Obtaining a permit for the JMT is no easy feat. The application process is very rigid and specific, and the odds are slim that yours will even be pulled during the lottery: 97% of all JMT permit applications are rejected. A small portion of those rejected are filled out incompletely or incorrectly, but the majority are simply because such a limited number of hikers are allowed on the trail per day. and so many thousands of people from all over the place really want to do it. s
However, just because odds are slim doesn’t mean that you won’t be one of the lucky few. I mean, I sent in a practice application, and it was picked. So don’t let the stats get you down.
Wait…what do you mean “practice application?”
Applying For Permits
Starting 168 days before the day you’d like to start, you apply. No more no less. So there’s math. I looked at the application, studying all the things you have to know beforehand: first, second, and third choice first night campground; northbound (NOBO) or southbound (SOBO) exit point, entry and exit date, number in party, leader of party, and if you want Half Dome permits or not. I worried that I’d do something wrong when it came time to apply, a feeling similar to the one I get when I’m next in a fan presale on Ticketmaster. So I filled one out a few days early, just to see. And after three days in the rolling lottery (more on that in a moment), I got an email from the National Park Service congratulating me on winning a permit with my first choice itinerary and the bonus Half Dome permits. I was shocked. Elated! Stunned. I never win anything. Oh, what was that? There’s a little catch? Of course there is, this was too good to be true.
The rolling lottery means that they’ll keep throwing your name in the hat for a week. The good news is it increases your odds for getting something near your hoped-for date, the bad news is we thought 16-18 days would be cool and our permit is for 13. I almost didn’t click “I Accept.” I was like 221 divided by 13 is like 17, that’s not bad, I’ve done 30+ mile days and I do 20s pretty often, so 13 of those in a row, yeah, sure. Yes. Yes! We can do that. We absolutely can! I accepted the permit and sent in a small payment, and sat back in a state of incredulous happiness, shock, sheer joy, my mind spinning fast, wanting to jump up and down in circles and scream and laugh, which I may have done.
From then all we needed to do was pay for Half Dome permits in person when we get there, and pick up the JMT permit; but as far as homework we were done.
A couple of invaluable resources for me have been: www.nps.gov, where you can find definitive answers to all the rules and regulations questions. From campfire permits to approved bear cans, what soaps are safe, weather forecasts, and all hundreds of the what-if questions you might have, they are your biggest resource with the most official, up to date, factual information.
And because word on the street is often faster (and more engaging), the JMT Facebook group (simply called John Muir Trail, look it up, it’s incredible) is your other great wealth of information, though like all social media keep an ear out for exaggerations or oddballs and take some things with a grain of salt, since you have everyone from noobs to seasoned old mountain folk and ultrarunners all answering questions like “Is the JMT hard?” But if you’re seeking recent, from the trenches, specific info about anything JMT-related, check there for the lowdown, the opinions, the experience of people who were just there, or have been there many times. after you’ve gotten the facts. Ask questions, make connections, feel the community before you even get there.
Please remember: You have to stick to your dates, direction, and first night campsite. You must agree to obey all LNT principles and national park rules and regulations. You can’t sell your permits or pretend you’re with another group. The fine for traveling without a permit is $5,000 and immediate escorted ejection from the trail. California fire laws are no joke: please respect your season’s restrictions and don’t break the rules on this one; you don’t want to be the guy who burns Sequoia to the ground.
If You Don’t Get A Permit:
If you don’t get a permit through the early application lottery system, you can try your luck at a walk-up permit. This works great if your vacation dates at work are easily changeable and you live in central California but is a pretty risky gamble for the rest of us. To take three weeks off work and find out you didn’t get it, but you’re packed and ready to start? Especially if you flew across the country under the spell of the thrill of rolling the dice. I’m too much of a planner to be able to deal with a walk-up, plus my life isn’t that flexible. But if yours is, and you got denied, there is still hope — if you’re just willing to take a chance.
Wendy Harrington is a California native who has lived in a small town at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state since 2001. Her love of trail running and peakbagging has led her to summit all five Washington volcanoes, climb to the high points of three states, and put nearly a thousand miles a year on her boots. Her loves include ridgelines, saddles, granite, one-day pushes on big mountains, anything volcanic, long solo days, and objectives that push limits and test endurance.