservations open Apr 1).
The alternatives for NOBO starts at Horseshoe Meadow south of Mount Whitney. The two trailheads to reach Horseshoe meadow are Cottonwood Lake via New Army Pass and Cottonwood Pass Trail. The Cottonwood permits are through the Inyo National Forest and are the same permitting process (recreation.gov) I discussed earlier in the alternative SOBO permit section.
Trail Supply Co has a detailed guide of the NOBO permit process. If you are considering NOBO versus SOBO, Bob Shattuck provides an opinion pieces on the SOBO experience. Again, He’s very active on the JMT Yahoo! group and JMT facebook group should you disagree.
alternatives permit ideas
If you want to make your thru hike a bit longer, as in more than 500 miles, you can apply for a Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) permit instead (PCT association). The PCT shares a portion of the trail with the JMT. They also provide a short and simple JMT permit write up on the traditional SOBO and NOBO processes.
On the other side of the spectrum, the JMT can be broken up into several smaller sections and combined with the many trails spanning the Sierra Nevada Mountains. For many people, the JMT is an idealized path from Yosemite to Mount Whitney. While to social aspect (jump to section below) may be specific to the JMT path, the aesthetics is not. If you are willing to fiddle with that idealized version of the trail, then the options are endless and permitting is not an issue. This is a sentiment more apparent to me as I did my hike, talked to more veterans of the Sierra Nevadas, and I will cover further in my final impressions.
*12-9-2018: Here is also a summary with links to all the permits from the national parks and forests around the JMT (JMT facebook group).
route planning, resupply, & navigation
Route planning for the JMT was surprisingly simple for me as I didn’t look deep into it. There are really only two major sets of decision when it comes to planning, how to resupply for food and where to stop for the night. The additional minor consideration is trying to avoid possible afternoon thunderstorms by hitting passes early. The hardest part of most trip planning, being the route you are taking, is already fully spelled out.
To address these major planning decisions, I relied on the excel sheet from the JMT Yahoo! group (requires joining). The excel sheet had all the way points and campgrounds locations and descriptions as specified in the 5th edition of Elizabeth Wenk’s book John Muir Trail (amazon affiliate link) and John Muir Trail Data, published by Wilderness Press.
With a supplement of Caltopo map loaded with Wenk’s waypoints and campgrounds, I was able to get a general sense of the trail.
In addition, the JMT Yahoo! group’s excel sheet provides had a simple and customizable worksheet to help me roughly sketch out an itinerary.
meeting up with Meg during thru-hike
In addition to the two major decision sets, there was an addition caveat specific to our situation that I had to plan for. Between the time I had assumed that I didn’t get the permit and when I found out I actually did, we had made decisions under the impression we didn’t get the permit. Specifically, Meg agreed to teach during the second summer session ending 7/27, which was 10 days after the start of our permit not accounting for time she would need to grade and finish up with the class, pack, and travel out to California. This meant I would be hiking the majority of the trail solo and that we would have to plan a route so that she could join me.
The difficulty here would be that she would join me in the later part of the trek, where there seemed, with my original limited knowledge, less direct access to the JMT. I don’t share that same sentiment now knowing the area much better. A helpful resource at the time that helped me determine locations I could get out and meet up with Meg was from jmt sierra hikes’ description of bailout points. The access point of Kearsarge Pass and the Onion Valley Trailhead stood out as it provided not only a place I could meet Meg, but also fulfill my resupply problem as discussed next.
I estimated the section from Onion Valley to Whitney Portal would take us about 4-5 days depending on how well Meg can be acclimated to the altitude. She typically is better regarding altitude than I am, but I still gave us plenty of time for the last section. So the plan is for Meg to fly into Las Vegas (LAS), rent a car, and meet me at the trailhead. We’d figure out a way to set up a shuttle between Whitney Portal and Onion Valley and hike the last portion together. Afterwards, we’d return to LAS to return the car and fly out, more on the specific logistics in the travel & transportation section.
how to resupply for food
Most typical guides to the JMT spend a large section going over food resupply options and all that goes into planning and mailing food to yourself at specific points on the JMT such as Vermilion Valley Resort (VVR) or Muir Trail Ranch (MTR). As I specified earlier, I didn’t plan any food drops ahead of time.
