Generally considered one of the most beautiful long-distance hiking trails in the world, the John Muir Trail covers 211 miles from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, and encompasses some of the most iconic scenery in the Sierra Nevada. To hike the entire trail can take from two (if you’re really fast) to four weeks to complete. My hiking partner Jon aka “Baristopheles” and I don’t have the kind of time available to dedicate to the entire trail, so decided to hike the northern section of the trail from Devils Postpile National Monument to Yosemite Valley.
Day 0: Devils Postpile National Monument After dropping a food resupply in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows, we headed down towards the town of Mammoth where we would set up for our start the next day. Any drive this direction obligates a stop at the famous “Woah Nellie Deli” at the Mobil Gas Mart in Lee Vining. After a tasty lunch with local brew, we headed up to the Mammoth Mountain Lodge to catch the shuttle bus which would take us to the start of our journey. We arrived at Devils Postpile National Mounument in mid-afternoon, and were very fortunate to snag the last site available in the campground. We spent some time exploring the unique volcanic formation of Devils Postpile, while getting used to the higher altitude which would be with us for the next couple of days. The evening had us sorting through gear and looking at maps before heading out in the morning.
Day 1: Devils Postpile National Mounument to Rosalie Lake (7 miles) I never sleep well the first night of a trip, and this time was no exception. However, a quick breakfast and cup of freshly ground/brewed java (yeah, we had it every morning), and we were off on our walk along the JMT. After crossing a sturdy bridge over the San Joaquin River, we began the long dusty climb out of Devils Postpile into the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
On Novemer 30th of last year, a powerful jet-stream dropped down into the Mammoth/Postpile/Reds Meadow area. Gusts between 140 and 190 miles an hour snapped thousands of giant trees like toothpicks, leaving the area a complete mess. Forest service crews have been working round the clock to get it cleaned up, and so the first half of our hike was remarkable for the amount of fallen trees.
We had decided to have a fairly short first day of hiking, to adapt to the altitude and the get our “mountain legs.” So we made the decision to spend our first night out at Rosalie Lake, a lovely alpine lake surrounded by granite walls on three sides. After looking around for a bit, we found a shady and secluded spot to pound in our tent stakes for the night. A climb to the bluff behind our campsite revealed stunning views of the San Joaquin Ridge, canyon, and Mammoth Mountain. It was a excellent first day out, as the sun sank below the granite cliffs, and a brilliant full moon lit up the night sky.
Day 2: Rosalie Lake to Island Pass (8 miles) Today was destined to be a big day, with some major climbing and some of the most incredible mountain scenery one could imagine. After a bit of climbing, we hit a section of steep downhill switchbacks to beautiful Shadow Lake. This whole area is very popular, and as such has been closed to camping to allow the area to recover from overuse. After a short break, we were climbing again, and found ourselves at Garnet Lake, a stunning place for a lunch break. We were joined by a small rodent (we think a vole) who was quite interested in Jons hat, making an attempt to eat the label.
For much of its length, the JMT follows the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the famed route from “Mexico to Canada.” However, at Devils Postpile they split apart, with the PCT following the San Joaquin Ridge to the east of the JMT, and joining back together at Thousand Island Lake. Horse packing/riding is very popular on the PCT, and it was quite obvious from the quantity of horse poop, when we were back on the PCT. Jon and I had both formed a strong opinion about the subject, especially when we are required to bury our miniscule turds in a hole and pack-out (!) our used toilet paper.
With a backdrop including Mount Ritter and Banner Peak, Garnet Lake is famous for a classic Ansel Adams photo, so we spent a little time channeling Mr Adams, trying to get that perfect shot. But we had lots more hiking ahead with some significant climbing, so we were off again. A quick stop at Thousand Island Lake for a chance to refill our water supplies, was followed by a steep climb up to 10,200′ Island Pass. Just before arriving at the pass, there are two small unnamed alpine lakes. We found a couple of windswept campsites at the eastern lake, and decided we’d spend the night. Jumping into a cool alpine lake after a hot dusty day of hiking, is just magic on ones body.
