A Complete Guide To The John Muir Trail

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The John Muir Trail covers 211 miles through the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in California. The John Muir Trail is known throughout the world as one of the most beautiful treks on earth, with its high altitude peaks, alpine lakes, and scenic meadows. The 211-miles of hiking don’t come easy though. With close to 80,000ft of elevation change, a requirement to be self supported, and a limited number of resupply options, physical and logistical preparation is a high priority for aspiring hikers.

In this guide, I’ve put together everything you’ll need to plan your hike on the John Muir Trail, as well as giving readers a first hand account of life on the trail. You’ll find a day-to-day trip report of my personal journey that will take you from beginning to end. You’ll also find information on logistics, route planning, food, and the all important gear selections.

A Complete Guide To The John Muir Trail

JMT Guide Index:

I. John Muir Trail Introduction

What is the John Muir Trail? The John Muir Trail covers 211 miles of pristine mountain paths with 80,000ft of elevation change through the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in California. Starting in Yosemite Valley and heading south to the 14,505ft summit of Mount Whitney, the JMT covers what I would argue to be some of the most beautiful mountain landscapes in the United States. With stunning views of Thousand Island Lake, Garnet Lake, Muir Pass, and East Vidette Peak, it’s pretty easy to see why. It doesn’t take much to get caught up into the beauty and alpine lure of the John Muir Trail, but this is a trip that should not be taken lightly. Every year, there are countless numbers of hikers who have to abandon their JMT dream due to circumstances like injury, fatigue, gear failure, and a general lack of preparedness. With this JMT guide, I hope to assist all aspiring JMT hikers in their path to succeeding on a journey of a lifetime.

When should you hike the John Muir Trail? The ideal time to hike the John Muir trail is from June through September. Any earlier, and the snowpack on high passes can make the journey slow going and treacherous. Any later, and you could get caught up in the grasp of Fall storms. There are benefits to starting early, like cooler weather, less crowded trails, and an abundance of water sources. As the summer weather heats up and the snow packs melt, the water crossings can add a slight degree of difficulty, and bring with them swarms of mosquitoes. Most agree that early September is the ideal time to go. The summer heat has mostly abated, the mosquitoes have followed suit, and a lot of the summer crowds have gone back to school and work. In the end, timing comes down to what you can manage, and when your required permit allows you to hit the trail.

How long does it take? Many hikers cover the 211 miles of the John Muir Trail in about three weeks, Julia and I managed in 11 days. Be realistic with your planning and train accordingly. Having a ballpark estimate on the number of days you’ll be on trail is critical for meal prep and resupply logistics. I’ll be covering all of this in great detail later on in this guide. You’ll read and hear certain hikers spout off that you won’t enjoy the JMT if you hike too fast, and that their way is the one true way. Don’t listen to that garbage. Hike at the pace you feel comfortable hiking. As we say on the Camino de Santiago, “Each pilgrim walks their own Way”.

Still undecided? These 30 photos will make you want to walk the John Muir Trail!30 Photos That Will Make You Want To Hike The John Muir Trail

II. How To Apply For A John Muir Trail Permit

***Updated for 2019***

Obtaining a permit to hike the John Muir Trail is arguably the most difficult and frustrating aspect of planning for a JMT thru-hike. In previous years, aspiring backpackers needed to submit their permits via fax, snail mail, or by phone if they planned on heading southbound (SOBO) from Yosemite Valley. New for 2019, aspiring backpackers will be able to use the new online permit request form that includes a rolling lottery! This doesn’t mean that your chances of scoring a permit get any better though. In fact, it might make them worse.

