Hiking the John Muir Trail

You know you’ve married the right girl when she says, “go for it, this’ll probably be your only chance to hike it before you retire!”, especially when you add the fact that she was committing to watching our four kids by herself for the two-to-three weeks that I would be hiking our dream hike.

It started as a joke back in 2012 on social media, that a few of us would hike the John Muir Trail the following summer. Don’t get me wrong, I knew about the trail and I was bewitched by the idea of disappearing into the Sierra Nevadas for a few weeks of hiking, especially having seen the photos, but I just never thought I’d get the chance.

A year later, after many hours of planning logistics, organizing food, buying gear, and cutting unnecessary weight, I pulled an all-night drive down to California (from Seattle). Fueled by nerves, beef jerky, candy and Doctor Pepper (lots of Doctor Pepper) I arrived at the bus stop, ready for the last leg to Yosemite Valley.

I’d never been to California, or Yosemite for that matter. Being the last child one tends to miss out on those family adventures. If you haven’t been, I heartily endorse making the trip down there to do some hiking.

My first day had me climbing the Mist Trail up towards the Half Dome. After spending the previous day on the hot, dry valley floor, the cool, moist air coming off the falls gave me life and buoyed me on as I hiked the 8 miles up to the base of the Half Dome.

Half Dome

Half Dome

The photos and videos of the Half Dome didn’t really prepare me for the experience. The rock between the rails is polished smooth by the hundreds of feet that daily make the ascent. One relies on their upper body strength to do a lot of the work. That said, it’s easier coming down. I even found myself walking down on the outside of the railing to avoid the traffic and get better traction.

Tuolomne Meadows Stars

Tuolomne Meadows Stars

Two days after leaving the crowds in the Yosemite Valley, I was in Tuolomne Meadows. While there were still a lot of people there, once you were heading up the valley, I hardly saw anyone. After leaving the lights of civilization behind, the night sky started to explode with stars.

The trail was incredibly well maintained, and yet not overly modernized. Most river crossings were simple log bridges. Only when you hit the more populated areas of the park do you encounter “real” bridges. It was near one of these bridges that we met an eighty-four-year young lady that had hiked the John Muir Trail several times previously and was now taking her own children with her for her last trip. Her “kids” were in their sixties themselves.

Path Water

Path Water

Before heading out on the trail I was told that every day and every pass would show me something new. That person, whoever they were, was right. Each ridge and valley brought amazing views. Sometimes the beauty was in the subtle details, but often I was just stunned by profound changes from one ridge to the next. One thing that did stay the same was how blue and clear the water was. I’m pretty sure I took a photo of every lake that we passed on the way.

There’s plenty of water on the trail, even in late July. We’d usually drink a liter or two at a place like this and then load up for the next 5-10 miles.

Despite the miles we were putting in (15-22) each day, we had plenty of time to take photos, relax and contemplate the adventure.

Lake Reflection

Lake Reflection

We camped near Garnet Lake, where the fishing was decent and the views were incredible. I had to be pulled away from this view the next morning so we could get through Red’s Meadow.

This shot is one of my favourites of the trail. With the help of a buddy Chris, I did a couple time-delay shots. I’m not an artsy type, as you’ve probably noticed, but this picture encapsulates the blur of the hike. It went by so quickly, but strangely, at the same time, was relaxing and peaceful. Juxtaposed.

Sushi

Sushi

To make up for the lack of space in my bear canister (we had one refill in two weeks) I took to fishing with my Tenkara fly rod. I caught a lot of fish, but at Virginia Lake I pulled out a big enough trout to turn into trail sushi (complete with ginger and wasabi). This was probably one of my favourite meals of the whole trip and was a refreshing change from freeze-dried meals.

Alpine Lake

Alpine Lake

The night we camped near this lake a storm front came through with lightning and thunder. The following evening, this same storm blew down one of the team’s tent and flooded it. All of his down gear (including sleeping bag) was soaked. We spent the next morning vainly trying to dry out gear.

Muir Hut

Muir Hut

Built over 70 years ago, the Muir Hut is a work of art. It was constructed on a pass, in the middle of nowhere using stones from the site and concrete mule-packed in from miles away. We took shelter from another surprise storm front before deciding to hike down off the mountain to a more protected site.

After a depressingly cold night and foul weather for three days, I rounded the corner to see this beam of light cutting down through the middle of a swirling cloud. It was the day before we hiked Whitney and it really lifted my spirits. I had been feeling down about the trip ending, but from then on in I had an inexplicable energy that drove me onward and upward.

View from Whitney

View from Whitney

As most people do, we camped at Guitar Lake below Whitney. The weather was fickle. One minute there’d be clear skies and the next it was spitting rain. We got an early night as although it was only 8 miles or so to the “end” of the John Muir Trail on Mount Whitney it’s another 8 from there to the parking lot.

On Whitney

On Whitney

With the wind whipping ice crystals across my face, and thunder clattering around me, I made it to the highest point in the lower forty-eight: Mount Whitney. After this obligatory photo we all rushed into the shelter… when I say ALL, I mean an entire Boy Scout troop plus a handful of day trippers and JMTers. There was standing room only in the cramped stone hut (which was plastered with warning signs stating that the building did NOT protect from lightning strikes).

I didn’t really have time to reflect on the trip until we were off the mountain. Once down from the summit, thenext two to three hours to the portal felt like an eternity as I detangled my thoughts from the past sixteen days.

