Categories: CampingDestinations

Hiking the John Muir Trail… All 200+ Miles of It!

We’re proud to feature this awesome guest post from Tony Porter, a friend of Hipcamp and fellow outdoor enthusiast. If you’d like to read more about this trip, check out his additional articles on the John Muir Trail.

The John Muir Trail in one sense is an easy concept to grasp.

  • 200+ miles through five wilderness areas: Yosemite, Ansel Adams, John Muir, Kings Canyon and Sequoia
  • From the north, it climbs 46,000 feet and descends 38,000 feet
  • Seven passes are crossed, four over 12,000 feet, including Forester Pass at 13,120 feet

In another sense, it’s a little more difficult to comprehend.

  • You finish by climbing the highest mountain in the US?
  • You hike 10 or so miles every day, for three weeks?
  • You are almost always at 10,000 feet or above?
  • Your pack is 35-45 pounds and it doesn’t hold enough food for the whole trip?

Thankfully, I didn’t give the statistics much thought before I launched onto the JMT. I just liked the idea of seeing the Sierra from the inside out. I liked the idea of sleeping outdoors for the better part of a month. And I liked the idea of the physical test that this amount of time, distance and altitude would met out. Like most people, I noticed the Sierra from the highways. It represented a two dimensional break in the landscape that held snow in the winter. Occasionally I would step foot on these mountains in form of skiing or walking a short distance into them. It turned out that these efforts were akin to reading the blurb of a book and then putting it down. My appreciation for the Sierra is now full and total. It’s now a three dimensional set of varied landscapes. Yes, it’s only rock, trees and water, but the combinations, the scale and the variations are awesome, sublime and indescribable. I don’t have the words. Sorry. See John Muir’s bibliography for he may have come the closest to expressing why the wilderness, and the Sierra specifically, is so special. (If he could impress Teddy Roosevelt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain and others, he may be able to affect you.)

John Muir was president of the Sierra Club in the 1900s when the concept of a trail meandering through the Sierra’s greatest hits was conceived and planned. It wasn’t going to be named the “John Muir Trail.” But when Muir died in 1914, it became an obvious and quite fitting memorial to the great naturalist’s legacy. It ultimately took 46 years and many rounds of funding to see the trail completed and it remains today a well maintained, popular trail. One can start from the south or from the north. Either way the trip is bookended by Mt. Whitney and Yosemite, respectively. Let me offer some technical details. People take idiosyncratic strategies to complete the JMT as “thru-hikers” (one continuous effort from the trail’s start to its finish). As I mentioned, there is the choice of starting in the north or the south. One can go it alone, with a partner, with a small group or with professional guide(s). One can go fast, which likely means ultra-light; or one can go more slowly, which allows for more gear and greater comfort. Many people chose to bring their fly fishing rods. No matter what decisions are made above, choices must be made about food – certainly in regards to quantity and quality, but more importantly, as to how to be resupplied. Unless you’re looking for speed in the extreme, the JMT is at least a two week effort. Carrying a week’s worth of food is a practical limit so one needs to be resupplied at least once. Three locations along the trail are prepared to accept your pre-shipped food just for this purpose. You can even buy or take leftover food stocks at these outposts. Finally, a wilderness permit is a must. The summer is the peak and nine months planning for the permit is recommended. But enough about the pedestrian details: Why do it?

I’ve never found Edmund Hillary’s explanation too fulfilling: “Because it’s there.” I guess he’s saying you don’t need a reason. Fair enough. The JMT is there and waiting. I’ve never had a need to do anything to “change my life.” I met a few people on the way who were engaged in some sort of large scale spiritual/emotional cleanse. That’s asking a lot of a wilderness trail and it doesn’t owe you that satisfaction. Not dissimilar, but less demanding, is where the JMT is used as a punctuation mark in the story of your life. I don’t see harm in that reasoning: a big hike between jobs, between school and work, between being single and being married, etc. But I wasn’t in any of those camps. As mentioned early on, I was attracted to the physical and mental challenges of the JMT, which it has in abundance. The terrain is difficult, seemingly never flat. The footing on the trail is problematic in that it’s rarely clear of rocks, stones, roots, etc. The hours on your feet are long. But the real reason for my stepping onto the JMT trail head was more elemental. I wanted simply to be in a wild wilderness and I wanted to be there long enough to truly live in it. I wanted to find what made me uncomfortable and I wanted to find ways to be comfortable. I was willing to be scared – or at least challenged. I wanted an immersion in the mountains that revealed my humanity and concealed my needs for civilization. If parts of civilization were important to me, I wanted to know which ones and I wanted an understanding of why. I wanted to be closer to the clouds and I wanted to see all the stars. I wanted to feel insignificant and at the same time powerful. All these things can be accomplished in other mountain areas and can be accomplished on shorter trips. But why not take a fulfilling trip on what has been consistently described as one of the great treks in the world? Yes, it’s just rock, trees and water, but ultimately the personal impact may be greater than what all the world’s artists can do with canvas, paint and brushes.

Tony Porter

Tony is a committed outdoors person who enjoys back country hiking, occasional mountain climbing, kayaking, paddle boarding and cycling. Thankfully he’s retired so plenty of time is available for these pursuits. Make sure to read more about his outdoor adventures!

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