The John Muir Trail is one of those bucket list hikes that I always dreamed about but didn’t think I’d get the opportunity to do. The trail is over 200 miles long and goes from Yosemite National Park to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. It goes past Half Dome in Yosemite, by the most beautiful alpine lakes in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, through the massive canyons carved out by the San Joaquin River in Kings Canyon National Park, and meanders through the land of 14,000′ giants in Sequoia National Park. Some say it’s the most beautiful and scenic land in the country, it would be hard to argue otherwise.
My journey began when Jeff entered the lottery for a permit to hike the John Muir Trail and climb Half Dome. Despite only a 2% chance of being awarded a permit (at that time), we got permits for our requested days within a two days of the lottery opening. Since Jeff, Michael, and I couldn’t take the time off work to hike the entire trail at a single go, we decided to break it up into three trips. The hardest permits to acquire were entering the trail from Yosemite and exiting the trail from Mount Whitney. We got the first one, we’d figure out the rest as we got there. For our first year on the JMT we decided to hike from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley to Reds Meadow, and exit via Mammoth Lakes area.
After almost an entire day flying across the country, spotting a rental car in Mammoth, public transporting to Yosemite, and picking up our permits, we awoke at the hiker’s campground in Yosemite Valley and headed to Happy Isles trailhead. I cannot describe the excitement and anticipation of starting the hike. It was one of the few instances in my life where the reality of doing the thing exceeded the daydreaming and the planning of the thing. It was a perfect morning, we were surrounded beautiful scenery, and we were giddy for the hiking and camping ahead of us. It was the perfect introduction to the trail, with sprawling vistas and massive waterfalls, and all the while Half Dome loomed overhead. We set up camp at Little Yosemite Valley (where our permits dictated we needed to camp the first night) and hiked to the approach of Half Dome. We planned to hike it on the first day since we could do it with lighter packs after setting up camp. But, as we neared The Cables a thunderstorm rolled in and we bailed. Back at Little Yosemite Valley we met our camping neighbors, Keith and his sister-in-law, and had a campfire to cap off the day.
- Drive from Portland, ME to Boston, MA
- Airplane from Boston, MA to San Francisco, CA
- Car rental from San Francisco to Horseshoe Lake parking lot in Mammoth Lakes
- Mammoth Lakes Basin Trolley from Horseshoe Lake to Mammoth Village
- YARTS bus from Mammoth to Tuolumne Meadows
- Permit pickup in Tuolumne Meadows
- Tuolumne Meadows Shuttle from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley
- Camp at hiker’s campground in Yosemite Valley
- Hiked John Muir Trail from Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley
- Left on John Muir Trail from Little Yosemite Valley to intersection with Half Dome Trail
- Left on Half Dome Trail to above tree line and back
- Right on John Muir Trail to Little Yosemite Valley
- Camped at Little Yosemite Valley
Date: 16 August 2017
Distance: 10.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 4700′
Our second day on the JMT started by re-hiking the approach to Half Dome. At the intersection of the John Muir Trail and Half Dome Trail we ditched a lot of our gear (even though it is not suggested), except for our food so that animals wouldn’t get into it. The Cables were nerve-wracking, I’m glad I didn’t have the full weight of my pack on my back. Since we started at Little Yosemite Valley, we got to Half Dome before the crowds. We grabbed some gloves from a pile (this was pre-covid so it was okay to share, though I guess you needed to be wary of rattlesnakes) and started up the steep pitch. The ascent was not for the meek, the granite was slick on a dry day and all you have to assist you are two cables held up by an occasional metal pole, and wood treads every several feet (see image below get the idea). As we started up what seemed like a vertical pitch, Jeff headed back down in a moment of uncertainty. Michael and I continued up, and I for one took my first full breath as we got to the top. The views were amazing, despite the smoke from forest fires obscuring the valley, but I think I was too worried about the descent to truly appreciate it. After taking some photos and avoiding the shit-ravens (I guess the climb made people shit themselves and the ravens clearly liked to snack on it) we headed back to The Cables. But as we got there Jeff was just finishing the climb. In the end he overcame his fear and we got to experience the shitty splendor of Half Dome together.
After descending Half Dome we continued up the John Muir trail, heading northeast toward Tuolumne Meadows. After filtering some water near the Clouds Rest Trail intersection (I still loved my Sawyer Squeeze at this time), we entered a section of trail that weaved through an remnants of a forest fire. It was a shocking contrast to the beauty we witnessed up to that point. All of the trees were charred, and there was no shade. After getting through that arid section we capped off the day with a slog up Sunrise Pass. We found a hardened area off the trail on which to camp with views of the ragged Cathedral Range to the north.
- Hiked John Muir Trail to intersection with Half Dome Trail
- Left on Half Dome Trail to summit of Half Dome and back
- Left on John Muir Trail to Sunrise Pass
- Camped off trail below Sunrise Pass
Date: 17 August 2017
Distance: 11.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 5600′
Our third day was a mostly gradual descent from Sunrise Pass to Tuolumne Meadows. We hiked along iconic fields surrounded by wild flowers and the shark-teeth-like peaks of Columbia Finger, Tresidder Peak, and the impressive Cathedral Peak. We stopped by Cathedral Lake for lunch on the rocks while Jeff scoped out the fish situation. The descent from Cathedral Peak to Tuolumne Meadows was cruizer for us, but we passed family after miserable family climbing up in the heat. In several cases the children were crying and the parents were fuming with frustration. Having been on a month-long whirlwind tour of the national parks only a month earlier, I could relate. After arriving at the hiker’s campground in Tuolumne Meadows, we stopped at the post office to grab our resupply and get some lunch. Sadly, we were already halfway through our adventure. We bumped into Keith again, and met his new trail partner Cat. Keith had way over estimated how much food he needed in his resupply, so we feasted on his extra jerky and Fritos. We invited them to camp with us and spent the evening becoming fast friends and sharing stories over a campfire.
