For many, the most stressful part of planning a John Muir Trail thru-hike is obtaining the Wilderness Permit. There are good reasons for that. If you are going to leave from Happy Isles there are only thirty quotas per day, and with a short hiking season and lots of interest over the past several years, demand is high.
Once Reese Witherspoon hits the screens this winter with her take on the Pacific Crest Trail, it’s only going to get worse.
There are a few strategies you can use, however, to tilt the odds a little better in your favor.
1. Go by yourself. Some people falsely believe that the quota limits the number of permits per trailhead, per day. Not true. The quota limits the number of people. If the person in front of you is hiking with five friends on the same permit, that’s five off the quota, not one. Hiking by yourself helps in two ways. First, if your reservation request comes up next and there are any quotas left (for the trailhead you want), you’re in! Second, let’s say there are two requests ahead of you, both with three hikers. If there are only two quotas left, those two requests will be skipped (since they cannot be filled) and you will get one of the two remaining slots. If you can’t go by yourself, then consider hiking as a twosome, or even having everyone in your party request reservations separately. (This is a 212 mile trail; your groups could even leave on different days and still hike together for most of the trail.)
2. Be flexible as to dates. If you can manage a three- or four-day window in order to make consecutive requests, your chances are (wait, wait) three or four times as great! This seems pretty obvious, but here’s the thing: you may not know if you got your reservation for a couple of days. If you wait to find out you didn’t, you may have wasted a couple of days. Keep submitting daily until you know you do have the reservation you are looking for, or until your window of opportunity closes.
3. Be flexible as to trailheads. Do some research and you’ll find that there are several different trailheads that will give you access to the JMT. For example, there are two different types of permits that leave from Happy Isles (first night in Little Yosemite Valley and first night well past LYV). If you can’t get one of those, there is Glacier Point or even Tuolumne Meadow. True, neither will allow you to hike a 100% true JMT, but both will give you John Muir Trail bragging rights among all but the most pedantic. (One strategy, which fast hikers can use, is to day-hike, without a permit, from Happy Isles to Tuolumne on the day before you enter the wilderness at TM, on a permit. That would require hiking more than 25 miles in a day, including a healthy amount of climbing, but for many it is a viable option.)
As you are planning next year’s trip, use one, two, or all of the strategies above, and good luck. If you strike out, don’t despair—you can always get a walk-up permit!
Good hiking, Ray