The John Muir Trail is a premier hiking trail that attracts thousands of hikers each year. Shorter than any of America’s long trails (the PCT, ACT, or CDT), it is much more feasible for the average hiker who wants something more challenging than a weekend trip. Running 216 miles through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the trail begins in Yosemite and ends at the summit of Mt. Whitney (14,496 ft) to the south. Most hikers choose to hike the trail north to south simply to give themselves time to acclimate.
Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney
Our John Muir Trail adventure began at the permit office in Yosemite Valley. I had tried numerous times to reserve a permit months ahead, but had no such luck. July being prime hiking season, there was a long line, but we patiently waited our turn, talking with hikers from around the world. Almost everyone was hoping to hike the famous Half Dome. Luckily, we were able to snag just that!
Permit in hand, we packed our bags and made our way over to the campground. Yosemite reserves spaces for backpackers and allows them to stay one night before and after any trip for a nominal fee. We found an unwanted space near the pit toilets and set up camp. Over dinner we met two fellow backpackers named Randy and Jimmie. Randy was also attempting the JMT and we decided the five of us would hike together the following morning.
And so it began…
Day 1: Yosemite Valley to Cloud’s Rest Trail Jct- 13 miles
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”
With sleep still heavy in our eyes, we stumbled out of our tents and packed up our things. Rendezvoused at the trailhead, we took our picture with the sign that listed the 216 miles to the big finish.
Then came our first steps on the trail. The JMT wastes little time ascending out of Yosemite valley. At an ass-blasting pace, you will gain over 3,000 feet in the 6+ miles to the Half Dome Trail junction. Progress is justly rewarded with gorgeous views along the way. We briefly veered off the actual JMT taking the appropriately named Mist Trail past Vernal Falls.
It was a breezy day and the trail was slick with windblown mist. Climbing a steep set of stairs, we made our way above the falls. Leaning on a railing, you can look out over the powerful cascading water. A second waterfall, Nevada Falls, comes into view farther up the trail. Further on we came to the Little Yosemite Valley Campground. Many people camp here on route to Half Dome; I had done such a trip back in 2014. A few miles farther, just past the trail junction for Cloud’s Rest, we found a nice spot in the woods to set up camp. After some food and a brief rest, we said our goodbyes to Jimmie and the four of us spent the afternoon tackling Half Dome.
With day packs full of water and snacks, we climbed the chains to the summit of one of the most iconic peaks in America! On top, we shared the heart stopping views with fellow hikers and… a wedding party! What a place to say “I Do”!
The way back down the chains is scary as hell. Going up, you can lean forward, power ahead, and all but ignore the steep drop below. Heading back down, you are confronted with it every step. It’s a terrifying journey and nothing short of sweet relief when you finally reach the bottom. Back in camp, we were visited by no less than three bears over the course of the night.
One came when we were still cooking dinner. He had a purple tag in his right ear and attempted to chase us off with a little stutter lunge. He succeeded in soiling our pants, though the collective noise of our yells eventually sent him scampering. Two more visits were made in the dark of the night. It was a restless night to say the least.
Day 2: Cloud’s Rest Jct to Cathedral Lake- 10.5 miles
“I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found.”
From our camp, the trail continued on a steep climb north. We made our way through a thin forest that showed blatant signs of the fire that had swept through the area in 2014. The distant landscape was full of granite domes and peaks, some still sporting some leftover snow.
Around midday we came to a highpoint that provided some really exceptional views of the Cathedral Range. We took our lunch and rested our weary legs.
Afterwards, the trail finally gave us a break and made its descent down to a wonderful meadow. A small creek meandered through the grass, carving a channel in the soft earth.
Above the meadow lies a High Sierra Camp called Sunrise. It consists of a small cafe and accommodation for those who wish to rough it in style. We filled up on water and pressed on. A short climb over a final pass brought us to the two-pronged Cathedral Mountain and a beautiful lake.
We set up camp along the shore and took a dip in the chilly water. Fighting off swarms of mosquitoes, we cooked our dinner and ate inside the shelter of our tents.
Day 3: Cathedral Lake to Tuolumne Meadows- 6.5 miles
“One touch of nature makes all the world kin.”
