Hiking the John Muir Trail

Hiking the John Muir Trail 1
Le Conte Canyon, one of our favorite parts of the John Muir Trail

By Kristin Hanes

When I decided to hike 230 miles of the John Muir Trial through the California Sierra Nevada with my boyfriend, there was nothing to warn me how hard it might be.

I joined the John Muir Trail Facebook group, with thousands of members, all of them posting beautiful pictures of alpine lakes, craggy mountains, nests of evergreen trees in valleys far below. They wrote quotes from John Muir, said how much they missed the mountains, what a life-changing experience the hike was. But nowhere was there commentary about the daily grind, the bodily torture, the difficulty in motivating oneself to keep going day after day after day.

The John Muir Trail 9
Filtering water before summiting yet another mountain pass

It took months of preparation to hike the trail, which is notoriously hard to get a permit for. While the traditional way to hike the John Muir Trail is from north to south, Yosemite to Mt. Whitney, my boyfriend Tom and I decided to do it the other way around. Not only that, we got a permit that began three days, or about 30 miles, south of the main starting point of the John Muir Trail. It was the only way we could get a permit in a saturated market of hikers.

The John Muir Trail 10
The gorgeous Le Conte Canyon on the John Muir Trail, one of our favorite spots

The first day of hiking dawned clear and brisk as we got going at 6:30am out of Cottonwood Meadows, down a dry packed path through manzanitas and pine trees. Our backpacks were laden with 12 days of food, and not all of it fit in our bear canisters. We knew we’d have to hike far enough to find bear lockers to store our excess food.

As I hiked down the trail that day, I realized I’d packed the wrong food. My backpack was way too heavy, beyond the scope of my Osprey 65. The straps cut into my shoulders and waist. I’d later realize the pack was between 50 and 60 pounds, about half of my weight! And that first mountain pass, New Army Pass, was huge.

The John Muir Trail 11
Me on top of Forrester Pass, the highest pass on the trail at 13,153

We’d started at 10,000 feet and the pass scaled 11,000. That first day, my body unacclimated to the altitude, my pack super heavy, was one of the hardest. I panted up that hill in the blistering midday heat, stopping every few steps to catch my breath. Then, I got a bloody nose and had to jam part of a tampon up one nostril as I continued to hike, trying to breathe out of my mouth as dust rose around me. At the top, I could barely walk and ate some dried mango as I enjoyed the vista of glistening alpine lakes far below. But we had to keep going, down to a valley, many more miles.

That night we stopped and camped at Soldier Lake, and my body felt like it had run a marathon. Everything hurt, and my lungs were wheezy due to the thinness of the air. On Day 1, the John Muir Trial was already kicking my butt.

The John Muir Trail 2
Tom near our first campsite at Soldier Lake

It continued like this for days. There was no break. Every day, we rose with the sun, broke down camp, hiked through amazingly beautiful vistas, then set up our tent, bathed in whatever freezing creek was nearby, and went to bed. Some days, after tramping down miles of loose rocks, my feet hurt so badly I felt like they’d fall off. Where were these stories about the John Muir Trail online? Why was nobody talking about how difficult it actually was?

The John Muir Trail 3
Whitney morning. The sun rising near Guitar Lake right before our ascent

On Day 4, we summited Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States at around 14,500’. We’d left most of our gear at basecamp, Crabtree Meadows, bringing up only the necessities. We started out at 5:30am, motivated for the 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss and 15 miles we’d have to do for the day.

The John Muir Trail 4
Tom and I on the summit of Mt. Whitney

The scenery was breath-taking, with a deep blue lake shaped like a Guitar and views for dozens, if not hundreds, of miles. Wildflowers bobbed among bright green grass. Crystal creeks burbled and curved through meadows. It was some of the most beautiful scenery I’d ever seen.

But when we reached the top of Whitney there was an ominous sight. Thunderclouds at eye level, building up over the valley and the distant mountains. We saw a sign at the summit, If you hear thunder, descent immediately.

On top of Whitney. You can see the thunderclouds in the distance

We heard thunder.

We immediately started going down, down, down as fast as possible, stopping once to put on our rain jacket and rain pants. It was the fastest descent ever down 4,000 feet, and I felt my breath become ragged, my skin clammy inside my raincoat. The thunder boomed and reverberated off granite as we ran down switch-back after switch-back.

