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 we pick up the second half of the epic John Muir Trail in California's Sierra Nevada.
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. This segment covers the southern half, starting at Muir Trail Ranch and ending at Mount Whitney portal.
- Total distance of 103 miles / 166 km
- Easiest to reach via shuttle to the Muir Trail Ranch or Vermillion Valley Resort
- Fairly difficult and strenuous hike
- Multi-day hike, 9-12 days for this 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, especially at Mt. Whitney
- 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?
Getting to Vermillion Valley Resort has become incredibly simple, thanks to their award-winning shuttle service that will pick you up right at the Fresno Airport and other major hotels. We definitely recommend booking ahead as each shuttle can only hold ten hikers and their gear.
Once you have reached Whitney Portal, you can catch a cab or taxi to the airport in Mammoth Lakes, or catch a shuttle to Burbank. There are also shuttle services from Mt. Whitney back to Yosemite Valley if you are through hiking and looking to get back to where you started.
The following outlines our recommended route for the southern 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. The second part of the hike also lands you at Mt. Whitney, which you can choose to summit. If you do, add an extra day, as the mountain is steep and a very difficult climb.
This route is the most straightforward option, without any scenic side-trips that you might want to take along the way.
- Day 1 - Muir Trail Ranch to McClure Meadow (10.6 miles)
- Day 2 - McClure Meadows to NE Helen Lake (12.2 miles)
- Day 3 - NE Helen Lake to Deer Meadow (11.3 miles)
- Day 4 - Deer Meadow to Kings River (12.0 miles)
- Day 5 - Kings River to Woods Creek (11.6 miles)
- Day 6 - Woods Creek to Vidette Meadow (13.2)
- Day 7 - Vidette Meadow to Tyndall Creek (12.0 miles)
- Day 8 - Tyndall Creek to Guitar Lake (12.1 miles)
- Day 9 - Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal (16.0 miles)
If you have been following along the trail to this point, then you have probably enjoyed a long rest day and restock at the Muir Trail Ranch! The second half of this hike will require you to lift up your heavy backpacks to your already weary shoulders and tackle some of the most challenging terrains along the JMT. At the end of your journey you will see gorgeous Mount Whitney, and with the right portal pass, can choose to ascend it to finish off this amazing journey.
The first day on the southern half of the JMT provides two things; a quicker hike with fewer terrain challenges, and the gorgeous and wild entrance to Kings Canyon National Park. If you have been feeling like the trail was a little too well kept, and touristy, then Kings Canyon will give you gorgeous views of pristine nature. When you leave Muir Ranch Trail, you can either walk along the lower valley by the river or opt for a more challenging hike through the high valley. You will be crossing bridges and hiking through steep terrain. Make sure to cross on bridges, as the rivers move fast and can be deadly during high runoff. You know you are on the right track when you hit Evolution Creek. After some steep switchbacks you will hit your destination, McClure Meadow.
The second day is not about distance, it’s about elevation. You will be seeing the iconic Muir Hut, a stone building that sits atop Muir Pass. While the day starts out as a gradual hike up, you will soon hit more switchbacks that take you well above the tree line. This is an incredibly hard section of the hike. You are exposed above the tree line to hot sun or gusts of wind and the switchbacks are never ending. Eat lots of food and drink plenty of water as you work your way up to the Muir Hut. Once you hit this iconic stone structure, then it will just be a hop and skip over to the little Helen Lake where you will set up camp and restock on water.
Day three starts well above 11,000 feet at your campsite, so it is incredibly important to stay hydrated and well fed to reduce the potential for altitude sickness. It’s going to be cold and exposed, so this is the section of the hike to bust out those layers and fire up some warm beverages. Luckily, you are descending today into Le Conte Canyon. However, there will be some steep sections to get through, so watch your step. If you are a faster hiker, then try to leave later in the morning as this section will most likely have snow that is frozen over in the morning. Regardless, break out the trekking poles for additional stability if you have them. You will continue downhill through gorgeous lush valleys and watch the Kings Rivers form from small creeks to raging waters. Follow the signs towards Palisade Creek. You can stop there for the night or continue through to Deer Creek.
