Your 2021 Guide to Getting Permits for your Favorite Sierra Trails

The first step in hiking your favorite trails in the Sierra doesn’t begin on the trailhead – it begins at home, in front of your computer, and usually in the winter… it’s permit season, baby! The advanced permit process to backpack (and in some case dayhike!) your favorite Sierra trails generally begins in October and runs through the end of April.

In this blog post, I’ve put together a guide for grabbing permits for your favorite trails in the Sierra!

Mt. Whitney

In order to summit the highest peak in the contiguous United States (or hike anywhere in the Whitney Zone past Lone Pine Lake), you must get a permit. This permit is required whether you are dayhiking or backpacking.

Whitney permits (both for day and overnight trips) are issued via a lottery. Every year, the lottery opens up on February 1st and ends on March 15th. On March 24th, the lottery results are published, and you must claim your lottery reservation and pay the reservation fees by April 30th.

While applying for the lottery, you are able to choose and rank your preferred dates for your summit. You can apply for up to fifteen different dates on one application! Enter as many dates as possible to get the best chances of being awarded a permit in the lottery. Visit the Mt. Whitney recreation.gov site and click on “Register for Open Lottery” to apply.

For those who were unsuccessful in the lottery, the dates from unclaimed lottery reservations will open up on May 1st on recreation.gov. If a party has canceled their Whitney permits, you’ll also find those available dates here. If you were unable to get a Whitney permit in the lottery, I highly suggest checking this website often for cancellations throughout the summer.

Pro tip: If you are unsuccessful in getting your overnight Whitney permit, consider summiting Whitney via a different trailhead! Both New Army Pass (via Cottonwood Lakes) and Kearsarge Pass are both great options if you have a few days to hike, as these permits are much easier to get. You’ll approach Trail Crest from Guitar Lake (Whitney’s backside), and bonus – the longer approach will help you to acclimate to the elevation better! Cottonwood Lakes and Kearsarge Pass permits are issued by the Inyo National Forest (process below).

John Muir Trail

To snag permits for a SOBO (Southbound) hike on the John Muir Trail from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney, complete the JMT Rolling Lottery Application. As I understand it, you will select the first day that you would like to start your hike, as well as the number of days that you would like to be entered into the lottery. For up to 21 days, if your permit isn’t approved, you’ll be re-entered into the next day’s lottery. You will receive daily notifications via email informing you if you have received a permit. If you make it through the specified number days without being granted a permit, you can reapply for a new date range of up to 21 days again.

To hike the JMT from South to North on a NOBO (Northbound) hike, follow the instructions above to get a permit starting at Whitney Portal!

Pro Tip: If you are unable to get a permit out of the Valley, I suggest trying to get a permit (either a reservation or walk-up) out of Tuolumne Meadows. Unfortunately, you’ll miss the first 23 miles of the John Muir Trial, but it is much easier to get a permit from this trailhead rather than getting one out of the Valley. I started my 2015 thruhike of the JMT from Tuolumne Meadows, and I was really happy with our itinerary!

Click here for my complete John Muir Trail packing list

Half Dome

Half Dome is the only hike in Yosemite National Park that requires a permit just for a dayhike. Halfdome Dayhike permits are issued via a lottery. Apply for the lottery on recreation.gov between March 1st and March 31st. On April 12th, the results of the preseason lottery will be posted, and you will be able to claim your permit by April 27th.

Between May 26th and October 10 (tentatively – this will depend on winter conditions), you can also enter a daily lottery between midnight and 1pm PT for a hike date two days after the lottery (for example, enter into the May 26th daily lottery for a hike date of May 28th). You’ll receive your daily lottery results on the same day.

To summit Half Dome during an overnight trip, follow the below instructions for remaining Yosemite National Park Trails and be sure to apply

Yosemite National Park Trails

To grab overnight permits for any other Yosemite National Park trails, apply via the Wilderness Permit Request Form online. All Wilderness Permit Request forms are processed via a lottery 168 days (24 weeks) in advance. Submit your application as early as possible for best results!

After the lottery closes, you can check trailhead availability for advanced reservations here. If there is an available date, fill out and submit the same Wilderness Permit Request Form.