I rose early and was greeted with a layer of frost on the tent and backpacks. Packing up my things in a hurry, I took off before the rest of the group. I was pushing ahead to see about officially getting our JMT permit at the Tuolumne Meadows Ranger Station. There were few people up this early, but plenty of wildlife.
I arrived at the Backcountry Office about an hour before it opened and joined a line that was already 8 or so deep. No one else was going for the JMT so I obtained our permit with ease. Then I met the girls at the campground and dropped off my pack, before hopping on a bus back to Yosemite Valley. I battled crowds and horrendous traffic to drive our car back to Tuolumne Meadows where it would remain for the rest of our trip. We repacked our packs for what would now be the long haul, 13+ days on the trail! In camp, I chatted with a guy who was on a cross-country bike ride. We were mutually in awe of each other.
Day 4: Tuolumne Meadows to Over Donohue Pass- 13.5 miles
“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.”
We left Tuolumne Meadows behind and traced our route past the Permit office and beyond. For the early part of the day, the trail followed the scenic Lyell River through the canyon of its own making. We crossed bridges and lush meadows up this wonderful valley.
After several miles the trail led into the woods where we steadily gained elevation, ever heading towards the mountains to the south that signaled the trail’s first serious pass, Donohue. After lunch the tough climbing really began. From Tuolumne Meadows it’s an elevation gain of over 2,500 feet to the pass, with much of it being done in the last few miles. Switchbacks took us higher and higher, finally climbing above tree line to a delicate world where mountain peaks outnumber men.
We passed a gorgeous mountain tarn full of snowmelt that lie beneath the mighty Mount Lyell (13,144 ft), highest peak in Yosemite National Park. Through a jumble of strewn boulders and rocks we pressed on, reaching the indifferent pass on sheer determination. After barely a moment’s rest, we started down the other side. We made our camp in a meadow still in the shadows of the pass. A colorful sunset completed the toughest day on the trail yet.
Day 5: Donohue Pass to Lake Ediza- 12.5 miles
“The snow is melting into music.”
Among the boulders and clumps of grass, marmots had made quite a thriving community. As we packed up our stuff, they ran all about, curiously watching our activity. The trail today led straight towards the beautiful Ritter Range of mountains. We climbed a small pass and were rewarded with the most stunning of vistas.
Thousand Island Lake was sprawled out below the mighty Banner Peak, creating a stark contrast between the dark blue water and the light grey of the surrounding granite. True to its name, the lake had numerous tiny islands, though maybe not quite a thousand. Somehow, the views only got better. Just past this came another stunning lake called Garnett Lake. Snowy Mount Ritter loomed overhead creating quite a backdrop.
I once again tested the waters on a few more chilly dives. Leaving the JMT behind for the day, we took a side trail out to Lake Ediza. I had been here before on a day hike and knew it would be well worth the extra mile or so. I carried Andrea’s pack as she was now badly limping with a swollen Achilles. That night, camped along the lakeshore, we heard a pack of coyotes calling their fellows. I chimed in and got a distant response. For a brief instant, I felt among them.
Day 6: Lake Ediza to Reds Meadow- 12.5 miles
“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”
I spent the morning exploring the rocky expanse and peaks that ringed the lake. Then, in keeping up with my streak, I took a dive in Ediza.
The morning hike saw more, smaller lakes on a descent that eventually led to Reds Meadow. After many unremarkable miles, we came to Devil’s Postpile National Monument. It was a unique site where the rock of a particular cliff side has formed perfect columns.
Below the cliff, sits the remnants of fallen columns. It was unlike anything I have seen before. In the campground just after Devil’s Postpile there used to be bath-houses to wash in, though apparently they have shut down in the last year or two. We pushed on to Reds Meadow Resort and a nice dinner in the restaurant. To avoid paying the campground fee, we camped in a spot a quarter-mile down the trail.
The Trip is Over…
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
The next morning, over a hot breakfast back in the restaurant, it was decided that we were done hiking the JMT. Andrea’s ankle had swollen so much over the last two days, every step was now painful. Glenna’s foot was no better. She had aggravated it during our hike in the Narrows and was worried she wouldn’t make it either.
I was pretty disappointed. After riding the bus back to Tuolumne and driving our car to Mammoth Lakes, I decided to press on solo. Hiking at a furious pace, I tried to convince myself that this is what I wanted. It wasn’t. I exited the trail the next morning just past Duck Lake and joined up with the girls.