Your Guide to Dipping Your Way Through the John Muir Trail

I had the immense privilege to thru-hike the John Muir Trail in 2023. The absurd amount of snow and rainfall made the trail technically more challenging, but provided enough moisture to ensure that every single river and every single lake was as full as they’ve ever been and, anyone who knows me and my trail name (Double Dip), knows I value a good, cold swim.

If you plan to hike this trail, here is a definitive and objective rating of the dips I took along the way, in NOBO order.

Chicken Spring Lake: 3.5/10

Only 4.5 miles from the start of Cottonwood Pass, a popular John Muir Trail starting trailhead, this lake is beautiful and peaceful, but is it too close to the start of the trail? I wasn’t yet stinky, and I wasn’t yet hot, so this one fell a little flat for me.

Guitar Lake: 9/10

Now this is a dip. Directly at the base of Mount Whitney, Guitar Lake offers the opportunity for a pre-summit ice bath (not recommended) or a post-summit cooldown celebration (strongly recommended). Watch the marmots play as you stare up at the mountain you just climbed and bask in your achievement. 

Whitney Creek: 4/10

I crossed this deep creek with the promise of a privy on the other side. That privy has been demolished. Do not trust the map. Good temperature water and a good flow does have this creek begging for some trail laundry to be done.

Wallace Creek: 7.5/10

This is the first time you’ll be at a low enough elevation to be bothered by mosquitoes. Luckily, mosquitoes can’t swim. Set up camp by this creek and spend some time relaxing in the natural little swimming hole right by the trail and enjoy only having bug bites on the upper half of your body.

Tyndall Creek: 2/10

Sometimes, when I have a wet ford across a river, I think ‘oh well, I’m already wet, might as well just sit down in this river and make it a dip’. Mistake. The trail quickly climbs from here to the top of Forester Pass, with much of it out of the treeline, and I spent the next few hours a little too cold for comfort.

Charlotte Lake: 7/10

It’s a little hard to get to from the trail, and you’ll have to be cold while crossing over Glen Pass, but it’s too beautiful to pass up. Even if it’s raining, at least get your feet in there. C’mon. Do it for the narrative.

Rae Lakes: 9/10

Picturesque, and you’ll have to get wet anyways while crossing some of the lake outlets. Might as well make the autonomous decision to get wet! It was raining when I passed Rae Lakes and I only dipped up to my knees, which became one of my biggest regrets of the trail. This lake deserves a full dunk.

Dollar Lake: 6/10

Small, but beautiful. This is your opportunity for a dip if you ignored my wise advice, skipped Rae Lakes, and are now regretting it. Tell your friends this could be the last lake of the trail; they could be uninformed enough to believe you and now you have dipping company!

Lake Marjorie: 9/10

Located right after the easy Pinchot Pass, there is no better way to celebrate with a full-body dip in Lake Marjorie. Minus one point for being literally freezing. Do it anyway.

Palisade Lakes: 5/10

Nothing to write home about (but good enough to write to you all about, apparently). While there are technically some sketchy, downed trees that would let you cross without getting wet, you’ve just finished Mather Pass and deserve a celebration. You may forget this dip by the end of the trail, but you certainly won’t regret it.

Helen Lake: 8/10

This lake is named for one of John Muir’s daughters, Helen Funk. And, by this point in the trail, I am willing to bet you also have a certain amount of Funk on you. Wash it off! You’re now about a mile from the shelter at the top of the pass, where you’ll probably pack into the small building with ten others to get out of the wind. It’s such a flex to be the best smelling of the group. Don’t worry about the huge chunks of ice in this lake- they can’t hurt you.

Wanda Lake: 7/10

This one is named for John Muir’s other daughter, Annie Wanda Muir. Frankly, it would be rude to take a dip at Helen and neglect this one. You’re probably antsy to get into Evolution Valley and I get it! I really do. I promise, you’ll be in and out in under five minutes.

Sapphire Lake: 3/10

Not as big as Wanda Lake, not as pretty as Evolution Lake, and inexplicably not at the section of the trail with all the other gemstone named lakes. I’ll never tell you to skip it but, if you do, you probably won’t lose any sleep over it.

Evolution Lake: 10/10

It’s the first tenner of the list! That’s a big deal, so I know I have to be able to back this up. Evolution Lake is huge, and the trail follows the edge of it for a mile and a half. That’s plenty of time to build up the anticipation. You’re a little hot and a little sweaty from Muir Pass and are ready to stop for lunch and soak in the beautiful Evolution Valley views. The slope down into the lake is gradual, making for an easy in and an easy out. The water is cold (I would never lie to you), but it’s the first lake since the pass that’s too warm for chunks of ice in the water. I will never forgive you if you pass up on this dip and, more importantly, you will never forgive yourself.

Sallie Keyes Lakes: 2/10

If you’ve followed my trip itinerary to a tee, you’re probably now camping at Sallie Keyes Lakes. It’s a deep wade to cross this lake, so resign yourself to getting wet, but my heart just wasn’t into this polar plunge. A late afternoon dip so close to camp is polarizing, but I don’t like my things being wet as the sun sets and I hate even more a pre-dawn dip when I can guarantee hours of shivering before the sun warms me up. If you’re not camping here, though, you have no excuse to skip it.

