Updated: Jun 14, 2022
Navigating the JMT Permit system, setting daily mileage goals, and selecting resupply destinations
In the second chapter of the John Muir Trail Series, we’ll dive into all of the factors that influenced our (originally 15-day) JMT itinerary. For any JMT thru-hike, you’ll be faced with three major considerations in setting your own itinerary as well: permitting, daily mileage goals, and choosing resupply points. Learn more about how we approached each of these below.
Part 2: Setting your Itinerary, Permitting, and Logistics (you are here)
Part 3: Meal Planning
Part 4: Gear List Deep Dive
Part 5: Hiking the JMT in 14 Days
The John Muir Trail is strictly controlled for hiker volume, and permits are required for all thru-hikers. Understanding your options can be a bear in itself (pun intended). Permits for some of the most popular entry points are selected by lottery which leaves your ability to use those entry points somewhat up to chance. Still, there are less standard start and end points with easier permits to acquire.
We received two different entry point permits in the months leading up to the 2021 JMT season. The first was for Cottonwood Lakes trailhead, about 22 miles south of the standard JMT route. Hikers starting at Cottonwood Lakes must hike north to the Crabtree Meadows trail junction where they step onto the true JMT for the first time. From this junction, they must complete a southbound out-and-back to the summit of Mt. Whitney before continuing northbound for the rest of the trail. The southbound leg to the summit is approximately equal to the distance to the summit from Whitney Portal, so the out-and-back doesn’t add any net mileage compared to the standard route.
In spite of the 22-mile net increase associated with starting farther south, Cottonwood Lakes and nearby Cottonwood Pass trailheads have become a common starting point for JMT thru-hikes. The permits are somewhat easier to acquire than the more desirable Whitney Portal permits. Each day of the selection season, a fixed number of permits with a designated entry date (6 months after the permit release date) and designated entry location of Cottonwood Lakes are opened to the public. These permits are granted to parties on a first-come, first-serve basis starting around 7AM Pacific Time each day and are typically all claimed within a few minutes of being posted. All permits for all entry points also have a required exit date, which hikers must exit the trail on or before.
A few weeks after snagging a Cottonwood Lakes permit, Shae and I sort of struck gold. Our names had been pulled in the Whitney Portal lottery. Hikers will sometimes apply year after year for this entry point permit and never receive one. In 2021, only 11% of applicants received overnight permits for the Mt. Whitney trail. The Portal lottery is believed to have even lower acceptance than Yosemite applications, in part because JMT permits starting from the Portal are drawn from the same pool as Mt.Whitney day-hikers and overnighters. Since Mt. Whitney itself requires less commitment and draws large amounts of interest from prospective hikers in itself, prospective JMT applications frequently get lost in a sea of applications focused only on summiting Whitney. It’s a weakness that the U.S. Forest Service might want to address at some point in the future.
Once a party is drawn in the Portal lottery (drawn daily), the group leader (as designated on your permit application) will receive an email notifying them they were selected and that they have 30 days to either accept or decline the permit. We quickly accepted ours, and released our Cottonwood Lakes permit for the same season. This freed up our would-be unused Cottonwood Lakes permit for someone else to take advantage of. The permit becomes available again through the online permit system and can be booked by the first party that is interested.
Hikers can apply to multiple lotteries simultaneously; something you should take advantage of if you are flexible on hiking direction. Since Shae and I were open to both the northbound and southbound options, we were in the Yosemite National Park and Whitney Portal lotteries at the same time.
The Yosemite Lottery system has changed for 2022 and the foreseeable future. When Shae and I applied, we were required to provide a listed priority of entry points within YNP, and could really have ended up with any of them. The new system is a little complicated, so here’s the quick breakdown:
A lottery opens 24 weeks before the entry date for a permit at any given trailhead
Lotteries are drawn on a weekly basis and prospective hikers can re-apply to subsequent lottery weeks if not selected
60% of available permits are available through the lottery process described above
40% of available permits become available online 7 days before the entry date on a first-come, first serve basis at 7AM PDT on Recreation.gov.
