Many hikers dream about idyllic days on a backcountry pilgrimage through the granite-polished high country of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Others fantasize about the ultimate thru-hike: the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). You can experience the best of both adventures, though, by hiking the 211-mile John Muir Trail (JMT).
Route overview: While the JMT is relatively short by thru-trail standards, its north-to-south route from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney covers what many believe is the most spectacular stretch of the PCT (more than 80 percent of the JMT’s route follows the PCT). Note, too, that the closest exit point is Whitney Portal, an 11-mile hike out on which you’ll lose more than 6,000 feet of elevation. So one could argue that the trail is really 222 miles long.
When to start planning: Depending on your pace and exact itinerary, the trail takes from 10 to 30 days to complete. You can also plan on 8 to 10 months of planning and preparation, primarily because permits are so hard to get: You need to apply 26 weeks (about 6 months) ahead of time.
Expert tips: If all this sounds like your kind of hiking adventure, Stephanie Eastman, a veteran John Muir Trail hiker and a Camp Specialist at the REI Roseville, CA, store, has some insider tips about how to prepare and pack for this epic trail. We hope this guide will simplify the planning and set you up for success on your journey.
John Muir Trail Permits and Fees
Competition is fierce: For a classic Yosemite Valley start, the park service has a daily quota for the number of people per day exiting the park over Donohue Pass. For peak hiking days, Yosemite National Park can receive up to 600 applications, and only a small fraction of those will be fulfilled, making a JMT permit one of the most sought-after prizes in the national wilderness system.
Apply far, far ahead of time: Reservations can be made 26 weeks (182 days) in advance. Unless you’re going off-season, apply at the earliest moment allowed by the backcountry reservation process.
Because a handful of permits are held for hikers on a first-come, first-served basis, a walk-up JMT wilderness permit is possible, though not probable. That also opens up the option of reserving a permit for an alternate trailhead in advance, then trying to snag a walk-up permit for your preferred Yosemite trailhead on your start day. (You can revert to your reserved trailhead if you’re unsuccessful.)
South-to-north permits: You can also choose to start at the summit of Mt. Whitney and hike north. Unfortunately, that puts a grueling climb with a full pack at the start of your trip and requires a permit that might be even harder to get: Mt. Whitney Trail permits are given out by a lottery system. For details and an application link go to the recreation.gov website.
One other option is to pick an alternative trailhead near the Whitney Zone, such as the Horseshoe Meadow trailhead. One drawback with this tactic is that your approach to the summit of Mt. Whitney will definitely be longer. You’ll also need to get a wilderness permit from Inyo National Forest.
Half Dome day permits: Though not on the main route, it’s so close that many JMT hikers go up Half Dome as a side trip. The granite icon is so popular that the park service requires a Half Dome permit for both day hikers and backpackers. If your plan includes Half Dome, you must specify that on your wilderness permit application. Again, there are very limited reservable permits. (This is a great opportunity to do Half Dome, though, because so many more people will be competing for the limited number of day-use permits.)
California campfire permits: In order to combat wildfires, the State of California now requires a campfire permit, even to use a stove in the backcountry. Unless you opt for stoveless meals on your trip, you’ll need this permit. Pay close attention to conditions in each region. If you use an alcohol or wood-burning stove, be prepared to switch to cold meals during extreme fire danger, when land managers might choose to ban those types of stoves.
Food and resupply planning: These are the nuts and bolts of your trip plan, and the details will take substantial research. The PCTA page on food is one good resource. REI is a great place to stock up for backcountry food as well.
One of the challenges for resupply planning is that the last easily accessible resupply point is Muir Trail Ranch, which is roughly at the halfway point of your journey. So you must decide whether to carry 10-plus days of food for the final, most challenging segment of the JMT or figure out a final resupply option for the southern section of the trail. A good place to start your research is the PCTA JMT resupply page, one of many good online resources for JMT resupply planning.
Trip scheduling and mountain passes: Depending on snowfall in the year you go, prime JMT hiking season is July through September. Even at a leisurely 30-day pace, that offers plenty of time to do the trail. Because these months are prime time for afternoon thundershowers in the High Sierra, though, you’ll need to get up and over each mountain pass early, preferably before noon each day.
The traditional JMT route crosses 10 passes and you might add more, depending on your resupply needs and route variations. And the summit of Whitney is arguably your most lightning-exposed trail stop. So you’ll need to pay particular attention to the details of your daily schedules as you craft your master plan.
