By Michael Lanza
Ah, the High Sierra. Yosemite. Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. The John Muir Wilderness and Ansel Adams Wilderness. The John Muir Trail (lead photo, above) and Pacific Crest Trail. Mount Whitney. Every backpacker who has ever walked for days through any of these wildlands holds them in special reverence—and for good reasons, given this seemingly infinite landscape’s constellations of sharply pointed granite peaks and alpine lakes, too many waterfalls to name, and rivers and creeks so pretty they make your heart glad. Plus, with thousands of miles of trails, you could spend a lifetime wandering here without seeing it all.
Little wonder there’s so much competition for backcountry permits throughout most of the High Sierra. But read on because the time for planning and reserving a permit for trips this summer is coming up fast.
In this story, I will detail the procedure for reserving a wilderness permit to backpack in Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks, at Mount Whitney, and in the Inyo National Forest, including the John Muir, Ansel Adams, Golden Trout, and Hoover wildernesses, which all require a permit, plus trailheads for a John Muir Trail or Pacific Crest Trail section hike.
I will also offer tips on how to maximize your chances of getting a highly coveted permit, sharing expertise I’ve acquired from numerous trips throughout the High Sierra over more than three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
See all of this blog’s stories about backpacking in Yosemite, the High Sierra, the JMT, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks. Most of those stories require a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full, including my tips and information on planning each hike. See also my expert e-guides to multi-day hikes in Yosemite and other parks.
I’ve helped many readers plan backpacking trips in Yosemite, Sequoia, on the John Muir Trail, and throughout the High Sierra, answering all of their questions (and many they didn’t think to ask) and customizing an itinerary ideal for them. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you and read dozens of comments from others who’ve received my custom trip planning.
Click on any photo to read about that trip. Please share any thoughts or questions about this story, or your own tips, in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
Table of Contents
Apply As Soon As Possible, Months in Advance
Know the dates to apply for a specific agency’s wilderness permit. Yosemite, Sequoia-Kings Canyon, Inyo, and Mount Whitney all accept permit reservations months in advance and issue them based on daily trailhead quotas, but with slightly different schedules and procedures—and you can apply for a John Muir Trail permit starting in either Yosemite or Mount Whitney or hike a section of it or the PCT starting in the Inyo (all detailed below).
For Sequoia-Kings Canyon and Inyo, plan to apply at 7 a.m. Pacific Time on the first day possible, exactly six months in advance. Applications show availability in real time, allowing you to secure a permit reservation immediately if there’s availability for your trailhead and start date. If you fail to get one, you can try again the next morning to start one day later.
Yosemite’s rolling lottery—a sensible and user-friendly system created to deal with enormous demand—provides weeklong application periods up to 24 weeks in advance for weeklong sets of dates and you are notified of whether you get a permit reservation within two business days after the lottery closes. Thus, if you strike out in one lottery period, you will have plenty of time to apply for the very next lottery period.
The Mount Whitney lottery allows you to apply anytime between Feb. 1 and March 15 for the entire upcoming season, with results announced March 24.
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For popular trailheads (though certainly not all trailheads), permits are difficult to get—especially for thru-hiking the JMT starting at either its northern or southern terminus, hiking Mount Whitney, and a handful of the most popular trailheads in Yosemite, like Happy Isles, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon, like the High Sierra Trail. That makes it imperative to apply on the earliest date possible.
As I write in my “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit,” the single most-effective strategy for maximizing your chances of getting a permit for a popular trip during its peak season is to consider at least two starting trailheads and itineraries—which requires knowing generally how far you want to walk each day—and a range of date options.
Permits issued by all national parks and forests in the Sierra for trips extending into another park or forest—for example, a John Muir Trail permit for starting in Yosemite and finishing at Whitney Portal—are valid in the other parks and forests for the permit dates. Backcountry campsites are not designated or assigned; camp where you like but try to use sites that have clearly been used previously.
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Yosemite Wilderness Permits
In Yosemite—one of America’s 10 best backpacking trips—wilderness permit reservations are issued based on trailhead quotas, with special rules for the John Muir Trail.
Sixty percent of permit reservations are available by lottery at recreation.gov/permits/445859 beginning at 12:01 a.m. Pacific Time on the Sunday up to 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the date you want to start hiking, with the lottery for each specific window of dates closing at 11:59 p.m. the following Saturday. For example, to start a trip between Aug. 7-13, 2022, submit your application between Feb. 20 and Feb. 26.
You will be notified of whether you get a permit reservation within two business days after the lottery closes and will have three days to accept the permit or lose the reservation, at which point it becomes available at recreation.gov/permits/445859 on a first-come basis.
Forty percent of wilderness permits remain available at park wilderness centers on a walk-up/first-come basis one day before a trip start date. Find more information at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm.
See “The 7 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite” and all of this blog’s stories about backpacking in Yosemite and my expert e-guides to three stellar, multi-day hikes in Yosemite, including “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”
Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.
Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness Permits
In Sequoia-Kings Canyon in the southern Sierra, you can apply for a permit reservation at recreation.gov/permits/445857 up to six months in advance for a trip taking place during the trailhead quota period, which runs from the Friday before Memorial Day through the second Saturday after Labor Day: May 27 to Sept. 17, 2022. Permits are issued based on daily trailhead quotas and can be submitted up to one week in advance—although availability for popular trailheads fills up quickly.
The application form requires that you indicate a specific group size with a maximum of 15 people, with lower group size limits in some areas. A “0” on the application form indicates that reservations for that date have not yet opened.
