One of the best hikes in the world is the
John Muir Trail
Hikes in this area are called:
- Mount Whitney Trail
- Half Dome (Cable Route permit required since 2011)
- Yosemite to Tuolumne Meadows
- Tenaya Lake to Yosemite
- Horseshoe Meadow (Whitney South)
- … many, many more
Walk for 2-3 weeks without crossing a road. Brilliant! This is the best hike in the USA and includes many of the best sections of the longer Pacific Crest Trail.
AT A GLANCE
- one of our top 10 hikes in the world
- start in stunning Yosemite, Muir’s “Range of Light”
- 223mi (360km) to Whitney Portal adding sidetrips to Half Dome, Vermillion Resort and Mt. Whitney 14,505ft (4,421m)
- 15-21 days recommended
- most hikers carry their own food and tent (pack animals can be hired, however)
- most hikers resupply en route
- anyone can walk sections, but to do the John Muir as a thru-hike requires experience, toughness and advance planning.
- short hiking season as snow still covers some passes into July and some passes may snowed in as early as mid-Sept.
- the best weeks are Aug through Sept
- getting a permit to start in Yosemite or Whitney is difficult — apply 24wks in advance. It’s fairly easy to get permits to start at other trailheads.
- moderate to difficult hiking, depending on weather and trail conditions
- temperatures can range from 86F+ (30C) to below freezing
- bear-proof food containers mandatory
Whitney is the highest mountain in the lower 48, and the most climbed.
Why We Like This Hike
For many, this is the best hike in the world. More than that, it’s a pilgrimage in honour of the man who co-founded the Sierra Club and helped create Yosemite National Park.
- crosses Yosemite, Ansel Adams and John Muir wilderness, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks
- 11 high passes, unbelievable views
- about 10 Ranger stations en route
- comparatively safe walking for such a long hike (the scramble up Half Dome being the notable exception)
- JMT is about 10% the length of the Pacific Crest Trail
- many marvellous waterfalls cascading the huge granite walls of Yosemite
- thousands of small lakes
- public transport to the trailheads (easy to Yosemite, Reds, Bishop, Lone Pine and others)
- the JMT passes through 6 of 7 ecological zones of America
- gorgeous “wild camping” options. No need to tent near other people unless you wish to.
- often great weather — though afternoon summer thunderstorms are likely
- Whitney, highest in the continental USA, is a beautiful and impressive peak
- the warm welcome (and day off) at Vermillion Resort is a highlight
- the Wilderness Permit is free
- it is easy to solo the JMT — but only if you are strong enough to haul your own gear. In fact, there are many solo hikers, including solo female hikers.
- signing the summit register on Whitney is a great culmination to the adventure
A 2014 survey identified the biggest problems reported by hikers:
- blisters (57 percent)
- sleep problems (57 percent)
- pack strap pain (46 percent)
- knee/ankle pain (44 percent)
- back/hip pain (43 percent).
- 37 percent reported altitude sickness.
The biggest problem when planning for the JMT is that Muir Trail Ranch is the last place you can easily resupply with food. From there you may need to carry 10 days food or more over steep, remote passes to Whitney. (Consider finishing at the Ranch or Reds if you do not think you are up to the remote southern section of the JMT.)
An alternative is to arrange for someone to bring you food / fuel on the trail.
Also, on the Muir Ranch to Whitney section you may need carry more food than you can fit in one bear canister (barrel). Consider carrying two!
- few bear-proof campground lockers are available on the JMT. You need and are required to carry a bear-proof food container.
- often seen on the JMT: rattlesnake, bears, grouse, deer, marmots, …
- water is not a major problem, but it will be dry on the the high passes in August
- a good water filter is recommended, however, as some suffer diarrhoea on this hike. Boil also, when you can. It is easy to resupply with fuel.
- dehydration and heat are more often problems than hypothermia, but bring enough warm clothes
- bring a lightweight stove. Fire limitations are in effect usually based on elevation.
- the smartest bears in the world will be trying to get anything edible or that smells edible
- Marmots will eat anything and may chew through your pack. We even had a chipmunk chew through our tent on Whitney, attracted by some batteries wrapped in plastic.
- mosquitos are a slight problem early in the season
- keeping with rustic tradition, the JMT has very few signs. It’s fairly easy to get lost as (We did in 2007.)
- snakes live there but are usually not a nuisance
- altitude sickness is a big worry, if you are starting at Whitney
- some hikers bring DIAMOX (Acetazolamide) — we do not recommend it
- Half Dome cables are taken down early to mid-October
- last day for the Tuolumne Meadows Tour bus shuttle was Sept. 17th in 2006
- you must poop in a bag on Whitney. (If you’ve never done it, you are in for an experience.)
- some river crossings may be a concern early in the season. Hiking poles an advantage.
- Most hikers prefer sturdy footwear on this trek. A second pair of footwear recommended.
- do not hike alone at night. Bears are a concern.
- there is limited parking at Whitney Portal on a busy day
- you are not supposed to leave food in the vehicle at Whitney Portal (due to bears) but there are not enough bear lockers to accommodate a full camp.
