The Permit Process Sucks
The Wilderness Act of 1964 was a huge success to anyone who was watching as the best places in the United States were being decimated by development and too many people. The bill did so much to protect our most beautiful areas and has preserved almost all of the areas that even worth backpacking and hiking through. It helped all of us be able to see these areas as God intended, but it also makes some things harder. Because of this legislation, permits are required in the most visited areas to prevent overcrowding and keeps the areas better preserved from too many feet and campsites. This is a good thing and the National Parks and the rangers are doing the very best job of making the crap shoot that is the permit reservation process as functional and fair as possible and I certainly don’t have a better idea than what is currently in place, but the permit process is emotionally frustrating to hikers planning hikes in these areas and if not navigated correctly, can stop a trip before it even starts. I got a first hand experience of this process over the weekend and have come away successful and with a bit of advice.
1. Pick Your Trail and Time of Year
I wasn’t really planning on doing a thru hike this year. As much as a hike like this can be, it was more of a last minute thought, but that doesn’t mean I woke up last week deciding to take on this trip. It’s still been in the works for several months and I thought it wasn’t going to work a few times. I wanted to go with Richard (husband) but he’s working as a Substitute Teacher and we can’t afford for him take the time off since work is scarce in the summers and he has to take any work he can find. So I would have to find a few ladies to hike with if I was going to try this trip because I hate hiking alone. I thought I had a hiking partner months ago and that fell through, then when I was going to go ended up being the time that my in laws planned for their visit. Just when I thought it was done and I wasn’t going to get to go, I got a message from a woman wanting to leave about the same time as me and she needed a partner. After talking a bit and deciding we hiked similarly enough, we decided to go for it! So what thru hike am I doing? The John Muir Trail! There are a two reasons I picked this trail for my first long thru hike.
The first being access. From our home in Northern Arizona, it is an easy drive to the Amtrak stop in Williams. The train that comes through this area is called the Southwest Chief and is an old friend of mine. I’ve been taking this train from the Williams Junction Stop to Chicago since 2006. It all started because I hate flying and needed to get home from college in Lexington, Ky. My mom found out the train ran from Cincinnati to Chicago and then from Chicago all the way to only 45 minutes from home. Now that we’re living by my mom’s house, I can use that experience and understanding of the train system to find ways others might not consider. In this case, the fact that I knew the Southwest Chief’s final destination is in LA. Turns out, from there it’s a connection of trains and buses that will take me all the way to the Visitor’s Center in Yosemite National Park and I can pick up the system again at the end of the trail, the visitor’s center in King’s Canyon National Park, and I can ride all the way home. This makes the JMT section of the Pacific Crest Trail really convenient for me.
The second and most important reason is the two parks that cap either end of this trail as well as what lies in between. To really understand where my love for this area of California comes from I guess I should tell you, this is where my mother was raised and I was born. Well it was actually in the San Joaquin valley, more specifically Fresno, but I’ve always felt like I had a very special connection to the Sierra Nevada Range and especially the giant trees that it holds within it. I give credit to my love for nature and wilderness to my mom, who insisted on many childhood vacations from Phoenix, where I was raised, back to the only place either of us have truly felt at home. This wilderness is such a huge part of my childhood and my foundation as a backpacker that it just seemed right that this trail would be my first thru hike.
The when was a bit by accident and a bit the only way I could have done it. Our permit starts on August 30th. I had originally planned for a mid August hike and it turned into an early September hike because my in laws decided to move their trip from May to August for financial reasons that they were going to be in Texas then anyway and it made more sense to go from Georgia to Texas to Arizona instead of Ga to Az to Ga to Tx to Ga again. Not wanting to miss their visit, I decided it would be easier to push the dates back then to try and go earlier. Another big decision maker was weather. I’m not big on hiking in heat and prefer a trail to be less crowded so this just made September a perfect time to hike the JMT as the weather will be cooler and the crowds will be less.