What I did need to plan for was knowing the locations where I can go and buy my resupplies. Based on my previous knowledge of PCT hikers, who also thru hike majority of the JMT, I knew it possible to resupply without food drops.
*EDIT 2020-1: New update to the JMT SOBO and NOBO permit now stipulates that leaving the wilderness area at all during a hike will nullify a permit. This precedes all other information in my JMT series. See post by Peter Hirst on the JMT2020 facebook group for more details. With the new regulations, my resupply plans wouldn’t have been possible without tweeks. So in order to resupply in towns, I would need to have a separate permits, did my resupply shopping at the store in Red’s, or had Meg bring in my resupply at Onion Valley rather than us leaving for town to shop together
*EDIT 2020-1: clarification from Inyo NF via Facebook has specified that it will still allow thru hikers to leave for resupply even if was always against permit regulations — oops, didn’t know that when I did my hike — given that hikers follow the spirit of resupply and not abuse it;
*EDIT 2020-2: The Inyo website now has specific wording to allow for JMT exception to break continuous wilderness travel for the purpose of resupply. So what I did on my resupply should be applicable once again.
The first place I planned to resupply was in the village of Mammoth Lakes, which can be reached from Red’s Meadow Resort via shuttle buses. The first shuttle running between Red’s Meadow and Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center has a fee of $8 for adults. If you happen to return the same day, you can used the same ticket. The second shuttle is from the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center to the town of Mammoth Lakes, which is free. These shuttles have different times so care is needed if you plan to resupply in Mammoth, specifically the last bus from Mammoth Lakes to the Adventure Center is at 4:30pm, but the shuttle between the Adventure Center to Red’s Meadow runs until 7pm. See detailed shuttle information from Devil’s Postpile National Monument website. Getting around Mammoth Lakes is easy with a free shuttle system. Red’s Meadow has a store from which you can resupply from, but it is expensive. If you have a friend, they are allowed to drive all the way up to Red’s Meadow from 7pm to 7am, outside of shuttle hours.
For my second resupply, the key was getting out at Kearsarge Pass and Onion Valley Trailhead as emphasized by Mac from Halfway Anywhere. Kearsarge Pass and Onion Valley Trailhead was perfectly situated to where I can reach it with about 9 days of food from the village of Mammoth on my first resupply. It was be just about the most I can carry at one time. Kearsarge Pass was also a perfect location for Meg to be able to join me for the last portion of the hike as it is one of the access points on the southern portion of the JMT via a 7 mile one way hike.
So my planned food resupplies went like this:
- Sacramento/Davis, CA: buy food for 8 days
- 4 days backpacking with friends in Yosemite
- stash half of what I bought in bear box for Lyell section
- 4 days from Lyell Canyon to Red’s Meadow Resort
- Mammoth Lake, CA: buy food for 9 days
- take bus to Mammoth Lake from Red’s and back
- 9 days from Red’s Meadow Resort to Onion Valley Trailhead
- possible meal at VVR or raid hiker box at VVR or MTR
- Lone Pine, CA: buy food for 2 people for 4-5 days
- exit JMT via 7 mile hike over Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley Trailhead
- meet up with Meg
- 4-5 days from Onion Valley Trailhead to Whitney Portal
For details on the specific food I packed, see food section below.
typical resupplies options
Most JMT hikers will utilize food drops. There are several locations along the JMT that you can mail food with varying degrees of steps you must take. These are the most popular means of resupply food drops, though they can be costly and requires several weeks preparation ahead of time, especially Vermilion Valley Resort and Muir Trail Ranch. The even more costly venture is to hire a pack horse to bring you a resupply. The similar idea of guilting a friend to bring you resupply is on the other end of the spectrum in terms of monetary cost, but may cost you said friend. An additional logistic issue is actually meeting up with the pack horse or friend with the difficulty of communication. Lastly, certain places with bear boxes such as Tuolumne Meadows near the Wilderness Center and Onion Valley Trailhead, it is possible to stash your food and leave a note of when you’ll pick it up.