- this is one inexpensive holiday, all things considered
- bear canisters can be rented in Yosemite, but you might be better off buying your own.
- the main downside of starting in Yosemite at Happy Isles trailhead is the steep climb at the start of your hike. Smart hikers, instead, catch the Tuolumne Meadows Tour bus from Yosemite valley up to Tuolumne Meadows, then hike back down to Yosemite via Half Dome. (Turning the slog into a relaxed descent.) From there take the shuttle again back up to Tuolumne Meadows where you resupply and start the trail proper. (Credit for this idea goes to one of the comic Yosemite shuttle drivers who went on to tell us that thru-hikers are mostly crazy — they consider this cheating.)
- You can certainly reverse the route and start from Whitney Portal at 8,360ft (2548m). Public transport is more easily available out of Yosemite, for one thing. But you risk ill effects from the huge altitude gain of 6100ft (1859m) right at the start of your long trip while your pack is heavy. This is a particularly bad idea if you are coming from sea level. Not only that, but it may take you 10 days to get to the next resupply at John Muir Ranch. With a full pack. Over the highest passes.
- Almost everyone should hike south to Whitney.
- Cicerone – The John Muir Trail by Alan Castle lays out the JMT into 21 day long stages. Start with that reasonable itinerary. Hard core hikers often finish in 15 days. Some have taken as long as 30 days.
- John Muir Trail by Elizabeth Wenk (2007) uses drainage basins to split up the JMT. This guidebook worked well for us as we planned to start each day on flat ground. Or, better, downhill.
- for those flying, the most popular access airport is San Francisco
- from there, not surprisingly, public transport to Merced, California is convenient by bus or train. Merced (pop. 60,000) is the last good place to buy your food.
- from Merced we took the popular YARTS bus to Yosemite. If you need to overnight anywhere en route, choose Yosemite Bug lodge and hostel, a gem of a location and inexpensive. Right by a YARTS bus stop.
- Once you have a Backpacking permit, you are allowed to camp in Yosemite at the Backpackers Camp until your day of departure
- exiting the trail at Whitney Portal is problematic. At any given time you will see tired, dirty hikers trying to find a way out to the highway.
- best is to have someone pick you up there in a personal vehicle. You may have to telephone them once you arrive at the famed trailhead store restaurant. (Giant pancakes, great burgers!)
- It’s difficult to predict even to the day when you will finish.
- public transport out is via the small tourist town of Lone Pine, California on the doorstep of the Mojave desert. That’s 13mi (21km) east of the Whitney Portal trailhead. And you will not want to walk it. (Hitchhiking is possible.)
- there are at least a dozen hotels and motels in Lone Pine and a number of campgrounds on the way up to the mountains. If camping, however, try to stay at the Whitney Portal Family Campground and spend time at the Whitney Portal trailhead store.
- in Lone Pine we stay at the Whitney Portal Hostel — owned by the same family who run the Whitney Portal Store
- From Lone Pine, your best, perhaps only, option out is the bus on US-395. That’s not a busy highway. Confirm what’s running, when.
- you might be able to hire transport trailhead <> Lone Pine (but don’t count on it as shuttles are often booked during high season).
- Inyo Mono Transit (760) 872-1901
- Kountry Korners, Bishop, CA, (877) 656-0756
- Walt’s Inyo Trailhead Transportation, Lone Pine, CA, (760) 876-0035
Most hikers do the JMT on their own, but you may be able to hire a guide or join a hiking group. A few options to consider:
- Sierra Mountain Center
- World Expeditions ($3400 / 21 days in 2013)
- Mountain Travel Sobek
- Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides
- California Alpine Guides
- Call of the Wild – Yosemite High Country Hiking
- … leave a comment if you have a guide to recommend
If you sign on with a guided trip, logistics will be organized for you. This section is for independent hikers.
Most critical is getting your JMT permits.
This information page is far too short to explain all you need to plan a JMT hike. We just give an overview and point to the best resources.
Yosemite permits are available 24 weeks (168 days) in advance. But you should get a guidebook and start researching your options long before that. There are many ways to section hike parts of the JMT without having permits for the entire routes.
Whitney is the toughest permit. On the other hands, it’s a short sidetrip from the trail. Does anyone check your permit at the top?
- JohnMuirTrail.org – permits
- reservations for lodging and campgrounds
- ideally you get someone with a personal vehicle to move you and to drop food caches. Without wheels, it is tricky (not impossible) to organize this trip.
- There are four popular places to resupply on the trail including Tuolumne Meadows, Red’s Meadow and the Muir Trail Ranch.
- most recommended, however, is Vermilion Valley Resort which caters to thru-hikers and is only one mile and a short ferry ride off the JMT. Take a rest day there if you have the time.
- Needless to say, you should plan and confirm your food drops well in advance with the direction of a guidebook and PCTA.org. This can be your biggest JMT hassle.
Muir Trail Ranch is very specific on how you must package your cache. And, last time we checked, it cost $55 for the service.
Many have found the Ranch to be unfriendly to non-guests. They were so-so when we stopped in in 2007.
