Fast, Light and Free on the JMT: My 260 Mile Adventure in the High Sierra
If you've stumbled upon this post here on The Trailhead, chances are you’ve at least heard about the John Muir Trail.
In the event you haven’t; the John Muir Trail is located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, USA, spanning roughly 210 miles from Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley to the Southern terminus on Mount Whitney; all the while passing through three iconic national parks; Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.
My hike would begin at the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead in Horseshoe Meadow, which requires a 20 mile approach along the PCT to connect with the JMT at Crabtree Meadow. This was the only way I was able to secure this highly competitive permit. Fine by me; more miles, more fun.
Horseshoe Meadow to South Lake Trailhead
23,330’ Elevation Gain
Traveling from Portland, Maine to the Eastern Sierra is an adventure in itself.
Travel logistics aside, the JMT itself is not easy to plan for; considering its remote setting and tedious permit process. But all of that was now behind me; I was finally here, and all that was left to do was to get to walkin’.
The first day on trail flew by, and other than getting completely worked on the first two switchback-filled climbs, I felt like a fIoating head, effortlessly moving down the cruisy dirt/sand path,
constantly gazing at the granite peaks in the distance.
Knowing that you have nothing on your itinerary for the next two weeks other than following a dirt path is a freeing and exciting feeling; especially in a landscape that felt so foreign and unique to what I had known up to this point.
Crabtree Meadow was the destination for night one. Situated at 10,400’, This wide open camping area acts as a ‘basecamp’ for the ascent of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous US, topping off 14,500’. Camping at Crabtree Meadows the night prior allows you the option to leave most of your gear and food at camp while summiting Whitney as an out-and-back hike.
The hike itself up Whitney isn’t particularly challenging; it’s the altitude that is the deciding factor for most who make a summit bid. I'm thankful for my body for feeling strong and moving well at this elevation, having never been above 12,500' before. It was a picture perfect weather day. I wouldn’t see a single cloud in the sky for the next 5 days. Gotta love California sunshine.
The following day was arguably the best day of hiking I’ve ever experienced. Forester Pass loomed, which is the highest pass on the JMT and PCT topping off at 13,100’. I was feeling significantly more acclimated at this point; climbing at higher elevation was still always an added factor, but I began feeling like myself again.
Forester Pass comes into view long before you approach the base, as the JMT gradually ascends past picturesque alpine lakes, gushing waterfalls, an abundance of snowmelt stream crossings, and residual snowfields.
A stimulating and cruisy seven mile descent took me all the way
down to the forested valley floor at the base of Glen Pass. Glen was significantly steeper and more technical than Forester,
and a steep snowfield traverse on the North side of the pass added some excitement and adrenaline to the end of the day.
There I met Fizzy Pop, a 2022 PCT hiker out for a section hike with
her friend whose name I’m blanking on, unfortunately. Hiking with them allowed the descent to cruise by as Fizzy Pop shared stories from her time on the PCT.
Rae Lakes sits as the base of the pass, making for the ideal campsite to watch the sunset over the Sierra, capping off what came to be my favorite day on the JMT, looking back at it now.
'Another day, another pass' is the (un)official slogan of the JMT. Most of your days in the southern half of the trail are spent climbing 3-4,000' up and over a pass, just to only descend another
3,-4,000' back to the forested valley. Each pass offers a different perspective and vantage point of the High Sierra.
Pinchot pass follows Glen, with Mather proceeding immediately after. More glorious alpine lakes dot the trail, with my favorite being Palisade Lake, situated on the North side of Mather. Hands down the coldest swim of my life, and the best afternoon siesta of my thru hiking career.
South Lake Trailhead to Red’s Meadow Resort
15,062’ Elevation Gain
The scenic 12 mile Bishop Pass Trail takes hikers off the JMT to South Lake Trailhead for the option to catch a ride into the town of Bishop. It was an easy hitch thanks to Dave and his wife, who treated me to breakfast before dropping me off in town. Trail Angels at its finest!
The perfect weather window couldn't last forever. By the time I got back on trail, the wind picked up significantly as dark clouds dominated the sky.
A storm did indeed rock the High Sierra that night, and thankfully my Mid 1 was up for the task. The storm lingered throughout the morning, delaying my start time until 10 AM; the thought of climbing up and over Muir Pass in the lingering storm did not sound too enticing.
The weather was still gnarly on the pass, with 40-50 mph wind gusts and minor passing hail showers. Lots of snow remained on the south side, making navigation tricky.
I resorted to starting at the gps line on the FarOut app on my cell phone. Bad idea. A strong gust knocked me over from behind, causing my phone to fly out of my hands directly into a stream crossing. Gone forever.
