John Muir Trail - Day One

JMT Summary Day Two >>

We woke up after a good night of sleep at the Yosemite Valley backpackers’ campground with fellow hikers. We spent the whole previous day driving from Los Angeles through the eastern Sierras, dropping off a car at Whitney Portal, re-supplies at Red’s Meadow, and picking up our permit at Tuolumne (although that wasn’t our starting trailhead). We setup camp and then took a short walk to the Ahwahnee Lodge bar for dinner and drinks. We enjoyed one last night with real amenities and bathrooms!

>> Click here for more information on logistics planning

For the most part, we aren’t the earliest risers (and that really wasn’t a problem on the trip) so we headed to our starting point at the Happy Isles Trailhead [0 mi, 4040’] around 9AM. It was a relatively short walk from the campground - a nice flat warm-up for the JMT. Although we started the hike on a Saturday the trail was not as crowded as I expected. We hiked alongside several groups, most of which were doing day hikes or shorter backpacking trips. Fortunately the first 2+ miles of the hike were on the shady side of the river canyon as we gained 2000 feet of elevation with heavy packs. As we continued up our first climb of the trip we got a peek of Vernal Falls and Liberty Dome came into view.

We chose to stay on the official JMT rather than hiking the shorter/steeper Mist Trail. Nevada Fall soon came into sight and the trail continued around the canyon until we crossed the river upstream on a footbridge. That area was fairly crowded with visitors enjoying the falls but we stopped for a quick snack break and panoramic (vertigo-inspiring!) views. Side note: this stop has the last “real” bathroom for a while so take advantage!

We continued on to the Half Dome Junction [5.9 mi, 6980’] where we met an extremely helpful park ranger who suggested a little-known campsite and also warned us of the local bear, Purple 6. The ranger informed us that this bear would certainly wander through camp that night and try to steal our food and supplies. He advised that we should chase it away with angry yells, rocks, sticks, and by charging at it. This all seemed very hard to believe at the time!

We setup camp at the suggested location about ¼ mile past the Half Dome Junction on the JMT (see my map, this wasn’t in the guide books or maps). This spot had epic panoramic views of Little Yosemite Valley and Half Dome. We could even make out tiny people making their way up the cables. We rested for an hour or two, ate lunch, refilled our water from a stream another ½ mile away, stashed our food/toiletries in bear canisters, and continued back to the Half Dome Junction.

The Half Dome trail was relatively steep but we cruised through with our lightened backpacks. After about 1.5 miles we emerged from the forest and started up steeper switchbacks carved in granite, finally reaching the cables 500 feet under the summit. I had no idea what I was in for but those cables are NOT joking around. I expected some light handholds for when you were taking a breather, but quickly learned that you have to use your upper body to haul yourself up the cables. Letting go of the cables would mean falling off the side of Half Dome and I started to panic when I looked at the sheer edge on either side. Fortunately we found a variety of gloves at the start of the cables, ready for the unprepared (like myself). These are necessary to have a firm grip on the cables without shredding your hands. At one point on the cables I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to make it but the encouragement from my friends kept me going. I finally came out on the summit [8842’] and it was completely worth the fear. We spent some time at the summit looking over various sheer edges and checking out landmarks like the diving board. The way back down the cables was a little easier for me as long as I was focused on not looking over the side!

I HIGHLY recommend adding this side trip to any JMT hike. It turns out that we really did it the right way. By getting a late start and waiting until after lunch to head up the trail we bypassed all of the crowds and pretty much had the cables to ourselves. We still had plenty of time to hike back down to our campsite and relax too, since we chose a spot so close to the trail junction. It was an incredible way to begin our JMT trip.

Back at camp we cleaned up in the creek. This became a daily morale-boosting ritual when we finished a long day of hiking. We made our first backcountry dinner - Jason and I stuck with simple dehydrated meals. Then we carefully packed our bear canisters, placing our dishes on top to wake us if anyone was tampering with it.

A few hours later we woke up to Purple 6 raiding our camp. She seemed much larger than the ranger described and scaring her off was not as easy as it sounds. Despite pegging Purple 6 with rocks, pinecones, trekking poles, and countless obscenities she continued to go after our stuff. She came through 3 times that night before finally realizing she wasn’t going to get anything besides sunscreen and, unfortunately for Kristen, contact solution.