Heart Lake: 1/10

They (I) say you only regret the dips you don’t take. I regretted this one. Feeling unsettled after voluntarily passing on a Sallie Keyes dip, I ended up dipping here after literally less than a mile on the trail in the morning, somehow thinking that this was enough time for things to warm up. Enjoy your ice bath followed instantly by intense, above-treeline winds as you pop up to the top of Selden Pass. Or be smart, and just stay dry this time.

Marie Lake: 5/10

I have in my notes that I dipped here, with little other information. Clearly, this was a forgettable dip. Don’t take this the wrong way; I certainly don’t regret the dip. But I can provide no details to talk you into it. Despite that, dip anyway. 

Lake Thomas A Edison: 10/10

We have another ten! This lake is technically not on the trail but is located at VVR, one of the popular resupply spots. I hadn’t planned on going to VVR, but the arrival of Hurricane Hillary convinced me to give it a look. Not only is the resort itself a hiker haven, but the lake… oh the LAKE! Crystal clear, stretching for miles, and steps away from a hot shower if you don’t like being cold after. 

Lake Virginia: 2/10

The brief jaunt from trail to water’s edge will leave you covered in ants and mosquitoes. Bonus: the dip in the lake will wash away all the ants and mosquitoes! The walk back from the lake to the trail will once again cover you in ants and mosquitoes. Sounds like the only option is to head back to the lake for a second dip (or, just skip this one altogether).

Purple Lake: 1/10

Wasn’t even purple, and had such little water close to the trail. I guess you could bushwack to the water, wade through some mud, and make it work, but I certainly am not going to try to talk you into it.

Minaret Creek: 6/10

You don’t realize until you get to this creek, but it’s actually been a day or two since your last involuntarily wet river crossing. At first, you’re annoyed you’re about to get your shoes wet again, but then you take that first step and realize that you’ve kind of missed it, and the water is cool and refreshing. Lean into that feeling. Just sit down.

Shadow Lake: 8/10

Wasn’t that downhill awful! Too many switchbacks. Wash away the pain at Shadow Lake, which is basically lapping over the edge of the trail and just begging to be dipped in. Don’t look ahead too far, just enjoy the lake for what it is. So what if the best lakes of the trail are still ahead of you! This one is perfectly good and deserves enjoyment.

Garnet Lake: 10/10

You didn’t read ahead, did you? Have you already enjoyed your Shadow Lake experience? Good. Now that you’re at Garnet Lake, doesn’t Shadow Lake kind of suck in comparison? You probably should’ve skipped it and made a beeline to Garnet Lake. All jokes. Kind of. This lake has a little current to it as it feeds into the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. Wash off some of your sweat and laugh at the thought of a NOBOer who started a few days after you having to wade through it further south.

Ruby Lake: 4/10

Garnet Lake may be the capstone, but these next few lakes are like the infinity stones for gemstone-themed lakes. You have to collect them all to reach your full power. It’s okay if you just dip your feet in this one, though. 

Emerald Lake: 3/10

If you also dipped in Sapphire Lake over by Muir Pass, I now pronounce you a full-powered, master waterbender. Congratulations on your Sapphires, Garnets, Rubies, and Emeralds. You may only be rich in dip-related memories, but those so often end up being the best ones anyways. 

Thousand Island Lake: 10/10

While closer to maybe sixty islands, this lake is as close to a perfect dipping site as you could ever find. It is the best one left in the entire trail- trust me- so do not waste this opportunity. It’s a tenner on location, temperature, bugs, ease of entry, and natural beauty. If you ignore all my other advice (don’t, I’m usually right about things), at least set aside half an hour for a dip in this once-in-a-lifetime lake.

Cathedral Lakes: 9/10

Hey, look at that! You made it all the way to Yosemite. This is your final, on-trail dipportunity, and the perfect place for a lazy lunch. The sun is intense here, and it’ll be hotter than it’s been in weeks, so maybe keep that sun hoodie on while you splash around. It’ll dry fast and your skin will thank you later.

Merced River: 9.5/10

First of all, congrats thru-hiker. You did it! As a conservative estimate, you’re two hours away from a sandwich at the Yosemite Visitor Center. There is something you have to do first, though. If you’re like me, you found the Happy Isles Trailhead sign a little anticlimactic for a terminus. If you’re like me, you were eyeing that Merced River, rocks covered in tourists and day hikers, on your way to the sign. Go ahead. Backtrack. It’s less than a tenth of a mile. Strip down to whatever the law will allow and dunk in that river. It’s warm- I promise. Everyone will be looking at you, but everyone was looking at you anyways when you barreled down the trail, stinkier than anyone they’ve ever met, and looking way too haggard and overpacked for just a hike up Half Dome. 

And, if you actually dipped at each of these locations, let me know. I skipped probably a quarter of them, so you will now be entitled to my trail name and I will live in shame for the rest of my days. At least I’ll have my collection of gemstone memories to keep me company. 

Read more about my John Muir Trail thru-hike, with fewer but non-zero mentions of dipping, HERE.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 5

  • Joyce : Aug 30th

    Great article! I appreciate the suggestions.

  • Jenni (Vanilla Bean) : Aug 31st

    I remember my “dip” in 1000 Island. I would believe it’s the best of the trail; I certainly won’t ever forget it. I missed out on Garnet, though!

  • Greg Ford : Sep 8th

    Interesting how the NOBO vs. SOBO experience can change perspectives. For example, I have dipped into Sallie Keyes lakes twice, both going SOBO. I would rate it a 6/10, mainly because it was a refreshing break after crossing Selden Pass. Still, not a great swimming lake, since it is pretty shallow.


What Do You Think?