Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: What You Need to Know

By Michael Lanza

For many serious backpackers, a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail looms as a sort of holy grail. But every JMT aspirant inevitably faces the question: How do you plan a 221-mile hike of “America’s Most Beautiful Trail?” Besides preparing physically for it, a JMT thru-hike poses myriad logistical and organizational challenges, from obtaining one of the country’s most sought-after wilderness permits to choosing an ideal time of year, the itinerary and number of days to take, gear, food resupplies, transportation, acclimating to elevations commonly between 9,000 and over 13,000 feet, and other details.

And, of course, you also want to know: Where are the best campsites along the JMT? What’s the best itinerary for backpacking the John Muir Trail?

This article offers expert tips regarding critical planning details and challenges when thru-hiking the John Muir Trail—unquestionably one of America’s 10 best backpacking trips. It draws on my JMT experience as well as thousands of miles of backpacking all over the country over the past three decades, including numerous trips in the High Sierra, as a past Northwest Editor at Backpacker magazine and more than 10 years running this blog.

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A hiker on the John Muir Trail below Cathedral Peak in Yosemite National Park.
Heather Dorn hiking the John Muir Trail below Cathedral Peak in Yosemite National Park.

Two friends and I completed our JMT thru-hike in an admittedly insane seven days, hiking ultralight and averaging 31 miles per day. (The JMT spans 211 miles, but its southern end is atop Mount Whitney, where you still must hike over 10 miles downhill to finish the trip.) While the pre-trip prep proved time-consuming, it came together smoothly and we had a very successful—and quite memorable—trip.

Want to save a lot of time and ensure your JMT hike goes as well as possible? See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan a JMT hike. At the bottom of that page you’ll find many comments from people who’ve received my custom trip planning, including a reader named Lauren who wrote: “Michael helped me plan my solo JMT thru-hike, and the process was beyond what I expected. He provided personal tips and perspectives from his own experiences as well as insight into what he’s seen others try and buy. He has amassed a wealth of detailed information about gear, training, trails, permits, regulations, transit, and all the details I knew would be a nightmare to suss out alone… It’s really like having a wilderness coach. Excited to plan another trip with him soon!”

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

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A backpacker passing Wanda Lake on the John Muir Trail in Kings Canyon National Park.
Todd Arndt passing Wanda Lake on the John Muir Trail in Kings Canyon National Park. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan a JMT thru-hike.

Getting a Permit for Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail

Obtaining a permit to backpack the entire trail represents one of the JMT’s greatest challenges—it’s one of the most sought-after backcountry permits in the country. JMT permits are in high demand for dates in July, August, and September. Check out the statistics on numbers of rolling lottery applications to start the JMT in Yosemite and their success rates at (Spoiler alert: Nearly 70 percent of applications are unsuccessful.)

The JMT crosses three national parks—Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia—and two national forests, the Inyo and Sierra, as well as a pair of wilderness areas within those national forests, 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.

Most thru-hikers try to begin in either Yosemite, the JMT’s northern terminus, or at Whitney Portal, which accesses the trail’s southern terminus, Mount Whitney.

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

A backpacker hiking above Helen Lake on the John Muir Trail, Kings Canyon National Park, High Sierra.
Marco Garofalo hiking above Helen Lake on the John Muir Trail, Kings Canyon National Park. Click photo to read about this 130-mile JMT section hike.

To hike the JMT southbound (the direction I recommend; more on that below), apply for a permit from Yosemite National Park at up to 24 weeks in advance of the date you want to start hiking, entering a weekly rolling lottery for a permit to start within a specific window of dates.

There are just two trailheads in Yosemite where you are permitted to launch a JMT thru-hike: the JMT’s northern terminus, the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley, which appears 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, although starting at Lyell Canyon means you miss the JMT’s section from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows. (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

Backpackers starting at Whitney Portal to hike northbound reserve a permit through a lottery system conducted between Feb. 1 and March 1 at

See “How to Get a John Muir Trail Wilderness Permit.”

Given the long odds of getting a full JMT permit during the peak season, consider the alternative of planning a trip on a long section of the trail—for which a permit can be much easier to obtain. I can help you figure out that itinerary and permit plan; click here.

I can help you plan a JMT thru-hike, section, hike or any trip you read about at my blog.
Click here for expert advice you won’t get anywhere else.

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

The Prime Season for Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail

A John Muir Trail thru-hike can be done from early summer through September. But the best time for an ultralight thru-hike is mid-or late August to late September, when the mosquitoes have abated significantly and rain is rare—allowing you to use a tarp instead of a tent—the high passes are snow-free, and mornings are cool. Keep in mind there’s a chance of an early-season snowstorm—or increasingly in recent years, wildfires—interrupting your plans, especially in late summer.

How Many Days on the JMT?

Traditionally, backpackers have taken three weeks to thru-hike the entire JMT, a pace of about 10 miles a day. Today, with lighter gear, good training, and smart planning, many cut the time to two weeks or less. For instance, following a 15-day itinerary for backpacking the entire John Muir Trail requires averaging 14.7 miles per day—which is entirely feasible for fit backpackers.