The hike has been going perfectly thus far, so I was due for a logistical mishap at some point. That’s thru-hiking for you, nothing can ever go entirely as planned. And for that, I do apologize for no photos on this portion of the blog; including the lunar-like Evolution Valley that proceeded, a major scenic highlight of the entire JMT.
As if my day couldn’t get more interesting; I found myself at the banks of the San Joaquin River, where the bridge that allows hikers to cross safely was damaged this Winter, and ultimately destroyed by Forest Service Rangers.
Hikers were still fording the river upstream, and I found myself waist deep in fast moving water, blocking out negative thoughts about the consequences one miscalculated step would result in.
Cleary, I reached the other side unscathed, and while I was feeling relieved to have made it past this hurdle, I was not too happy with my decision making to cross in the late afternoon, when the river is at its highest. Lesson learned.
Selden Pass and Silver Pass are the remaining challenges for this section; and while not quite as high in elevation or as difficult as the other major passes on the JMT, these two offer fantastic panoramic views of the miles to come.
The landscape gradually began to change as I made my way closer towards Yosemite; while still stunning, this portion of the Sierra isn’t quite as dramatic as the southern half. Less time is spent in the alpine as the trail generally stays lower, hovering around 8,000-10,000’ in elevation.
After a three day, nearly 70 mile push, my body was beginning to feel the cumulation of miles. But despite a sore ankle and some tight quad muscles, I was very happy with how my body was holding up overall, but I was due for some rest.
Red’s Meadow Resort sits less than half of a mile off the JMT, which offers a general store, a cafe, a campground, and other hiker services like a shower and laundry.
After taking advantage of the breakfast on site and collecting my resupply package, I hopped on the shuttle bus to Mammoth Lakes, where I picked up my new cell phone and hung out at the brewery. This stop provided a great physical and mental break to get ready for the final push to Yosemite Valley.
Red’s Meadow Resort to Happy Isles Trailhead
It’s amazing how quickly the body can feel recovered after a short recovery day on trail. Fueled by pancakes and coffee, I bid farewell to Reds Meadow and
began the long switchback-filled climb out of the valley and back into the high mountains.
The JMT passes several alpine lakes in this section of trail; most notably Garnet Lake and Thousand Island Lake, both scenic highlights of not only the day, but the entirety of the trail.
Thousand Island Pass offered an abundance of campsites with overviews of Thousand Island Lake, where I thought I’d end my
day, but this day was just one of those 'hike forever’ kind of days. My legs were on cruise control and my mind wanted to keep exploring and check out what was around the next bend.
Donahue Pass, at 11,000’, is the last major pass for Northbound thru-hikers and acts as boundary line for the Yosemite Wilderness. I pitched my tent on the North side of the pass right on an overlook that offered a 360 degree view of the Pass, and the Yosemite wilderness that lie ahead. No doubt, one of the best campsites I’ve ever had in my life.
From Donahue Pass, the JMT begins it’s looong, thirty mile descent down towards Yosemite Valley. I thoroughly enjoyed the 12 mile flat
meadow walk through the Yosemite backcountry before arriving to the ‘front country’, as the JMT takes hikers directly into civilization for the first time on the entirety of the route, nearly 200 miles in.
The JMT dips back into the wilderness and passes by the iconic
Cathedral Peak and Half Dome, which I unfortunately was unable to score a permit for. I shared my last night on trail with prospective Southbound hikers who were just beginning their journeys, as mine was coming to an end.
Despite being overly crowded, I opened up the stride a bit this last morning on trail and hit an 'ultra-shuffle' for the final six miles to the valley floor, all the while soaking in the iconic views of Nevada falls and the glimpses of the iconic Yosemite Valley.
I must’ve been moving a bit too fast, as I ran right past the Happy Isles trailhead sign, which marks the end of the JMT, without even noticing!
I backtracked nearly a quarter of a mile back to the Happy Isles Trailhead sign where I got my photo taken, and soaked in the moment before beginning the walk to the tourist traps that are Curry and Yosemite Village, where I would bum around the rest of the day before catching the bus to Mammoth Lakes to begin the long travel journey back to New England.
Thru-hiking is hard; there’s no way around it. Regardless of distance and setting, completing a long trail requires grit, discipline, and the willingness to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Although much, much different than my experiences on the Appalachian Trail, the JMT posed it’s own unique set of challenges and required me to step out of my comfort zone more than I was ever used to.
It’s hard to believe that there’s a more special place out there than the High Sierra, but I’m motivated to find out if that’s truly the case.