Back in 1980 I hiked the John Muir Trail with a group of four friends from church. I was 18 years old, but our group ranged in age from 13 to 50-ish. Thirty years ago I had just graduated high school, time was not an issue, and we spread the journey over 25 memorable days.
I have long wanted to go back and hike the JMT again, and after years of planning, it finally came together — 30 years later. My girlfriend Joan and two friends from a local hiking club — Jeff A. and Hari — joined me for this epic, 21-day backpacking trip.
We got back home late this past Tuesday, and I’ve been thinking about how best to share the experience. There are so many stories, and so much to tell. I’ve decided to start with an overview of the experience (something everyone can appreciate), and I’ll follow up in the coming weeks with day-by-day details, field notes on our equipment, food and logistics for those interested in the nitty-gritty details.
We started by driving up to Lone Pine and dropping of the car at Whitney Portal, so it would be waiting for us when we reached the end of the trail. We spent a night at the Dow Villa Motel. It’s a clean and comfortable place with a history of catering to Hollywood stars up for filming Westerns in the nearby Alabama Hills. I drove the car up to the portal and hitched a ride back into Lone Pine with Tex from one of the backpacking clubs in San Diego. He and a friend had just come down from a two-night backpacking trip that included Mt. Whitney — where we would be headed in three weeks.
Monday, we woke up early, grabbed a hearty breakfast and met Richard from Mount Whitney Shuttle for our ride to Yosemite Valley. The ride up took about five hours; the hike back would take 21 days.
After picking up our permit, we dropped our equipment at the backpacker’s campground and headed to Curry Village for our “last supper.” It’s a great place to people watch, with folks from all over the world converging for pizza, salads and cold beverages in this beautiful little corner of the outdoor world.
Tuesday morning, we woke early. Our permit required we spend one night in Little Yosemite Valley — after that, it was up to us and our legs. We reached camp, had lunch and then headed uphill for a bonus hike up Half Dome. Half Dome is an amazing side-trip that’s well worth the extra time, but it made for a long first day. In total we covered about 15 miles and over 5,000 feet of vertical gain. When we got back to camp, we went for a quick swim in the Merced, ate and slept well.
On Wednesday, the young guns Jeff A and Hari hiked ahead, while Joan and I took an alternate route that swung by Cloud’s Rest. This was only our second day of the JMT, and it was our second day of >3000′ of vertical gain in a row. It kicked our respective asses, but was worth it. The views from Clouds Rest are even more impressive than from Half Dome, and the are no crowds (there were a handful of people at the top), no cables, no fuss. The Native Americans who called Yosemite their home in centuries past felt Clouds Rest had spiritual importance. I can’t argue with the sense of awe and wonder the views inspired.
We originally had planned to reach Cathedral Lakes, but Joan and I ended up camping near one of the Sunrise lakes, catching up to Jeff A and Hari at Tuolumne Meadows the next day.
We traversed our first of many passes — Cathedral Pass — on our way to our Tuolumne Meadows. Tuolumne was our first resupply point. Many people skip resupplying here, being so soon into the trip, but why carry more food than you need to, especially when starting out? As we were sorting our resupply package, we bumped into Bob and Cheri from the Yahoo! JMT group — the first of several times our paths would cross.
Most of this day was easy hiking along the idyllic Lyell Creek. The waters were clear and beckoned you to jump in. It felt good to take a long lunch, stretched out on a rock like a lizard letting the sun dry our bodies. At about the 10th mile of the day, we finally hit a serious vertical climb up to our destination — Lyell Forks.
I met a number of others also hiking the JMT at Lyell Forks, although most of them I did not see again. It was interesting that we would cross paths with some people day after day, and others we would never or rarely see at all.
We finally left Yosemite Park, climbing over the 11,073′ Donahue Pass. Jeff A. and Hari took a side trip to bag Donahue Peak, then met up with us in the evening at Thousand Island Lake. This is one of my favorite areas of the Sierras. I’ve been here many times and will never tire of the beauty of the Minarets. This is an area we will come back to again and again to explore in depth.
We hit Thousand Island Lake at the perfect time for mosquitoes. There were huge swarms of them, making nets and Deet a necessity.
Day 6 was a long day, hiking up countless ridges past the many “gem” lakes and finally a long descent through Devil’s Postpile National Monument to the crowded Red’s Meadow campground. We shared a site with “Chris” who was on a 45 day ramble around the Sierras. Chris was just one of many examples of the friendly people met along the trail.
The Red’s Meadow campground isn’t particularly scenic, but it’s worth stopping at if nothing else than for the free, hot spring fed showers. It felt great to get really clean, and the water was almost too hot!
We lazily hung around Red’s Meadow, picked up our second resupply package, and enjoyed both breakfast and lunch at the cafe. As an added treat, Don and Zandra Wilson took the shuttle down from Mammoth and met us for lunch. Zandra was one of the people I originally hiked the JMT with 30 years earlier, and it was a real pleasure to reminisce and catch up.
After filling our guts with non-dehydrated food and one of the best milkshakes you’ll ever enjoy, we headed up the trail for a relatively light 9 mile day to Deer Creek.
At lunch Joan and I met “Al” at Purple Creek. Al was an older guy who was doing his second JMT. His first time, two years earlier, he was “traditionally” equipped with a heavy pack and a 21-day itinerary. This time he was going lightweight, wearing trail runners and a base weight of 14 lbs. and a 14-day itinerary with no resupply points. He inspired us to look more closely at reducing our own base weight.
At the popular and beautiful Lake Virginia, Hari met a ranger who tipped us off to a “secret” ranger campsite on granite bluffs above Tully Hole. The breezes kept the mosquitoes at bay, and the views were amazing. It took a little scrambling to reach them, but it was a beautiful, special place to camp for the night.
Climbing Silver Pass was relatively easy. Descending was a bitch. This longer-than-expected downhill set a pattern for the JMT, where seemingly innocent downhill trails turned ugly, with deep steps and ankle-challenging gravel forcing you to slow to a snail’s pace. Eventually we reached the detour to Lake Thomas Edison, where we caught the ferry to Vermillion Valley Resort.
VVR was our third resupply point, and the site of our only “zero day” — a chance to rest and let our bodies heal a bit. They cater to JMT and PCT thru-hikers, and the camaraderie and food were fantastic. We were able to wash clothes, shower and catch up on the caloric deficit we had been running.
Our one-and-only zero mileage day. No hiking, just rest, eating, cleaning, and camaraderie. It was a welcome respite!
Friday morning, we took the ferry back across the lake and climbed the 60 switchbacks up to the top of Bear Ridge. Most of the afternoon we followed the beautiful cascades along Bear Creek, finally reaching our first of only two creek crossings that required us to remove our boots. We camped in complete solitude at Rosemarie Meadow.
From Rosemarie Meadow, we climbed Selden Pass and then a long descent to Muir Trail Ranch — our final resupply point.
MTR is the last place where you’re close enough to easily detour off the JMT and pick up a package, but it’s difficult for them. Packages must be shipped to an address in Lakeshore, they are picked up at the post office, loaded into a truck, driven to Florence Lake, loaded onto a boat, carried to the other end where they are loaded into a WW2-era Mercedes 4WD truck that carries it the last four miles to the remote ranch.
It’s also challenging for us, as it meant we had to somehow carry almost 10 days worth of food (and get it to fit in our bear cannisters)! A good rule of thumb is 2 lbs of food, per person, per day. That means we’re each carrying 20 lbs of food alone!
As if this wasn’t challenge enough, when we reached MTR, we learned that only two of our five 5-gallon resupply buckets could be found! The good people at MTR were wonderful, checking and double-checking their storerooms and the post office, but the three buckets could not be found. They refunded our handling fees for the three missing packages, and graciously invited us to join them for dinner that night, as well as breakfast the next morning. And fortunately, there are many packages that end up donated to the “hiker bins” and we were able to scavenge enough food to get us through the second half of the trip.
Following the South Fork of the San Juoquin River, we entered Kings Canyon National Park. One of the great things about the JMT is that you’re never far from water, and today was no exception. The entire day we hiked in parallel to a river or creek of some sort.
As we ascended to Evolution Valley, we also made our second “no boots” creek crossing before reaching our destination — McClure Meadow. We shared a campfire with Brian, another JMT thru-hiker from the Bay area whose path we we cross again several times in the next few days. This was also the night of the “big salami” story, which generated laughs for days afterwards.
Muir Pass was tough. It’s not particularly steep, but the trail to the pass is largely composed of course gravel about the size of a baseball and very difficult footing. Making it even tougher, Joan was hit with a bout of major indigestion. We reached the pass late, and decided to camp at the first level spot with water below the pass. As luck would have it, we found a stunningly beautiful little tarn which we had all to ourselves.
Most of this day followed the Middle Fork of the Kings River through Le Conte Canyon — another place I would like to return and spend more time in. Beautiful meadows, towering granite canyon walls that rival Yosemite with none of the crowds. We camped about two miles below the infamous Golden Staircase.
This was another tough day, with the Golden Staircase (which goes on and on) and then Mather Pass. Both were long, arduous climbs. When we finally reached the 12,100′ Mather Pass, we felt a real sense of accomplishment. Thankfully, the descent was smooth. On our way to the Upper Basin, we met an older guy who turned out to be Reinhold Metzger. Reinhart was hiking the JMT for his 14th time. He used to hold the record for the unsupported JMT thru-hike — 5 days, 7 hours and 45 minutes. This time, he was hiking a “yo-yo” trip from Mt. Whitney to Yosemite and back again in 14 days. A little more than I want to tackle, but pretty amazing for a 69 year old. Terrific guy.
Another day, another mountain pass. Today’s pass was 12,086′ Pinchot.
As you may have noticed, the southern half of the JMT includes a lot of mountain passes, higher elevations and lots of exposure above the tree line. The sun is brutal, and it gets hot. I highly recommend doing your best to hit these passes in the morning.
The route down from Pinchot was also long and tough; another example where the elevation profile for the trail only tells part of the story. We camped at White Fork, about 2 miles from the Woods Creek junction.
Originally we had planned to traverse Glen Pass (part of the “pass a day” program), but after reassessment, we modified the itinerary slightly. We camped at Upper Rae Lake, another beautiful area that we plan to revisit in the future. Along the way, we ran into PCT thru-hiker “Steady” (his wife is “Slow”). They hail from Western Australia, and before they started the PCT in April, neither had any backpacking experience. Needless to say, they are now both experts!
We got an early start and made it up Glen Pass before noon. It was tough, but we could feel our bodies getting stronger.
As we made our way towards Vidette Meadow, we could see and smell smoke from a forest fire. This caused some alarm in that we didn’t know exactly where the fire was, and the smoke could wreak havoc with Joan’s asthma. We watched the situation throughout the day, and fortunately by the next morning, the prevailing winds changed direction and the skies were clear.
Along the way, we ran into two PCT section hikers from Portland who had just finished munching down a snack of delectable cheese. Apparently, someone had left a bunch of food in one of the bear boxes in Upper Vidette Meadow and backpackers were scavenging for goodies. Of course, when we reached the campsite, we were no exception, and snagged a few packages of ramen to supplement our food supply.
The whole experience reminded me of the old joke that asks “What’s the difference between a backpacker and a homeless person? The answer: Gore-tex.” As we were rummaging through cheese, hotdogs and other questionable foodstuffs with relish, I realized this was a short step away from “dumpster diving.” Still, the ramen was a great addition to our dinners.
The end was in sight as we climbed the 13,118′ Forester Pass. In keeping with our goal, we reached it before noon. The southbound descent was very similar to Mather Pass — smooth and easy hiking. We hiked another nine miles to Wright Creek. The excitement of Whitney was building.
After relatively short 7.3 mile hike we reached Guitar Lake mid-afternoon. We ate an early dinner, and went to bed early. It may have been the earliest we made camp on the entire trip.
After napping for a few hours, we woke up at 11pm. Technically, it was still the 16th, but not by much. We broke camp, donned our headlamps and began the ascent of Whitney. We reached the Trail Crest about 3:30am, napped fitfully for a couple hours as we awaited the sunrise, then finally headed to the summit.
The sunrise from Mt. Whitney was simply stunning. At 14,505′ Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous 48 states. We saw range after range in the distance.
At the summit we soaked in the sunshine and the views and rested a bit. After 21 days and over 211 miles, we had officially reached the southern terminus of the John Muir Trail. Now we simply had to hike out to our car at the Whitney Portal — 10.6 miles away and a descent of over 6,000 feet.
I have just one thing to say about the trail down to the portal. It. Is. Brutal. Not a smooth, well maintained trail. Gravely with giant steps. Hard on the feet, the knees, and the back. Grueling. We kept on, knowing that a hot cheeseburger and cold beer awaited us at Whitney Portal. The last two miles were endless switchbacks that teased us with views of the cars in the Portal parking, while never seeming to get us any closer.
Of course, we did arrive there. We ate the greasy food and cold drinks, and marveled at how wonderfully comfortable the car seats felt on the drive back home.
Here are a few of my observations from the trail:
- The John Muir Trail is challenging, but rewarding. It really lives up to it’s epic status. Many of the PCT thru-hikers we spoke with regarded the JMT as the best part of the PCT. We trained hard, but I was still surprised by how challenging the trail was.
- No matter how light you go, you can probably still get lighter. And lighter is almost always better.
- Elevation profiles do a really poor job of describing the difficulty of a trail, particularly the downhill.
- Plan, but be flexible.
- The people you meet on the trail are the best in the world.
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