The key points of resupply are as follows from north to south:
- General store at Tuolumne Meadows – mail drop or stashed resupply
- Red’s Meadow Resort – mail drop
- Mammoth Lakes – shuttle to town
- Vermilion Valley Resort (VVR) – mail drop
- Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) – mail drop
- Bishop Pass junction at LeConte Canyon Ranger Station – packhorse
- Kearsage Pass junction – packhorse
- Onion Valley Trailhead – hiking out to pick up stashed resupply or going to town
Bearfoot Theory, Trail Supply Co., & Trail to Peak all has a more detailed article on planning your resupplies and utilizing mailed resupply drops. Trail Supply Co. is a business run for resupplies so their article is written with conflicts of interest biasing against resupplying without mail drops.
where to camp
Having figured out my resupply stops and planned my meet up with Meg, the last part to plan was where to sleep. This was a decision I didn’t have to plan in stone beforehand and can be flexible while on the trail.
Obviously, we all would like to spend our nights at 5 star campgrounds. While there are plenty along the JMT, it good to know what some of them are beforehand. Compiled my list of preferred campsites by first noting a couple of lists (Bearfoot Theory, the camp kit). Then I went down the description list of Wenk’s camping spots noted in JMT Yahoo! group excel sheet searching for all campsites with the terms such as “excellent views,” “good views,” “beautiful views,” “fantastic views,” and “spectacular views” (Excel/data parsing protip: use the function “=IF(ISNUMBER(SEARCH(keyword,text description box)),1,0)” where the italicized are the variables). Then I roughly spaced out my days based on the I compiled as possible stopping points.
I didn’t stick to this rough guide, but the list and the guide did give me an idea where to aim for as I went.
For my on trail navigation, I had my Garmin stc62 GPS loaded with free Openstreetmap (OSM) from GMapTool.
In addition, I loaded my gps with markers and waypoints pulled from CalTopo. They can also be found here (shared via google drive). These way points again were based on the Wenk books. I saw several hikers with the CalTopo map printed out. To supplement, I had wikiloc app on my phone loaded with the OSM map of California since I had the year subscription purchased during our Wales trip.
Overall, the JMT was well marked and it is pretty clear the direction you need to go. People have turn off the wrong direction at junctions, but mostly do to being in their own heads and not paying attention. Should there be snow at the passes in the early season or high snow year, navigation skills and equipment is more vital.
A popular phone application for the JMT is Guthooks. I did not use it, so I can’t comment on it. However, both Cindy and Diana, who I met on the trail had it and seem to find it adequate.
pre-JMT Yosemite backpacking plans
Before I started on my JMT hike, I spent a few nights in the backcountry with my California friends. This trip allow me to catch up with my friends, that I hadn’t seen in a while. Also beneficial for me, my friends provided me a ride to Yosemite and gave me a few days to do a shakedown. For all my planning on the JMT, it was probably less than I had for the 4-5 days of backpacking with friend, to which I will discuss in detail during my trip report of our hike up Illilouette Basin.
travel & transportation
The planning necessary for my hike and plans for Meg to meet up with me as described earlier required my flight into California, Meg’s flight into Las Vegas, Meg’s rental car, a way to set up shuttle between Kearsarge Pass/Onion Valley Trailhead, and our flights out to the east coast to catch our previously planned flight to Peru. The specific timing made it more costly than if we were able to be more flexible.
My one way flight out to California was to Sacramento (SMF) on Southwest Airlines to which I redeemed 13,045 southwest Points and USD$5.60 in fees. I had planned to rent a car for my first day in Sacramento to buy food and last minute equipment, but Joey offered to drive me around. Joey was also my ride into the Yosemite and Becky shuttled me to Tuolumne Meadows. So thanks Joey and Becky!
