Wednesday, January 21, 2015

John Muir Trail Planning: Getting My Permit

It's official! I'm doing it! I've now secured a permit to hike the John Muir Trail starting at Happy Isles in Yosemite and finishing at Whitney Portal.

I've also revised my hiking plan a bit. Here's the dirt on how to get a permit.

There are two ways to get a permit for the JMT. One way is to walk up the day you want to go and ask for one. They reserve 40 percent of permits for walk-ups... but you'll be taking your chances if you do that.

Option 2 is applying in advance. Since you go through several different national parks and forests and it would be a mess to try to get permits for all of them, JMT hikers are only required to get a permit for their trailhead and first night camping.

Roughly 75 percent of JMT hikers go southbound (a.k.a. SOBO) and the remainder are northbound (NOBO). I'm going SOBO. I am doing it because it's easier for me transportation-wise, because I want to meet others and hike and camp with them for short bits and I think it will be fun to go in the same direction as everyone else, and because I want to give myself a gentle start.

There are four easy re-supply spots along the JMT. They are all along the northern half of the trail, and the last one is at about the halfway point of the trail. Hiking SOBO means you can start with a lighter pack, resupply occasionally, and only at the midway point, after you've got your trail legs, will you have to fill up your pack with enough food to last you the last 100 miles. Also, it's easy to hike short distances at a time in the northernmost parts of the trail, whereas the southernmost bit (Mt Whitney) allows fewer options. That is, going NOBO, you start at Whitney Portal and you can camp either 3.8 or 6.5 miles up the trail. Then from there you have to summit Whitney to officially begin the trail, then hike back about 2 miles, and descend to Guitar Lake, which is the first spot where there is water, unless you want to melt snow. Oh, and good luck getting a permit for Whitney Portal.

Therefore, I'm going SOBO. To do that, the official trail start is in Yosemite National Park. There are excellent instructions for getting your permit here. But here's what I did.

Step 1: Make your plan for where you will camp for each night on the trail, so you know how many days you will be hiking for and when you will finish.

Step 2: If you plan to resupply at Tuolumne Meadows, check a calendar and find out when Sunday falls. The post office where you resupply is closed on Sundays. It's open 9am-5pm Monday to Friday and 9am to noon Saturdays. If you aren't sure if you can reach Tuolumne Meadows by 5pm the day you will get there, then plan to pick up your resupply box the next day at 9pm. That will likely mean a late start on your day's hiking. In any case, check a calendar to make sure you know which days you can start hiking so that you don't end up in Tuolumne Meadows on a Sunday if you plan to resupply there.

Step 3: With that in mind, pick out a few potential start dates. You might have an ideal start date but also consider a few second or third choices. In a dry year with low snow, June is fine for hiking. Generally speaking, it's harder to navigate, not to mention colder, when there is snow on the ground. Once it melts, the river levels will rise. Then the mosquitoes get going. Then come the wildflowers. You can check the snow levels in the Sierras here.

Usually you'll end up applying for your permit when it's too early to tell how much snow will fall for the year. Last year the river levels were low by July 4 weekend. The mosquitoes were less than usual too. But if you're worried about river crossings and mosquitoes, August is a safer bet than July.

I plan to sign up for a Sierra Club bus trip to Yosemite. It starts and ends in Tuolumne Meadows. On the last day of the trip, everyone else will board the bus to go home. I'll pick up my JMT permit, stash a resupply box in one of the bear boxes in Tuolumne Meadows and then board a YARTS bus to Yosemite Valley to begin my hike.

If I wanted, I could spend one night in the backpackers campground in Yosemite Valley. So I could start my hike the day the Sierra Club trip ends or the day after. I was hoping to start the day after (July 6).

Step 4: Check the Yosemite website to find out when you can apply for your dates. You are eligible to apply beginning 168 days before you want to start hiking. For July 6, that meant January 19. You should fax in your permit application after 5pm PST the day BEFORE the day you're allowed to apply. That meant January 18. Just in case, I decided to apply for July 5 too. And that meant applying on January 17.

Step 5: Pick out your entry trailhead and first night's camping. The trail actually starts at Happy Isles and most people camp the first night at Little Yosemite Valley. The permit application lets you say whether you'd like to climb Half Dome too, because it's a few miles from Little Yosemite Valley, making it a very convenient add-on.

However, in the past, because of the quota on how many people can hike from Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley, many people applied for alternate starts. Two of the most common ones are Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley, and Happy Isles to Illilouette. You can also apply to start in Tuolumne Meadows, which saves you the steep climb out of the valley but also means you are missing a few days worth of hiking on the official John Muir Trail.

Right now, there is a potential plan to only approve JMT permits leaving from Happly Isles to Little Yosemite and those leaving from Tuolumne Meadows. The other trailheads and campsites would be reserved for people who are hiking within Yosemite but not hiking the JMT. This has not gone through yet (to my knowledge) but it's on the table.

I was pretty determined to do Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley. I want the experience. I want to do the official trail. ALL OF the official trail. I put that as my first choice. And then, instead of following the newly proposed rules and applying for a second choice trailhead at Tuolumne Meadows, I put my 2nd and 3rd choices as Glacier Point and Happy Isles to Illilouette. I also asked for a Half Dome permit.

Step 6: Fill out the permit and fax that puppy in. It's $5 per application plus $5 per person. That's $10 for me since I'm solo. I used HelloFax, an online fax service, and faxed in my first application on January 17. The next afternoon, I received an email confirming that I got my first choice: Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley WITH Half Dome included. Hooray!

I tried again that night, this time for July 6, my first choice start date. The next day, I got an email confirming a permit for Happy Isles to Illilouette, again with Half Dome.

I thought about it a bit, and decided to cancel the July 6 permit. I'll go July 5. That will cut out the night in the backpackers campground, but after I arrive in the valley via the YARTS bus on July 5, I will only have to hike 4.5 miles to get to my camp for the night. It won't kill me to do that. The next day I'll hike up Half Dome and then camp in the same spot, a total of 7.1 mi with a daypack. I'll start hiking longer distances the day after that.

So... that's it! I'm really going! This is happening! I'll post updates as they come.

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