On that trip of over 212 miles I took over a thousand photos and around 10 hours of HD video, I wore out a pair of shoes, caught dozens of fish, downed about 75000 calories, lost 15 pounds, spent two nights in a monsoon (lightning striking all around my tent), and summited the highest peak in the lower 48. Reviewing it all now, six months later, it feels like a lifetime ago, and yet browsing through those photos and videos I’m immediately re-immersed in the sights, smells and emotions of those 2 weeks. I can echo my own cheesy words from the end of the trail:

It’s been quite the incredible trip and definitely, if you haven’t, you need to get out and enjoy that trail, because it’s one of a kind.

This post was contributed by Trail Ambassador Paul Osborn. You can follow more of his adventures on his blog The OutdoorAdventure.net. 

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16 Responses to Hiking the John Muir Trail

  1. Jack March 11, 2014 at 7:44 am #

    Looks like a great trip, thanks have to put this on my bucket list.

    • Philip Werner March 11, 2014 at 9:08 am #

      I’m leaning that way too. The permit thing has me bummed though. I’m a rover. Do you have to stay “on trail”?

      • Paul Osborn (@bcoutdoor) March 14, 2014 at 1:49 pm #

        You do have to stay on the trails so to speak. It’s not as busy as one might think, and most are like-minded hikers.

      • Scott Bentz March 14, 2014 at 2:26 pm #

        No, you don’t have to stay “on trail”. Once you get a trailhead permit and enter the wilderness you can literally go wherever you want to do.

    • Paul Osborn (@bcoutdoor) March 14, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

      I can’t wait to do it again!

  2. BeeKeeper March 11, 2014 at 10:02 am #

    Thank you for sharing. I’m interested in taking this voyage also, but want to time it to miss the bulk of the crowds.

  3. Frank March 14, 2014 at 7:13 am #

    Phillip, do not be deterred by permits. Apply for one, take what you can get, but you will find the dates are not cast in stone. People do show up and get permits on the same day. I was able to start a day earlier than my original permit. Tuolumne Meadows is a wonderful place to start from if you do not get a permit for starting in the Valley. How much of a rover are you? Investigate the High Sierra Route and John Roper. The route joins the JMT in some areas, but most sections have no-trail hiking. Even on the JMT people are not an issue. Sure you will see others, but the territory is vast. One can hike and camp alone. No problem. I actually enjoyed talking to the strangers I met, most of whom were going in the opposite direction. Remember they most likely share similar interests and goals as yourself or they would not be there. Because I had extra time, i took a side hike into the Pinnacles a two night loop hike around Mammoth. Wonderful.
    I started in mid-August. Only rain on one evening and night, never saw a biting bug.
    Returning to hike in other parts of Yosemite, I hiked alone, camped alone by beautiful lakes, and I was not that far removed from popular trails. Beautiful.
    Hopefully, I will get back this summer.
    PS. If being totally alone is your goal. Head for the Wind River Range. I have never been, but my sister and brother-in-law have hiked many summers there and rarely see other hikers.

  4. Frank March 14, 2014 at 7:43 am #

    BeeKeeper, the “crowds” are in the Valley area. That is where your encounter the bus tours and day hikers, tourists of all kinds. But, hey, isn’t it better that they are there rather than lounging on a sofa sipping beer in front of TV? (Actually, during some moments of hikes that alternative does not seem so bad!) Remember, too, to others, you are part of the crowd. But, once you venture a few miles into Tuolumne Meadows, you will be away from the crowds. The scenery swallows people right up. Seeing the occasional hikers should not deter you. Others want solitude, too, they will respect your privacy. In fact it was a young stranger who encouraged me to push on to camp at Guitar Lake for my last night. I was very glad I did. When I did set up camp there, if I had wanted to communicate with the nearest camper, I would have had to have shouted. Camping at that beautiful setting allows for an early start, to the summit before noon and out to Whitney Portal or Lone Pine by the end of the day. I was glad to avoid the “crowd” at Trail Camp who goal is Mt. Whitney.
    In short, I too, enjoy solitude, but I met some interesting and fun people along the way.

  5. Frank March 14, 2014 at 7:49 am #

    PS. Look at Paul’s wonderful photos again. Do you see any crowds?

  6. Greg Griffith March 14, 2014 at 9:37 am #

    I knew that I’d married the right girl when Nancy wanted to hike the JMT with me last summer. She planned all the meals too!! We took a slower pace and completed it in 21 days. It was an absolutely wonderful, amazing, challenging, gratifying life adventure. One of many that we’ve shared together over the last 13 years with many more to come.

    • Paul Osborn (@bcoutdoor) March 14, 2014 at 1:50 pm #

      Greg, that sounds awesome. I hope to take the wife (and maybe the kids) next time.

    • pauljosephosborn March 30, 2014 at 10:24 pm #

      That sounds great Greg! I can’t wait until I can take my wife with me on the trail too!

  7. johnvonhof March 14, 2014 at 8:26 pm #

    A buddy and I fastpacked the JMT in 1987 in 8.5 days, south to north. Had a fantastic time and still have the slides. Will always treasure the memories of the trail. We used Gregory two-day packs and made it with one resupply.

  8. Andy March 19, 2014 at 9:53 am #

    An amazing trip. I’ll never get tired of reading or watching videos about this trail.

  9. Anthony Romano March 29, 2014 at 2:13 pm #

    Since my permits were obtained my whole outlook on life has already improved.

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