I am writing this a little more than a month after completing our John Muir backpacking trek, so hopefully I will be able to offer some perspective on what worked and what didn’t work based on our preparations.
One thing I should note at the outset is that we backpacked half of the John Muir Trail (JMT). We began in Bishop, California, connected to the JMT at LeConte via Bishop Pass Trail, took it south to summit Mt. Whitney, and then exited out at Whitney Portal. I mention this as our planning for half of the JMT will be significantly different than for those of you who are planning a full length through trip. So, if you are interested in hiking half of the JMT then this is for you.
For this post I am only going to focus on securing the backcountry permit for this trip, because it is a convoluted and difficult procedure that is difficult to explain and even more difficult to pull off. But here goes.
The logistical planning for this trip was quite arduous, even for hiking half of JMT. The permitting process was the most difficult of any trip we have taken to this point…and we have done a significant amount of backcountry hiking in National Parks. I am not going to talk about the in’s and out’s of the permitting process in general, only the permitting process specific to our trip. So if you are interested in doing half of the JMT beginning in Bishop then this is what you need to do. Being that our endeavor began in Bishop, we needed to permit through Inyo National Forest. No matter where you end, you permit through your place of origin. For us, Inyo National Forest was our place of origin.
You will need to know your entry and exit dates for this online permit process because you can only register six months prior to your EXIT date. Let me write that again, you can only compete for a backcountry permit six months in advance of your EXIT date. I know that sounds backwards, but that is what it is. Our ext date was scheduled to be September 12, 2015. So that meant we would compete for a permit beginning on March 12, 2015. The biggest problem is that there are both ENTRY and EXIT quotas and the number for each is different. Our fear was that by the time we were able to compete for a permit the entry quota would have already been met. If you think about it, this process benefits those who do shorter trips. If there are only 15 entry permits available for Bishop and 15 people are doing two or three day trips… the entry permits would be gone before we even get to the exit date of our eight day trip.
I hate to admit it, but we manipulated the system to insure that we got the permit. With six guys in our group, securing six permits of the available 15 permits was going to be difficult. And we knew that we were at a disadvantage by doing a longer trip. So each day leading up to the beginning of the six month window, I would monitor how quickly the permits would go. You can monitor it at http://www.recreation.gov. The entry you would look for is “Bishop Pass -South Lake JM21” and the exit would be “Mt. Whitney (Trailcrest Exit) JM35.” The permit type is “Overnight Exiting Mt. Whitney.” Each day at 10:00am EST the permits go live and the competition begins. It lasts less than sixty seconds before all of the permits are gone. It is serious business. I practiced a few times by putting in bogus information and then submitting it when it went live. I got really good at securing permits…and then emptying my cart. Ultimately we decided that to guarantee our entry permit, we needed to go ahead and reserve six entry permits, even though the exit date we put down would be bogus. Our thought process was that we would just cancel our permit and get charged the cancellation fee, but those six spots would go back to the queue just before our real window opened up. So that is what we did. I secured a permit for six with our real entry date and a bogus exit date. And then about 12 hours before our real window opened on March 12 at 10:00am, I cancelled the bogus permit. The next morning, just before 10:00am, the quota number repopulated and I was able to secure a permit with the correct entry and exit dates.
I know this sounds confusing… because it is. It is a terrible process in my humble opinion. I understand limiting the number of entry and exit permits. That’s not really the issue. The issue is making the EXIT date the beginning of the six month permitting window. It benefits those who want to do shorter trips and unduly penalizes those who want to do longer trips. Why not make the six month window begin with the ENTRY date? That way, everyone is equal and has an equal opportunity to secure a permit… without having to manipulate the system.
Below is a picture of our final permit for your own planning purposes. Of course I removed all of our names and such.