Meg’s flight out to the JMT was to Las Vegas (LAS) since it is the cheapest airport in the area and where our flight back to the east coast was out of. LAS is also easily accessible to both our meet up point of Onion Valley Trailhead and our exit point of Whitney Portal since they are both on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas. Her one way flight in was also on Southwest and we paid USD$161.98, but actually zero out of pocket as it was reimbursed to us as part of my Dad’s Chase Sapphire Reserve calendar year travel credit (new applications has since changed it to annual membership year) before it was downgraded to avoid the annual fee (see frequent miler for more details).
Once Meg met up with me, we planned for a night stay in Lone Pine allow us to repack and resupply and me to do laundry. With limited redemption options, we booked a night at an airbnb in the Alabama Hills USD$124.76 with USD$115 refunded to us again as part of my Dad’s Chase Sapphire Reserve.
For Meg’s rental car, we used six Avis one day car rental certificates that we bought for USD$30 each (USD$180 total) through 2018 Daily Getaways from U.S. Travel Association (see frequent miler for more details). There was an additional USD$38.68 in fees bring the total to USD$218.86. Meg used her Chase Sapphire Reserve to cover the total on the bill, which should give her primary insurance coverage. Overall, this was probably a wash of a deal, though it would be more efficient if you have last minute rentals.
To run a shuttle between Whitney Portal and Onion Valley trailhead, we contacted Lone Pine Kurt’s shuttle service (Call 760-876-4811 or email LonePineKurt@aol.com). The shuttle would take us to Onion Valley trailhead from Whitney Portal, where we’d leave our car. There are many companies that can run shuttle along the Eastern Sierras (climber.org), but Lone Pine Kurt was the lowest I saw on that route at USD$90 and didn’t charge for extra people.
Our outbound flight back to the east coast was also on Southwest out of LAS to New York LaGuardia (LGA). We utilized our companion pass which then only required us to redeem 11465 Southwest points and USD$11.20 in fees for two tickets.
general travel information
There are major airports that you can take to reach the JMT including Reno (RNO), Las Vegas (LAS), Fresno (FAT), Sacramento (SMF), San Francisco Bay Area (SFO, SJC, & OAK), and Los Angeles (LAX). There is also the small Mammoth Yosemite Airport (MMH) with year-round service from LAX (visitmammoth.com). A consideration for the airport to fly in and out of depends on your means of transportation to and from the ends of the hike, Yosemite and Whitney Portal.
For public transportation to and from Yosemite, the YARTS buses are your main way of getting in. The most popular connections with YARTS are via Amtrak in Merced & Fresno on the western side or via Eastern Sierra Transit Authority bus in Lee Vining or Mammoth Lakes on the eastern side. This makes
Eastern Sierra Transit Authority is also the best way to and from Whitney Portal since it stops in Lone Pine, the nearest town to Whitney Portal.
For more detailed guides, the following pages may be helpful: Yosemite National Park Public Transportation & PCT Association,
As far as planning goes, equipment for the JMT is something I saw a lot of over planning for. It is something that people in general spent a lot of time discussing and mulling from striving for the lowest weight in the form of ultralight backpacking or striving the best balance between cost and weight. Again like all things about the thru hike, learning and adjusting equipment is also part of the experience. Fortunately, if you don’t like something on your first few days of the JMT, there are plenty of post offices you can ship out your gear back home. If you find you need something, there are stores in Mammoth Lake you can buy it.
My approach to it all was just to hike the JMT with my typical backpacking loadout. I did have a few new, well, actually used but new to me, equipment I had for this trip, however, I would say they are just part of my ever evolving load out in general. Being in D.C. area more frequently has allowed me to take advantage of the REI garage sales. And in the learning spirit, there were a few things I tested out on my hike.
Below is my JMT load out with indication of my post hike opinion on each item for the JMT.
The following are some quick discussion points on equipment.
- new equipment since last backpacking trip of note:
- tent – Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 2 (Amazon affiliate link): this was a last minute purchase from a REI garage sale for USD$121.43. My original plan was using one of our 5 lbs tent (either our 4 season Sierra Design Convert 2 that we need afterwards for Peru anyways or our Alp Mountaineering 3 season tent). I didn’t mind purchasing essentially a 1 person ultralight tent for that price and saving me the weight. I did wish I had the ground sheet for this to allow for fly and ground sheet quick setup.
