Stretching from Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park to Mt. Whitney, the John Muir Trail (JMT) is a favorite among backpackers for good reason. This 211-mile route scales 13,000 and 14,000-foot peaks, descends through canyons, winds around granite cliffs and looks out over countless alpine lakes. It ends at the highest peak in the continental United States, Mt. Whitney. Hikers are especially fond of the weather, which tends to be mild and sunny, especially for an area so high in elevation.
The full trail follows the famous Pacific Crest Trail (also known as the PCT) for most of its more than 200 miles. The JMT isn’t your average backpacking trip. If Cheryl Strayed’s Wild inspired you to think about tackling a through-hike, the John Muir Trail is a starting point for many who want to dip their toes in the water of long-distance backpacking before committing to hiking from Mexico to Canada. On this trail you’ll wander through a bevy of beautiful national parks and wilderness areas, including Yosemite, John Muir and Ansel Adams wildernesses and Kings Canyon and Sequoia national Parks.
The trail can be hiked in two directions: southbound and northbound. Most hikers tend to hike southbound and start in Yosemite National Park.
Beginning the John Muir Trail
Most hikers begin the John Muir Trail inside the park in Yosemite Valley and head southbound to tackle 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney at the end of their hike. The true start of the JMT is at the Happy Isle Trailhead, which also makes it the most competitive permit to obtain. The other option is Lyell Canyon Trailhead. There are several other trailheads that will allow you to access the JMT in the park, but Happy Isle and Lyell Canyon are the only two that you will be able to get a wilderness permit for that allows you to exit the park over Donohue Pass, a crucial detail for planning your hike.
Starting from Happy Isle Trailhead, you have two choices. You can either start with a massive day by adding a Half Dome permit to your wilderness permit and tackle the cables to summit this inspiring granite rock formation, or you can take a more mellow first day and camp somewhere past Little Yosemite Valley, as your permit will specify, such as Sunrise Creek.
Most hikers spend approximately four nights in the park. The second night can be camped at one of the Cathedral Lakes, with stunning reflections of the surrounding peaks in the glassy water. On the third night, reserve a site in the Tuolumne Meadows Backpacker’s Campground (note, all Tuolumne Meadows campgrounds are closed through 2024) or camp at least four trail miles from the area. On night four, camp below the start of the climb for 11,066-foot Donohue Pass, so you can tackle your first big pass of the trip bright and early the next morning. You’ll leave the park when you cross the pass, enjoying stunning views of the surrounding area.
After leaving Yosemite, there are still 174 miles to go through beautiful wilderness, two more national parks and, of course, the culmination of climbing Mt. Whitney.
How Long Does It Take to Hike the John Muir Trail?
The amount of time it takes to hike the full 211-mile John Muir Trail depends on your speed and abilities. Experienced through-hikers might be able to tackle the trail in 10 days, but that means hiking more than 20 miles each day. Most hikers take somewhere between 20-25 days to hike the entire trail.
Keep in mind that the distance isn’t the only factor that will dictate how long you spend on the trail. The trail gains around 45,000 feet of elevation over its 211-miles which means you’ll be climbing steep passes and peaks and descending to low valleys.
It’s always better to plan on spending more days on the trail than you think you actually will. That way, if you end up hiking slower than expected or need to take a day off to rest or let a blister heal, you’ll have plenty of supplies.
How Much Does It Cost to Hike the John Muir Trail?
All John Muir Trail hikers have to carry a permit. If you’re hiking southbound from Yosemite, you’ll need a Yosemite National Park Wilderness Permit. If you’re hiking northbound from Mt. Whitney Portal, you’ll need a Whitney Portal permit.
As of 2022, Yosemite Wilderness Permits cost $10 to apply for and $5 per person when a permit was issued.
Yosemite Wilderness Permits become available 24 weeks in advance of your desired trip start date on Recreation.gov through a lottery system. The lottery opens one week at a time, and you will have a week to put in your application and pay the non-refundable application fee.
When you apply, you can enter in your first choice of starting trailhead, initial campsite and starting date within that week’s window. You can also specify other trailheads, initial campsites and dates within that window as alternate choices. If you have flexibility, it’s great idea to fill in alternate itineraries to increase your odds of getting a permit.
So, if you wanted to begin your hike on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022, you would need to enter the lottery between April 10-16, 2022. Lottery results are announced on the Monday after the lottery.
All JMT hikers will need to ensure their permit application specifies “Donohue Pass eligible” next to their desired trailhead. To keep overcrowding from occurring on the trail outside of the park, Yosemite institutes a loose exit quota each day for how many hikers can leave the park over Donohue Pass. This quota was 45 people per day for the 2022 season. The quota is enforced by the number of permits that are issued for each Donohue Pass eligible trailhead. Thirty of those permits are issued for hikers beginning at Lyell Canyon and 15 are for hikers beginning from Happy Isle.
If you didn’t get a permit in the advanced lottery, 40% of the total quantity of permits becomes available seven days in advance of the trip date on a first-come, first-served basis on Recreation.gov. Be sure to log on right at 7 a.m. PDT for the best chance of getting a permit. You will need a Recreation.gov account to attempt to get a permit, so create an account ahead of time to expedite the process.
Can a Beginner Hike the John Muir Trail?
The John Muir Trail is a strenuous through-hike that shouldn’t be attempted unless you have previous backpacking experience and trip-planning knowledge.
However, if you’re a beginner, hiking the JMT is a great goal. If you’ve never backpacked before, start by going on long day hikes with a loaded backpack to get your body in shape to tackle your first overnight. Research and purchase (or rent) the gear you’ll need to try your first overnight. Then, join a hiking group or find a friend who has been backpacking before to go on your first few trips with until you get comfortable with hiking multiple days in a row, setting up and tearing down camp and surviving in the wilderness. While there’s no substitute for actually getting out in the wild, doing plenty of research on backpacking skills (www.backpacker.com/skills/) will help you prepare as you tackle longer trips. If you’re an Outside+ member, take our Backpacking 101 online course for free.
Once you’re comfortable going on multi-day backpacking trips, setting your sights on through-hiking the John Muir Trail is the next step. It takes tons of planning (www.pcta.org/discover-the-trail/john-muir-trail/) and training to achieve but it’s a doable goal for passionate hikers who are physically able.
Can You Hike the John Muir Trail Alone?
Finding someone who is willing and able to leave the real world behind and hike across California with you for a month might be a challenge. Finding someone who fits that bill who you think you’d get along with through the trials and tribulations of a long hike like the John Muir Trail might be even more challenging. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a partner, family member or good friend who’s as excited about the idea of the JMT as you, hiking alone might be the only option.
While it’s always safer to hike with a partner, many through-hikers choose to tackle long trails alone. Because the JMT is a popular through-hike and because it follows the same trail as one of the most popular through-hikes in the country, the Pacific Crest Trail, you won’t often find yourself truly alone on this hike. Through-hikers tend to form communities on the trail as you’ll end up seeing the same people who are working towards the same goal day after day. You might start out hiking alone, but chances are you’ll finish with a new group of friends.
The Pacific Crest Trail Association has lots of information on the John Muir Trail and through-hiking in the Sierra Nevada and is a great resource for those planning a long hike: www.pcta.org/discover-the-trail/john-muir-trail/