“Returning home is the most difficult part of long-distance hiking; You have grown outside the puzzle and your piece no longer fits.” ― Cindy Ross
We woke up at 3:00 AM to get an early start on our final day of the John Muir Trail. Our initial plan was to wake up early enough to reach the summit for sunrise, but after the 25 mile day leading up to Guitar Lake, sleep and rest sounded a little better. We still wanted to catch sunrise from Trail Crest though, so we did our best to have everything packed up and ready to go by 4. As I sat in the cold darkness eating my oats, the excitement of the finish line began to flutter my stomach. We had hiked more than 200 miles in two weeks time, and this was the end of the journey.
As I looked up towards the trail, I could see a procession of headlamps leading towards Trail Crest in the dark like a line of ants. There were also isolated headlamps flickering all about Guitar Lake, as other hikers readied themselves for a day at the summit of Mt. Whitney. The sky above me was crystal clear, and the stars beamed bright with the promise of perfect weather. The first stretch of the John Muir Trail wraps around the eastern shore of Guitar Lake and crosses a few streams before it begins to climb. It was hard to gauge the depth the water in some areas due to the night sky and the intensity of my headlamp. I played it safe here, going slow and making sure my footing was secure. After this stretch, the next few miles were a blur. We climbed a long series of switchbacks, gaining elevation with each pass. It wasn’t long before we saw a pile of backpacks left by other hikers at the Trail Crest junction, a strategy used to lighten the load on the final climb to 15,505 ft. We decided to keep our packs on, as they were light enough, and hiked north towards the summit of Mt. Whitney.
The remaining section of trail that leads towards Mt. Whitney, is made up of the type of scenery you’d expect to find in a fantasy novel. There are towering granite needles that create living windows to the east. It was at this point that the sun was just starting to break over the horizon and spill the warmth of alpenglow on the surrounding peaks. The wind started to pick up as we gained elevation, and with every step upward the temperature continued to fall.
We proceeded hiking towards the summit, and made the final push on the broken field of talus before the Mt. Whitney Hut came into view. It was incredible to be standing on the highest point in the lower 48 states at sunrise without a cloud in the sky. We reached the summit of Mt. Whitney last year on a day hike, but the views were obstructed by a thunderstorm. It was incredible to be at the summit on this day with nothing but clear skies in view. We took off our packs, and layered up to brave the cold winds at the summit before walking around to take it all in.
“Travel does not exist without home….If we never return to the place we started, we would just be wandering, lost. Home is a reflecting surface, a place to measure our growth and enrich us after being infused with the outside world.” ― Josh Gates
We had hiked more than 200 miles, endured the heat, thunderstorms, rain, and trail life for two weeks, and no part of me wanted it to end. There is something incredible about being able to just wake up and walk each day. To see new land and be nomadic. As I looked out from the summit of Mt. Whitey, the familiar feeling of belonging washed over me once more. We go out into the wilderness looking for an adventure, and so often we find ourselves and so much more.
The downhill hike from the summit to Whitney Portal was a relaxing stroll, filled with words of encouragement for the day hikers braving the 99 switchbacks to Trail Crest. The weather was warm and perfect, and the sky was still free of clouds. We stopped at Lower Boy Scout Lake to filter some water, and then continued on towards the finish line.
We reached Whitney Portal and took a moment to collect ourselves. This trip was an entire year in the making, and had been a dream for multiple years. All of the emotions that welled up inside of me at the summit of Whitney, turned into a zenned out state of bliss when I caught my first whiff of grilled meat at the Whitney Portal store. We made our way over, grabbed a few burgers, and relaxed on the patio for a well deserved lunch. There was nothing left to do, and nowhere left to go. We hitched a ride down to Lone Pine, hopped in our car, and made the drive back to civilization. The John Muir Trail was complete, and I went back into the world a better man.
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” ― Terry Pratchett