Welcome to the John Muir Trail planning guide. Perhaps you’re here because you’ve been dreaming about hiking this stunning 200+ mile trail through California’s high Sierra mountains. Or perhaps you already have permits in hand and are ready to plan the details.
Whatever stage you’re at in the planning process, this page will help you understand what it’s like to hike the John Muir Trail – or JMT as it’s affectionately known – and connect you with the resources you’ll need to make this dream a reality.
JMT at a Glance
|Route type||point to point|
|Typical hiking time||3-4 weeks|
|Start (official – varies by permit)||Happy Isles Trailhead, Yosemite Valley|
|End||Whitney Portal Trailhead|
|Permit required||Yes (info) – difficult to get|
|Hiking season||June – September (depending on snow pack)|
|Trail type||Well marked, well maintained|
|Food storage||Bear can required|
|Lowest elevation||4,035 feet|
|Highest elevation||14,505 feet|
|Dogs allowed||Mostly no|
|Bicycles allowed||Mostly no|
|Horses allowed||Mostly yes|
What’s the JMT like?
The John Muir Trial is an alpine trail through remote and rugged mountains. Unlike some long-distance trails in Europe and elsewhere, the JMT has no huts, shelters, or shops (with just a couple critical exceptions) along the way. Hikers carry all their own food and camping gear, and sleep beside the trail wherever they find a good campsite.
The route is well-marked and generally in good condition. Sometimes the trail is rocky, rough, and steep, but it’s always easy to follow. No off-trail route finding or bushwhacking are required, but creek crossings and lingering snow can require skill and care when hiking earlier in the summer, or after a high-snow winter.
Finally, the JMT is staggeringly scenic. I’ve tried to avoid the classic cliches when it comes to writing about the JMT, but it’s basically impossible. The John Muir Trail is exactly the type of trail that inspires hyperbolic terms like “jaw-dropping scenery,” “sweeping vistas,” and “pristine alpine lakes.”
JMT Planning Resources
There’s no shortage of JMT planning resources out there. Here are the most well-known and helpful.
John Muir Trail Facebook Group: active and extremely useful for advice and info on current conditions
Maps and Guidebooks
Elizabeth Wenk’s Guidebook: great for reading about the trail beforehand
Tom Harrison Maps: great for understanding the route and on-trail navigation
Itinerary and Pacing
One of the first things you should plan for your JMT hike is your resupply strategy. Options are limited and generally require mailing resupply boxes to a couple carefully selected locations. From personal experience:
How many days should you plan for hiking the JMT?
Important Planning Steps
Planning a JMT hike can seem a bit overwhelming when you first start, but it’s best to break it down and take it step by step (pun intended). Here’s what you should do, and when and how, once you’ve decided to plan your thru hike.
1. Get familiar with the trail
When: any time!
This part is fun! Read trip journals, watch videos, get a sense for the feel and difficulty of a JMT thru hike.
A few trail books and films to whet your appetite:
- Almost Somewhere – book by Suzanne Roberts
- Mile. Mile and a Half – film
- Trudge, A Midlife Crisis on the John Muir Trail – book by Lori Oliver-Tierney
- Highs and Lows on the John Muir Trail – book by Inga Aksimet
2. Research and decide key preferences
When: 6 – 9 months before you want to hike (so usually around the end of the previous calendar year)
During this step you’ll need to decide your answers to these key questions.
When do you want to start? Hiking season is between June – September, but on heavy snow years starting before July can be a bad idea unless you’re skilled at snow travel. Later in September the weather is cold and snow is a possibility. August through early September is usually ideal.
Do you want to hike northbound (NOBO) or southbound (SOBO)? Most hikers prefer southbound, as you have longer to work up to the higher elevation and more challenging terrain of the southern half. Plus, you’ll be saving the most scenic and dramatic section for the end.
Note that in both cases, you may not be able to get a permit for the exact official JMT trailhead. Consider alternative start locations nearby as a backup.
How long do you want to spend / what will your daily pace be? The average is ~3 weeks / ~13 miles per day, but see this guide to planning daily mileage for all the details. You don’t need to decide exactly down to the day yet, but having a rough sense will help you with your permit application.
How will you get to and from the trail? Car shuttle, public transport, a nice friend…? Specifics here.
Where and how will you resupply food and other essentials? This is closely intertwined with your planned daily mileage, so be sure to consider the two together.
3. Apply for your permit
When: applications are due 6 months before desired start date, so usually January – March.
You don’t technically need a permit for the entire JMT; a permit is only needed for the trailhead where you start your hike. This means you’ll need one for Yosemite if you start in the north, or Whitney if you start in the south.
The JMT permit application process is a little complicated, but this guide does a good job of covering the details. You’ll likely want to apply for a few different options, including backup choices for your start date and trailhead.
To apply for your permit, you’ll need to know:
- Your start trailhead (rank several by preference)
- Your exit trailhead
- Your start date and intended first night camp location (this needs to be exact)
- Your estimated finish date (this is less critical, take your estimated finish date and add 2-3 days to give you some padding)
- Your group size
Last minute permits: If you have a lot of flexibility in your schedule, do note that a few permits are available for walk-up applications the day before. This makes things logistically more complicated, but could be a last resort if you can’t get a permit ahead of time and are willing to shift your schedule by a few days if you can’t get a permit right away.
