THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL
The John Muir Trail is one of the world’s premier footpaths. It runs some 212 miles through California, from world-famous Yosemite Valley to the highest peak in the contiguous United States, 14,496’ Mount Whitney. Along the way, it passes through 3 national parks (Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia), 2 federally designated wilderness areas (Ansel Adams and John Muir), and 1 national monument (Devil’s Postpile). Much of the path overlaps the Pacific Crest Trail, which is a tad longer, running 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. I don’t know if I’ll ever have enough free time to hike that one, but the JMT is much more manageable. I dedicated most of this summer’s trip to hiking it in its entirety.
The JMT is officially listed at 212 miles, but with optional side trips, and the mandatory 8-mile hike from the end of the trail on Mt. Whitney to the closest road, the full hike for us was closer to 230 miles. Most people take approximately three weeks to cover that distance. Since carrying three weeks worth of food isn’t realistic, this hike requires a lot more planning than the typical backpacking trip.
Fortunately, there are several places along the route where supplies can be purchased or mailed. From north to south, those places are Tuolumne Meadows (post office & store), Reds Meadow resort, Vermillion Valley Resort, and Muir Trail Ranch. Most hikers choose to take advantage of at least one of these resupply points. In an effort to lighten our packs, we decided to use all of them.
The first three resupply points are conveniently located 2 to 3 days apart. As a result, we were able to complete the first half of the hike without ever having to carry more than a couple days worth of food. Hauling a relatively light pack made the trip easier and more enjoyable. Unfortunately, there are no convenient resupply points over the last 110 miles of the hike. We knew the last half of the trip would be a bit more demanding as a result.
Bob, Christy, and I spent a startling amount of time and energy planning out meals and preparing resupply boxes. Once the initial planning was complete, meals had to be dehydrated and packaged for shipment. Finally, we spent a weekend in early June at Bob’s place up in Ashe County. There we finalized our packages for shipment to the various resupply points. This was surprisingly complicated, as each resupply service has different rules and regulations. Then, we discovered that the original itinerary I had developed called for us to pass through Tuolumne Meadows on Sunday, when the post office would be closed. At the last minute, we were forced to modify our plan so we could pick up our food on Monday morning.
Food wasn’t the only complicated part of planning this trip. My wife, Christy, would be joining me and Bob for the first six days. Afterwards, she would fly to Mexico, where she intended to take a course to get certified to teach Yoga. Once we reached Reds Meadow at the end of the 6th day, we’d take a series of buses into the nearest town, Mammoth Lakes. The next morning, Christy would catch another bus back to Yosemite Valley, where we planned to leave the rental car. Meanwhile, Bob and I would return to the trail to resume the hike. Then, once we finished the trail, all we would have to do is find our way back to San Francisco!
PART ONE: YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
We got up early on Friday morning and checked out of the June Lake Campground. From there, we made the long drive over to Yosemite Valley. Once in the Valley, we headed to the massive overnight parking area. There we gathered our gear and began our journey.
We found a connecting path that took us from the parking area over to the actual trail. We joined what we thought was the JMT, and wandered up along the Merced River to Happy Isles. Unfortunately, we were on the wrong side of the river, and there was no bridge across. We eventually realized that we had to backtrack to the road to get to the other side.
After this auspicious beginning, we circled around to the correct trailhead. Here we found an ambulance, which was also rather discouraging. Just beyond was a large sign, announcing that Mount Whitney was 211 miles away. We paused for the obligatory trailhead photo before shuffling off to join the masses at Vernal Falls.
We followed a paved path high above the river. This stretch was surprisingly steep in places, but before long we descended to a bridge. There was a throng of backpackers, dayhikers, and tourists here, as the bridge provides the only clear view of the falls (without taking a side trip to the base). After jostling a bit for position, I was able to squeeze off a mediocre photo. Fortunately, there were many better photo opportunities to come.
Just beyond the bridge, we reached a junction with the Mist Trail. The Mist Trail climbs up past Vernal and Nevada Falls before rejoining the JMT. I had read warnings that hikers on this trail should expect to get soaked by the spray from the falls. We didn’t want our gear drenched, although some cool spray would’ve been refreshing in the mid-morning heat. Despite our best efforts, an early start had eluded us.