- sleeping pad – Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite regular (Amazon affiliate link): my old Big Agnes Air Core wasn’t holding air at all anymore so it was time for a new pad. I picked up this favorite of thru hikers up at a REI garage sale for USD$77.20. It was too soft for me and my back did not agree with it as I prefer firmer surfaces. I guess I’m too use to foam pads. Meg found no problems with it though.
- ground sheet – Tyvek (Amazon affiliate link): I used a ground sheet for the first time by using a piece of Tyvek that would fit my new Fly Creek and our 2 person Sierra Design Convert 2 we’d be using when Meg joined me. I found it useful for keeping things cleaner during setup and breakdown of my camp each day. Also, it allowed me to set up as a tarp with my hiking sticks to weather the rain.
- trekking poles – Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Fiber Quick Lock Trekking Poles (Amazon affiliate link): These are the cheap Costco trekking poles that goes for around USD$40 at times. They seemed to developed a cult following for sort and I did see many people with them on the hike. They were good for the most part being light and pretty sturdy. Similar to reviews I’ve read, the tips are pretty terrible. Mine were worn down to the plastic when I finished my thru hike. One of mine poles also snapped near the handles as I had a slight ankle twist on the downhill. I was able to use it still with duct tape and without the handle to finish up the hike.
- head bug net (Amazon affiliate link): If you don’t like deet, the bug net can be pretty useful since mosquito do terrorize the trail at points, especially around the stretch between Red’s Meadow and Muir Trail Ranch. They are most effective with a hat that has a brim around the entire portion. Since I was deeting it up and use my viewfinder on my camera to take pictures, I found the bug net got in the way. I also felt more stuffy with it on, but that could just be in my head and I did only have a trucker hat.
- sandals vs trailrunners: Just before my hike, I didn’t like the Merrell Moab 2 Vent (Amazon affiliate link) I had planned to use. The idea of using my Chaco ZCloud sandals (Amazon affiliate link) for the thru hike was very appealing to me, especially in dealing with water crossings. Even though I was found a pair of clown shoes, ie Altra Lone Peak 3.5 trailrunners (Amazon affiliate link), at the REI garage sale just before my hike, I did give the Chaco idea a shakedown during my first few days. They were indeed up to the task and made river crossing amazingly easy. However, the continuous drying and soaking of my feet lead to the start of fissures in my calluses on my feet. This requires extra care of my feet, including bumming some lotion to rehydrate my skin. In the end, I found that the JMT didn’t have very many serious water crossings during late July on a typical year and the trailrunners were better for the downhills and sandier areas. I ended up using mainly my trailrunners and supplementing with my Chacos for a change of pace in case of hot spots developing or sections of multiple water crossings.
- BV 500 bear canister (Amazon affiliate link): It took me a little bit of time to figure out how to strap my bear canister to my backpack. If I put it inside my pack, I didn’t have any room for anything else in it since it was so clunky. Strapping it between the lid and main compartment worked for me. I wish the Osprey Kestral had a adjustable lid as it would have made it easier to strap on. If you don’t have a canister and don’t want to buy one, you are rent one for USD$5 per week from Yosemite National Park when you pick up your permit.
- gaiters: I had my long gaiters on me for this hike, I stopped using them as I was getting way too hot. They were also not very useful for the JMT since there wasn’t much overgrown brush or drenching precipitations. The precipitation I encountered was hail when heavy and drizzle type rain otherwise. There was also no snow at the time of my hike. Lastly, the trail is very well traveled and maintained leading to less rocks that can get in my trailrunners. Many people push for the small gaiters such as Dirty Girl Gaiters, but I don’t think even that’s necessary for the JMT.
- electronics: It was kinda shocking how quickly my backpacking electronic setup were becoming antiquated. Phones are way more powerful and batteries are very accessible and efficient. My Garmin GPS, solar charger (which broke halfway on my trip anyways), and AA & AAA batteries are things I would definitely leave behind. Rather, I’d just take a couple more portable power packs with QC3 or USB-C for fast charging and capacity.