It’s too early to see how the new system works in practice, but the concept is a step forward in my opinion. Hikers have more control over the location and entry date of their permits this way.
Two Types of Backpackers
People can approach thru-hiking in a lot of different ways, but to me they break down into two major subgroups: the “goal-oriented” and the “experiential”.
The goal-oriented, while still enjoying many of the experience aspects, are largely driven by the goals they set for themselves on the trail. If they have the time and energy to cover more ground before sunset, they typically will. This is the sort of thru-hiker that is more likely to choose an aggressive travel schedule and might even be aiming to see how fast they can possibly complete their objective. Fastpackers is one group of thru-hikers that fit into this category. Unsupported FKT attempts are the upper limit of this hiker type.
Experiential hikers are not out on the trail to see how fast they can get from start to finish– they might even be out there to take the maximum amount of time their permit allows. It’d be unusual for an experiential hiker to take less than 18-20 days to complete the JMT even if they have the strength and pace to do so. What’s the rush, after all? We’re out on the trail to take in the scenery, the solitude, and the much-needed pause from life’s normal hustle-and-bustle.
Neither type of thru-hiker is any better than the other. Despite some pronounced efforts to be more experiential backpackers, Shae and I found ourselves fitting more into the goal-oriented group, slating ourselves 15 days worth of hiking to get from start to finish. Here is how we arrived at that 15-day itinerary.
Planning the Logistics
Trail running experience was an asset for two reasons going into the JMT. One was fitness, but the second was a reasonable concept of what distance and elevation gain felt like. This is a really helpful understanding to have when planning for a big trip, and I’d recommend any hiker think really hard about all of these questions on some selected outings:
How long did the hike take you?
How much distance did you cover?
How much vertical gain and loss did it include?
Was it at altitude? Does it compare to the altitude of your goal trail?
How much pack weight were you carrying?
How did you feel at the end of the effort? Could you do it again every day for 15-30 days straight?
Even with our combined experience, we needed to be careful to account for the extra strain of pack weight and to maintain the same level of effort day after day. Neither of our previous backpacking experiences were at significant altitude either.
We had two essential resources that we used in setting the itinerary that follows: The John Muir Trail Data Book by Elizabeth Wenk, and Harrison Maps, The John Muir Trail. In this planning stage, we almost exclusively referred to the elevation plots, landmark distance tables, and Campsite tables in the Data Book and only used the Harrison Maps to verify distance or other notable details/ landmarks that might not be appearing in the Data Book. The Harrison Maps pack was a lot more important during the hike itself. More on that in my recounting of our on-trail experiences.
Other great tools exist to get similar information digitally. Mapping apps have become almost commonplace in the last few years. Gaia GPS, CalTopo, Guthook Guides (now rebranded as FarOut), and OnX Backcountry are the industry-leaders in the space (I would not use AllTrails).
Before we planned individual days, we crunched the numbers to get a sense of the average demand of each day if we hiked the trail over anywhere from 12-20 days. We leaned away from the longer duration options to allow a more relaxed driving schedule to and from California. On the shorter duration side, we knew there was a point where it would become more of a sufferfest than a vacation. We figured we were aiming in the 15-16 day range, meaning average 14-15 miles and ~3,200 vertical feet of climbing per day.
Two other things that governed our itinerary were campsites and altitude. It is illegal to camp outside of designated camping areas on the JMT, so there needs to be some planning of where you stop each night. Most people also believe it’s best for your recovery to camp below 10,000ft. You dehydrate less, sleep more soundly (with more oxygen available), and avoid the largest temperature fluctuations.
A final note: it has become more popular over the years to hike southbound from Happy Isles than northbound from Whitney. This is (aside from lottery statistics) largely due to the strain of the trail. Whitney is the highest point in the lower 48, so on a Northbound thru-hike, hikers start with their tallest climb. The passes in the Whitney half (Forester, Glen, Pinchot, Mather, and Muir) regularly reach 12,000ft and are long climbs compared with those in the Yosemite half. If hikers are looking for a gradual build in difficulty as the trail goes on, and to have a lighter pack in the hardest passes, hiking southbound from Yosemite is the way to go.