In my 5 step guide, I I’ll cover everything you need to know to apply using the new online form. The 5 steps are:

  • Step 1: Decide On A Date And Apply 168-170 Days In Advance
  • Step 2: Fill Out A Permit Reservation Application And Rank Your Preferred Trailheads
  • Step 3: Submit Your Permit
  • Step 4: Wait For A Response
  • Step 5: Pick Up Your Permit At One Of The Five Yosemite Valley Wilderness Centers

See my full 5 step guide for John Muir Trail permit applications

III. John Muir Trail Training Guide

Once you’ve secured a permit, it’s time to start preparing your body. I’ve always been of the mindset that one should train harder in practice than they anticipate the challenge to be on game day. This goes back to my days of playing football and running track in high school and college. My preparation for treks and backpacking adventures are no different.  Having to carry all of your food and gear for over 225 miles on the John Muir Trail with nearly 47,000ft of elevation gain requires a level of focus and dedication to conditioning that many lack. In my 16 week John Muir Trail training guide, I cover:

  • How to prepare and plan for your John Muir Trail training program
  • A 16 week training schedule with a downloadable PDF
  • My training blog roll from months of preparation

See my full 16 week John Muir Trail training guide postA 16 Week Training Guide To Help You Prepare For The John Muir Trail

IV. John Muir Trail Gear Guide

Putting together a gear list for the John Muir Trail can be one of the most difficult parts of the planning process for first time backpackers. The goal for most is to go as lightweight as possible without leaving behind any essentials or being unnecessarily uncomfortable. My backpacking base weight (pack weight without consumables, water, food, gas) is usually between 15 and 20 lbs, but for the JMT, my base weight was 24 lbs. Where did the extra weight come from? I carried a full camera setup with batteries which added about 2 lbs. I had a 2.5 lbs bear canister. I also carried a shelter for two, and a cooking setup. If I were to hike the JMT again, I would aim to be closer to 17 lbs. That being said, I think the extra weight was worth it on my first JMT, as I wouldn’t trade the photos, video, and warm meals for a lighter pack. Also, Julia and I walked at a pretty relaxed pace, finishing in 11 days. If we were aiming for a 7 or 8 day JMT,  I would have definitely gone lighter. For those planning to hike their first JMT, I’d suggest to start with a target base weight of 15-25 lbs.

Below you will find a full list of everything I brought with me on the JMT, along with their weight (oz) and a rating. I’ll break down each section and give insight for gear items that worked well, gear that didn’t work well, and why. Here is a table showing the categories I used to organize my gear:

Category Weight
Backpack And Poles 4.2 lbs
Shelter And Sleep 6.7 lbs
Electronics 3.4 lbs
Clothing 4.3 lbs
Bear Canister, Water, Cooking 3.7 lbs
Miscellaneous 1.7 lbs
Total: 24 lbs

See my comprehensive John Muir Trail Gear ListMy Comprehensive John Muir Trail Gear List

V. John Muir Trail Food And Resupply Guide

This is what my daily meal plan and meal times looked like on a full day with max intake. Being able to eat dinner at Tuolumne Meadows and lunch at Red’s Meadow saved a lot of weight. Be sure to schedule those stops into your itinerary. I also cut back on the second half of the John Muir Trail to cut weight. I did so by removing a packet of tuna at dinner, and a bag of Starburst minis for my afternoon snack.

Daily Overview

Meals Calories Carbs Protein Weight
6:00 Breakfast 480 96g 16g 4.42 oz
9:00 Snack 630 80g 22g 6.05 oz
12:00 Snack 950 191g 14g 8.53 oz
15:00 Snack 810 118g 30g 7.24 oz
17:00 Snack 450 100g 0g 5.35 oz
19:00 Dinner 1510 140g 66g 19.16 oz
Totals: 4,830 725g 148g 50.75 oz

See my itemized meal breakdown and resupply guide

My Comprehensive John Muir Trail Food And Resupply Guide

VI. John Muir Trail Itinerary Planning And Resources

In this post I’ll outline how to plan and prepare for your John Muir Trail itinerary to custom fit your needs and goals. I’ll also share which resources I used to help plan my itinerary and keep myself on pace each day on the trail. As a hiker that finished the JMT in 11 days, this post is going to be focused on helping those of you who are interested in finishing the John Muir Trail in a similar number of days. Start by familiarizing yourself with the trail basics and layout below, and then you’ll be ready to start planning.