Begin each day early—a smart plan to take advantage of the coolest hours of the day, anyway—and average 2.5 mph while walking, and you can hike 15 miles in six hours. Assuming two hours of rest time over the course of the day, that’s eight hours on the trail each day—an 8-to-4 workday. Even at 2 mph with two hours of down time, you can cover 12 miles in eight hours. Arrive with your legs in good shape and you’ll grow accustomed to that pace quickly. Experiment with backpacking longer days and traveling light on shorter trips before your JMT thru-hike.

Hiking southbound, you begin on the northern sections of the JMT, which are at moderate elevations and offer more possible resupply points to let you hike with less food weight than the trail’s southern half. By the time you reach Muir Trail Ranch, a common resupply point roughly near the JMT’s halfway point, you’ll have developed your trail legs for longer days, allowing you to carry less food weight for the southern half of the JMT.

Except for the high passes, the JMT is not, step for step, as difficult as hiking in other parts of the country. Give serious thought to food supply and daily mileage, because leaving Muir Trail Ranch with 10 or 11 days of food will add about 20 pounds to your pack as you head for the JMT’s highest passes.

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The eastern Sallie Keyes Lake along the John Muir Trail in the John Muir Wilderness, High Sierra.
The eastern Sallie Keyes Lake along the John Muir Trail in the John Muir Wilderness, High Sierra.

Minimizing Pack Weight

Successful long-distance hikers live by a cardinal rule: Keep your base pack weight (including only gear and clothing weight, which remains constant, not food and water) low enough that you can hike at a strong pace and rack up decent miles every day. A base pack weight of 15 pounds or less is easy to accomplish without compromising comfort or safety; many thru-hikers get it significantly lower than that.

During the summer, given the generally dry weather in the High Sierra and nighttime lows that don’t often drop below 40° F, you can use lightweight to ultralight gear, including your pack, tent, bag, and footwear. No specialized gear is needed on this trip, other than a bear canister; see the type of bear canister that I like in this review.

See my article “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking” for tips on lowering your pack weight. (Reading it in full requires a paid subscription to The Big Outside. If you don’t have a subscription, you can purchase that one article by clicking here.)

And see all reviews of ultralight backpacking gear at The Big Outside.

Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton,
and other parks using my expert e-books.

A view from the John Muir Trail of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall in Yosemite National Park.
A view from the John Muir Trail of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall in Yosemite. Click photo for my e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

The Resupply Plan

Given the JMT’s remoteness, another of its major challenges is how few convenient opportunities to resupply food lie along it. They are, in order when hiking southbound:

  • Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite is a bit more than 21 miles on the JMT from Happy Isles Trailhead, the northern terminus. The Tuolumne Meadows store has a decent selection of groceries. You can ship a resupply package to yourself General Delivery at the Tuolumne Meadows Post Office, Yosemite National Park 95389; include your planned arrival date in the address. Grab a meal at the Tuolumne Meadow Grill. The Tuolumne Meadows campground is closed until 2025.
  • At Red’s Meadow (, a short hike off the JMT, resupply for the next 50 trail miles either by having someone meet you there, or for a fee, mailing or delivering a package in advance. Eat a big meal at the Mule House Café.
  • Although it’s a few miles farther off the JMT than Muir Trail Ranch, Vermillion Valley Resort ( provides lodging, free tent camping, showers, laundry, and an opportunity to resupply a bit north of MTR.
  • Resupply a final time at Muir Trail Ranch (, about a mile off the JMT near the trail’s midpoint. Ship non-perishable food weeks in advance; a fee is charged.

Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips
and “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”

A hiker at Trail Crest, at 13,650 feet, along the John Muir Trail on Mount Whitney.
Mark Fenton at Trail Crest, at 13,650 feet, along the John Muir Trail on Mount Whitney. Click photo to read about the ultimate, 10-day, ultralight JMT plan.

Acclimating to High Elevations

The John Muir Trail ranges in elevation from 4,035 feet at its northern terminus, the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley, to the 14,505-foot summit of Mount Whitney, its southern terminus. But much of the trail lies above 9,000 feet and it crosses six passes and a seventh named high point between 11,000 feet and over 13,000 feet (in order north to south): Donohue (11,056 feet), Muir (11,955 feet), Mather (12,100 feet), Pinchot (12,130 feet), Glen (11,978 feet), Forester (13,180 feet, highest pass on the JMT), and Trail Crest on Mount Whitney (13,650 feet). Two other passes approach 11,000 feet: Silver Pass (10,895 feet) and Selden Pass (10,800 feet).

The trail’s elevation profile represents yet another of its physical challenges and provides one of the best arguments for hiking it north to south: The highest elevations are in its southern half. When beginning at 4,000 feet in Yosemite Valley, you have time to gradually acclimate before reaching the first pass over 11,000 feet, crossing from Yosemite into the Ansel Adams Wilderness at Donohue Pass.