- Because we planned to head directly to Peru and hike in much colder environment, I brought a few heavier equipment like my 6 degree downs sleeping bag. Many nights, I just had over me as a blanket instead since I found the nights to be brisk at the coldest. I grew up in Michigan though, so my baseline maybe different than yours. In fact, I didn’t use my down jacket once on the JMT, though I would still bring it just in case. For the trails in Peru, I was glad I had my gaiters.
- If you noticed on my equipment list, I did have my laptop on me for the hike. This was something I had to bring along last minute for work reasons. It did help in planning as I went along though. I don’t recommending bringing it, though it did serve as an extra battery source when my solar charger broke.
Again unlike many of the guides out there, I didn’t meticulously plan every meal and count calories before hand. I didn’t have to since I was resupplying as I went and can figure it out based on my cravings and eating habits. When I created my meals on my hike, I was usually pretty good repackaging them into portions that would make me full. For backpacker meals, such as Mountain House, I looked for ones with more calories. In the spirit of the resupplying on the go, I’ll discuss what I ate as part of my trip reports.
Generally, my food patterns ended up involved a large meal in the morning, a large meal for late lunch or dinner, and snacks throughout the day. This was based on several weather and environmental factors lead me to want to break in the afternoons. The details of which will be discussed further in my trip report.
An added benefit of resupplying as I went was that it saved me some money and I was given a lot of free food by my friends and other hikers in general when they received their resupplies. Part of it was that they shipped too much food, part of it was that it didn’t fit in their bear canisters (which I’ll discuss below), part of it was they didn’t want to carry the extra weight, part of it was because they were sick of what they were eating, and part of it was that they didn’t finish what they had carried. Whatever the reason, I was offered plenty of food to supplement my resupplies and I appreciated it very much.
Not only that, there were hiker boxes, where people left what they didn’t want, at all the resupply spots. Some complain that there wasn’t enough, but it seemed the best time to raid these hiker boxes were during the midday when everyone was there opening their resupplies. I’ve heard that the early mornings may provide slim pickings.
A second benefit was that it made my meals more interesting as I enjoyed a variety of foods. My favorite was thanks to these large Korean groups going NOBO that I passed the day before Muir Trail Ranch. They left all sorts of uncommon dehydrated food like kimchi (amazon affiliate link), shimp, anchovies, and prefried fried rice. Throwing that together with some dehydrated vegetables also found in the hiker box made for an amazing meal. Substitute the rice with instant noodles and I had another delicious variation. I should have utilized those dehydrated kimchi more.
For you, planning may be more necessary if you have specific diets and requirements. Furthermore, what I did worked for me on the trail and may not for you. Again it is something that is learned from the trail. For reference, my typical body weight is around 220 lbs and I did lose about 20 lbs. However, I never felt fatigue or sluggishness during my thru hike or during the hiking in Peru following this trip. Perhaps it was the extra weight I normally carry around that I lost.
One difficulty that everyone on the JMT encountered and you should be aware of was fitting all the food into a bear canister. This was especially difficult when I loaded up 9 days of food in Mammoth. The main trick to this is to repackage all your food into ziplocks, so no space is taken up by the air that comes with prepackaged food, this includes the backpacker meals such as Mountain House. For rehydrating meals, I kept 1 backpacker meal pack and reused it for every meal. Some people are fine with rehydrating straight in the ziplocks, but I always through it tasted like plastic. Secondly, on the days I started out in town, I carried that day’s food outside of the bear can as I’ll have eaten that food by the time I have to store everything.
There are several sections on the JMT that doesn’t require a bear canister and a well hung bear bag is ok, but it is more of a logistical nightmare switch it up during the hike. Again, should you need a canister and don’t want to buy one, you are rent one for USD$5 per week from Yosemite National Park when you pick up your permit.
the social trail
Perhaps this should be in my impressions, but I feel like this is an important aspect that may help you in make the decision to go or planning for a solo hike. It is also something I had a good idea of going in.