At the bottom, I felt sick. Nausea swept through me, and I threw up near Guitar Lake. I felt dizzy and spent, the altitude and exertion finally catching up with me. I slowly tried to make my way the last three miles to camp, but had to stop several times to throw up. Tom began to get worried, and encouraged me on. It would be dangerous if I couldn’t make it back to camp. He’d have to go alone, then lug gear back to me. I willed myself to keep walking, and collapsed in the tent at 6pm and fell into a deep and exhausted sleep, skipping dinner.

Me on the day after Whitney, enjoying the beautiful Sierra Nevada

I woke up at 6am feeling refreshed, and started hiking again. And hiking. And hiking. For 22 days we hiked without stopping, up mountain passes, down into valleys, past crystalline lakes and streams. We hiked through rocky cliffs that looked like they belonged on another planet, and through the lush forests of Le Conte Canyon. Taking a dip in a stream at the end of a dirty, sweaty day never felt so good. Hamburgers and beer at Vermillion Valley Resort and Red’s Meadow never tasted so divine. I felt like on this hike, my senses were elevated, with my body experiencing and feeling everything at a primitive, deep level.

The John Muir Trail is an extraordinary hike, one that will take both your breath and your strength away. You’ll feel like you want to quit, but you’ll keep going just to see the beautiful view around the next bend. We even ran into a Pacific Crest Trail hiker who’d been going for two months already, who said the Sierra Nevada slowed her way down due to the difficulty. I knew we weren’t alone in our struggles.

Gorgeous alpine lakes along the John Muir Trail

So, you want to hike the John Muir Trail? Just be prepared for how hard it really is. Be prepared for your body to take a beating, and to struggle physically and mentally over each hurdle. But also be ready to be in pure awe and bliss at the scenery around you, to cry when climbing a mountain pass because you can’t believe the beauty. And be prepared to stop and just look, soaking it all in, because those tears are taking your breath away.

Me at Banner Lake near the end of our long hike on the John Muir Trail

 

Having read about the John Muir Trail, also check out Kristin’s article on hiking the Hoh Rainforest.

Guest Author at

Kristin Hanes is a journalist and writer who lives on a sailboat in the San Francisco Bay. Besides sailing, she loves anything adventurous and outdoorsy, including hiking, backpacking and travelling. Besides staying active, Kristin also loves cooking, salsa dancing and drinking a good beer. You can follow her adventures on her blog, www.thewaywardhome.com 

47 thoughts on “Hiking the John Muir Trail

  • February 22, 2018 at 7:31 pm
    Permalink

    It’s always tough at the beginning but I’m glad to read that you kept pushing! The longest I’ve hiked is for 12 days in a row covering 180km in British Columbia but I would love to do some of the long-distance hikes in the States!

    Reply
  • November 5, 2017 at 10:52 am
    Permalink

    This is such a magnificent and picturesque trail, Kristin. Hiking there would be a dream come true. When’s the best time of the year to go hiking there?

    Reply
  • October 17, 2017 at 11:11 am
    Permalink

    Such an amazing experience. I love this kind of post, pictures show us how beautiful is this trek and how happy you are! I can understand you. Hike and arrive to the top is the thing that make me more happy in life!

    Reply
  • October 11, 2017 at 7:18 am
    Permalink

    That really looks like a hike that I would love to do. You did a great job by completing it and continuing it for 22 days. Beautiful pictures and sights.The best one is you standing on top of the summit with those thundering clouds behind. I would have stayed there, would have been amazing to see closely. 🙂

    Reply
  • October 9, 2017 at 4:34 pm
    Permalink

    Ok! I had no idea we need to get a permit to hike Jon Muir Trail. Hiking to see the mt.Whitney is so on my list. What an experience you had? 22 daysSurek of hike doesn’t sound easy at all. I want to do it so badly

    Reply
    • October 11, 2017 at 2:20 am
      Permalink

      I hope you get to go! You have to start applying for a permit waaay in advance. Like January.

