The John Muir Trail: 211 Miles of Bucket-List Hiking
Length: 211 miles, plus ten more to get off Mt. Whitney.
Location: The trail runs from Yosemite National Park to the peak of Mt. Whitney.
Trail Type: Shuttle end-to-end.
Scenery: Postcard views of the Sierra Nevada with beautiful streams, lakes, and significant wildlife.
Named after the first president of the Sierra Club, the JMT winds from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, through three national parks and two wilderness areas before ending at the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States. Sharing 170 miles with the PCT, the path is well-constructed with grades that can be handled by mules. However, that does not mean it’s an easy stroll. It crosses eight passes near or over 11,000 feet, including Forester Pass, the highest point on the entire PCT. Huge vistas, beautiful mountain lakes, plentiful wildlife, and a taste of wilderness travel place the JMT on many people’s hiking bucket list. With good reason; the stark beauty of the Sierra Nevada is hard to beat anywhere in the world.
One hundred-million-year-old granite pushed into mountains and shaped by glaciers results in some incredible sights, and also a trail that is challenging. While located and graded very well, nothing changes the fact that there are tremendous elevation changes. The vast majority of hikers begin at the Northern Terminus (Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park), which sits at 4,000 feet. Twelve miles later, hikers are already near 10,000 feet.
If that first climb doesn’t leave you breathless, the scenery will. Iconic views such as Nevada Falls and Half Dome are just the start of a daily parade of incredible vistas. The climbs and drops, along with accompanying views, continue along the length of the trail.
The most difficult climb is saved for the end however. From a “low” point of 10,700 feet, the trail begins the assault on the Southern Terminus of the trail, Mt. Whitney’s peak. Over seven miles the path climbs nearly 5,000 feet through broken granite. The fact that there is only about 60 percent of the oxygen available at sea level doesn’t help, either. The effort is worth it, though. You’ve finished the trail and are at 14,505 feet, the highest point in the continental US. Take some time to enjoy the views and your accomplishment.
Although you are done with the trail at this point, there’s no shuttle standing by. There’s still a bit of hiking to do. The closest road (Whitney Portal) is ten miles and 6,600 vertical feet away.
Most thru-hikers hike from north to south. The Northern Terminus is at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley inside Yosemite National Park. From the San Francisco/San Jose area, CA-120 east gets you close enough to follow the signs to the park. In addition, there are public transportation options to the park and free bus service throughout the park. There is also public transportation between Yosemite and Lone Pine, the town closest to Mt. Whitney.
Why Hike This Trail
Think about all those inspirational quotes from John Muir. Most of them were written about this very area. There are “take your breath away” vistas on a daily basis. However, the iconic views are just one of many reasons to hike this classic trail.
The distance (211 miles, plus ten more to get to a paved road) is short enough to be doable for most hikers with a two-week vacation, but is packed with challenges and wilderness experiences. The last 150+ miles are nowhere near a road.
With the entire trail within a national park or wilderness area, wildlife is plentiful. The change in elevation brings a variety of flora and fauna to experience. I saw a variety of wildlife but was struck by the large predators that roam this complete ecosystem. Bear, bobcat, and coyote shared the spotlight with deer, marmot, pika, and more. Not seen by me, but in the park, are beaver, bighorn sheep, and mountain lion.
Climate and Weather
John Muir called the Sierra the “gentle wilderness” and summer/early fall weather lives up to that name; it’s typically sunny and dry. There is all that pesky winter snow to consider, however. Depending on the year, snow can remain deep on the higher passes into July. That snowmelt can also mean difficult stream crossings and plenty of mosquitoes through early summer. The best time to hike is generally July through September, with my personal preference toward the September end. This period is typically dry and pleasant, though thunderstorms and/or snow at higher elevations can happen at any time.
I hiked the trail beginning just after Labor Day. Most hiking was done in shorts and a T-shirt but I was glad to have brought a hat and gloves for one snowy pass. I used a 20 degree bag and needed all the insulation on a couple of higher camps.
With the number of hikers restricted by the permit process, there is no issue finding a spot to camp. I used both the JMT Pocket Atlas (Blackwoods Press) and the Guthook phone app and both reliably showed where camping options were located. There were sometimes other campers in the areas, but I never felt crowded.