- Hiked John Muir Trail to Cathedral Lake
- Continued on John Muir Trail to Tuolumne Meadows
- Camped at Tuolumne Meadows hiker’s campground
Date: 18 August 2017
Distance: 9.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 1100′
After grabbing the most amazing breakfast sandwiches in Tuolumne Meadows, we left Keith and Cat and got an early start on the trail, hoping that we would meet up again that evening. The day was one of the more mellow ones as we followed Lyell Canyon toward Donahue Pass. We stopped occasionally to peer at fish in the river, and Jeff got to fly fish a little as we took breaks (see video below). The day drew to an end as we started the climb up to Donahue Pass. We stopped at Green Tarn, a small mountain lake feed from glacier runoff and made camp. I jumped in the tarn to wash off several days’ worth of grit and we caught a beautiful sunset. We left a sign on the trail that we were camping nearby (a mosaic of Maine made from small rocks, and a twig arrow) but we did not see Keith and Cat that evening. Michael and I cowboy camped outside our tents and stared at the stars overhead. But I moved into my tent as the temperature dropped.
- Hiked John Muir Trail to intersection with Pacific Crest Trail
- Right on Pacific Crest Trail to Green Tarn
- Camped at Green Tarn
Date: 19 August 2017
Distance: 11.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 2100′
We started our fifth day on the JMT by wading across the freezing runoff from Green Tarn and climbing up and over Donahue Pass. The pass was be our highest elevation for this section of the trip at 11,066′ and was the border between Yosemite National Park and the Ansel Adams Wilderness. I was looking forward to the Ansel Adams Wilderness, but was still struck by its beauty. The day was filled with wildflowers, hopping over trickling brooks and surrounded by snow-covered mountain peaks. Midday was marked by pack llamas on Island Pass and heading toward some of the most amazing alpine lakes. Thousand Island Lake and Garnet Lake were majestic bodies of water towered over by Banner Peak and Mount Ritter. Banner Peak stood front and center above the lakes, and over its shoulder, Mount Ritter was the highest mountain we would see this trip at over 13,000′. The climb down from Island Pass was very exposed to the sun and I was feeling a bit dehydrated. We stopped at Thousand Island Lake for lunch and to put our feet in the water. We had planned to camp along one of the lakes, but they were relatively crowded and a ranger who stopped us to check our permits said there was a nuisance bear bother campers the last few nights. So we continued through a climb after Garnet Lake and found a hardened spot with a view and a fire ring to camp at. It wasn’t the nicest campsite, but at least we were back to low enough elevation to have a campfire.
- Hiked Pacific Crest Trail over Donahue Pass to Thousand Island Lake and intersection with John Muir Trail
- Right on John Muir Trail to campsite above Shadow Lake
Date: 20 August 2017
Distance: 12.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 2500′
Day six marked the day we’d be exiting the John Muir Trail, but on a lighter note there would also be a nearly total solar eclipse. We continued along the JMT past some more alpine lakes. While we were at the high point between Rosalie and Gladys Lake we came across some people observing the total eclipse. It was a partially cloudy morning, but they let us borrow a piece of welder’s glass they were carrying to check out the eclipse. While not as impressive as the last week’s worth of scenery, it was a moment that marked that place in time for me. It was a pretty mellow hike beyond that point, and soon after lunch we got to Devils Postpile National Monument, where we exited the JMT. The rocks in Devils Postpile were known for their hexagonal pillar shape, but it was otherwise unimpressive. We continued on to Reds Meadow where we grabbed a campsite (the cheaper hiker’s campsite was too crowded for our wilderness-induced minds) and headed to Reds Meadow Resort to get some burgers and milkshakes. Later that afternoon Keith and Cat found us and took the campsite next to us. Another hiker we met in Lyell Canyon a few days earlier added his tent to our site. We spent the evening catching up and talking about the JMT. I know Jeff, Michael and I were sad to have to exit the trail the next morning, and not continue south with our new trail family.
- Hiked John Muir Trail to intersection with Devils Postpile Trail
- Left on Devils Postpile Trail to Reds Meadow
- Camped at Reds Meadow Campground
Date: 21 August 2017
Distance: 10.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 1500′
On our last day of our 2017 John Muir Trail adventure we headed out of the wilderness by climbing through Mammoth Pass to our car parked at Horsehoe Lake. The morning did start with some excitement when we spotted a black bear stalking us through the less traveled trails. At the trailhead I left my trusty hiking stick which had travelled with me from Lyell Canyon, and on which I had carved #mainewanderlust. The rest of the day was the drive back to San Francisco to catch our flight. We grabbed some dinner at Whole Foods and enjoy it by the Pacific Ocean during sunset, so it wasn’t a complete bummer to return to reality.
- Hiked Old John Muir Trail to intersection with Mammoth Pass Trail
- Left on Mammoth Pass Trail to Horseshoe Lake parking
Date: 22 August 2017
Distance: 4.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 1900′
Date: 16 – 22 August 2017
Distance: 70.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 19,400′