SoBo or NoBo – that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of the permit chase
or to take arms against the mountains’ height.
The classical southbound (SoBo) path has its dramatic finish ending on Mt Whitney – but after the nominal finish a hundred switchbacks going down 2000 m on a trail with lots of day hikers which may be less desirable. And the trail starts from a lower height with more resupplies and more civilization, and has its harder part only in the second half. Therefore this direction is usually regarded to be easier.
While the northbound (NoBo) path should be started from the Horseshoe Meadow campground, not from Whitney portal, to allow a better height acclimatization and reduce the risk of AMS, which adds two more days and 25 miles to the trail, and also is tougher in the begin. If you want an epic finish, too, a Half Dome climb was the traditional answer, but since 2019 you need an extra permit so maybe a visit to Cloud’s Rest is the better alternative.
PERMIT: this is the key word. Without cheating in the lottery it is really difficult to get one of the 35 prereserveable daily backcountry permits to leave Yosemite via Donohue Pass for a SoBo JMT hike, and even if you are lucky it may not be your preferred date nor trailhead. I was unlucky for 42 consecutive days. You can still opt for a walk-up permit, but in fact this could become more like a sit-in permit, at least in the high season. Be prepared to go to the ranger station the day before your start very early in the morning, in order to be ahead of the queue for the 10 available permits, and wait there until it opens at 8 am. Then you get a permit for a start the NEXT morning. Not an easy procedure. – These walk-up permits are avalaible only from Tuolumne Meadows for a start from Lyell canyon. If you are very lucky or the weather is bad you may obtain a canceled permit for another trailhead.
So I decided for NoBo. As long as you avoid Whitney portal these permits – issued by recreation.gov – stay available for your prefered date during several days to a few weeks after their first issue so that you can easily make a reservation for the exact day when you want to go. The only problem is that you have to decide 180 days before your start, at a time when you do not yet know the snow situation of the year.
My approach: I will go NoBo.
- early: more snow, high water, which may even force you to cancel the trip if it becomes a high snow year; longer days.
- midsummer: higher daytime temperatures (hot, afternoon thunderstorms)
- late: quiet weather, colder nights and mornings, no or very few snow, no danger in water crossings, but also less water sources; shorter days.
In the first few weeks after the snow has melted you may see abundant wildflowers but also meet many mosquitos. This can be already in June, or only mid August, it depends on the winter snow pack and the weather of late spring.
From mid september you have to expect some new snow. But only in october this snow may become an issue again. Wildfires with smoke wafting into the area may affect a midsummer or late hike.
Now it is up to you to decide. If you are lucky, any time can result in a perfect hike, but otherwise you can run into a problem at anytime.
My approach: I decided to be more on the early side while avoiding the early summer. I reserved a permit for July 23rd in late January. But then in February there was tremendous new snow so I made another permit reservation for July 30th, and gave the earlier permit back. In early May I was quite optimistic to have hit my perfect timing, but then it was snowing again for two weeks, and the melting process delayed. So I will have more snow on the passes but I do not expect dangerous creek crossings or swampy or snowy terrain in the Northern (lower) part. I hope for the best.
How long? – again, this depends on you, in particular on your fitness and ambition. If you want to beat the Fastest Known Time (2019) you should end within a bit less than 3 days. But the average hiker will need anything between two and four weeks. Your mileage will vary between 220 and 260 miles with resupply and extra stretches; divide this by your expected average mileage per day, and you have a rough estimate.
My approach: I estimated 250 miles and 10 miles/day, resulting in 25 days. Most people are faster and aim at 12…15 miles/day, others want to have extra time for leisure activities like fishing. I hope to find enough rest in the mornings and evenings for photography.