We followed the JMT, climbing out of the gorge on switchbacks carved out of the cliff walls. The climb was steady but far from terrible. In fact, I thought the first few climbs before the bridge were worse. Best of all, there was little traffic on this stretch of trail, as most of the tourists and dayhikers had headed up the Mist Trail.
We eventually rejoined the Mist Trail just above Nevada Falls. There is a nice view of the falls here, so we stopped for lunch. From there, the trail became crowded again as we headed towards the top of Nevada Falls. This stretch of trail was fantastic, with numerous views of the falls, as well as the cliffs of Liberty Cap and Half Dome. Colorful wildflowers added to the beauty along here.
We crossed the Merced River on another bridge right at the brink of Nevada Falls. This waterfall has claimed more than a few lives over the years. It was easy to see why, as there were several people playing in the creek right at the brink of the falls. We didn’t linger there long, as we headed up the hot, dusty trail towards Little Yosemite Valley. This part of the hike was nice, as we passed under towering trees along the shore of the mellow Merced River. It was near here that we saw the only Sequoias of the whole trip.
We bypassed the Little Yosemite Valley camping area, and began another climb towards the Half Dome Junction. It was in this area that we began to see hikers returning from Half Dome. Hiking Half Dome in a single day requires a 16-mile hike with a total climb of almost 5000 feet. That’s a pretty serious hike by most any standard, but that doesn’t mean that the pilgrimage to one of California’s most famous peaks is restricted to serious hikers. We saw all sorts of people coming down from Half Dome. There were Europeans in black socks and sandals, and Asians with multiple cameras. We saw at least one fellow hiking barefoot. Then there was the, uh, lady hiking in a string bikini. The bikini was particularly noticeable since she was sporting the biggest fake boobs in the state of California (and believe me, that’s saying something). After she passed, Christy turned to me and asked, “what was she doing up there, filming a porno?”
Many of the folks we passed were sporting smiley face stickers on their shirts. What was up with that? Did everyone who reached the summit get a sticker? Later, we found out that there was group of students from Virginia Tech there conducting a study. Apparently, everyone who participated in the study received a sticker.
We eventually reached the Half Dome junction and left the crowds behind. My plan was to continue up the JMT another half-mile or so and camp. That way, we’d be well-positioned for an attempt on the summit early the next morning. After hiking Half Dome, we’d resume our journey towards Mount Whitney.
A few minutes later we passed the junction with the trail to Clouds Rest. There were numerous campsites in this area. The first we passed was occupied, but it was in a lush, damp area near a small stream. It looked like mosquito hell, and I was more than happy to pass it up. A couple of minutes later, Bob spotted a doe and fawn in the trail ahead. The fawn was still very young – in fact, it still had its spots. A few minutes later, we passed a young buck grazing along the hillside above the trail.
After that, the trail began following another small stream. There weren’t any campsites in view, but the hill above the trail looked promising. I scouted it out, while Bob and Christy waited below. I found several possible sites, but one in particular was very appealing. It was flat and sandy, but scattered pine trees offered some shade. Nearby was a rock outcrop that looked like the ideal place to cook and eat. From there, we had a nice view of Half Dome. Best of all, we were far enough above the stream that there weren’t any bugs.
We set up camp and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing. That evening, I cooked an elaborate stir fry dinner. This was tricky, since we only had two alcohol stoves to work with. However, I’d brought a small frying pan for the first six days, which opened up a number of options that we otherwise wouldn’t have had. The meal was great – it was nice to enjoy some fresh vegetables while we could.
That night, another deer browsed through our camp. We stayed up late enough to enjoy the stars before heading to bed.
BURN MY ASS
We were up at 5:15 the next morning, despite the pre-dawn chill. Although our campsite was the lowest elevation site of the entire trip, it provided one of our coldest mornings. The cold made it hard to get up, but it had the benefit of discouraging loitering around camp. We had cold cereal for breakfast, gathered our gear, and hit the trail just after 6. We hiked back to the Half Dome junction, and enjoyed a nice view of the famous rock face illuminated by the early morning light.
