Northbound (NOBO) JMT Permits

NOBO JMT Permit Overview

The traditional way to hike the John Muir Trail (JMT) is to hike southbound (SOBO) starting in Yosemite National Park at the Happy Isles Trailhead and continuing on to the summit of Mount Whitney. In recent years, the demand for JMT permits has gone up and Yosemite has put a limit on the number of JMT permits they are issuing for hikes starting in the park. There’s a few alternative ways to get permits and hike the trail, one of the most popular is by hiking NOBO from the southern terminus and ending in Yosemite.

On this page we’ll tell you how to get a NOBO permit if you’re starting at one of the popular southern trailheads. If you’re looking for information on how to get a more traditional SOBO JMT permit then check out this page on our website that tells you everything you need to know.

Permits for Starting at Whitney Portal

Getting a NOBO JMT permit starting at Whitney Portal is very difficult. It’s actually just as hard if not harder to get a NOBO JMT permit out of Whitney Portal as it is to get a SOBO permit out of Happy Isles. In 2017, 65% of all Whiney Zone permit requests were denied. Nonetheless some JMT hikers do start here so here’s some of the information that you need to know. 

All permits originating out of Whitney Portal to hike in the Whitney Zone and continue along the JMT are issued via lottery on recreation.gov. All permit applications are submitted in the same timeframe and all applications are processed through the same lottery after that timeframe. 

Here's some important dates to know:

February 1st - March 15th

Submit application to the permit lottery. If you’re wanting a JMT permit starting at Whitney Portal you MUST submit your application to the lottery during this timeframe.

March 24th (ish)

Lottery results are announced! To check if you won the lottery goto your recreation.gov profile to view the results. If you got a permit, there’s still more you need to do to claim it. 

April 30th

IF there are any remaining permit spots for any dates they will become available online at a random time on April 1st. This will be a very small number of permits and they are extremely difficult to get. 

April 30th

This is the deadline to accept or reject your awarded permit and pay your per person registration fee. If you fail to do this you will lose your permit. 

If someone forgets to claim their permit on April 30th then any unclaimed permits will become available at a random time during the day May 1st on recreation.gov. This will be a very small number of permits and dates are extremely limited.

There’s a difference between overnight and day use Whitney permits. If you’re going to be continuing along the JMT you must apply for the overnight permit. When applying, you’ll have to know your exit location. For the JMT, the traditional exit is at the Happy Isles trailhead in Yosemite Valley.

There are 60 overnight permits issued per day for the Mt. Whitney Trail originating from Whitney Portal. Many of these are claimed by non-JMT hikers so they are difficult to get. There are no walk up permits available.

For a step-by-step guide on how to apply for a NOBO JMT permit starting at Whitney Portal look below.

NOBO Alternatives to Whitney Portal

If you don’t win the lottery you have a few options. On May 1st, any unclaimed permits will become available at a random time during the day on recreation.gov. This will be a very small number of permits and dates are extremely limited. Your next option will be to start at another trailhead in the southern Sierras. Keep reading for additional info.

Resupply Service Information

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Create a free account on our resupply service page to get started or contact us if you have any questions.

Starting at Horseshoe Meadow

If you can’t get a NOBO permit out of Whitney, another popular option is to start south of Whitney at the Horseshoe Meadow Campground. Horseshoe Meadow is south of Mt. Whitney just off the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). If you decide to start here, there’s a few different trails you can take to meet up with the JMT. In this section, we’ll provide an overview of the various ways and tell you how to get a permit.

If you’re wanting to start at Horseshoe Meadow Campground then there’s two trails/permits you can apply for that will connect with the PCT and eventually the JMT. The two options are the Cottonwood Pass Trail and the Cottonwood Lakes Trail.

Check out the map below for reference:

To help put it in perspective, check out this map of the various southern JMT trailheads. 

In Brown is the trail from Whitney Portal to the JMT.

In Yellow is the Cottonwood Lakes Trail from Horseshoe Meadow to the PCT.

In Green is the Cottonwood Pass Trail from Horseshoe Meadow to the PCT.

Blue is the PCT and Red is the JMT.

Cottonwood Pass Trail

Quotas

40 total daily permits available.

Reservable: 24

Walk in: 16

Quota information taken from this page of the US Forest Service website.

The Cottonwood Pass Trail is the shorter of the two trails and a bit easier. From the trailhead to Cottonwood Pass, where the trail merges with the PCT, there’s about 1,200 feet of elevation gain. Check out the map above, but this is about how the mileage ends up:

From the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead (Horseshoe Meadow) to the PCT is about 3.5 Miles.
From the PCT/Cottonwood Pass Trail junction to the JMT/PCT junction is about 17 miles.
In total, from the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead to the PCT/JMT junction it’s about 20.5 miles.