The Island Pass area is a great area for a campsite, and we were treated to a nice light show as the sun set and the moon came up. The rangers are constantly warning backpackers that “bears are active in this area, and are hungry because of the dry winter.” So Jon and I were always really careful about our food storage. The night, I heard some heavy footfall around our campsite, which could have been a bear, or possibly some late night hikers. Regardless, there was no harm done when morning came.
Day 3: Island Pass to Lyell Canyon camp (11 miles) Today promised to be another epic day, with lots of elevation change, including a steep climb over Donohue Pass. Despite our early start, by the time we started the ascent to the pass, it was pretty warm. Going slow and steady, and staying hydrated was the name of the game. The views got more breathtaking as we went, and we finally reached the crest at 11,056′ ready for a rest.
After a bit of luncheon, hosted by a fat and and friendly marmot, it was time for a long section of downhill into Lyell Canyon. Along the way, we met several members of a trail crew, working very hard to keep the trail in good shape. All of this work including breaking up and moving rock has to be done by hand, so these guys work really hard. At the bottom of the first descent off of the pass, we found ourselves looking up at Mount Lyell and it’s namesake glacier. The headwaters of the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River start here, and the water is pristine and clear. We crossed the “Lyell Forks” several times as we continued to descend to the bottom of the canyon. Lyell Canyon is a classic u-shaped valley, with lovely meadows and forest for miles. We found a campsite about six miles from Tuolumne Meadows, and sat our tired bodies down for the day.
That night, I lay in my sleeping bag, looking at the night sky, listening to Bach on my iPod. It was a perfect moment.
Day 4: Lyell Canyon to Tuolumne Meadows (7 miles) This day was planned to be a fairly easy day, with mostly flat walking, and not too much distance. Those who have hiked with me before, know that I have a number of foot problems, and that they tend to become a issue in most any backpack trip. Between the lack of any arches, bunions, long toes, etc, sooner or later they become an issue. Fortunately for this trip, it was later. I had started to develop a couple of significant blisters, and manged also to turn my ankles several times on the rocky trail into Tuolumne Meadows. By the time we arrived at the TM Backpacker’s campground, I was limping and was having a significant amount of foot pain. We had two days of our trip left, but I knew if I continued on, it would not be a fun time.
On walking into the backpackers campground, we ran into my friend Kim, who was meeting some other JMT hikers to hike the same segment which we had just completed. We decided that a sizzling burger and cold brew were appropriate at this point, and headed over to the TM grill to make it happen. With Kim’s encouragement, Jon decided to hike the last two days solo, and I made plans to make my way to Bishop to nurse my feet with Kim’s family.
Day 5 & 6: Hanging out in Bishop While it was a disappointment to not finish the last two days of the hike, I think it was the right call. The next morning my left ankle was really hurting, and both blisters were sore. Hiking from Tuolumne Meadows to Happy Isles would have not been a enjoyable experience. I wanted to leave this trek with the positive feelings I had for the first four days, and so I have! And I am glad that Jon made the decision to finish the walk on his own.
I just have one further observation. When Barista and I did the High Sierra Trail across Sequoia National Park last summer, we saw few other hikers between day two and day five. There was actually a wilderness experience there! The JMT is another kettle of fish… there is a constant stream of hikers in various states of fitness and readiness, and one is rarely alone. Quite a different experience!
Gear list for all of you gearheads:
Osprey Aether 65 backpack
Marmot Mesh Bivy tent
Montbell UL Super-stretch Down Hugger #4 sleeping bag
Big Agnes Insulated air-core mattress
Thermarest z-rest sit pad
MSR Superfly stove/Primus 1L kettle
Steri-pen water purifier
Ibex merino t-shirt
Mountain Hardwear hiking shorts
Darn Tough merino socks
Ibex midweight merino hoody
Mountain Hardwear 3/4 length tights
Vasque Breeze LT GTX boots
Teva spider-rubber sandals
Outdoor Research Helios sun hat
REI eVent waterproof/breatheable jacket/hat
Mont-Bell UL down inner jacket
Black Diamond Alpine cork carbon-fiber trekking poles
Click here for complete trip photos!