Hike Profile

  • Distance: 211 miles – can vary based on side trails and excursions
  • Elevation Gain: 47,000 ft
  • Time: 7-22 days
  • Dog Friendly: No
  • Permits: Yes. See my permit guide.
  • Parking: Park at start or finish and use a shuttle to return. See my guide here.
  • Water: There are many water sources available along the trail.
  • Weather: This hike is best done From July to early October when snow has melted from the passes. Even in the summer you can have extreme weather though, so come prepared.
  • Trail Condition: This trail is mostly single track with lots of rocky patches and gradual elevation gain. There are a few creek crossings that can present a real challenge early in the season.
  • Cell Phone Reception: Slim to none.

Hike Map and Elevation

Elevation Profile By: Brian O’Kelley (LostHillsGuy)
Elevation Profile By: Brian O’Kelley (LostHillsGuy)

See a full list of resources and planning tips to help you build your itinerary. 

ohn Muir Trail Itinerary Planning And Resources

VII. John Muir Trail Transportation: Arrival And Departure Logistics

Getting to and from the John Muir Trail can be quite the feat. Southbound hikers begin their journey in Yosemite Valley and finish 225 miles later at Whitney Portal. A point to point thru-hike like this requires a bit of planning beforehand to ensure that plans flow accordingly on a tight itinerary. My transportation plans for the John Muir Trail were made a little easier by the fact that Julia and I live in Southern California, and I was able to drive my own car. In this guide, I’ll list the resources (with links) I used to plan my transportation, and give an overview of the transportation options for all travelers and hikers. To start, let’s take a look at your 3 main transportation options for the John Muir Trail:

  1.  Have someone drop you off and pick you up at your arrival and departure trailheads.
  2. Drive yourself and park at Whitney Portal/Lone Pine or Yosemite Valley, then use public transit to return to your vehicle post hike.
  3. Arrive to CA/NV by bus, train, plane, or car and take public transit to and from your arrival and departure trailheads.

See John Muir Trail arrival and departure logistics

John Muir Trail Transportation: Arrival And Departure Logistics

VIII. Hiking the John Muir Trail: Daily Trip Reports

Day 0: Lone Pine to Yosemite Valley – 0.0 Miles (0.0 Total)

Yosemite Backpacker's Camp

Day 1: Happy Isles to Tuolumne Meadows – 23.9 Miles (23.9 Total)

John Muir Trail Day 1

Day 2: Tuolumne to Thousand Island Lake – 19.1 Miles (43 Total)

John Muir Trail Day 2

Day 3: Thousand Island to Deer Creek – 22 Miles (65 Total)

John Muir Trail Day 3

Day 4: Deer Creek to Silver Pass Lake – 17.5 Miles (82.5 Total)

John Muir Trail Day 4

Day 5: Silver Pass Lake to Marie Lake – 18.2 Miles (100.7 Total)

John Muir Trail Day 5

Day 6: Marie Lake to Colby Meadow – 18.3 Miles (119 Total)

John Muir Trail Day 6

Day 7: Colby Meadow to Grouse Meadows – 18 Miles (137 Total)

John Muir Trail Day 7

Day 8: Grouse Meadows to Marjorie Lake – 21.8 Miles (158.8 Total)

John Muir Trail Day 8

Day 9: Marjorie Lake to Kearsarge Pass – 20.6 Miles (179.4 Total)

John Muir Trail Day 9

Day 10: Kearsarge Pass to Guitar Lake – 26.4 Miles (205.8 Total)

John Muir Trail

Day 11: Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal – 16.2 Miles (222 Total)

John Muir Trail Day 11

IX. My John Muir Trail Documentary

X. Post Trip Analysis

Hiking the John Muir Trail was an incredible experience I’ll never forget. There were times during the lead up that I asked myself if it would all be worth it. The permit process was a nightmare, and the training, logistics, and planning took up more of my free time than I care to calculate. I can remember wondering if the JMT was just a commercialized tourist trek, and asked myself if I’d be better off on one of the many other trails in the Sierra Nevada. I’m glad I pushed through and persisted, as that final moment at the summit of Mt. Whitney will stick with me until my final breath. The beauty on the John Muir Trail is like few other places on earth. The John Muir Trial is popular for a very good reason, don’t let it’s logistical difficulty be a deterrent.

