Must-Hike: John Muir Trail

The following is adapted with permission from the introduction to Lizzy Wenk‘s authoritative John Muir Trail, soon to be released in its 5th editions, from Wilderness Press.

Why the JMT is a Must-Hike?

The John Muir Trail (or, more simply, the JMT) passes through what many backpackers agree is the finest mountain scenery in the United States. Some hikers may give first prize to some other place, but none will deny the great attractiveness of California’s High Sierra.

This is a land of 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks, of soaring granite cliffs, of lakes by the thousands, and of canyons 5,000 feet deep. It is a land where trails touch only a tiny portion of the total area, so that by leaving the path, you can find utter solitude. It is a land uncrossed by road for 140 miles as the crow flies, from Sherman Pass in the south to Tioga Pass in the north. And perhaps best of all, it is a land blessed with the mildest, sunniest climate of any major mountain range in the world. Though rain does fall in the summer—as does much snow in the winter—it seldom lasts more than an hour or two, and the sun is out and shining most of the hours of the day.

You are, of course, not the only person to have heard of these attractions and will encounter people daily, but the trail really is a thin line through a vast land; with little effort you can always camp on your own if you leave the trail.

The JMT extends from its northern terminus at Happy Isles to its southern terminus atop Mt. Whitney, and then to Whitney Portal, the nearest trailhead, for a total of 220 miles of magnificent Sierra scenery. The JMT sees a wide variety of people: hikers completing the entire JMT in a single trip, as well as those walking a shorter section of the trail; hikers completing the route in 10 days and those taking a month.

The nature of the High Sierra changes dramatically from north to south, and often from one mile to the next. With each step, enjoy and absorb where you are, rather than comparing it with where you have been or where you are headed. The grandeur and relief of the southern regions are undeniably striking, but there is no reason to expect (or desire) your entire journey to look like the headwaters of the Kern; if you did, you would spend three weeks sitting atop Bighorn Plateau.

Instead, by hiking the length of the High Sierra, you are choosing to embrace the variation in landscape, topography, geology, biology, weather, and more. Could you possibly compare the domes of Tuolumne Meadows, the volcanic landscape near Devils Postpile, the dense stands of mountain hemlocks north of Silver Pass, the lakes of Evolution Basin, the foxtail pines on Bighorn Plateau, or the view from the summit of Mt. Whitney?

By the end of your walk, you likely will comment that they are all fantastic and memorable, each in its own way. If a section of the landscape doesn’t grab you, watch a nearby stream tumble over boulders, stare at the plants by your feet, follow the sound of the birdcalls to the treetops, or look at the minerals in a rock. These are all part of the continually changing landscape of the magnificent High Sierra.

Planning Your Hike

You should not embark on the John Muir Trail on impulse. Its length, remoteness, altitude, and continuous ascents and descents mean that you must plan your hike and know what to expect if you are going to enjoy it.

First, you need sufficient backpacking experience to know how your appetite behaves on long hikes, how much your body can take without rebelling, and especially how your emotions react in various backpacking situations. For example, you will have your own typical reactions to solitude (if you go alone), forced togetherness (if you don’t go alone), cold, heat, rain, excessive mosquitoes, and injury. Second, it is helpful to know a bit about backpacking in the Sierra to gauge your expected progress. If this is your first time here, consider the following: the general lack of lousy weather means that you can plan to hike for as many hours as your body will take. With few exceptions, the JMT is well-graded with numerous switchbacks easing the long climbs; rocky trails over passes and through some high basins can be hard on your feet, limiting daily mileage; and much of the trail is at high altitude, slowing progress.

Given these parameters, most JMT hikers cover 10–12 miles per day, although in this era of ultralight gear (and short vacations), there are ever more people ticking off 16–20, or more, miles each day. I advocate hiking no more than 15 miles per day and setting aside a handful of layover (or zero) days, for there are so many beautiful scenes to absorb and so many side trails, lakes, or peaks to explore (see the chapter beginning on page 209 for suggestions). It is especially nice to have the flexibility of stopping early on a day you feel beat, so you can enjoy the upcoming stretch of trail with a fresh body in the morning.

I am amazed how fatigue or a bad attitude can color my perception of trail segments; when I feel worse, I find that the scenery escapes my notice and I spend the walk wanting to reach the next junction instead of reveling in the location’s beauty. If you find that you walk faster or farther than you anticipate, and have extra time, you can always explore a nearby peak or spend a relaxing afternoon in a picturesque location. To estimate how many days the JMT will take you to hike, divide 220.8 (the total overall mileage) by your expected daily mileage. Add the number of 0-mile days you would like to take, and you have the total elapsed days. Using the cumulative mileage table, beginning on page 62, and the campsite list (Appendix B), you can pick tentative destinations for each night.


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John Muir Trail Elizabeth Wenk Wilderness Press

Lizzy Wenk‘s authoritative guide describes the 212-mile John Muir Trail, running from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney. It provides all the necessary planning information, including up-to-date details on wilderness and permit regulations, food resupplies, trailhead amenities, and travel from nearby cities. Useful essentials are updated GPS coordinates and maps for prominent campsites (along with an updated list of sites along the trail), trail junctions, bear boxes, and other points of interest. The trail descriptions also include natural and human history to provide a workout for both body and mind — a must-have for any Muir Trail enthusiast.


Tanya Twerdowsky

I am a Jersey girl living in Alabama who loves to run far and eat lots.

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