      Reply
  • October 9, 2017 at 2:10 pm
    Permalink

    I’ve been always planning to go for some adventure, you got wonderful time on your pictures. It looks so worthy to go on all those places. Do take care 🙂

    Reply
  • October 9, 2017 at 7:49 am
    Permalink

    Simply loved reading your experience. I must say you have taken beautiful photographs and have done justice to the place. I haven’t taken long hikes in a while and your post is only inspiring me to take one 🙂

    Reply
    • October 11, 2017 at 2:21 am
      Permalink

      Yay!! I hope you get to go. Now I am eying a thru -hike on Vancouver Island 🙂

      Reply
  • October 9, 2017 at 6:04 am
    Permalink

    Wow, I had no idea you had to get a permit to go on some hikes! I can’t imagine how tough this must’ve been on your body but what an incredible feat to complete! Those Alpine lakes look so calm and beautiful!

    Reply
  • October 9, 2017 at 3:41 am
    Permalink

    How beautiful! If I was in better health and more fit, I would surely enjoy doing these kinds of hikes! Especially now, with the fall foliage approaching its peak here in Maine, a vantage point overseeing the various colors would be awesome! My two oldest daughters do a lot of hiking with friends and I envy their energy, yet I’m glad they have the opportunity. And just as you have done here, sharing photos of their trips helps me enjoy a virtual tour of the scenic vista they have witnessed.

    Reply
    • October 11, 2017 at 2:21 am
      Permalink

      Very true. It’s fun being able to share photos with others who may not get the opportunity to hike the trail.

      Reply
  • October 9, 2017 at 3:18 am
    Permalink

    What a gorgeous trail and fun experience! I have always wanted to do the hike up John Muir trail too, just too beautiful.

    xx, Kusum

    Reply
    • October 11, 2017 at 2:23 am
      Permalink

      It’s incredible. Probably one of the best hikes through mountains in the world!

      Reply
  • October 9, 2017 at 2:21 am
    Permalink

    This was a great read. I really love the hiking views. I’m also a huge hiker so it was really great reading this blog post.

    Reply
  • October 8, 2017 at 4:34 pm
    Permalink

    That is indeed a tough hike. 22days?!!!
    And you had to rush down 4000ft very quickly… I would have collapsed.
    I doubt if I am made for it.

    Reply
    • October 9, 2017 at 2:40 am
      Permalink

      I pretty much did haha. But luckily I powered on back to camp. Next time I’ll do a section hike of this one 🙂

      Reply
  • October 8, 2017 at 12:41 pm
    Permalink

    Thank you for sharing your honest experience! It is on my bucket list to hike this trail and I now know what to expect. It sounds tough but I am excited.

    Reply
    • October 9, 2017 at 2:40 am
      Permalink

      It is tough but I highly recommend. It was also hard starting so much more south than Whitney. Next time i’d try an additional food drop with that distance.

      Reply
  • October 8, 2017 at 9:34 am
    Permalink

    A facebook hiking group where you can meet and hike with like minded people is so interesting. The photographs are indeed beautiful. Sorry to know that you weren’t quite fit when you hiked the trail the first time. But hey, finally the view from Mt. Whitney is all that matters. Thanks for the lovely insight and wish you good luck for your future hiking.

    Reply
    • October 8, 2017 at 4:38 pm
      Permalink

      Thank you! It’s amazing I took altitude pills for days prior and still had a problem with Whitney. By the end of the hike I was much better adjusted to the altitude. Took forever!

      Reply
  • October 8, 2017 at 8:27 am
    Permalink

    For me the highlight of the John Muir trail would be the ascent of Mt. Whitney. I have seen the mountain and noted it was the highest in the continental states. When I saw your picture at the top I thought, you were lucky it was clear! Then I read about the sign telling you to go down if you hear thunder – and you heard thunder! That must have been a super memorable experience!

    Reply
  • October 8, 2017 at 5:50 am
    Permalink

    As I read through your post I couldn’t help but think of Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild. Instead of the John Muir Trail, she instead hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in boots that were a size too small and a pack that weighed far more than it should have. Stories like yours (and hers) are inspirational and cautionary all at the same time. x

    Reply
    • October 8, 2017 at 4:39 pm
      Permalink

      I agree! The John Muir Trail is a section of the PCT that Cheryl strayed skipped due to snow in the high Sierra. So she circumvented the part I did.

