The John Muir Trail (JMT) covers 220 miles of the Sierras through Yosemite, Ansel Adams, John Muir, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Inyo wilderness. It crosses scenic passes, rivers, lakes, meadows, and landmarks. It offers view after incredible view and ends at the summit of the tallest mountain in the lower 48. This hike is the quintessential high Sierra trek and I would recommend it to any avid backpacker. However, this is also one of the most strenuous trips imagineable with an elevation gain totaling nearly 50,000ft, a majority of the trail residing above 7,000ft, and several passes above 10,000ft.
We started our trip in early August of a particularly dry year and things went really well until we encountered the Rough Fire burning in Kings Canyon. We were forced to exit over Bishop Pass (JMT mile 137) due to heavy smoke, although the actual fire encroaching on the trail was never a concern. It was a difficult decision but we wouldn't have been able to enjoy the remainder of the trail. Despite exiting early we had a fantastic trip covering 160+ miles of JMT and side trails and spent 13 days in the wilderness.
We finished the JMT in August of the following year, starting again at Bishop Pass and completing the trail at Mt. Whitney.
Click on an itinerary day or map icon to read a detailed description of that day.
Clouds Rest Junction (10.1mi)
Lower Cathedral Lake (11.6mi)
Lyell Canyon (14.6mi)
Garnet Lake (13.1mi)
Reds Meadow (13.8mi)
Purple Lake (13.5mi)
Lake Edison Junction (15.3mi)
Vermilion Valley Resort (3mi)
Marie Lake (12.7mi)
San Joaquin River (14.3mi)
Wanda Lake (11.8mi)
Bishop Pass (13.1mi)
Exit Bishop Pass (9mi)
Enter Bishop Pass (9mi)
Lower Palisade Lake (13.9mi)
Marjorie Lake (11.7mi)
Woods Creek (9.4mi)
Rae Lakes (6.0mi)
Center Basin (10.3mi)
Tyndall Frog Ponds (9.8mi)
Guitar Lake (11.3mi)
Mt. Whitney (15.0mi)
Dates hiked: 8/7-20 (2015) & 8/11-18 (2016)
Logistics can get tricky for this trip but there are a few things to consider up front to begin your serious JMT planning:
Direction: the most popular route (and the one we chose) is north to south starting in Yosemite. Alternatively you can start at Mt. Whitney and hike north. I chose to start at Yosemite for a few reasons: the permit process, resupply opportunities, and it's a better elevation profile to ease into the hike. Also consider that you have to haul your used wag bag (if you choose to use it) until your first resupply if you start at Whitney!
Mileage: consider what daily mileage is reasonable for your group. Ideally this will be based on experience from backpacking trips with similar pack weights, average elevations, and elevation profiles. Bound the upper and lower estimates and use this to calculate a range of days that the trip could take. Add on at least one rest day. Don't get hung up selecting exact campsites until you are out there, but set a minimum daily mileage expectation. Our estimate ended up at 20 days, including 1 rest day (averaging a minimum of 11.5 miles/day). Once we were on the trail it was exciting to choose a goal for the next day based on how we felt and which campsite descriptions were appealing at the time.
Season: the JMT hiking season typically spans from June to September, depending on snow pack. Be sure to factor in your starting and end date since that can span several weeks with varying conditions. We started our hike in early August, primarily because it took so long to be selected in the permit lottery! However this ended up being perfect for us: no snow, no mosquitos, late wildflowers, and very nice weather (no rain!).
Obtaining a permit might be the hardest part of the entire trip! For me (in 2015) the permit process involved filling out and faxing a form to the Yosemite National Park precisely 24 weeks (168 days) in advance, and then waiting for an e-mail response the next day. The fax line was busy every night so it would take 30+ minutes sitting at the fax trying to get my permit through. After 9 rejections I was finally chosen!
There are a few permit options for starting the JMT. Here are some key points:
Regardless of starting point, only one permit is required for the trip.
On the north side, the trail officially starts at Happy Isles with two options: camp at Little Yosemite Valley on your first night, or camp past it. We opted for the latter to get a fuller day of hiking while still including Half Dome as a side trip.
