THE PERMIT PROCESS
The John Muir Trail is one of the most spectacular hiking trails in the High Sierra. And it seems that everybody knows it.
Hiking the John Muir Trail requires permission via a special wilderness permit. These permits are limited to help better manage the sensitive ecosystem and increase everyone’s hiking experience.
A different permit, and permit process, is required depending on which trailhead one uses to access the John Muir Trail. There are different agencies — Yosemite National Park, Inyo National Forest, Sierra National Forest, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks — that manage access to the JMT through issuing these wilderness permits. The agency used is contingent on where a hiker plans to access the JMT.
The northern terminus of the JMT is at Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park, and 211 trail miles to the south is the southern terminus at Mount Whitney. Mount Whitney, elevation 14,500 feet, is the highest mountain in the lower 48 states.
The JMT shares many miles with the Pacific Crest Trail, which is well known this year due to the bestselling book and major motion picture Wild.
We will be hiking the trail from north to south. Requests for a wilderness permit in Yosemite may be made starting 24 weeks, or 168 days, in advance. And since Yosemite’s wilderness permit office can receive upward of 500 permit requests per day for just a dozen or so slots, there is no second chance if someone decides to make their request 167 days in advance.
The cost to obtain a permit in Yosemite is $5 plus $5 per person. If a Half Dome permit is also requested, that’s another $8 per person.
According to Yosemite National Park’s website: “Due to very high demand, approximately 90% to 95% of all John Muir Trail through-hike permit applications are denied.”
Our first day to make a reservation for a Sunday, July 19, departure was February 1. We didn’t plan it this way, but the next day, on February 2, new exit quota restrictions went into effect in Yosemite. Trail entry quotas have long been in use in Yosemite, as they have been in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, but this new policy would restrict the amount of hikers leaving Yosemite National Park over Donohue Pass on the John Muir Trail on any given day (“If no Donohue exit quota space is available your request will be denied” says the revised wilderness permit reservation application).
To have the best chance of receiving a wilderness permit, it is advised to fax the request form. Fax? Yes, a facsimile machine. Although the park also accepts mail-in requests and phone calls, the faxes are processed first. Not very good odds for the other methods.
Since February 1, 2015, was a Sunday, we were able to submit our request beginning after 5 p.m. on the Friday before. At the Commonwealth office, we long ago gave up our fax machine. Faxes these days are received via the computer.
I had to be in Visalia on the evening of January 30, so at about 5:30 p.m., I arrived at Office Depot. I handed the completed permit request form to an indifferent employee who placed it in the fax machine on the back wall of the office services area and walked away to attend to the copy machine spitting out page after page after page.
After waiting about 15 minutes and seeing that the paper had not budged in the fax machine, I asked for an update. She told me that the phone line was busy and the fax machine will try three times then disconnect. At that point, she has to redial the number and start the process again.
She seemed annoyed with the chore. I explained to her what it was she was faxing. I saw a spark of interest in her eyes as she asked me about the journey. After I explained a little about backpacking and the mother-daughter aspect, she was much more motivated to make sure this fax went through.
To be continued…