JMT Maps and Guidebooks
The PCTA maps and guidebooks page is an excellent resource. Halfmile’s topo maps and phone apps, offered there free of charge, are thorough, detailed and constantly updated. You can also find JMT books and maps at many REI stores in California and around the country. One highly recommended book is John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail, by Elizabeth Wenk.
Gear weight: Ultralight gear can really pay dividends on a long-haul hike. If you carry excess pounds over thousands of miles, your body will indeed pay a price. See our article about Ultralight Backpacking Basics for more information.
Gear philosophy: Your views about comfort and risk should inform your approach. Minimalist hikers will always argue that you can go lighter. You’ll need to decide for yourself how ultralight or ultra-prepared you want to go, then select gear accordingly.
Gear know-how: The JMT is not the place for a maiden equipment voyage. Take trips to familiarize yourself with your gear and take classes to ensure your backcountry skills are honed for the challenge.
John Muir Trail Backpacking Packing List
Differences from a PCT list: Because it’s concentrated in the mountainous heart of the PCT, JMT gear can be consistent throughout your trip. In a typical year, water will be relatively plentiful and running into snow and ice is always a possibility. Bear canisters aren’t required for the full JMT, but it’s simpler to carry one for the duration of your hike. (Because much of the hike is above treeline, you don’t really have the option to hang your food.)
Note: Included in this checklist are the Ten Essential Systems you should have on every backcountry trip: navigation; sun protection; insulation; illumination; first-aid supplies; fire starter; repair kit and tools; nutrition; hydration; emergency shelter. To learn more, see our Ten Essentials article.
- Backpack that’s large enough to hold a bear canister
- Pack raincover
- Small daypack (optional)
- 3-season tent
- Tent footprint (recommended)
- Warm sleeping bag: 15°F rating
- Sleeping pad
- Whistle (plus signaling mirror)
- Multifunction watch with altimeter (altimeter feature is optional)
- Knife or multi-tool
- GPS (optional)
- Map(s) and guidebook(s) or route description
- Trekking poles (optional)
- LED headlamp with extra batteries
- Water filter and backup treatment system
- Stove, fuel and repair kit
- Matches or lighter
- Cookset, dishes, bowls, utensils, cups
- Bear canister
- Repair kits for mattress; duct tape strips
- Fire starter
- Traction devices like microspikes (recommended)
- Ice axe (recommended in high snow years)
Clothing and Footwear
- Wicking, quick-drying underwear
- Wicking, quick-drying sports bra
- Wicking, quick-drying long underwear
- Wicking, quick-drying T-shirt and long-sleeve shirt
- Quick-drying pants
- Quick-drying shorts
- Fleece jacket or vest, or insulated jacket or vest
- Fleece pants (optional)
- Waterproof/breathable rain jacket
- Waterproof/breathable rain pants
- Bandana or Buff
- Sun-shielding hat or ball cap
- Winter hat
- Gloves or mittens
- Hiking boots or hiking shoes suited to terrain
- Ankle-high gaiters
- Socks (synthetic or wool) plus spares
- Sandals or water shoes
- Water bottles or hydration reservoirs (3 liters total capacity)
- Lip balm
- Toothbrush with cover and biodegradable toothpaste
- Biodegradable soap
- Toilet paper
- Sanitation trowel
- Hand sanitizer
- Women’s hygiene items
- Personal wipes
- Spare eyeglasses or contact lenses
- Plastic zip-top bags
- Insect repellent
- Bear spray (optional and prohibited within Yosemite National Park)
- First-aid kit (see our First-Aid Checklist)
- Quick-drying towel
- Camera or helmet cam and extra memory cards (optional)
- Binoculars (optional)
- Cell phone (don’t rely on service)
- Satellite communicator / personal locator beacon (optional)
- Field guide(s); star identifier (optional)
- Journal, pen, reading material (optional)
- Fishing gear and permit(s) (optional)
- Credit card; small amount of cash
- JMT permit
- Additional permits for your planned itinerary
- Trip itinerary left with friend
6,000 calories per day in these categories:
- Breakfast (oatmeal, granola, freeze-dried breakfast, etc.)
- Lunch (bagels, summer sausage, cheese, smoked salmon, etc.)
- Dinner (pasta, couscous, rice, freeze-dried dinner, etc.)
- Snacks (cookies, GORP, jerky, candy bars, dried fruit, etc.)
- Energy gels
- Energy bars
- Electrolyte replacement drink mix
- Extra day’s supply of food (carried on each leg of the hike)