At the junction, we met 2 guys who had started from Yosemite Valley at 2am. Being fresh, we quickly left them behind. A few minutes later, we heard a ruckus in the woods below us. We caught up with Bob, who was grinning from ear to ear. He had seen a bear only moments earlier. He came away with a decent photo, so at least we didn’t completely miss the first bear sighting of the trip.
We continued to climb from there, and reached a ridge with fine views of Snow Creek Falls and portions of the valley. Steep switchbacks ensued, and soon we were climbing across bare granite. Along here, we passed several hikers already on their way down. A couple had overnight packs, which suggested that they had spent the night on the summit – in violation of park regulations.
We continued to climb, and reached a false summit. From here, a brief descent brought us to the base of the cables.
The National Park Service installed the cables years ago to make the final ascent safer. One might question how successful this has been. There have been numerous accidents, a few of the fatal, over the years here. From our vantage point at the base, the route certainly looked intimidating. The metal cables stretched above us, up a slope that looked nearly vertical. We all sifted through the pile of gloves there, and I eventually found a righty and a lefty that looked like they would work.
Bob went up first, with Christy and me following. We climbed by pulling ourselves up the cables, and took regular breaks at the wooden boards that were spaced at regular intervals. The climbing was actually easier, and less scary, than it looked. The only difficulty came with meeting the occasional descending hiker. That was awkward, since the cables are narrow. Usually this required one person to duck under another. At one point, I encountered several people coming down. I broke the rules there, and actually crawled out away from the cables. There was a nice crack to sit in, so I felt comfortable doing so. Plus, it was a convenient place to wait for Christy to catch up.
The worst of the climb actually came early on. As we climbed, the grade eased. We were able to make easy progress, as there was very little traffic on the cables. This is the primary reason why I wanted to summit Half Dome first thing in the morning. Being the Saturday of a holiday weekend, I knew it would be a zoo later.
We reached the top of the cables a few minutes later. From there, it was an easy stroll to the actual summit. When we arrived, I was stunned to discover that we were the only people there. All of the early birds had headed down, and the hordes were still well behind us. I knew it wouldn’t last long, but I settled in to enjoy the solitude.
The view was fantastic, as you’d expect. The vista of the high country, where they peaks were still cloaked in snow, was breathtaking. In the other direction, we gazed out over world-famous Yosemite Valley. Beyond the valley, the view was obscured by smoke from nearby forest fires. This was only a mild nuisance though, as it was a beautiful morning otherwise. We hung out up there for quite some time. I explored the summit area, which is quite large. My favorite spot was “the diving board”, which is a narrow protrusion of rock hanging out over the valley 5000’ below.
Eventually the crowds began to arrive. Bob headed down before us, and his choice was a good one. By the time we started down, the cables were getting crowded. We worked our way down carefully, walking backwards and lowing ourselves using the cables. Unfortunately, making progress was difficult due to the crowds. We weaved our way through traffic, and eventually reached the bottom. This was a relief, and we hustled back towards camp. Farther down the trail, the parade approaching the summit grew even thicker.
We returned to camp by 11:30. We had lunch, filtered water, and packed up our gear. We completed those chores and hit the trail at 1:30. We still had to backpack another 7 miles or so to reach our campsite for the night at Sunrise.
The hike was pleasant at first, as we followed a ridge with nice views of the Yosemite high country. It seemed as if there were polished granite and pine trees everywhere we looked. We even caught some fine views of Half Dome in our rearview mirrors. Eventually we entered deeper woods, passing immense Jeffrey Pines. I’d never even heard of Jeffrey Pines before this trip, but now they are one of my favorite trees. They are similar to Ponderosa Pines, but the ones growing through here were truly massive.
Along with the views and the trees, we were treated to some nice wildflowers. The many Mariposa Lilies were breathtaking, while the occasional Snow Plant was one of the most unique plants we saw during the trip.
Eventually we began a grueling climb on switchbacks. This one was tough, as it was a hot afternoon, and we were all tired from summiting Half Dome that morning. After an eternity, we crested a wooded pass with some limited views and began to descend. It was along here that we passed several hikers going the other way wearing mosquito headnets. This was not a good sign. I’d brought a headnet, in case the bugs got bad around camp, but I’d never considered wearing one on the trail. If they were bad enough to make that necessary, we would be in for a lousy evening.