The JMT is that it is a very social trail. On many long distance hikes such as the Appalachian Trail (AT), Pacific Crest Trail, or even the Continental Divide Trail, thru hikers end up hiking with some of the same people over long distances. Trail families form, especially on the heavily trafficked AT. This happens on the JMT as well.
I hiked the JMT solo for majority of it and many others hike is solo as well. Just like solo travel, it is easy to meet new friends since everyone is doing the same thing. Rather than meeting up at a hostel, you are just meeting up at beautiful or popular camping sites. Flexibility and a unstructured approach to the JMT also helps this as it is easy to change your plans to hike with others if you don’t have a strong plan to begin with. Those shared experiences are part of what makes these types thru hikes a compete experience as well.
If you are worried about having along time, there are plenty of that as well. There were plenty of campsites you can have to yourself and there were several night where I was alone. Even when I ended up camping with the same people at times, I could still go at my pace and hike along, we just ended up meeting up again at a campsite down the trail. There were even times on the trail that I felt lonely. So just as in the real world, the amount of social interaction depends on you. But should you seek it out, it’s pretty easy to do so and that is what is meant by being a very social trail.
national park & wilderness regulations (leave no trace)
The National Park here in the US has seen a dramatic increase in visitation and that is also true for the JMT despite limitations on permits. Well this is plays a large role in the social aspect of the hike as discussed earlier, an issue that arises with popularity and large numbers are the possible damages to trail and environments themselves. A popular discussion among online boards is the question of whether the JMT is being loved to death.
The national parks, forests, and wilderness areas have regulations that everyone should be aware of. These include information on wilderness camping including regions that a restricted from camping.
On a SOBO permit, Yosemite will give you a packet of regulations for each of the areas you’d travel through when you pick up your permit. I understand not wanting to carry the paper, but it should not be an excuse to be ignorant of the regulations as we all have phones that can take pictures of all the pages.
Despite the regulations, I still found poorly buried garbage, wildlife that have clearly learned to hang around camping areas for food, and tents set up in areas not suited for camping. While it is understandable that new backpackers may forget some of the regulations, that we accidentally leave some trash, or situations where there is no option but to camp closer to a water source, we should still all try our best to practice leave no trace and protect the JMT so other can have the same excellent experience as well. Not only that, we should be proactive in protecting our National Parks, i.e. if you see garbage pack it out yourself. I guess this is the one point where walk your own walk principles doesn’t apply and that you should over plan in keeping with the regulation and leave no trace.
Other than wilderness camping, there are several backpacker campgrounds that many hikers utilize on the trail. They are a good place to meet up with new people going your way or catch up with a friend you met earlier. Because of differing paces, sometimes you end up just a few hours behind a friend for a few days and these backpacker campgrounds catch up. Of course, they are pretty busy and might be a bit loud as well, so should you seek solitude, skipping them is the way to go.
In Yosemite, you are able to use backpacker camp grounds the day before your permit start for USD$6 in cash. It provides a nice place for the formation of trail families. In Yosemite Valley, the backpacker campground is in North Pine campgrounds.
There is also a backpacker campground Tuolumne Meadows, for those like me that had the Lyell Valley start.
At Red’s Meadow the backpacker campground is limited to three lots among the car campers, making it a crowded affair. The cost for camping here are split among all the backpackers that stay here.
I didn’t stop at Vermilion Valley Resort, though I would have if I know what I know now (I’ll get to later in my trip report). I do hear it is a party and a money sink there.
I did stop at Muir Trail Ranch, though there isn’t a backpacker’s campgrounds there. However, many people do camp around the area and visit the hot springs. I still wouldn’t camp there, mainly because of the amazing camping in the sections around it.
possible environmental challenges
While the climate on the JMT is know to be mild in general, it is still necessary to be able to adapt to the changing environment. During my hike, the most problematic aspect I encountered afternoon storms and hail on a regular occurrence that I thought I was in Colorado instead.
However the biggest worry from those looking in on the trail from afar were the wild fires nearby, specifically the Ferguson fire. On the trail itself, there were only a couple of days which see the smoke blanket the mountains.