A “W” indicates that all available spots have been reserved and a portion of that trailhead’s quota will become available for backpackers seeking a walk-in/first-come permit (without a reservation) in person at the appropriate park office (depending on where you want to backpack) starting at 1 p.m. no more than a day in advance. See nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/wilderness_permits.htm.
See “Heavy Lifting: Backpacking Sequoia National Park” and all of this blog’s stories about Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks,
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Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permits
The Inyo National Forest accepts reservations for 60 percent of trailhead quotas at recreation.gov/permits/233262 starting at 7 a.m. Pacific Time six months before your preferred start date.
To finish by descending Mount Whitney to Whitney Portal, you must select permit type “Overnight Exiting Mt. Whitney.” Nearly identical to the Sequoia-Kings Canyon form (except for listing different trailheads, of course), the Inyo application allows a maximum of 15 people—although if you’re extending the trip beyond the Inyo, note that Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon impose limits of eight to 12 people on a permit in some areas. See this list of Inyo National Forest trailheads and quota limits in effect from May 1 to Nov. 1.
Forty percent of Inyo trailhead quotas open for reservations at 7 a.m. Pacific Time two weeks prior to a trip’s start date. See recreation.gov/permits/233262 and fs.usda.gov/main/inyo/passes-permits/recreation, which specifies that the Inyo allows JMT, PCT, and other long-distance backpackers to exit the trail “for a reasonable period of time necessary for resupply,” which presumably would be at least one day. See also this list of trailhead entry points for accessing the JMT and this list of JMT itinerary locations that offer potential backcountry campsites.
See my story “In the Footsteps of John Muir: Finding Solitude in the High Sierra,” and all stories about backpacking in the High Sierra at The Big Outside.
Get the right gear for the High Sierra. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 9 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents.”
John Muir Trail Wilderness Permits
It wasn’t many years ago, when two friends and I thru-hiked the 211-mile John Muir Trail in an admittedly insane seven days, that the chances of getting a permit for the trail were significantly better than today. Now, a high percentage of permit applicants get rejected simply because the number of applications far exceeds available permits.
The JMT—certainly one of America’s 10 best backpacking trips—crosses Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks and a pair of wilderness areas, the Ansel Adams and John Muir. You must obtain a permit from the agency where you begin a JMT hike and that permit covers your entire trip.
Most thru-hikers begin in either Yosemite, the JMT’s northern terminus, or at Whitney Portal, which accesses the trail’s southern terminus, Mount Whitney.
To hike the JMT southbound (the direction I recommend), apply for a permit from Yosemite National Park at recreation.gov/permits/445859 up to 24 weeks in advance of the date you want to start hiking, entering a lottery for a permit within a specific window of dates.
While the JMT’s northern terminus is the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley, that’s also typically the starting point most often requested on permit applications. To manage use, Yosemite imposed a daily quota of 45 backpackers exiting the park via Donohue Pass on the JMT. There are just two trailheads in Yosemite where you are permitted to launch a JMT thru-hike and those appear on the Yosemite permit application as Happy Isles to Past LYV (Donohue Pass eligible) and Lyell Canyon (Donohue Pass eligible)—the latter offering perhaps better odds of securing a permit. (Note: LYV represents Little Yosemite Valley, the park’s most popular backcountry camp, where JMT thru-hikers are not permitted to spend a night). See nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/jmt.htm.
See “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: What You Need to Know,” my story about thru-hiking the JMT in seven days, and all stories about backpacking the JMT at The Big Outside.
Want to hike the John Muir Trail or another trip in the High Sierra?
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Mount Whitney Wilderness Permits
Whether hiking Mount Whitney in a day or overnight, backpacking into this area of the southern Sierra, thru-hiking the JMT northbound or hiking a PCT section, all backpackers and dayhikers starting at Whitney Portal and entering the Mount Whitney Zone must enter the permit lottery at recreation.gov/permits/233260 anytime between Feb. 1 and March 15; the form can be viewed but not filled out until Feb. 1.
Lottery results are announced on March 24 and reservations for remaining dates open on April 1 at 7 a.m. Pacific Time. Mount Whitney Trail permits are not valid for the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek approach to Mount Whitney climbing routes, like the Mountaineers Route.
See “Roof of the High Sierra: A Father-Son Climb of Mount Whitney.”
Keep Your Group Small
The High Sierra national parks and forests all issue permits based on trailhead quotas on the total number of people starting trips every day and those quotas vary between trailheads. It stands to reason that smaller parties of one to four backpackers will have a better chance of landing a permit than larger groups, whether applying for a permit reservation or trying to get a walk-in permit.
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Try for a Last-Minute Permit
Did you not reserve a permit months in advance? It’s still possible to salvage your trip by grabbing a permit in some parts of the High Sierra on much shorter notice.
Yosemite sets aside 40 percent of wilderness permits to be issued at park wilderness centers on a walk-up/first-come basis one day before starting a trip. Sequoia-Kings Canyon issues some wilderness permits to walk-ins. Forty percent of Inyo trailhead quotas do not open for reservations until 7 a.m. Pacific Time two weeks prior to a trip’s start date—enabling last-minute planners to still get a reservation without having to travel to their destination and risk not getting any permit.
You may not get your preferred starting trailhead but you will likely be able to take some trip. Take the chance and you may find that second or third choice turn out to be an amazing spot that many backpackers happen to ignore.
See all stories with expert backpacking tips at The Big Outside, including “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” and “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites” for my favorite campsites in Yosemite and Sequoia, along the John Muir Trail in Kings Canyon, and below the East Face of Mount Whitney.
Want my expert help custom planning your trip to ensure it’s as good as it can be? See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you.