Okay! With all that out of the way, here is exactly what we planned to do ahead of the trail (more on what our true travel schedule ended up being in the fifth article of the series):
The John Muir Trail is exceptionally remote with respect to most backpacking trails of similar popularity. Thus, JMT resupply points are limited to only a handful of locations. The standard resupply locations are, from South to North:
Onion Valley (departs JMT at Mile 41.4, east of Kearsarge Pass)
Muir Trail Ranch (departs JMT at Mile 111.1, commonly known as MTR)
Vermilion Resort (departs JMT at Mile 132.8, typically referred to as VVR)
Reds Meadow (departs JMT at Mile 161.5, located at the outskirts of Mammoth Lakes)
Tuolumne Meadows (departs JMT Mile 196.3, located in Yosemite National Park)
The most critical factors in setting our resupply destinations were time and direction. We had a goal to finish in under 15 days and were committed by our permit to hike Northbound from Whitney Portal. These might not be the most important factors for some hikers who would rather prioritize the community and experiential aspects of the trail, but the rationale that follows was governed by our time and direction constraints.
While Onion Valley is the first real opportunity to resupply, it requires a 7.5 mile out-and-back over Kearsarge Pass. This would have realistically added a full day of hiking with no significant progress on the JMT itself. The next resupply point after Onion Valley was Muir Trail Ranch at Mile 111, almost the exact middle of the JMT. There was no chance of stretching beyond MTR for our first resupply, given that it would already require us to carry 7+ days worth of food to reach it. From both a weight and space perspective, MTR was the only logical choice for our first stop.
NOTE: Resupply buckets to Muir Trail Ranch must be mailed at least 3 weeks before your intended arrival at MTR. MTR is itself very remote, and resupply buckets are known to be horse-packed in from the nearest post office. It’s not cheap either; it’ll cost about $50 to mail a 5 gallon bucket with USPS, and another $95.00 to reserve your bucket’s holding spot at MTR. The holding fee seems to increase every year.
From MTR, it was only another 20 miles to the VVR turnoff, and VVR sits about 6 miles removed from the JMT, so we planned to skip it and push another 30 miles to Reds Meadow for our second resupply. We figured this 50 mile stint would be faster and easier than the previous 111 miles since we'd have to carry only 3+ days of supplies and over less demanding mountain passes. We also learned that Reds staffed a grill where hikers could order burgers, and we both knew that by our 12th day we would be happy to pay any price for fresh food. Finally, we were planning to stay in Mammoth Lakes, CA before starting the trail, and Reds is a driving distance from Mammoth Lakes so we would be able to drop our bucket off rather than mail it.
We planned for Reds as our final stop before continuing another three to three and a half days to Happy Isles.
Planning to Finish
The JMT is a one-way ticket, so hikers will need to arrange transportation between the start and finish point. Shae had read accounts of people who strongly believed the best thing you could do was arrange to finish at your own vehicle. Trying to acquire some form of public transit with weeks worth of fatigue might be difficult, and definitely not a fun way to celebrate the accomplishment. There’s also no telling what time of day you’ll be finished before you are on trail, and it is before you are on trail that these kinds of plans have to be made.
Ending at Happy Isles, Shae had read it was possible to string a few bus rides together to reach Lone Pine, CA (the closest town to Whitney Portal). We realistically expected this to take 5+ hours. From there, we’d need an Uber, taxi, or to hitch-hike about 12 miles to the Portal. Not the easiest, but one of the cheaper ways to get from YNP to the Portal.
This was our plan for months ahead of the trip, but about 4 weeks before our start date, our friend offered to shuttle us from the finish to the start, since he was driving out to LA around the same time for work. We’d end up parking our car at Happy Isles the night before we started hiking North. It poses its own challenges of finding someone willing to make the drive, but I’d recommend the strategy to anyone who has the option.