I was fortunate to hike the JMT during the peak season on a normal snow year. Should your hike be at a different time of the season you may face different challenges. In a dry year, water availability may be an issue with streams drying out.
In a heavier snow year the challenges you face may include tougher river crossings
or snow fields.
Andrew Skurka wrote about a series of articles on early season challenges and tips based on the high snow year of 2017 on his website. Sam Chaneles has a short JMT video of his 2017 hike starting at the end of June on Youtube.
As I mentioned earlier, learning and flexibility are the best tools you have in the face of possible environmental challenges. A good resources that may help you with information regarding river crossings status and other issues on the trail is the PCT Water, Fire, Passes, Fords Update Group on the Facebook.
communication on the trail
Cell phone service is very limited on the JMT. The points that I was able to get service at the following areas (north to south):
- Yosemite Village (not at North Pine backpacker campground) – good
- Tuolumne Meadows – spotty
- Donahue Pass – spotty
- Red’s Meadow Resort – spotty
- Red Cones, about 3 miles after Red’s Meadow – good
- Kearsarge Pass, about 3 miles off the JMT – good
- Mount Whitney – good
For reference I have Google Fi (referral link), which runs off a combination of T-Moblie, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular networks.
Many thru hikers I saw had a Garmin InReach device (Amazon affiliate links: explore+, mini, se+, & DeLorme original) or a SPOT device (Amazon affiliate link). Most InReach devices allow satellite messaging, though the among depends on the level or required subscription you use. If you are in a pinch or really need to communicate with the outside world, you maybe able to ask a fellow hiker to send a message out for you.
John, who I camped with near the LeConte Canyon Ranger Station, was graciously enough to let me use his Garmin InReach to check in with Meg during a long blackout section to let her know I was on track for our rendezvous. If you read this, thanks again John!
I saw plenty of fish swimming in the streams and lakes during my hike and plenty of hikers on the trail with fishing rods. From those I talked to, it was pretty easy to get the fish to bit. However, many bits were very small. A California fishing license is required to fish, but other requirements may differ depending on the management agency (e.g. Yosemite National Park).
- JMT Yahoo! group – corresponding group.io email list
- JMT facebook group – 2018, 2019, 2020
- Wenk datashare resource on google drive
- PCT Water, Fire, Passes, Fords Update facebook group
- Bearfoot Theory JMT guide
- Sierra Hikes JMT guide
- Trail Supply Co. JMT guide
- Trail to Peak JMT guide
- TRAILove JMT page
- besthike.com information page
7 thoughts on “trip report: John Muir Trail, July 2018 – part 1, decision & planning”
Thanks for taking the time to write up all this info. I think my hike logistics will be smoother now.
No problem Mike, glad you found it useful. The whole logistic aspect of such a long hike can seem intimidating and hopefully I’m able to devolve some of that mentality with my experience. I’d be glad to answer any questions should you have them.
Hey Mike, I just found out about a big change regarding the JMT permit just recently took place, which would make how I resupplied invalid. That is leaving the wilderness area would invalidate the JMT permit. Until I have an chance to update this page, please see Peter Hirst post on the JMT 2020 facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/2020JMT
what does the back side of the wilderness permit (the white one, not the yellow) look like?
I don’t recall, I think it was just the regulations.
I have a sobo permit for two people. Unfortunately my boyfriend won’t be able to join me till later. I had planned to leave the trail for a night at onion valley and figured he could meet me in independence then we would head back Kearsarge pass the next morning. It sounds like this worked well for you however I’ve had several people on forums tell me this is a big no no. I will say I haven’t seen anything on official websites saying this isn’t allowed?
The technically official way for your boyfriend to join you is for him to get an Inyo permit for Onion Valley. the permit itself shouldn’t be too difficult to get with some flexibility, but exit Whitney Portal is more so. Alternatively, you can exit cottonwood instead. The idea of continuous travel was a bigger point of enforcement recently starting in 2020 because a lot of pct hikers skipped the Sierras and returned later in the season due to a high snow year in 2019. All I can tell you here is the official stance of the park services.