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Payoff On day 15 of my combo trek of the High Sierra and John Muir Trails, grinding up to Muir Pass, I muttered: “I hate the JMT.” My partner laughed, a wry chuckle that signaled he knew something I didn’t. Namely: A long hike wears you down before building you up, and fleeting lows are followed by endless highs. Later, basking in the alpenglow of an Evolution Basin sunset, simultaneously drained and fulfilled, I knew there was no shortcut to this moment. And I said, naturally, “I love the JMT.” —Andrew Matranga
Do it From Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney, every day on the 221-mile John Muir Trail delivers scenes straight from an Ansel Adams shot: granite spires and ridges reflected in thousands of alpine lakes, scores of soaring waterfalls, campsites by sparkling creeks amid meadow-and-rock havens. And because the JMT generally offers good footing and moderate grades—despite daily climbs (and descents) of 2,000 feet—with an ultralight pack you can knock off 15- to 16-mile days, pain-free. Go in late summer or early fall, when mosquito season has largely passed and you’re almost guaranteed bluebird days and mild nights. That means you can use a tarp or superlight tent, getting a big start on shedding pack weight.