This is a weekly series that highlights an outstanding day hike or backpacking trip. The goal is to inspire you to want to get out and see these places for yourself. I know for us, just seeing amazing photos and reading about a great hike is enough to get us motivated.
This week's hike is the first half of the epic John Muir Trail in California's Sierra Nevada.
Featured Photo: Sunset at Garnet Lake (photo by Sathish J)
Why this Hike?
The iconic John Muir Trail (JMT) will take you through some of the most beautiful valleys and mountains that California has to offer. The trail offers so much; a long and challenging backpacking trip, diverse landscapes, and lots of fellow hikers to meet along the way. The other nice thing is that the JMT can be split into two parts. The full trail extends approximately 211 miles, but it is easily done in sections. This makes it more manageable for those of us with limited vacation time. In this week’s article, we will lay out the first half. With gorgeous High Sierra scenery and great accessibility, the JMT is one for the books!
- Total distance of 108 miles / 174 km
- Multiple trailheads, easiest to reach via shuttle into Yosemite
- Fairly difficult and strenuous hike
- Multi-day hike, 10-12 days for the first section
- The popularity of this trail means that you can expect it to be fairly crowded
Before jumping into to planning your John Muir Trail experience, keep in mind:
- Weather conditions in spring and fall can be very poor
- There is a lot of elevation gain, so some training is recommended
- Most hikers choose to go south to north, providing an opportunity to acclimate and avoid altitude sickness
- Backcountry permits are needed, so plan ahead
- Best time to go is early June through September
How do I get there?
If you choose to start at Yosemite National Park, access is pretty easy whether you are flying or driving. If you choose to drive into Yosemite Valley, there is long term parking available near Curry Village. However, get there early as spots fill up fast! If you plan to fly in, try to get into Fresno and catch one of the many shuttle services to Yosemite Valley.
When you finish the first portion of the JMT, you’ll exit out at Muir Trail Ranch. From there, you’ll need to walk over to Florence Lake (approximately 5 miles), catch a ferry, and then take a shuttle back to Fresno or Yosemite Valley.
The following outlines our recommended route for the first portion of the JMT. As shown, we recommend a 12 day / 11 night itinerary, which means you’ll need a couple of weeks off to complete this section.
This route is the most straightforward option, without any scenic side-trips that you might want to take along the way. One suggestion, especially for those new to backpacking, is to split up the first day and reduce the amount of elevation that you’ll need to gain in one day.
- Day 1 - Happy Isles to Half Dome Junction (12.3 miles)
- Day 2 - Half Dome Junction to Sunrise (7.6 miles)
- Day 3 - Sunrise to Tuolumne Meadows (11.4 miles)
- Day 4 - Tuolumne Meadows to Upper Lyell Canyon (9.5 miles)
- Day 5 - Upper Lyell Canyon to Thousand Island Lake (9.7 miles)
- Day 6 - Thousand Island lake to Devil’s Postpile (16.2)
- Day 7 - Devil’s Postpile to Deer Creek (9 miles)
- Day 8 - Deer Creek to Tully Hole (12.3 miles)
- Day 9 - Tully Hole to Edison Lake (11.8 miles)
- Day 10 - Edison Lake to Rosemarie Meadow (12.3 miles)
- Day 11 - Rosemarie Meadow to Muir Trail Ranch (9.5 miles)
The last stop on the first part of the JMT is a traditional re-supply stop, but also a great place to jump off the trail. In addition, Muir Trail Ranch offers accommodations which will a treat after spending almost two weeks on the trail!
Rise and shine! Your first day on the trail will not be easy. You will be starting at low elevation and going up, up, up! Luckily the first section of the trail is only moderately steep, but extremely beautiful. Most people choose to start in Yosemite Valley for the inspiration and the gradual ascent. You will start acclimating to the altitude at this point, so coming a day before and then starting fresh in the morning is advised.
Start off at the Happy Isles trailhead and jaunt up to Little Yosemite Valley. If you have the ability, we highly suggest trying to get up Half Dome. If you go this route, make sure you get a permit. The Half Dome ascent is a notorious mountain climb for Yosemite, requiring a bit of technical hiking right at the top. However, if you can do Half Dome, you can do the rest of the hike! The first camp will be about half mile past the Half Dome junction.
Day two will still find you in the crowded part of Yosemite. However, after a little while you will start to leave the crows behind as you make your way to the Sunrise High Sierra Camp. From there, you will see a lot less people and a more of the solitude that backpacking offers. As you hike during the second day, you will be passing by a junction to a trail called Clouds Rest, which is a high elevation side trip to some insanely beautiful views. If you really feel like testing your legs, you can do the Clouds Rest loop at this point. However, the route over to Sunrise is a relatively easy elevation gain. If you have a bit of extra energy, you could continue through to Upper or Lower Cathedral Lakes instead.
Day three is a nice break, since you'll spend some of it taking a shaded downhill stroll along beautiful meadows. Your end goal for day three is the Tuolumne Meadows. You'll hit the Tuolumne Meadows hiker's area first and will need to trek another mile or so to where the backpackers stay, past the busy Tioga Road. This is a resupply area, so you can stock up on water and any other necessities. If you are already sick of trail food, there is a decent diner to grab a meal.
