How to Get a John Muir Trail Wilderness Permit in 2023

By Michael Lanza

Sometimes it can seem like everyone who’s ever carried a backpack through mountains somewhere wants to thru-hike the John Muir Trail—especially when it comes time to apply for a JMT wilderness permit. And why not? “America’s Most Beautiful Trail” earns its nickname and ranks indisputably among “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.” Consequently, few permits are harder to get; most people who apply get rejected. This story explains the various ways to reserve a John Muir Trail wilderness permit. And the time for reserving a permit for this summer is coming up very quickly.

The tips below draw from my personal experience thru-hiking the JMT in an admittedly insane seven days as well as numerous trips on JMT sections (most recently in August 2022) and throughout the High Sierra over more than three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


A backpacker hiking past Marie Lake on the John Muir Trail, John Muir Wilderness, High Sierra.
Marco Garofalo backpacking past Marie Lake on the John Muir Trail, John Muir Wilderness, High Sierra.

See “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: What You Need to Know,” and all stories about backpacking the John Muir Trail and in the High Sierra at The Big Outside. Most of those stories require a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full, including my tips and information on planning each hike.

See also “How to Get a Yosemite or High Sierra Wilderness Permit” and my expert e-guides to multi-day hikes in Yosemite and other parks, including “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

I’ve helped many readers plan their own JMT thru-hike or section hike and backpacking trips throughout the High Sierra and elsewhere, answering all of their questions (and many they didn’t think to ask) and customizing an itinerary ideal for them.

See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you and read scores of comments from others who’ve received my custom trip planning.

Please share any thoughts or questions about the JMT in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

Don’t Have Time for the entire JMT?
See “10 Great John Muir Trail Section Hikes.”

Sunrise reflection in a tarn above Helen Lake along the John Muir Trail, Kings Canyon N.P.
Sunrise reflection in a tarn above Helen Lake along the John Muir Trail, Kings Canyon N.P.

John Muir Trail Wilderness Permits

The 211-mile-long John Muir Trail crosses Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks and a pair of wilderness areas, the Ansel Adams and John Muir. You must obtain a permit from the agency where you begin a JMT hike and that permit covers your entire trip.

A high percentage of JMT permit applicants get rejected simply because the number of applications every year far exceeds available permits.

Most thru-hikers begin in either Yosemite, the JMT’s northern terminus, or at Whitney Portal, the starting point to reach the trail’s southern terminus on the summit of Mount Whitney. Backcountry campsites not designated or assigned along most of the JMT; with few exceptions (largely in Yosemite), you may camp where you like but use sites that have clearly been used previously.

As I write in my “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit,” the single most-effective strategy for maximizing your chances of getting a permit for a popular trip during its peak season is to consider at least two starting trailheads and itineraries—which requires knowing generally how far you want to walk each day—and a wide range of starting dates.

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A backpacker on the John Muir Trail overlooking the Cathedral Range in Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt on the John Muir Trail overlooking the Cathedral Range in Yosemite National Park.

Starting the JMT in Yosemite

To hike the JMT southbound (the direction I recommend) anytime between April 28 through Oct. 22, apply for a permit from Yosemite National Park at recreation.gov/permits/445859 up to 24 weeks in advance of the date you want to start hiking, entering a rolling lottery for a permit within a specific window of dates. You will be notified of whether you get a permit reservation within two business days after the lottery closes and will have three days to accept the permit or lose the reservation.

For example, to start a trip between Aug. 6-12, 2023, submit your application anytime between Feb. 19 and Feb. 25, 2023, and you will be notified of the result by 5 p.m. Pacific Time on Feb. 27 and must accept it by March 2 or forfeit it.

Yosemite issues all wilderness permits based on trailheads quotas and imposes a daily quota of 45 backpackers exiting the park via Donohue Pass on the JMT.

A hiker on Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Mark Fenton standing on Half Dome, high above Yosemite Valley. Click photo for my e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

One advantage of Yosemite’s rolling lottery is that, if you strike out in one lottery period, you will have plenty of time to apply again for the very next week. The rolling lottery ends in mid-May.

While the JMT’s northern terminus is the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley, that’s typically the starting point most often requested on permit applications. There are just two trailheads in Yosemite where you are permitted to launch a JMT thru-hike and those appear on the Yosemite permit application as Happy Isles to Past LYV (Donohue Pass eligible) and Lyell Canyon (Donohue Pass eligible)—the latter offering perhaps better odds of securing a permit. (Note: LYV represents Little Yosemite Valley, the park’s most popular backcountry camp, where JMT thru-hikers are not permitted to spend a night).

See nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/jmt.htm, which explains how to get a JMT permit for starting in Yosemite and how popular the JMT has become.

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Backpackers camped by Thousand Island Lake along the John Muir Trail in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, High Sierra.
Backpackers camped by Thousand Island Lake along the John Muir Trail in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, High Sierra.

Starting the JMT at Whitney Portal

To thru-hike the JMT northbound—or backpack a JMT section—starting at Whitney Portal between May 1 and Nov. 1, you must enter the Mount Whitney Zone permit lottery at recreation.gov/permits/233260 anytime between Feb. 1 and March 1; the form can be viewed but not filled out until Feb. 1.

Choose Mount Whitney Zone Overnight permit to create a permit good for multiple dates. Permit quotas are 100 people day use and 60 people overnight per day.

Lottery results are announced on March 15. The deadline to confirm a lottery reservation and pay the $15 per person fee is 9 p.m. Pacific time on April 21.

Want to hike the John Muir Trail or another trip in the High Sierra?
Click here for expert, detailed advice you won’t get elsewhere.

A backpacker at Evolution Lake on the John Muir Trail in Evolution Basin, Kings Canyon National Park.
Marco Garofalo at Evolution Lake on the John Muir Trail in Evolution Basin, Kings Canyon National Park.

Backpack a Section of the JMT

If you fail to get a permit for a JMT thru-hike, consider a long John Muir Trail section hike—a satisfying consolation prize and a permit that’s much easier to get, especially starting from a trailhead in the Inyo National Forest.

The Inyo sprawls over the High Sierra between Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon, including a long stretch of the JMT through the Ansel Adams and John Muir wildernesses. A permit from the Inyo allows you to continue on the JMT into Yosemite or Sequoia-Kings Canyon.

The Inyo National Forest accepts reservations for 60 percent of trailhead quotas at recreation.gov/permits/233262 starting at 7 a.m. Pacific Time six months before your start date—for example, on Feb. 1 for a trip starting Aug. 1. To finish by descending Mount Whitney to Whitney Portal, you must select permit type “Overnight Exiting Mt. Whitney.”

See “How to Get a Yosemite or High Sierra Wilderness Permit” and more information at fs.usda.gov/main/inyo/passes-permits/recreation.

Get the right gear for the High Sierra. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs
and “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents.”

A backpacker hiking the John Muir Trail to Glen Pass, Kings Canyon N.P.
Mark Fenton backpacking the JMT to Glen Pass, Kings Canyon N.P.

Keep Your Group Small

The High Sierra national parks and forests all issue permits based on trailhead quotas on the total number of people starting trips every day and those quotas vary between trailheads. It stands to reason that smaller parties of one to four backpackers will have a better chance of landing a permit than larger groups.

See “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips” and all stories with expert backpacking tips at The Big Outside.

Want my expert help custom planning your trip to ensure it’s as good as it can be? See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you.

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