Q:I’m planning to thru-hike the John Muir Trail this summer. How many days should I plan on, what do I need to know, and where are the best campsites?
A: Thru-hiking the JMT should be on every backpacker’s tick list—its amazing scenery really earns it the nickname “America’s most beautiful trail.” And at 221 miles total—when you include the 10-mile hike off Mt. Whitney’s summit, where the JMT ends (or begins, depending on your perspective)—it can be done in three weeks or less, so you don’t have to quit your job or abandon your family for it.
I took this shot of my friend Todd Arndt above Marie Lake, near Selden Pass:
For some reason, JMT thru-hikers have traditionally hiked south to north—maybe because Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers go in that direction. While it makes sense to go north on the PCT to synchronize with the seasons, I preferred going south on the JMT, from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney, when I did it in 2006: You begin with lower elevations and a lighter pack (thanks to more-frequent resupply opportunities), and you’re acclimated and have your trail legs by the time you hit the higher elevations of the southern Sierra, when you have to carry enough food for half the trail. Plus, what better way to finish than with the summit of Whitney, the highest in the Lower 48?
Going north to south, you’d start at the Happy Isles/JMT Trailhead in Yosemite Valley, which you can reach on the valley’s shuttle bus, or on a 20-minute road walk from Curry Village. You’ll probably want to spend the night before somewhere in Yosemite Valley; options include camping or lodging, and either requires a reservation months in advance. (See the park’s website.) Have a vehicle waiting at your endpoint, the Mt. Whitney Trailhead; to get there, from US 395 in Lone Pine, turn west onto Whitney Portal Road and follow it 13 miles to its end.
My favorite places to camp along the JMT include: the unnamed alpine lake over 10,000 feet in Yosemite’s Lyell Canyon, below Donohue Pass; Lake Virginia and Sallie Keyes Lakes in the John Muir Wilderness; the Evolution Basin, Palisade Lakes, and Rae Lakes in Kings Canyon National Park; and Guitar Lake in Sequoia.
How many days? That’s the hard decision. First, consider that you have three convenient places to resupply, in this order going southbound: Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, Red’s Meadow (760-934-2345, redsmeadow.com), and Muir Trail Ranch (209-966-3195, muirtrailranch.com/resupply), about a mile off the JMT near the trail’s halfway point. If you plan three weeks, as many hikers do—averaging 10.5 miles a day—you’re either carrying an ungainly 10 to 11 days of food leaving Muir Trail Ranch southbound, or spending an extra day walking out to a road and back to resupply somewhere between the ranch and the trail’s end at Whitney Portal.
Some hikers will think 10.5 miles a day is plenty. If you’re carrying a 40-pound pack, that may be as far as you’re able to hike. I suggest considering a two-week trip. Averaging 15 to 16 miles a day may seem a lot, but with some training pre-trip, you’ll get your trail legs for hiking that kind of daily distance within your first few days on the JMT. Plus, you’ll carry less food between resupply points; and with careful attention to minimizing gear weight, you can leave Muir Trail Ranch with a pack weighing between 30 and 35 pounds.
WHAT TO KNOW AND WHEN TO GO:
High Sierra afternoons are brutally hot. Start hiking early morning to knock off most of the day’s miles by early afternoon, laze around by a lake with shade through the afternoon heat. And if you’re up for it, hike a couple of hours after dinner, in the cool of evening.
Mosquitoes are thick and voracious and afternoon thunderstorms not uncommon through most of the summer. The best time for a JMT thru-hike is late August through the first half of September, when rain is less common (I had a week of dry weather on the JMT in late August 2006) and cool nights decimate the skeeter population, allowing you to shave significant pack weight by using a tarp instead of a tent. By early autumn, though, snow can start flying.
Be sure to pick up the August issue of BACKPACKER (due out in early July) for my story on Life List trips. It includes thru-hiking the JMT, with tips on planning and keeping your pack light—which is the key component of any long hike. Also, pick up the guidebook John Muir Trail, by Elizabeth Wenk and Kathy Morey ($18, 800-443-7227, wildernesspress.com), and the John Muir Trail map pack ($21, 415-456-7940, tomharrisonmaps.com). And reserve your permit ASAP through either Yosemite National Park (209-372-0740, nps.gov/archive/yose/wilderness/permits.htm) or the Inyo National Forest, (760-873-2485, fs.fed.us/r5/inyo/recreation/wild/permitsres.shtml), whenever you plan to start.
—Michael Lanza, Trip Doctor
Michael Lanza is Backpacker’s Northwest Editor. He’s working on a book, “Before They’re Gone,” about spending a year taking his kids to national parks threatened by climate change. It will be published in spring 2012 by Beacon Press (beacon.org). michaellanza.com/