Those of us who follow all things John Muir Trail could certainly see it coming.
First, there was the economic collapse of ’07 and ’08, which meant lots of folks were looking for places closer to home to vacation. Then came the terrific movie, Mile…Mile & a Half. The internet played a role with the proliferation of blogs, ebooks, etc. Last came the popularity of the book and movie, Wild. True, Cheryl Strayed skipped the John Muir Trail entirely. But people who were looking for a “PCT-like” experience in a more manageable package naturally gravitated to the John Muir Trail.
It was only a matter of time before the demand on the trail required some corrective actions by those charged with keeping the wilderness…well, wilderness.
It appears that we may see some of those corrections soon.
A few days ago I was lucky enough to talk with one of the architects of the changes we are likely to see. Ed Dunlavey is the Wilderness Manager for Yosemite National Park. He has more than thirty years experience managing wild areas, including substantial time in a place a lot more untamed than Yosemite: Alaska. He and I spoke about the problems (there are more than one), the possible solutions (they are still crafting them, but are close), and the way ahead (whatever they come up with will be interim solutions; these will NOT be the final adjustments).
There are three primary problems—all the result of increased demand. (JMT-related requests are up 240% from last year, and during the few years prior there were substantial increases as well.)
First is the impact JMT hikers are having on everyone else who is trying to get into the wilderness. As the number of hikers who want to leave from Happy Isles doubled, then doubled again, and again, the trailhead quotas stayed the same. All those disappointed would-be JMT hikers looked elsewhere to enter. Glacier Point was the most obvious, but it was in no way the only alternative. The result: it is getting harder and harder for people who only want to hike around the Yosemite wilderness to enter from any trailhead that could potentially get you to the JMT.
Next, with more JMT hikers entering from more trailheads, and then turning towards the JMT, the density of hikers in certain areas became a problem. The first area to show the signs of overuse (fire rings, “improved” campsites, bear encounters) was around Sunrise Creek. More recently, Lyell Canyon has begun to show the same signs of overuse.
[I should note that the park service considers the overuse problems more serious than the non-JMT hiker access problem. I, on the other hand, tend to sympathize more with the hikers!]
Mr. Dunlavey was kind enough to sketch out the possible solutions, but he emphasized that none of what I am about to describe has been approved. As somebody who has worked for the government for about forty years I can tell you that recommendations rarely emerge from the staffing process unscathed!
1. An exit quota (the exact number has not yet been established) would be imposed on those leaving Yosemite National Park, southbound, over Donohue Pass. A hiker would indicate on the permit reservation form that he or she was intending to exit via Donohue. Since there will be no increase or decrease to any of the trailhead quotas, the lottery would remain pretty much the same, except…
2. The ten Happy Isles to Sunrise/Merced Lake (pass-through) permits and the ten Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley could ALL be reserved 168 days in advance. (Or, if you are a glass-half-empty kind of guy, none of those twenty permit quotas would be held back for hikers who walk-up.)
Those twenty quotas might also be spread across more than the two trailheads where they are now available. The only walk-up permits available to hike the John Muir Trail, from any trailhead (except, possibly, Tuolumne Meadows) would occur if someone canceled their reservation. The consensus is that in July and August that would mean essentially NO walk-up permits to hike the JMT starting from the valley.
Obviously, there are lots more implementing instructions to be worked out. The devil, as they say, is in the details. My best guess is this: the only way to walk from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney (via Donohue Pass), regardless of the valley trailhead you use to enter the wilderness, will be to secure one of the twenty “pass-through” quotas or to get really lucky on a cancellation.
If we are going to evaluate these new rules fairly the first question that should be asked is this: do these solutions have a good chance of solving the problems described above? I think the honest answer has to be, “Yes.”
By setting an exit quota at Donohue Pass the park service is suppressing the number of JMT hikers REGARDLESS of which trailhead they enter. The assumption is that fewer JMT hikers will mean less demand on Sunrise and Lyell. Is that assumption a good one? Probably.
I’m less convinced that the second change in policy will do much to alleviate overcrowding. Mr. Dunlavey sees this as a benefit to John Muir Trail thru-hikers, who tend to do much more planning than your average weekend or vacation camper. While that is undoubtedly true, what troubles me is that it makes getting any of those twenty quotas a simple game of chance. The one thing I liked about the “walk-up” permits was the fact that you had much more control. If you were willing to wait in front of the Wilderness Center long enough, you were just about guaranteed to get the permit you wanted.
The Way Ahead
Both of the policy changes I describe above have something in common: their implementation takes place completely within Yosemite. That’s no accident. Crafting a solution that meets the real problem—too much demand on the JMT—will require lots of interagency coordination. What probably makes the most sense is a permit that specifically covers the John Muir Trail. Before that can happen a whole lot of coordination will have to take place, and competing agendas aligned. Once again, what I’ve described above is only an interim solution.
Why I’m Optimistic
We all need to reconcile ourselves to a simple fact: in the future there are going to be fewer hikers on the JMT. For those hikers who score a permit that’s a good thing! For those who try and fail to get the opportunity—not so good.
My discussion with Mr. Dunlavey makes me optimistic for one simple reason: it’s clear he is on our side and that he has our best interests at heart. It’s a balancing act, ensuring that his management practices comport with the myriad of applicable legislation AND keeps the hiking community happy. I think we have an advocate, though, looking out for us.
Keep checking back. I’ll post updates as I know more.
Good hiking, Ray