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?
This article offers information and tips regarding some critical planning details for thru-hiking the JMT—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 many years running this blog.
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 service, 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. Michael proactively circled back a few times to ensure I had everything I needed. 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 com ments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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Getting a John Muir Trail Permit
Obtaining a permit to backpack the entire JMT or any section of it represents one of this hike’s greatest logistical 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.
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 begin in either Yosemite, the JMT’s northern terminus, or at Whitney Portal, which accesses the trail’s southern terminus, Mount Whitney.
To hike southbound (the direction I recommend; more on that below), apply for a Yosemite permit 24 weeks (168 or 169 days) in advance of the date you’d like to begin—for example, apply on March 4 or 5 to start hiking Aug. 20. Increase your chances by entering the 21-day lottery for a range of start dates in Yosemite.
While the JMT’s northern terminus is the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley, that’s also the starting point most often requested on permit applications. There are four other possible starting trailheads in Yosemite that offer a very scenic launch to a JMT thru-hike and arguably better odds of securing a permit.
Backpackers starting at Whitney Portal to hike northbound reserve a permit through a lottery system conducted between Feb. 1 and March 15 at recreation.gov. Find more info at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/jmtfaq.htm.
I can help you plan a JMT thru-hike or any trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.
The Prime Season
A JMT thru-hike can be done from early summer through September. But the best time for an ultralight thru-hike is 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 in September.
How Many Days?
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, a 15-day itinerary requires averaging 14.7 miles per day—which is entirely feasible for fit backpackers.
Begin each day relatively 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. Arrive with your legs in pretty 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 low to 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 worth of food will add about 20 pounds to your pack as you head for the JMT’s highest passes.
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Minimizing Pack Weight
Long-distance hikers live by a cardinal rule: Keep your base pack weight (including only gear and clothing weight, which remains constant) 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.
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 of my reviews of ultralight backpacking gear.
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, and other parks using my expert e-guides.
The Resupply Plan
Given the JMT’s remoteness, there are just two convenient opportunities to resupply food along it (in order when hiking southbound):
- At Red’s Meadow (redsmeadow.com), 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.
- Resupply a second and final time at Muir Trail Ranch (muirtrailranch.com/backpacker.html), 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.”
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 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 my stories “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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