There’s not a lot of additional information here, but here’s the Inyo National Forest’s page on the Cottonwood Pass Trail. They also have a pdf guide about the trail that you can access here. 

Cottonwood Lakes Trail

Quotas

60 total daily permits available.

Reservable: 36

Walk in: 24

Quota information taken from this page of the US Forest Service website.

The Cottonwood Lakes Trail is the longer and more difficult of the two trails. The Cottonwood Lakes Trail takes you up 2,350 feet of elevation gain from Horseshoe Meadow up to New Army Pass. From there the trail continues to the PCT. Here’s how the milage breakdown looks:

From the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead (Horseshoe Meadow) to New Army Pass is about 8 miles.
From New Army Pass to the Cottonwood Lakes Trail/PCT junction is another 6 miles.
From the Cottonwood Lakes Trail/PCT junction to the JMT/PCT junction is about 7.5 miles.
In total, from the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead to the PCT/JMT junction it’s about 21.5 miles.

Here’s the US Forest Service’s Map of Horseshoe Meadow to New Army Pass Trailhead. Additionally, here’s their page on the Inyo National Forest website on the Cottonwood Lakes Trail that has some additional resources.

If this helps for reference, the PCT/JMT intersect happens at mile 202 of the JMT. This means there are 202 miles from this junction to Happy Isles. Once you reach the JMT/PCT junction it’s an 8.4 mile one-way trip to the summit of Mt. Whitney.

We’ve spoken to the National Forest Service and have been told that an overnight Cottonwood Lakes permit grants you access to summit Mt. Whitney. Please remember, we are just a resource speaking from our personal experience and are in no way affiliated with, or speak for, any of the agencies that regulate this area.

How to apply for a Northbound JMT Permit

Starting at Whitney Portal

All permits starting out of Whitney Portal must be reserved at recreation.gov. As noted above, you can submit permit applications between February 1st and March 15th of each year. Here’s how to get a permit:

Step 1: Go to recreation.gov and search for “Mt. Whitney, Inyo National Forest, CA”
Step 2: Click “Check Availability”
Step 3: Click “Enter Date” in the row that says “Mt. Whitney Trail Overnight Permit”
Step 4: Login or Create your account with recreation.gov
Step 5: You’ll have to enter your starting date, ending date, and group size. There is a spot for 15 alternate starting locations. The more dates you can enter and the smaller your group size the greater chance of you getting a permit.
Step 6: Wait until around March 24th to see if you won the lottery! Sign back into your recreation.gov account and check your lottery application. If you did get one you MUST ACCEPT it between April 1 and April 30th.
Step 7: Finish the application by filling out your planned itinerary for each night.
Step 8: Pay the fee of $15/person in your group
Step 9: Pick it up your permit from the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center near Lone Pine. Here’s some additional permit pickup instructions. 

Still have questions? Contact the Wilderness Permit office at (760) 873-2483 or fill out a form on their website to get an email follow up. 

Starting at Horseshoe Meadow

All permits starting out of Horseshoe Meadow must be reserved at recreation.gov. We spoke above about the differences between the Cottonwood Lake Trail and the Cottonwood Pass Trail. You can follow this process to reserve a permit for either of those trails. Applications for the 60% of permits that are reservable for these trails can be submitted up to 6 months to the date in advance of the start date.

Step 1: Go to recreation.gov and search for “Inyo National Forest – Wilderness Permits”
Step 2: Click “Check Availability”
Step 3: On the left hand side under “Find Permits” Select “Overnight visiting Mt. Whitney” for trail select either the Cottonwood Lakes or Cottonwood Pass trail. Enter your desired start date or range, group size and then click Search.
Step 4: If available, you can click “See Details” then “Book Permit”
Step 5: Login or Create your account with recreation.gov
Step 6: Enter your desired Exit location (For JMT hikers this is usually “Happy Isles – Yosemite Valley”)
Step 7: Select your Exit Date (I usually extend it a little beyond my expected date to add some buffer)
Step 8: You have to provide a rough estimate of where you’ll be staying each night. If you’re a bit off it’s not a big deal.
Step 9: Pay for your permit. It’s $15 per person.
Step 10: Pick it up at the station you designated when applying. Permits can be picked up the day of or up to two days before your start date.

Have any questions? Contact the Inyo National Forest at (760) 873-2483 Monday – Friday 8am-4:30pm pacific. Open every day during the summer.

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