      Reply
  • October 8, 2017 at 1:35 am
    Permalink

    That’s super cool that there’s a Facebook group for this hike, but super lame that it was just rosy photos! But, what an incredible experience for you and your boyfriend! You got to see places most people won’t have access to!

    Reply
  • October 7, 2017 at 3:42 pm
    Permalink

    Nothing good in life comes easy. This is a testifying event. In as much as John Muir Trail is hyped, no one like you said has mentioned the hard work it takes. I’ve only seen pictures of the hiking experiences and landscapes but truly never the other side. Reading you achieve this with perseverance, I really want to venture into a challenging task. Thanks for the tips and for sharing your experiences, it’s a motivation.

    Reply
    • October 7, 2017 at 9:15 pm
      Permalink

      Yay I’m glad you’re inspired to do it. The hike really does have an amazing sense of accomplishment at the end. I remember when I got back I went on a treadmill and cried cause I missed the mountains so much.

      Reply
  • October 7, 2017 at 11:35 am
    Permalink

    WOW, how utterly beautiful! It sounds like a hell of a hike, well done you for making it despite being sick! I bet you’re glad you did it, what an experience!

    Reply
  • October 7, 2017 at 9:38 am
    Permalink

    eeek, sounds like a serious physical challenge!! So happy to read that you eventually managed to conquer it through all of that! The views are beautiful, but you are right, nobody posts the hard or real part about these type of hikes. thanks for an honest share.

    Reply
    • October 7, 2017 at 4:48 pm
      Permalink

      You’re welcome!! I wish some had posted how hard it was so I wasn’t as blind sided haha. Totally worth it though if you’re up for the physical challenge 🙂

      Reply
  • October 7, 2017 at 9:05 am
    Permalink

    I got real chills from reading your post, but in a good way! So scary to see the photo of the thunderstorms behind you! I don’t know if I would have been quick enough to descend as fast as you! Your photos are stunning, and I can see why other hikers would want to do this. You’re right about being mentally prepared as well as physically. Still, well done on this, and now you can say you’ve done it!

    Reply
    • October 7, 2017 at 4:49 pm
      Permalink

      Thank you! Yeah that thunderstorm was the scariest backpacking experience I’ve had! I’m glad we got down safely.

      Reply
    • October 7, 2017 at 4:50 pm
      Permalink

      Thank you! I think I’d recommend section hiking parts of it to see the beauty of the Sierra

      Reply
  • October 7, 2017 at 4:00 am
    Permalink

    Thanks for sharing your story and being honest about the level of difficulty. I love your photos. Well done, and congratulations on your definitely-not-easy accomplishment.

    Reply
  • October 7, 2017 at 2:10 am
    Permalink

    That’s why I love hiking, it amazes you with so beautiful landscapes, appraises with such a pure nature. Great post and super photos.

    Reply
  • October 6, 2017 at 9:26 pm
    Permalink

    OMG!! You guys are awesome and brave. 22 days, rigorous terrain, sickness, you conquered it all. Hats off. And what views..amazing. Loved the Banner lake and top of summit.

    Reply
  • October 6, 2017 at 8:02 pm
    Permalink

    Im impressed with your honesty here! You normally hear wonderous stories of beauty but oh my goodness, how difficult this hike is!! Im really impressed you managed to endure so much and achieve so much with a great story to tell and some amazing pictures!

    Reply
    • October 6, 2017 at 8:45 pm
      Permalink

      Thank you! I wanted to paint a picture of what it was truly like 🙂 Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  • October 6, 2017 at 7:27 pm
    Permalink

    22 days of hiking? That’s just pure awesomeness. It’s important to challenge yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually in order to grow and mature. By the way, who is John Muir?

    Reply
    • October 6, 2017 at 7:41 pm
      Permalink

      Suzanne, you should google John Muir’s name and you’ll find loads of history on him. We have him to thank for Yosemite Valley, the Sierra Club, and the great national parks we enjoy.

      Reply
    • October 6, 2017 at 8:47 pm
      Permalink

      Thank you! John Muir founded the Sierra Club and played a big role in preserving Yosemite. He loved the Sierra Nevada so much. He’s my hero 🙂

      Reply

Leave a Reply to Kristin Hanes Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This
%d bloggers like this: