John Muir Trail, California

I turned 40 in 2019 and was looking to do a special trip to celebrate. I had lots of ideas, one of which was hiking the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. In order to hike the JMT, you have to get one of the highly coveted limited entry permits through a lottery system. I heard that the odds of getting a permit were very low these days, some even saying less than 5%, so I threw in my application without expecting to get one…but fluked out! I even managed to get the entry point I wanted, the official start of the trail at Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park, letting me do the entire classic route for the JMT from Happy Isles to Mt Whitney.

The JMT is 220 miles from Yosemite National Park in the north to the summit of Mt. Whitney further south (the highest mountain in the contiguous USA). You can hike it either way but hiking southbound gives you more time to slowly acclimatize to the altitude, as the trail gradually increases further south. It’s a challenging trail with many high passes and lots of elevation gain and loss. The hardest day for me was the very last day hiking up to Trail Crest (the highest alpine pass on the trail), then a side trip to Mt Whitney before a 6000 ft drop to Whitney Portal. Part way up to Trail Crest I started getting mild altitude sickness, which was the first time I experienced it on the trail. I think it was partly due to getting very little sleep on the previous nights, due to the cold and camping at altitude. I was feeling knackered and stumbling like a drunk by the time I got to Trail Crest (13,600 ft elevation, the highest pass on the trail), so I stopped for almost an hour, drank lots of water and had lunch at the pass before ditching my pack and hiking another 2 miles / 800 ft elevation gain up to Mt Whitney. Fortunately, I had no problem with altitude going up Mt Whitney.

The scenery is superb: jagged mountains, crystal clear lakes, streams and rivers, pine forest, grand views, interesting rock formations. The weather was excellent for the most part, with only 4 days of afternoon thunderstorms, hail and rain in 3 weeks, with the rest of the time being sunny and warm. Being from the west coast (ie. wet coast), I appreciated the drier climate and lower humidity. It was such a nice treat to jump in a lake and be dry in 10 minutes without needing a towel. 

Even with the limited entry permit lottery, there is still a fair amount of people on the trail. Other than JMT hikers, there are long distance hikers doing the Pacific Crest Trail (which the JMT is a portion of) as well as hikers doing shorter loops, sections or weekend or day hikes. You won’t find a lot of solitude on the trail (I ran into 20-100 people a day) but I didn’t find it took away from the experience and there were always parts of the day where I felt I was on my own. There are many campsites along the trail, so you could always find a secluded spot if you wanted to. Yosemite (especially near Half Dome) and Mt Whitney were the busiest sections. 

I gave myself 22 days to finish the trail but ended up finishing in 20 days. I didn’t feel rushed at all and had a few short days due to afternoon thunderstorms that prevented me from crossing over alpine passes. With my side trip to/from Onion Valley over Kearsarge Pass to pick up a re-supply bucket, I hiked an additional 14 miles, making the total 234 miles (11.7 miles / day average). I had to change my plan a few times due to weather, so I missed out on a few lakeside campsites that I was keen on. My girlfriend didn’t have enough vacation time to hike the entire trail, so she did the first section from Yosemite to Mammoth Lakes. 

I resupplied in Mammoth Lakes, Muir Trail Ranch and Mt Williamson Hotel in Independence. Mammoth Lakes is a full service town with everything you need. Muir Trail Ranch was convenient because it was only 1 mile off the trail but I didn’t find them that welcoming. I highly recommend the Mt Williamson Motel (http://mtwilliamsonmotel.com/) because it is operated by hikers who know what you need and are very welcoming and helpful. They added a lot of nice touches that only hikers would think about. 

Here is a breakdown of my hike:

DAY 1 – Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley (5.0 miles) – Mile 5.0

DAY 2 – Little Yosemite Valley to Sunrise Camp (8.5 miles) – Mile 13.5

DAY 3 – Sunrise Camp to Tuolumne Meadows (9.5 miles) – Mile 23.0

DAY 4 – Tuolumne Meadows to Lyell Valley (~9 miles) – Mile 32

DAY 5 – Lyell Valley to 1000 Island Lake (11 miles) – Mile 43.1

DAY 6 – Cathedral Lake to Roselie Lake (8.3 miles) – Mile 51.4

DAY 7 – Rosalie Lake to Devil’s Postpile Monument, bus to Mammoth Lakes (7.4 miles) – Mile 58.8

DAY 8 – Bus back to Devil’s Postpile, Red’s Meadow to Duck Pass (13.1 miles) – Mile 71.9

DAY 9 – Duck Pass to Fords Creek (9.1 miles) – Mile 81

DAY 10 – Fords Creek to Marie Lake (12.8 miles) – Mile 94

DAY 11 –  Marie Lake to Muir Trail Ranch (re-supply), then to Evolution Meadow (21 miles) – Mile 115

DAY 12 – Evolution Meadow to Evolution Lake (7 miles) – I had to stop here due to an afternoon thunderstorm, otherwise I would have continued over Muir Pass. (7.5 miles) – Mile 122.5

DAY 13 – Evolution Lake to Middle Fork Kings River (17.2 miles) – Mile 139.7

DAY 14 – Middle Fork Kings River to Bench Lake (18.5 miles) – Mile 158.2

DAY 15 – Bench Lake to Arrowhead Lake (16 miles) – Mile 174

DAY 16 – Arrowhead Lake to Bullfrog Lake Trail (7 miles) – Mile 180.6

DAY 17 –  Bullfrog Lake Trail to Onion Valley trailhead via Kearsarge Pass bus to Independence (7 miles)

DAY 18 – Bus back to Onion Valley, hike over Kearsarge Pass, then to just north of Forester Pass (~11 miles) – Mile ~186

DAY 19 – North of Forester Pass to Crabtree Meadows (~17 miles) – Mile 202.7

DAY 20 – Crabtree Meadows to Trail Crest, side trip to Mt Whitney, descent to Whitney Portal (18.4 miles) – Mile 220

 

HIGHLIGHTS

  • The pink sunsets
  • Swimming in crystal clear lakes and rivers
  • Meeting interesting people, especially Mike from Cleveland
  • Sunrise Camp
  • Watching a fox run by our tent at Sunrise Camp, then hearing it howl at night
  • Cathedral Lake
  • 1000 Island Lake 
  • Garnet Lake
  • Donohue Pass to Marie Lakes Trail
  • Getting a burger and pie at Reds Meadow Resort
  • Lake Virginia
  • Silver Pass 
  • Marie Lakes
  • Evolution Basin to Muir Pass
  • Muir Pass to Starr Camp
  • Palisade Lakes
  • Upper Basin south of Mather Pass
  • Basin south of Pinchot Pass
  • Arrowhead Lake & Rae Lakes
  • Kearsarge Pass Trail
  • Relaxing at Mt Williamson Motel
  • The descent on the south side of Forester Pass
  • Bighorn Plateau
  • The view from Trail Crest
  • Standing on the summit of Mt Whitney
  • Looking back at Mt Whitney on the descent to Whitney Portal
  • Getting a huge meal at the Whitney Portal Store
  • The chocolate milkshake at Frosty Chalet in Lone Pine the day after finishing the hike 

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