4. Finalize itinerary and resupply plans
When: As soon as your permit is confirmed.
Most hikers on the JMT resupply by mailing boxes to themselves at several key locations. It’s technically possible to get by with shopping at the tiny general stores at these locations, but this will be expensive and not necessarily space efficient (which is key for packing a bear canister).
To finalize this, you’ll need to plan your rough daily mileage and figure out how many days it will take you between resupplies. You might want to look at other hikers’ itineraries, plus your guidebook and maps, to scout out good camping spots and figure out which days will be harder and easier.
Then, make a meal plan to determine how many breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks you’ll need in each resupply box. As a rough rule of thumb, most hikers find between 3000-4000 calories per day to be a good compromise between getting enough fuel and not overloading your pack.
5. Compile and test your gear
When: As soon as your permit is confirmed
Go through your backpacking setup and make sure you have everything you need. You don’t necessarily need to buy all the latest and greatest gear to hike the JMT, but packing relatively lightweight will definitely pay off. See the gear section below for more detail on this important point.
It’s essential to do some test runs with your gear setup before tackling a big trail like the JMT. If you haven’t backpacked with your specific gear setup before, definitely do a few shorter trips in the months leading up to your hike. A night or two is enough to get a sense for what works and what still needs tweaking.
6. Train for your hike
When: any time, but especially between 3 months – 2 weeks before your hike
There are many ways to train for a long hike. The JMT is long enough that you will inevitably do some of your training on the trail, but the early days will be far more enjoyable if you do some preparation beforehand.
I recommend a mix of general fitness (running, biking, hiking), strength building (weight lifting, resistance training), and specific backpacking practice (hiking with a loaded pack). These all use your muscles in different ways and will make sure your entire body – not just your legs – is prepared for the rigors of carrying a heavy pack over difficult terrain.
7. Make and mail your resupply boxes
When: 2-3 weeks before estimated pickup time
This could easily be its own post! Making and packing weeks worth of calorie-dense, lightweight, space-efficient backpacking food is quite an undertaking.
I personally recommend making your own meals from bulk dehydrated / freeze-dried ingredients, but you can also buy pre-made meals.
Check the instructions for each resupply location carefully, as some have very specific requirements for labeling and packing (Muir Trail Ranch, for example, requires a plastic bucket).
For details on how to prepare and send your resupply packages, see this guide.
John Muir Trail Gear
The JMT is extremely popular, which makes getting permits a pain, but also makes it very easy to find other people’s gear lists online. Silver lining! I once sat down and analyzed a few dozen JMT gear lists to figure out what gear is the most popular. Here are the results:
Most Popular Backpacks on the John Muir Trail
Since bear canisters are required on much of the JMT, these will come in handy:
How to Choose (and Use) a Bear Canister
Lightweight Backpacking Gear
To make room for the required bear canister and all that food between resupplies, many JMT hikers strive for a relatively lightweight, stripped-down gear setup. Lightweight backpacking is a hugely popular topic, but to get you started, here are a few ideas:
Top Tips for Reducing Backpack Weight
My All-Time Favorite Lightweight Backpacking Gear
Finally, a few other backpacking gear resources that will come in handy for hiking the JMT:
Why You Should Try Backpacking in Trail Running Shoes
John Muir Trail Alternatives
The JMT is really in a class by itself when it comes to mile-for-mile payoff. The challenge and remoteness, combined with extensive planning resources, make it particularly well situated as an epic yet accessible adventure.
That said, the more popular the JMT becomes, the more important it is to look elsewhere. Permits are harder to get than ever before, and heavy use threatens to turn this pristine hike into, well, a less pristine hike.
If you’re looking for a mid-distance thru hike but haven’t committed to the John Muir Trail yet, consider these JMT alternatives:
High Sierra Trail: similar in scenery and even overlaps with the end of the JMT, but shorter (72 miles) and logistically simpler.
Tahoe Rim Trail: nearby and similar in length, a bit easier and lower elevation, and logistically way simpler than the JMT. Here’s a direct comparison with the JMT, and an example TRT itinerary.
Colorado Trail: Significantly longer, but still shorter than the ultra-long PCT or AT, the Colorado Trail is an ambitious undertaking and spectacular tour of Colorado wilderness.
Sierra High Route: the JMT’s rugged and burly sister/brother, this mostly off-trail route roughly parallels the John Muir Trail but sticks to high ridges and cross-country travel as much as possible. Only suitable for advanced backpackers with off-trail experience, navigation skills, and the fitness (and head for heights) to scramble class 3 terrain with a loaded pack.
For even more resources, be sure to check out my full list of hiking and backpacking guides. I hope they help you plan and enjoy your dream hike.
Excited about backpacking but need help getting started? The Backpacking Trip Planner Workbook will help you start off on the right foot.
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1 thought on “John Muir Trail Step-by-Step Planning Guide”
This guide to John Muir Trail is incredibly helpful. You’ve really thought through everything you need to know before planning a trip. Thank you for this helpful resource. Saving this guide for later!