Hike of the Week: John Muir Trail - Part 1

Hike of the Week: John Muir Trail - Part 1

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. Here's the link if you want to jump ahead to the second half.

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!

  • Distance: 108 miles
  • Type: Point-to-point
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Best time: Early June-September
  • Plan on taking 10-12 days for this section.
  • There are multiple trailhead options. They're easiest to reach via a shuttle into Yosemite.
  • Most hikers choose to go south to north. This allows you to acclimate and avoid altitude sickness
  • Highlights include Thousand Island Lake, Red's Meadow, Rosemarie Meadow, Half Dome, and backcountry fishing.
  • If you have the time, there are lots of side trail options.
  • The beautiful scenery here makes the JMT one of the most iconic trails in the nation.

Before you start planning your JMT experience, keep the following in mind:

  • Weather conditions in spring and fall can be very poor.
  • There is a lot of elevation gain, so some training is recommended.
  • Backcountry permits are needed, so plan ahead.
  • The popularity of this trail means that you can expect it to be fairly crowded.

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.

Map of Recommended Route

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.

For even more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, click the "Open in CalTopo" button at the top of the map once it's loaded into view.

  • 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!

Trail Description

Day 1 - Happy Isles to Half Dome Junction

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. Coming a day before and starting fresh in the morning is advised.

Start at the Happy Isles trailhead and jaunt up to Little Yosemite Valley. If you can, 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. It requires 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 a half-mile past the Half Dome junction.

Day 2 - Half Dome Junction to Sunrise

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 more of the solitude that backpacking offers. As you hike during the second day, you will pass by a junction to the Clouds Rest Trail. This 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 too. But, the route over to Sunrise is a relatively easy elevation gain. If you have some extra energy, you could continue through to Upper or Lower Cathedral Lakes instead.

Day 3 - Sunrise to Tuolumne Meadows

Day three is a nice break. 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. Then, you'll 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.

Day 4 - Tuolumne Meadows to Upper Lyell Canyon

On day four, you will be crossing a short section of the Pacific Crest Trail on your way to the Upper Lyell Canyon. Don't panic if the signs look different. You'll 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.

Day 5 - Upper Lyell Canyon to Thousand Island Lake

You will officially leave Yosemite National Park on day five. The trail will take you across Donohue Pass, which during the early season 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, you'll be rewarded 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. You'll pass 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.

Day 6 - Thousand Island Lake to Devil's Postpile

After a colder night than usual, you will be starting the long descent into Red’s Meadow. Here 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. Here 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.

Day 7 - Devil's Postpile to Deer Creek

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. The next day will be mostly dry.

Day 8 - Deer Creek to Tully Hole

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. Be warned there are 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!

Day 9 - Tully Hole to Edison Lake

Nearing the end of your trip, 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 camp for free. Or, check into a room for a hot shower and some relaxation. Regardless, make sure to resupply here.

Day 10 - Edison Lake to Rosemarie Meadow

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.

Day 11 - Rosemarie Meadow to Muir Trail Ranch

Your last day of part one of the JMT is 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, the highest point in the continental U.S.

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. That means you’ll need to re-supply along the way. The easiest point in this section is Red’s Meadow. You’ll get to it the morning of Day 7. Check out their website for instructions on how to prepare your re-supply cache and where to send it.

The length and difficulty of this hike 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. Some foldable trekking poles will come in handy too. And, for your camp cooking, titanium is the way to go.

Paria Outdoor Products Thermodown 15 Quilt

Using a lightweight quilt is a good way to keep your sleep system under 4 pounds on the extensive John Muir Trail.

If there's anything else you need to complete your pack, visit our full line of high-quality, affordable backpacking gear.

Shop Backpacking Tents
Shop Ultralight Tarps
Shop Backpacking Quilts
Shop Down Sleeping Bags
Shop Insulated Sleeping Pads
Shop Backpacking Pillow
Shop Folding Trekking Poles
Shop Titanium Cookware
Shop Tent and Tarp Accessories

Finally, to make sure you don't forget something at home, use our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List. It even includes a convenient 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.


Yosemite National Park JMT Permits
Public Transportation to and in Yosemite
Vermilion Valley Resort Shuttle
Red’s Meadow Re-Supply Instructions


Have you done segments of the JMT? Or, done the whole thing? We'd love to hear about your experience in the comments section below!

Read Next

If you're looking for more hike ideas, read our “Top 8 Backpacking Trips in California” round-up post. Also, the following Hike of the Week articles cover other great trails in the region.

Hike of the Week: John Muir Trail-Part 2
Hike of the Week: Toiyabe Crest Trail
Hike of the Week: Trans-Zion Trek

For even more amazing backpacking trips, visit The Trailhead, our interactive hike map. It contains a curated list of dozens of hikes, each with a detailed write-up like this one.

The Trailhead - Interactive Map of Backpacking Trips

Finally, check out our comprehensive list of backpacking articles that cover just about everything there is to know about backpacking. If you're just starting out, our Backpacking 101 section covers all the basics.If you already have a few trips under your belt, you can find more advanced topics covered in our Expert Articles.

Hike of the Week USA West


  • Bart

    Shane, thanks for checking out the article and I’m glad to hear that you’ve added the JMT to your bucket list.

    Yes, the PCT and JMT overlap through most of the length of the JMT. One of our other Hike of the Week articles covered the Rae Lakes Loop, which also covers a small part of the JMT.


    If you’re looking to explore a part of the JMT but only have 5 days or so, the Rae Lakes Loop is another good one to add to your list. Thanks again for the feedback.

  • Shane

    I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about the John Muir trail, and it seems like the pictures always back up that perception. First heard about this because I stumbled on the PCT – I believe the two intersect for quite a ways, correct? This is definitely on my short bucket lists of hikes I want to tackle. Thanks for the great article!

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