Doug Thompson is “the man” at the Whitney Portal Store. If you have any specific question on Whitney, ask Doug.
- Inyo National Forest – 760-876-6222 in Lone Pine
- John Muir Trail FAQs – PCTA (Pacific Crest Trail Association)
- just south of Lone Pine is the Inyo National Forest Parks desk at the Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitors Center, open 7 days a week, 8AM-6PM in summer and from 8AM-5PM in winter.
Best Trekking Guidebooks
We liked the Cicerone guide best. Small, compact, attractive and with convenient maps. Then in 2007 Wenk & Morey updated the Wilderness Press guidebook. It’s the one we took on our August 2007 adventure. And the one recommended at the trailheads.
- Cicerone – The John Muir Trail – Alan Castle, 2010
- John Muir Trail – Elizabeth Wenk, Kathy Morey, 2007
- John Muir Trail Map-Pack – Tom Harrison, 2009
- Day and Section Hikes: John Muir Trail – Kathleen Dodge
- Getaway Guide to the John Muir Trail – Saperstein, 2005
- Lonely Planet Hiking in the Sierra Nevada – Mock & O’Neil, 2002
The Wenk and Morey describes the trail in both directions. You may want to tear out just the section of the book you need.
In the research phase, compare as many of the guidebooks as you can get your hands on.
Best Travel Guidebooks
We like Lonely Planet guides.
Other Recommended Books
- Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail – Suzanne Roberts (2012)
- Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail – 1938, Ansel Adams, William A. Turnage (2006 reprinting)
- A Hike For Mike: An Uplifting Adventure Across the Sierra Nevada for Depression Awareness – 2005, Jeff Alt – republished as Four Boots-One Journey: A Story of Survival, Awareness & Rejuvenation on the John Muir Trail
- High Sierra: John Muir’s Range of Light – Phil Arnot, 1996
- Steep Trails – John Muir, 2006 reprinting
- Starr’s Guide to the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Region – Robinson and Starr, 1982
- Trout Fishing the John Muir Trail – Charles and Steve Beck, 2000
- The Last Season – Eric Blehm, 2006
- Climbing Mt. Whitney – Croft & Benti, 2005
- Mount Whitney: The Complete Trailhead-To-Summit Hiking Guide – Richins, 2001
- How to Climb Mount Whitney in One Day – Salony, 1997
- Mountain Lore from the Whitney Store – Doug Thompson
- The Yosemite – John Muir
- Essential Muir: A Selection of John Muir’s Best Writings – John Muir, Fred D. White
- John Muir Writings text online of Muir’s books
- John Muir Writings Gutenberg project
The most popular maps we saw on the trail in 2006 were Harrison’s. Lower resolution versions of those maps are included in John Muir Trail – Elizabeth Wenk, Kathy Morey, 2007 — but we’d rather carry the Map-Pack.
- John Muir Trail Map-Pack – Tom Harrison (be sure you get the most recently updated edition)
The JMT is surprisingly poorly signed though easy to follow … unless covered with snow. If you miss one junction, you may walk miles out of your way. A GPS is a good idea on this trip.
- John Muir Trail interactive map – JMT2k.com
- John Muir Trail overview map – PCTA (Pacific Crest Trail Association)
- Hike For Cancer maps – jmt2k.com
Best Web Pages
- John Muir Trail FAQs – PCTA (Pacific Crest Trail Association)
- Here’s What It Takes to Hike the John Muir Trail
- John Muir Trail in words and pictures – JMT2k.com
- Pacific Crest Trail conditions – PCTA
- How to Hike 2,650 Miles and Survive – Hike and Cycle
- Mount Whitney Trail – besthike
- John Muir Trail – Wikipedia
- John Muir – Wikipedia
- JMT Backpacking Information – Sierra Pack Trip
- Vermilion Valley Resort – cache stop
- Muir Trail Ranch backpackers – cache stop
- John Muir Trail – Backpack45.com
Best Trip Reports
- E+J hike the John Muir Trail 2015
- John Muir Trail Journal – Craigy 2006
- Big Walks 2010
- Big Walks 2013
- JohnMuirTrail.org – South Lake to Whitney Portal 2009
- JohnMuirTrail.org 2007
- The Hiking Life 2007
- John Muir Trail photos – John Frisch
- John Muir Trail photos – Brian Ernst 2003
- JMT photos – Rick McCharles 2007
- John Muir Trail – Jan & Saskia 2004
- John Muir Trail – JMThiker.com 2003
- John Muir Trail – Go-Liters 2000
- Hiking the John Muir Trail – Reiner Stenzel 1996
- John Muir Trail – reiseagentur.de (German and English)
- JMT Record Attempt – Unsupported, Without Resupply – Al Shaver, Backpackinglight.com
- John Muir Trail Peak Bagging – Craig Clarence 1997
- photos tagged “John Muir Trail” – flickr
Click PLAY or watch it on Vimeo.
Click PLAY or watch it on Vimeo.
Click PLAY or watch JMT in 7 days on YouTube.
And finally, Almost There – the Muir Project (2011).
Click PLAY or watch it on Vimeo.
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