If you are unable to get your permit, Yosemite also has a walk-up option beginning at 11am the day before you want to start your hike. It gets a little weird though – preference for walk-ups is given to the closest permit issuing ranger station. This means that if you were at the Tuolumne Meadows issue station waiting for a walk-up permit out of the Valley, the Valley issuing station would clear its morning line for walk-up permits before issuing you a permit, even if you were first in line at Tuolumne.

High Sierra Trail

To hike across the Sierra from Crescent Meadow to Mt. Whitney via the High Sierra Trail, you must get a permit issued from Sequoia Kings Canyon (SEKI) National Park. A brand (!) new (!) online (!) permitting process was implemented in 2021, and ironically, I found out about it the day before the season’s High Sierra Trail permits were starting to be issued (talk about perfect timing).

In 2021, the first day that you could make a reservation for the upcoming summer season was on February 9, 2021 at 7:00 am PST. Reservations were available on our beloved recreation.gov, and you could snag permits for dates up to six months in advance. After February 9th, reservations then became available daily for dates up to six months in advance (for example, permits for August 10th became available on February 10th, permits for August 11th became available on February 11th, etc.). Whether SEKI will continue to have this February 9th start date for all dates before August 9th in the coming years, I’m not sure. I’ll update this blog once I receive more information.

Specifically for High Sierra Trail permits, the permit was not labeled as Crescent Meadow trailhead permits – it was labeled as the High Sierra Trail.

If you didn’t get your desired permit on your preferred start date, continue to monitor the website for cancellations. If all else fails, SEKI is once again doing walk-up permits this year. Permits can be obtained starting at 1pm the day before your trip begins.

Pro Tip: If your group is jonesing for High Sierra Trail permits, make sure that everyone in your group tries to grab them starting at 7am the day that the permits open! Also, we had three people trying to get permits – two on computer desktops and one on her phone. The two of us on a desktop were both able to grab our permits right at 7am, where the girl on her phone was not able to grab them – the website didn’t even start showing availability until 7:04am. Not sure if that was just a coincidence, but I highly suggest trying to get permits from a desktop.

Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park Trails

The permitting process for other various SEKI trails is the exact same as getting permits for the High Sierra Trail.

In 2021, the first day that you could make a reservation for the upcoming summer season was on February 9, 2021 at 7:00 am PST. Reservations were available on our beloved recreation.gov, and you could snag permits for dates up to six months in advance. After February 9th, reservations then became available daily for dates up to six months in advance (for example, permits for August 10th became available on February 10th, permits for August 11th became available on February 11th, etc.). Whether SEKI will continue to have this February 9th start date for all dates before August 9th in the coming years, I’m not sure. I’ll update this blog once I receive more information.

If you didn’t get your desired permit on your preferred start date, continue to monitor the website for cancellations. If all else fails, SEKI is once again doing walk-up permits this year. Permits can be obtained starting at 1pm the day before your trip begins.

Inyo National Forest Trails

Permits for Inyo National Forest trails can be reserved on (you guessed it) recreation.gov. Permits become available six months (to the day!) before your entry date. Permits for popular trails can fill up day-of, so I highly suggest logging on at 7am to grab your permit.

If you are unable to get your permit immediately, I’d highly suggest perusing the Inyo National Forest permit site before your trip. That is how I’ve snagged permits for some of the most popular trails in the Eastern Sierra (such as Big Pine Lakes) – just randomly logging on and finding an available date due to a cancellation!

Due to COVID, the Inyo National Forest will not be offering any walk-up service for the 2021 season. To “pick-up” your permit, email SM.FS.WildPmt_Inyo@usda.gov with the following information 1 – 2 weeks before your entry date on your permit:

Subject line: [Entry Date][Trail Name][Reservation Number] (for example, 06/26/21 Kearsarge Pass #00000-1)

Answer the following;

  • Have you viewed the Leave No Trace video?   
  • How you will store your food?
  • What is your final group size?

You can also call 760-873-2483 to get your permit issued, but during the 2020 season, I must have spent over three hours trying to call and got the busy signal every time (I didn’t realize that you could email at first). I would highly recommend getting your permit by email rather than over the phone.

If you are unable to get your desired permits via advanced reservations, you can try to get the “walk-up” permits being issued this year. Instead of actually being walk-up, Inyo National Forest will be releasing them online 1 – 2 weeks before the entry date.


If you have any questions about specific trails, please leave a comment below or email me at meghikes1@gmail.com.

Happy hiking!

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