Entering the Mt. Whitney lottery

Permit applications – the struggle is real

When two friends (Critter and Garbelly – check out their awesome blog here!) mentioned hiking the John Muir Trail this September, I was instantly all for it. I have been itching for another long-distance hike since Camino last year, and taking a few weeks won’t interrupt life too much.

I heard rumors from pals that hiked the PCT and CDT that for trails out West, you usually have to apply for a permit. I figured I would hop online, fill out a form promising to not burn down forests or pet the bears, pay a few bucks, and then call it good.

I was so, so wrong.

There are two main permit systems for the JMT. The majority of hikers are SOBO (southbound), which means they start at Happy Isles trailhead in Yosemite and end at Whitney Portal in Inyo National Forest. After discussion with my friends and deciding it would be super cool to end in Yosemite, I decided to go NOBO (northbound).

For SOBO hikers, they apply for a permit through Yosemite (more information here on that particular brand of crazy for permits). For NOBO hikers, you have to apply for a permit through the Inyo National Forest. Again, it doesn’t sound that difficult…

And then I actually logged on to complete the permit.

The official JMT southern terminus is Mt. Whitney, mainly accessed via Whitney Portal, so all the NOBOs want to start there. Due to restrictions to keep the Mt. Whitney Trail, Mt. Whitney, and the JMT as pristine as possible, there are quotas on how many people can hike. If you want to start at the Whitney Portal trailhead, you have to enter a lottery. (I don’t think it will turn out as bad as Shirley Jackson’s “lottery” but we’ll see.) The lottery is open from February 1 to March 15. After that time, the permits will be drawn and winners notified on March 24.

The permit application is quite daunting, and I spent more than a few hours on pre-work and research in order to fill it out.

1. You have to set up an account with recreation.gov.
The permit application process is online-only for Inyo, which is fine by me. For Yosemite, there is faxing involved. For real.

2. Figure out which direction you want to go. 

3. Figure out how many people will be in your group.
After discussion with my friends, who would be hiking as a couple and have their own things to coordinate, I entered as a group of one. That’s how I’ve rolled on my other long-distance hikes, and I love it. Plus, single or small group sizes have a better chance of getting a permit – it’s easier to squeeze in two people than it is to coordinate eight on a given day.

4. Figure out the date range that you’d like to be on trail.
Unlike the Yosemite permit system, you only submit one application for a range of days. So you can set your preferred start date for September 3 and expected end date for September 22, but you can also have up to 15 alternative ranges (9/2 – 9/21, 9/1-9/20, 9/4 – 9/23, etc.). This increases your odds of getting a permit because you’re willing to be flexible with dates and not commit to just one. Entering all the date ranges is a pain in the butt due to the website content refresh speeds, so you have to be patient and wait a few seconds between every click, and then sometimes click into a calendar, then out, then back in to select a date.

5. Enter your detailed itinerary. 
This was the biggest thorn in my side. The website wants you to list where you plan to camp each day. While you do have to start at the location you list, your itinerary after that can be flexible based on your miles and time. They mainly want this information in case you need to be located.

I figured I wanted to be as accurate as I could be, so I ordered a guide book that came highly recommended, Elizabeth Wenk’s “John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail.” It was written for SOBOs, so I figured I’d just have to struggle through the guide backwards to plan my trip. After doing that for a while, I had what I thought was a complete itinerary.

Then I learned there was an online-only South-to-North edition of the guide! I purchased that through Amazon and then re-worked my itinerary. I completely gave up on figuring out resupplies – there will have to be an entirely different blog post on that – but I had my list of spots to camp throughout my trek.

So now I just select the sites that I picked from my guidebook for each day slot on the website, right?

Wrong.

Inyo has a special naming system for all the spots that often don’t correlate to the name in the guidebook – especially places I picked for camping. And the list of options to scroll through is very long. After much Googling, I stumbled across this wonderful resource in which a hiker basically took screenshots of the entire list and threw it into a PDF. It’s static, and not searchable, and if I had time I would try to run it through an OCR tool. I was already frustrated, though, and so just manually read it.

After about an hour of cross-referencing the names of the spots in the guidebook I had picked with the names they were actually called in the Inyo permit system – or sometimes just choosing spots nearby my camping choices because they didn’t exist in the system – I finally had my list. Keep in mind, I didn’t research elevations, resupplies, or any other information – I just made guesstimates based on thumbing through the guide and reading other blogs about the JMT.

Here’s what it looked like:
Day 1: Trail Camp (Mt.Whitney Trail)
Day 2: SEKI – Crabtree (83)
Day 3: SEKI – Tyndall Creek (80)
Day 4: SEKI – Bubbs Creek (66)
Day 5: SEKI – Woods Creek JCT (58)
Day 6: SEKI – Cartridge Creek (47)
Day 7: SEKI – Palisade Basin (45)
Day 8: SEKI – LeConte Canyon (39)
Day 9: SEKI – Evolution Basin (34)
Day 10: Senger Creek JMT- Sallie Keys near Florence Lake
Day 11: Quail Meadows JMT (Lake Edison)
Day 12: Squaw Lake (Piute Canyon)
Day 13: Deer Creek & JMT Junction- (South of Devils Postpile)
Day 14: Trinity Lakes (JMT- North of Devils Postpile)
Day 15: Marie Lakes (Rush Creek)
Day 16: Yosemite- Tuolmne Meadows/Lyell Canyon
Day 17: Yosemite – Cathedral Lakes
Day 18: Yosemite – John Muir Trail- Little Yosemite

I entered all the information and went to add one more date range, and when I did so the screen refreshed due to timeout and logged me out. I lost all my work because there’s no “save progress” option I could find, but I had written down my itinerary so I knew it would go faster the second time.
Typing, clicking, and selecting at as furious a pace as the website allowed, I entered all my information again.

6. Check out.
Pay $10 to be considered for the lottery. You pay more money later if you win.

Now it’s a waiting game. I find out on March 24 if I’ve won a permit for Whitney Portal. There’s a ~15% success rate, which is not promising.

What if I don’t win?

If I don’t win the lottery, I can apply for a permit for trailheads (still have quotas) further south, starting in Horseshoe Meadow on the Cottonwood Pass Trail or Cottonwood Lakes Trail. This will add two to three days to the trip overall, but I have much better odds of getting a permit than I do for Whitney Portal.

Once I have my trip dates based on the permit – whether for Whitney Portal or then some other, I need to secure two more permits. One is a campfire permit from the state of California to use my stove on trail. This is the permit where I promise to not burn down things. The other is a permit to hike up Half Dome in Yosemite when I arrive there. It’s a popular route, and there is a daily quota. That’s another process, and I’ll probably write a different blog post about that as well.

So that’s it… for now.

[Image credit: USDA Forest Service, 2017 statistics]