Looking back, I don’t have a lot that I would change about my planning or execution. Starting with permits, I think early July was a great time to go. The crowds were not noticeable in most areas, and the weather was actually quite pleasant. Due to it being a drought year, high passes were bone dry. I might feel differently had it been a year with high snow packs, as the passes may still be covered that early in the season.

If I were to hike the JMT again, I would alter my food and gear a bit to optimize my pack weight and nutrition. My shelter, pack, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad can all be replaced at some point for lighter alternatives. The most difficult gear/weight decision was my camera and it’s accessories. I almost left all of my camera gear behind in lieu of my cell phone. I’m so glad I decided to go with a heavier camera option. The photos and video I captured were well worth the slight increase in weight.

Hiking the JMT in 11 days was the perfect amount of time for Julia and I. The days felt just long enough, and we never felt like we had to rush. I would have love to spend the night at Garnett Lake and Lake Virginia, but it didn’t work into our itinerary. There’s always next time.

I  hope you’ve found the John Muir Trail guide useful, and that you’re able to apply a lot of what I learned to your future trip planning. As always, feel free to leave me any comments or questions you may have, and follow along for more!

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29 thoughts on “A Complete Guide To The John Muir Trail”

  1. Thanks Drew. Do you have any information about the JMT 2019? I’m concerned about the 12,000-13,000 ft. passes with all the snow.

    • It is going to be similar to the conditions of 2017, which was a major snot year. Expect a lot of snow on high passes well into July. Crossings are the bigger issue though, as they will be deep and swift. When will you be hiking?

  2. Hi Drew! thanks for the great info!
    A friend and i going to be doing the JMT towards the end of July through early august 2019. Do you think microspikes will be necessary due to the heavy snow this year?

    • Only time will tell. It has been a very heavy snow year, and we’re still getting rain/snow in May. Keep an eye on reports coming from PCT hikers as your departure date draws closer.

  3. Great read!
    I’m planning a 3-4 day long trip in the sierras next week. The goal was to explore the JMT, but i’ve just learned about advance how early in advance you have to register for the permit. Is it possible to obtain another (regular) backpacking type of permit where one can explore a smaller section of the trail, or other trails just as beautiful in the area? Thanks!

  4. I had heard that 97% of applications are denied, couldn’t believe it. Googled it. It’s true. Sad. I walked the JMT as a 12 Y.O. In 1961. We saw less than twenty other hikers. We did need a wilderness permit, but other than that, there were no restrictions.

  5. Hey! highly informative; love your site. I’m in the preliminary stages of planning this and I’m thinking about doing it faster versus slower, kind of like your itinerary (but perhaps a couple more days on mine). I’m thinking about the passes and how I’ve read to avoid them in later afternoon/early evening hours and I’m wondering how/if that can be managed when travelling fewer days over the course of the trek. It seems that given how they’re spaced you’d be encoutering some in the mornings, and then on longer days, some in the early evenings as well. Did you encounter this dynamic? Is this an overblown consideration? Starting early enough in the day mitigate this challenge? I know weather checking should be the guide on any given day/pass, but I wanted take as well.

    Thanks for your website; great resource and you have the best pictures.

    • Thanks, Ryan. No way to manage the weather. The best plan is to start very early and try to hit the passes as early as possible. After that, you have to hope for the best and play it by ear. We had hail on Donahue Pass, and a storm on Glen Pass. It’s just a part of the experience.

  6. Drew, Thanks so much for this brilliant guide! As a first-time multi-night backpacker, I drew a ton of great information and advice from your JMT. Your lists set the standard for my gear acquisition and packing.

    With five other guys I did roughly the northern fifth of the JMT in four days, heading south from Silver Lake on the Rush Creek Trail, on to Clark Lakes, then west to join the JMT at Thousand Island Lake and north all the way to Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley. Including side-hikes and alternate routes, we tallied 57.3 miles of stunning beauty and surprising biodiversity.


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