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.
JMT Guide Index:
- I. John Muir Trail Introduction
- II. How To Apply For A John Muir Trail Permit
- III. Training
- IV. My Comprehensive JMT Gear List
- V. My Comprehensive JMT Food And Resupply Guide
- VI. John Muir Trail Logistics And Itinerary Planning
- VII. John Muir Trail Transportation: Arrival And Departure Logistics
- VIII. Hiking the John Muir Trail: Daily Trip Reports
- IX. My John Muir Trail Documentary
- X. Post Trip Analysis and Reports
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!
***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
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
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:
|Backpack And Poles||4.2 lbs|
|Shelter And Sleep||6.7 lbs|
|Bear Canister, Water, Cooking||3.7 lbs|
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.
|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|
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.
- 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
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:
- Have someone drop you off and pick you up at your arrival and departure trailheads.
- Drive yourself and park at Whitney Portal/Lone Pine or Yosemite Valley, then use public transit to return to your vehicle post hike.
- Arrive to CA/NV by bus, train, plane, or car and take public transit to and from your arrival and departure trailheads.
VIII. Hiking the John Muir Trail: Daily Trip Reports
Day 0: Lone Pine to Yosemite Valley – 0.0 Miles (0.0 Total)
Day 1: Happy Isles to Tuolumne Meadows – 23.9 Miles (23.9 Total)
Day 2: Tuolumne to Thousand Island Lake – 19.1 Miles (43 Total)
Day 3: Thousand Island to Deer Creek – 22 Miles (65 Total)
Day 4: Deer Creek to Silver Pass Lake – 17.5 Miles (82.5 Total)
Day 5: Silver Pass Lake to Marie Lake – 18.2 Miles (100.7 Total)
Day 6: Marie Lake to Colby Meadow – 18.3 Miles (119 Total)
Day 7: Colby Meadow to Grouse Meadows – 18 Miles (137 Total)
Day 8: Grouse Meadows to Marjorie Lake – 21.8 Miles (158.8 Total)
Day 9: Marjorie Lake to Kearsarge Pass – 20.6 Miles (179.4 Total)
Day 10: Kearsarge Pass to Guitar Lake – 26.4 Miles (205.8 Total)
Day 11: Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal – 16.2 Miles (222 Total)
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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