Bring a tent. There are no shelters, and with long stretches at high elevation, there will be times when there’ll be no trees to hang a hammock from. Bear-bagging your food is not good enough. Bring or rent a bear canister.
One of the beauties of the JMT is the abundance of lakes and streams along the way. Despite hiking late in the season, and during a drought, water was never an issue. The guides mentioned above both listed water options and I never carried over two liters. While much of the water appears crystal clear at high elevations, I filtered all my water. It just seems like cheap insurance to absolutely avoid marmot poo.
Resupply options are interesting, to say the least. They start easy and get progressively more difficult as you travel north to south. Twenty miles in, there is a post office at Tuolumne Meadows. At sixty-one miles, Red’s Meadow Resort is just off the trail. They will hold packages for a fee and also have a grocery on site.
At around 90 miles, the Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) is an option. It is either a 7+ mile hike off the JMT or a shorter hike and a boat ride. Take the boat. They hold packages for a fee, have a small grocery, and with a restaurant, laundry, and hotel, provide a nice spot to spend the night. This was my last resupply stop. It took a bit of work to fit 130 miles worth of food into my bear canister, but by standing on the lid, I made it happen.
At 110 miles, Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) is another resupply option. They offer overnight accommodations and will hold a resupply, but I did not use them for a few reasons. Their lodging was booked solid when I was in the area. In addition, they closed for the season on the day after I planned to be passing through, too close for comfort. For 2018, their cost to hold a resupply bucket is $80. The charge to stay in their tent cabins is $170 per person, per night. Everything at MTR must be hauled in well beyond any roads so I understand the prices. It doesn’t mean I have to pay them, however.
Beyond MTR the options get difficult or significantly more expensive. There are either long walks down side trails or rendezvous with a pack animal at a premium price.
Perhaps the biggest challenge with the JMT is just scoring a permit. If you want to start in Yosemite, plan on faxing in an application 24 weeks before your planned start date. By the end of the day, you will find out if you were successful. You probably were not. Apparently, there is such demand that well over 90 percent of all applications are denied. One hiker I met on the trail had been denied 22 times before she received a permit to start at Happy Isles trailhead.
The National Park Service is in a difficult position. It has a legal duty to protect the wilderness from overuse and wants to provide access to a true wilderness for those that do receive a permit. Based on my hike, the existing quota system seemed to result in a quality experience. While I was not always alone, the trail was not crowded and I always found a good spot to camp. That does not makes getting the permit any easier, however. You’ll need to plan ahead, yet be very flexible. In addition: that bear canister is required.
BTW –The permit comes with a special bag to carry in case the need arises on Mt. Whitney. Apparently the mountain is a “no poop zone.” I don’t know if there’s much of a learning curve to using the bag, but thankfully I didn’t have to find out.
If there was ever a bucket list trail, this is it. It is hard to imagine jaw-dropping views, numerous wildlife sightings, a complete thru-hike, and reaching the high point of the lower 48 states, all in one 200+ mile package, but here it is.
All this hiking goodness does come at a cost, though. Permit aggravations, and carrying the weight of a bear canister over big climbs and through thin air just add to the satisfaction you’ll feel at the finish, though. Is the JMT worth the trouble? You bet it is.
Start planning your hike waaay in advance by going to the National Park Service’s website. My JMT Pocket Atlas is one of “Erik the Black’s Ultralight Trail Guides.” The Guthook phone app will be in your app store. If you’re interested in what my hike was like, along with hikes of the Colorado Trail and Long Trail, there’s a book about it.
Not sure whether to hike this trail? Perhaps a few quotes from John Muir himself will help you decide.
The coniferous forests of the Yosemite Park, and of the Sierra in general, surpass all others of their kind in America, or indeed the world, not only in the size and beauty of the trees, but in the number of species assembled together, and the grandeur of the mountains they are growing on
All the world lies warm in one heart, yet the Sierra seems to get more light than other mountains. The weather is mostly sunshine embellished with magnificent storms, and nearly everything shines from base to summit – the rocks, streams, lakes, glaciers, irised falls, and the forests of silver fir and silver pine.
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.
Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean
The mountains are calling and I must go.
And my personal favorite:
Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.
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