2. North, South, East or West
The end of the trail you decide to start on and the trailhead you pick can directly affect your chances of getting the permit you’re wanting. We picked North to South and to start at Tuolumne Meadows with our listed trailhead as Lyell Canyon, 20 miles from Happy Isles, the official start of the JMT. All of this was to give us our best chances at getting the permit we wanted. North to South the permit application is far simpler and there are more of them. Trying to start at Mt. Whitney and still get to hike up Whitney is really hard and we were a bit late to try for it. If your goal is to go South to North, you are going to want to plan in advance and make sure you have everything in order by the time you need to put in for your permit. I’d start planning no less than October-November the year before you plan to hike South to North.
We decided to start in the meadows because it gives us a bit more time to get used to the altitude before getting into the more serious climbs. It also allows us to do the trail in a bit less time which meant we could go at all. I’m sad about missing the first 20 miles, but Richard says we might be able to take off and snag one of the 40% permits that are held back for walk up hikers and do that part together some time before I leave. This is also a great idea when planning a thru hike because it will get you used to the area you’re planning on being in and let you check out your gear before you go as well.
3. Talk to the Rangers!
One of the best things I could have done to prepare for this trip is call Yosemite’s Rangers and ask questions. Visiting the website for the area you’re hiking in will get you a lot of answers, but there are some things that are only found out through calling the rangers. When I sat down to fill out our permit, the rangers helped me put down the best trailhead option for our trip and made sure we had everything right so our application when through without any issues. This was extremely helpful because it’s not like you can fax in your request and then get back an email that asks things like “did you mean this” or “are you willing to try that?” You get one shot and it really has to be right, so by explaining the trip I wanted to the ranger at the permit station, he was able to give me all the right information to get the trip I wanted. I also got to ask questions about what stove restrictions might be in place at the time of my hike, average temperatures I should expect, and how much water should be available given current snow levels. Not all the rangers leave the ranger stations or visitor centers and hike through the areas the way you are going to, but almost all of them area aware of current conditions and and restrictions that you might encounter.
4. Be Prepared
When applying for any permit, you need to know what your deadlines are. In the Yosemite wilderness areas, permits are reserved 24 weeks to the day before your trip and if you are a day off you will likely not get your first choice start date guaranteed, no matter what hike you’re doing. The other thing that can affect your trip is how many permits are available. It’s important to talk to other who have done the trip you’re planning and see what kind of success or failure is likely for which trailheads and when. I knew from talking to the rangers and others who have already done this trip that traffic starts to drop off during and after the Labor Day weekend so we put in our top three choices for two days during the Labor Day weekend and one day right after, to give us our best chance. We also went for a less visited trailhead. These things all added up in us getting our first choice start date.
We were applying for our first choice start date over a weekend and that changed our process a bit. Because of the weekend they allow everyone going for the weekend dates to start putting in their applications on the Friday 24 weeks before their planned trips starting at 5pm. That will change how you submit your application so it’s something you want to make sure you’ve got right a week or so before you are planning on submitting. The other thing to have down before the day of your submission is how you’re going to fill out the application, even filling it out and having it printed several days before can relieve some stress. I didn’t do that. I filled it out and printed it and then had to run to the local copy store to be faxed. If I do it again, I would have planned a bit in advance of the day the thing was due. The other thing to plan for, is the fax time. If you don’t own your own fax machine you’re going to have to go to a shop or your office to get it faxed in. Some parks allow you to mail it in, but that also means you should have it in the mail about 2 weeks before the due date, just in case. Yosemite allows you to do both or to call it in, but called in applications take a back seat, so it was worth the $2 to go get it faxed. It took about 20 minutes to get the thing to go through because all permits go through one fax number so plan for a wait longer than 5 minutes. I have a great copy and ship place that is a local small business and the lady let me leave my fax there and my number and she just kept trying it and called me when it went through. I don’t know if another place would do that or not.
There’s no guarantees with the permit process and my story could have easily ended in a very different way, even with doing everything right. The process sucks, especially if it derails your trip before you can even start hiking, but it’s a necessary process to keep these areas beautiful and in tact for all of us and those who visit them in the future. If you follow these basic steps and make sure you start planning early enough, getting a permit for hikes like the JMT, at very least lowers the stress and boosts your chances of getting the hike you’re hoping for!