Alternatively, beginning at Whitney Portal, at about 8,370 feet, you’re already sucking air, starting with a heavy pack due to zero convenient resupply opportunities in the trail’s southern hundred miles, and will attempt to reach the JMT’s high point, Mount Whitney’s summit at 14,505 feet, on your second day. That’s a tough start.

Got any questions or suggestions regarding the JMT? Please share them below.

See all stories about backpacking the John Muir Trail at The Big Outside, including “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: The Ultimate, 10-Day, Ultralight Plan,” “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail in 7 Days: Amazing Experience, or Certifiably Insane?” , which has more images, and “The Best Backpacking Gear for the John Muir Trail,” plus my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan a JMT hike.

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8 thoughts on “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: What You Need to Know”

  1. Great article, thank you for all the useful information!

    I will hike the JMT in August, i have some questions, do you think it would be possible to ask you?

    Thank you! 🙂

      • Michael,

        Thank you very much for your reply!

        I was lucky and got permit for JMT with a start in Lyell Canyon and exit at Whitney Portal.

        I have several questions, all of them a bit specific, so I don’t know if you will be able to answer, but let’s try as I didn’t get answers from 🙂

        1) As I will start at Lyell Canyon (Tuolumne Meadows) and finish at Mt. Whitney, is there some possibility to hike also the first stage from Happy Isles to Lyell Canyon? I was only thinking to hike as permitted: Lyell C.-Mt Whitney and after finish use public transport, go back to Lyell Canyon and head to Happy Isles? Also – I believe the permit in this case will not be valid and it won’t be possible to sleep again in wilderness after exit at Mt. Whitney?

        2) Do you know bus schedule from Yosemite Village to Tuolumne Meadows? I didnt find any schedule.

        3) The problem is that campground at Tuolumne meadows (my starting point) will be closed during the whole 2022 season… at the website I only found info that in such case you are allowed to camp the night before your start at any other campground..this is kinda uncomfortable as the Yosemite Valley campground is far away and I would need to travel on the start day from the Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne meadows.. is there any other possibility?

        4) I read that backpackers are allowed to stay one night prior their start and one night after finish at the campgrounds without reservation. Do you know if it’s possible to stay there longer? Cause I would like to stay in the Yosemite village for few days before my start, to explore the park and I heard that getting reservations to other campgrounds in Yosemite Village is real challenge and you might not be succesful in obtaining the reservation at all, so I am searching for alternatives and all hotels are fully booked for August.

        Thank you very much for your help Michael!


        • Hi Andrea,

          Congrats on your JMT permit, that’s really hard to get these days. To answer your questions:

          1) Your permit is to start backpacking from Lyell Canyon in Tuolumne, so that permit does not enable you to camp in the backcountry anywhere along the JMT between Yosemite Valley/Happy Isles Trailhead and Tuolumne Meadows. However, you don’t need a wilderness permit to dayhike that section, which is what friends and I did on our JMT thru-hike. Of course, it’s a tough day, 22 miles with a lot of uphill, and you’d need to figure out where you can leave your backpacking gear in Tuolumne to pick up when you get there by trail. Otherwise, you’ll need to get a separate Yosemite wilderness permit to backpack that section.

          2) There is a hikers shuttle bus between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne. The PCTA website offers some JMT travel information.

          3) Yes, the Tuolumne Meadows campground is closed until 2024 or 2025. But there are other backpackers campgrounds besides in Yosemite Valley; the nearest to Tuolumne is at White Wolf.

          4) The above link makes clear that a backpacker can stay in one of the backpackers campgrounds in Yosemite only one night before and one night after a backpacking trip in the park. I’m sure it’s almost impossible to find lodging or a campsite in Yosemite Valley for this summer; they book months in advance.

          Good luck with your JMT trip planning!

  2. Great article, thank you! I’m an East Coast backpacker and have been eyeing the JMT for some time. I became a bit obsessed after going to Yosemite with my family. My question is do you believe it’s possible to thru hike the trail hammock camping? Again, I appreciate all the great info!

    • Thanks, Joshua. I’m not a hammock camper (I don’t like the motion), but I’ve consistently been impressed with the ability of hammock campers to find appropriate sites even on trails where trees are more sparse. A reader who received my Custom Trip Planning told me later they were able to use their hammocks every night in Sequoia National Park, on a route in similar terrain and environs as virtually the entire JMT. The JMT certainly passes through alpine areas devoid of trees, where you would either have to sleep under the stars (hopefully, it’s a clear night), which is a great option, or you’d have to plan an itinerary with flexibility and be prepared to continue until you find a suitable campsite. With that in mind, I don’t see why you couldn’t do it.

      Good luck with your JMT hike and let me know if you’d like my help planning it.

  3. Bishop pass is thirteen mile each way but is absolutely beautiful and at least for me one of my favorites. You can catch a $5 bus ride into Bishop and stay overnight, wash clothes, resupply at Vons , sleep on a bed and eat some real food. If you have time Bishop Pass is an excellent resupply option. Adds 26 epically beautiful miles but who cares you’re experiencing some of the most beautiful parts of America