There are other options for starting at Glacier Point or Toulumne Meadows as well.
Make sure to specify on the application that you are crossing Donohue Pass. This is where the JMT exits Yosemite and is one of the bottlenecks of the permit lottery.
A Half Dome day trip is an added option for a fee and separate lottery entry. We were fortunate to get this on our JMT permit.
Hiking south to north will require an entry into the Mt. Whitney permit lottery instead. This lottery is a one-time entry and drawing so your odds are better trying for a Yosemite start (if you are willing to make many attempts).
Food and gear re-supplies might actually be the hardest part of this trip! An average JMT hike takes 3 or more weeks so re-supplies are critical. There are many ways to go about this but here are some thoughts based on our trip (ordered from north to south):
Toulumne Meadows (on trail): we passed through on day 3 so it was really too early for a re-supply. However, this is a good time to stock up on any forgotten items, pick-up extra food, or have a snack/meal at the grill.
Red's Meadow (on trail): we got here at the end of a long day 5 where we left ourselves a food supply for days 6-10 (plus spare food). They have a free backpacker's campground, laundry, showers, a store, charging stations, and a cafe.
Vermilion Valley Resort (3 miles off trail, plus boat ride): after 8 days on the trail we took a glorious rest day at the VVR. They have a backpacker's campground, laundry, showers, a store, games, and a restaurant. Plus, one free beer per hiker! When we stopped by there were rooms available and it seemed liked a small price to pay for a real shower and bed. We didn't have an official re-supply here but it was one of my favorite stops of the trip.
Muir Ranch (1 mile off trail): we stopped here on day 10 and this was our intended final re-supply point for days 11+, which meant VERY heavy packs climbing up Muir Pass. I think this is the way to go if you can finish the trail within 10 days since any additional re-supply trips require substantial extra mileage. Make sure to review the requirements at the link below - they have very specific instructions for shipping and collecting your resupply and it must be sent 3 weeks in advance. Muir Ranch does not have much in the way of amenities unless you reserve a room in advance.
South half re-supplies: every opportunity south of Muir Ranch requires a minimum of 14 miles round trip to obtain your package, plus some local transportation depending on your arrangements. For that reason my group opted to do a full 10 day re-supply at Muir Ranch and bypass any additional stops.
We had a pretty unique travel case because we had one hiker exiting at Red's Meadow, the remainder exiting at Mt. Whitney, and a family member living in Bishop to help us out. We took a full day departing from Los Angeles and it went like this:
1 car (2 people) dropped off the Red's Meadow resupply. The car was left there since we had 1 hiker exiting early.
2 cars (4 people) went to Mt. Whitney. Left 1 car in longterm parking for 5 thru hikers. 2nd car continued on with all 4 people to Bishop. Car left in Bishop.
Family member in Bishop drove 4 people to Red's Meadow, picked up remaining 2 people.
All 6 hikers and 1 driver headed to Yosemite Valley with a pitstop in Toulumne to pick up the permit. Dropped off near Backpacker's Campground in Yosemite.
This left 2 cars at exit points and 1 car to pick up in Bishop.
Public Transit Options
There are a number of public transit options once you arrive in the vicinity (Southern California, Bay Area, or Mammoth Airport). I have included links to some popular options to the right.
It is ideal (and in some cases required) to plan ahead and ship your re-supplies in advance. However, it is possible to hand deliver your re-supplies and this may be relatively convenient depending on your starting point and where you are traveling from. Red's Meadow is a relatively quick stop in Mammoth (although a bus is required to get to the lodge) and Toulumne is on the way to Yosemite Valley if you are traveling from the eastern Sierras.
The following is a list of gear necessary for the JMT that may not be required on other trips.
Bear Canister: strict requirement for many of the parks that the JMT passes through. Refer to those park websites for specifics. There are a few bear boxes at very limited campsites along the JMT.
Water Purification: a purification method is recommended due to the risk of Giardia in the Sierras. This can be in the form of tablets, filtration, or UV light.
Rain Protection: due to the unpredictable weather in the Sierras it is recommended to carry a tent rainfly, backpack rainfly, and water resistant shells.