John Muir Trail Day 11: Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal

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“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

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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.

John Muir Trail Guitar Lake Mt. Whitney Whitney Portal
Leaving Trail Crest

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.

John Muir Trail Guitar Lake Mt. Whitney Whitney Portal
Windy Window Selfie
John Muir Trail Guitar Lake Mt. Whitney Whitney Portal
Through The Window
John Muir Trail Guitar Lake Mt. Whitney Whitney Portal
Looking Back

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.

John Muir Trail Guitar Lake Mt. Whitney Whitney Portal
First View of the Hut
John Muir Trail Guitar Lake Mt. Whitney Whitney Portal
Packs Are Off
John Muir Trail Guitar Lake Mt. Whitney Whitney Portal
We Made It

“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

John Muir Trail Guitar Lake Mt. Whitney Whitney Portal
John Muir Trail Guitar Lake Mt. Whitney Whitney Portal
Just a Little Cold

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.

John Muir Trail Guitar Lake Mt. Whitney Whitney Portal
Trail Crest
John Muir Trail Guitar Lake Mt. Whitney Whitney Portal
Filtering Water

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.

John Muir Trail Guitar Lake Mt. Whitney Whitney Portal
The End!
John Muir Trail Guitar Lake Mt. Whitney Whitney Portal
Final Signpost
John Muir Trail Guitar Lake Mt. Whitney Whitney Portal
Time to Eat

Read More Daily Reports From The John Muir Trail

“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


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29 thoughts on “John Muir Trail Day 11: Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal”

  1. Wow! Really awesome guys! This journey of yours is truly great (by just looking at the photos and reading thru your words, the trail comes into life). Take a good rest 🙂

    • Thanks! You’re going to love it. We met a lot of PCT hikers heading north, and almost all mentioned this was their favorite stretch of trail.

  2. Great finish to a great hike! Thanks so much for sharing your journey, it’s been a real treat! Btw, what were those two backpacks you guys used? Was the osprey your partners? A good pack for a woman? Thanks x

    • Thank, Anna! I used an Osprey Exos 58 that I loved. Julia used a Deuter ACT Lite 60, that she wasn’t so fond of. I saw a few ladies on the PCT using the Exos 58 and 48. Everyone seems to love the pack. It’s light, durable, and customization. I would take it with me again in a heartbeat.

      • Cheers Drew. I think the osprey is the way to go. At least i can find it here in Perth to try it on etc. I was thinking of ula or gossamer gear, but scared to spend so much money on something i cant even try. Through my research the exos might be my best bet. Thanks!

      • I think that’s a really good call. Fit is key. I was actually looking at the Gossamer Gear Mariposa and a few of the ULA packs. The GG had a great feel and was very light weight, but the shoulder straps are unisex. I have a wide neck and broad shoulders so the fit didn’t feel quite right when I put it on. Luckily, I was able to send it back for only 8 dollars shipping here in the states 🙂 I may have ordered the wrong size though, and wouldn’t be opposed to trying a different version some time down the road. The ULA packs were probably the most popular cottage industry brand on the JMT. I’ve never tried one on, but have heard a lot of really great things about them. In the end, I went with the Osprey, as it’s sold here at REI, which has the best return policy imaginable. That always seems to sway me. I like the peace of mind.

      • Exactly, I think the peace of mind is important. Especially when hiking can involve alot of cost. I’d love a lightweight pack from the brands we mentioned, but imagine the hassle if it comes wrong to me all the way on the other side of the world? At least I can try the exos here, and if I like it, buy it online. Prices here in oz are ridiculous. I’ll give you an example – the OR helium II from rei with shipping was about $170 Aussie dollars for me. To buy that same jacket here, it was $299. Taxes and markups are crazy here. So I’m always in a bind – to buy online from the USA and risk wrong, or buy here where I can physically try, but pay so much more. I might need to come back to the USA for a shopping trip!!! 😉

      • You’ll probably die when you hear this, but I bought the Exos for 160 US! You might be able to save money bu planning a trip to the US and buying all of your gear here!

      • You are killing me…. About $230 US here. Pfft… I have enough points for a free flight to LA. If i didnt have a kid I’d hop over to buy. Would be cheaper for me. What a joke!

    • Thank you, Shellie! It’s been an incredible experience to relive it one more time by writing these posts. I guess it’s time to start planning the next trip!

  3. Congratulations!! These are some of the best photos of Whitney I have seen. So wonderful you guys did this together! So where is your next destination?? I couldn’t imagine the switch mentally back into being in civilization after all those days.

    • Thank you! I really appreciate the kind words! I’m asking myself the same question in regards to what’s next. I have a few ideas, but I probably wont be able to make a decision for at least a couple of months 🙂

  4. “…And the feeling of belonging washed over me…” Is this not what we seek for when we go out into nature? Feel nature in us? to truly belong to something eternal?

    This journey is so captivating. Through your eyes, words and pictures we have shared in your experience.

    Thank you Drew for this and I’, looking forward to your next trip!

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