On day four you will be crossing a short section of the Pacific Crest Trail on your way to the Upper Lyell Canyon. Do not panic if the signs look different, you will eventually come across a small but sturdy bridge that takes you back onto the JMT. Much of the trail on day four is straight and level, so you should be able to make up for any lost time. However, once you pass Lyell Creek, be prepared to climb up to your camp for the night. Upper Lyell Canyon has gorgeous campsites, which are welcomed after the end-of-day climb.
You will officially leave Yosemite National Park on day five. The trail will take you across Donohue Pass, which during the early seasons is covered in snow. At this point, you will have hiked over 50 miles. Crossing a little wooden bridge, you will start your ascent. If you see other little trails branching off at this point, take the one that goes up, anything else is the wrong way. You will be climbing out of the canyon you camped in, and then ascending well above the tree line to Donohue Pass. The trail will turn into a slabby boulder scramble up to Donohue Peak, but will reward you with views looking back on Yosemite Valley. While you don’t need to be a professional climber to accomplish this peak, you should be comfortable scrambling over boulders that might have a bit of ice. Once you have hit the crest of the pass, you will start a downhill hike of about six miles, passing by Rush Creek, which has several trail connection points. Stay towards Island Pass until you can see a massive lake, known as Thousand Island Lake. This is your destination, with the camp sites located along the northern shore of the lake.
After a colder night than usual, you will be starting the long descent into Red’s Meadow, where you can stop at a little store and cafe, as well as resupply your pack. There are three small lakes to help you stay on the trail, named after some beautiful gems: Emerald, Ruby, and Garnet that are also stocked with trout! After you pass Shadow Lake, you will continue to descend down into the meadow. You will eventually reach Devil’s Postpile Junction, where you can take the side trip to see columnar basalt; one of the national landmarks to view on this journey! Finally, camp in Red’s Meadow for the night.
After such a long day hiking down to the meadow, day seven is a much-welcomed break. You can resupply at Red's Meadow and only have to hike 7 miles to camp. Find the JMT and head south, traversing through forests. Stay alongside the creek and your journey will be easy. Your end goal is the lovely Deer Creek where you can enjoy a lazy afternoon at camp. Before you leave the creek, stock up on plenty of water because the next day will be mostly dry.
As you head off on day eight, you will be walking at a steady, dusty incline with no switchbacks. After a while, you will come to Purple Lake. The incline will start to increase at this point as you head up to your highest point, Lake Virginia, which has lots of rocks to scramble over. Head east to Tully Hole, which will require a steep descent of over 1,000 feet in only a mile. You'll be sick of switchbacks after this portion!
As you are nearing the end of your trip, on day nine, you may think the hardest part is behind you. However, day nine will take you up to almost 11,000 feet as you travel over the beautiful, if not ominous, Silver Pass. To make matters worse, you are then going to descend all the way down into Edison Lake until you reach the Vermilion Valley Resort for a restock supply and rest. If you plan on going to the resort, you will need to catch the last ferry that leaves at 5:00 p.m. or add 4.8 miles to your day. The resort is notoriously hiker-friendly, and you can either camp for free, or check into a room for a hot shower and some relaxation. Regardless, make sure to resupply here.
Some people will stay for an extra day at the resort. If you decide to continue, you will be leaving from Edison Lake and trekking about 12 miles over to Rosemarie Meadow. Get back on the JMT by heading towards Mono Creek, cross a bridge and then follow signs towards Seldon Pass. Day ten is an uphill day. You are going to be tackling about 60 switchbacks for 3.5 miles to gain 2,000 feet. After your ascent, you'll come across a river that has no bridge. Tie your boots to your bag, pull out your trekking poles and cross the water carefully. Luckily for your now damp socks, you only have a mile to Rosemarie Meadow, which is as beautiful as it sounds.
On your last day of part one of the JMT, you are going to have a much easier day. It’s a mild ascent in the morning, followed by a steeper trail down to Muir Trail Ranch. This is a well-known supply stop and the last one on the trail for most thru-hikers. You can choose to exit the JMT at this point or continue onwards towards Mount Whitney.
What will I need?
This is an extended backpacking trip, so you’ll need to plan well to have a safe and enjoyable time. Backpacking along the JMT requires that you use a pre-approved bear canister. Most canisters can only hold about 5-7 days of food, so you’ll need to re-supply along the way. The easiest point along the first part of the JMT is Red’s Meadow, which you’ll get to the morning of Day 7. Check out their website for instructions how to prepare your re-supply cache and where to send it.
The length and difficulty of this hike really requires that you keep your pack as light as possible. Really evaluate every piece of gear that you’ll bring to make sure it’s truly needed. For the things that you do bring, try to go with lightweight options. This is especially important for the big three; shelter, sleeping bag/quilt, and sleeping pad. For more guidance on what to bring, check out our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List for a complete list of things that we recommend and a handy printable checklist.
Do I need a permit?
Backpacking the JMT requires permits and you’ll need to book them least six months in advance. A backpacking permit will give you portal access, but you are also going to want to reserve individual campsites. While you can ‘wing it’ and hope for open spots, the trail is popular and we don’t recommend going this route. Visit the National Park Service website for more information regarding permits and how to apply for them.
Don’t panic if our recommended route is booked for your target dates, there are plenty of ways to modify the JMT. If you are planning to park in Yosemite, make sure to buy long-term parking as well.
Have you done segments of the JMT, or perhaps done the whole trail? Let us know in the comments below!