Day three was fairly leisurely and beautiful, so day four is going back to 12 miles of challenging climbs and descents. You are tackling the Golden Staircase today, so hopefully you trained on a stair stepper before you came. The otherwise ethereal nickname came from a series of grueling switchbacks that take you on a steep uphill journey in a short distance. You will eventually see the gorgeous twin Palisade Lakes and follow the northeastern trail which will give you a stunning and daunting view of Mather Pass. There is a steep hike up Mather Pass, but the descent down the back is the truly scary part. It is incredibly steep and rocky! Once you're down, there is one last push to South Fork Junction, so hopefully you woke up early today to avoid setting up camp in the dark.
Day five is your halfway day, and it is unfortunately another tough day. You will be climbing most of the day, along with crossing the Kings River, on your way up to Pinchot Pass. Luckily, the gain to reach this pass isn’t quite as daunting, and there are plenty of lakes to refill on water today. The descent is longer than the ascent, so you will likely be tired by the time you stumble into Woods Creek. There are little waterfalls all along the trail and plenty of spaces to camp in. Make sure to get some rest and catch up on sleep. You will be going over Glen Pass on day six, which can be difficult on tired legs.
Day six overlaps with one of our other Hikes of the Week, the Rae Lakes Loop. If you only have 4-6 days to spend in this beautiful area, check out our write-up on the loop.
Make sure to wake up early on the morning of day six. Heading out, you will get to experience your first suspension bridge out of Woods Creek. After crossing the narrow, one hiker at a time bridge, buckle up, because you are ascending to Glen Pass! Climb up through the forested area, past Dollar Lake, which is a perfect place for a quick snack in the shade, and then keep going until you see the three Rae Lakes. You will thread between two of the lakes and see the iconic, and definitely, photo worthy Painted Lady dome. Unfortunately, you have another 4 miles to tackle over difficult terrain across Glen Pass. You will continue on to Upper Vidette Meadow on the other side. After a long day of pass crossing, take a rest and enjoy the beautiful views.
Day seven is another high altitude day. You will be crossing the highest peak of the PCT, the top of Forester Pass. You will emerge from the nicely forested area and go high above the tree line, scrambling amongst rocks. Wake up before the sun rises to avoid doing this section with the hot afternoon sun on your back. Once you hit the top, have a snack, you will need to be alert while you descend the narrow (and likely snowy) switchbacks. You will eventually hit another climb up to the Bighorn Plateau and head through to Wright Creek. Day seven is the day that you finally see signs for Mt. Whitney, and while that may make your pace pick up, there is still quite a ways to go!
With your enthusiasm to finish at an all-time high, pick up your now considerably lighter packs and start out say eight, your second to last day on the trail! The destination is Guitar Lake. You will be doing a lot of up and down today, but it is a relatively short hiking day which will help for the big climb on the last day. The kicker to the rest of the trail starts in Crabtree Meadows; you will now need to either pick up or unpack a wag bag for all of your restroom needs. From here on out its pack in, pack out ... everything!
Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the continental United States, and the JMT does not spare you by skirting around it. At 14,505 feet above sea level, your last day on the trail will be all about going up, up, and up. Get an incredibly early start, as taking on the mountain in the afternoon can be brutal. Grab your headlamp and start as early as possible, some even choose to start at midnight! You will eventually see the trail sign for Mt. Whitney and Whitney Portal. At this point, you only two miles to the true summit, but it is steep and treacherous. If you've started early enough, you may be lucky enough to stand on top of the tallest peak at the end of the JMT and see the sun rise! Once you come down, the easiest place to exit is through the ten mile Whitney Portal, where either a car or shuttle will be waiting for you. It will be a long way down, but hopefully you will be eager to enjoy that hot meal and frosty beer waiting for you at the end!
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 plan well and be stingy with your food supplies.
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. The JMT permit will also allow you to go up Mt. Whitney. However, the mountain is incredibly crowded with daytime hikers and through hikers, so be prepared for crowds during the peak summer season.
Have you done segments of the JMT, or perhaps done the whole trail? Let us know in the comments below!