We reached the junction to the Sunrise camping area in a broad, wet meadow. I paused there to take a photo, and the blood sucking demons descended on me with a vengeance. After a bit of cursing and flailing, I lost all interest in taking pictures, and hurried after Bob and Christy in search of a campsite.
We found the designated campsites a few minutes later. The area was crowded with tents, and we found the last decent spot. We were close to the pit toilets and the water spigot, but were surrounded by clouds of mosquitoes. We set up camp, and donned our headnets to ward off the evil-doers. The mosquitoes made for a miserable night. Even with the headnets and a thick coating of DEET, they got into everything. At times, the clouds of bugs were so thick they blotted out the sun. We all wondered if every night of the trip would be like this.
That evening, Christy made pizzas for us. The food was great, but the meal was marred by one unfortunate incident. We had brought a package of mosquito coils, which are somewhat effective in deterring the winged demons. We lit several and placed them around the campsite, since they are only effective if you are in or near the smoke. I was getting ready to eat when I sat down on the burning end of one of them! I probably jumped halfway across the campsite. Luckily, the damage was confined to a small hole in my shorts and a burn on my right buttock. Unfortunately, that was the only pair of pants I’d brought for the whole 3 week hike!
A PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING FOR N,N-DIETHYL-META-TOLUAMIDE
Lord, we thank thee for bestowing the gift of N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide upon us.
Yea, we do love to slather it upon our skin,
To ward off the winged demons sent by Satan to torment us.
Though it does burn our skin,
And render us sightless when it gets in our eyes,
Though it may eat holes in our clothing,
And make our pasta taste like fertilizer,
And cause us to smell most foul,
And woe is he who rubbith it upon his genitals while using the latrine.
Still we love it so,
For it keepith the blood-sucking bastards at bay.
Oh Lord, what would we do without your gift of N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide?
We would be forced to defend ourselves from Satan’s minions using our own devices.
We would be reduced to slapping, and swatting, and occasionally punching ourselves in the face.
We would swaddle ourselves in clothing, despite the summer heat.
And still, the Dark One’s evil-doers would get into our eyes, and our ears, and our noses and mouths.
And they would bite us, on our shoulders, and on our hands, and on our feet,
And yes, even on our buttocks and other naughty parts,
For the tiny pricks have no shame.
And the sons of bitches would transmit their charming diseases to us.
Diseases like Malaria, and West Nile Virus, and Syphilis.
And then we would scratch, scratch, scratch at the festering wounds we’d suffer.
And then our minds would turn to thoughts of revenge.
Soon we’d be trying to capture the little devils alive, rather than splattering them all over our faces.
And then we’d learn to love to torture our tormentors.
We’d discover the joy of removing their wings, so all they can do is waddle around.
Or we’d just remove one wing, and watch them fly in circles.
Even better, we’d remove their legs, so they might fly but not land.
Or we’d simply remove their proboscis, so they may not feed.
We might even insert a pine needle into the rectum, leaving the impaled, squirming bugger as a warning to others.
But this unpleasantness has been rendered unnecessary, thanks to the eternal gift of N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide.
NEVER KISS A MARMOT ON THE MOUTH
We were up early enough the next morning to feed the mosquitoes. Sunday was a rotten morning. Christy was ill and was suffering through some mysterious foot pain. Meanwhile, the bugs were driving us all batty. Bob packed up and hit the trail ahead of us, making his escape from Sunrise. I can’t say that I blame him. It wasn’t a difficult place to leave behind.
We got back on the JMT, and hurried through the first of several meadows. The meadows were bug-infested, but we were able to avoid most of them if we kept moving. These conditions led us to make great time. A minor climb brought us up to Cathedral Pass, where we did enjoy a brief rest while taking in the view. From the pass, the Tuolumne Meadows area unfolded below us. After our break, we resumed the hike and passed by Upper Cathedral Lake. This was a pretty spot, but the mosquitoes were brutal here, too. Originally I had planned on camping there. If anything, it might’ve been worse than Sunrise!
The rest of the hike to Tuolumne Meadows was rather uneventful. We passed through several miles of Lodepole Pine forest, and the views were pretty limited. There were a couple of oddities along the way though. First, we came around a bend to see a marmot hunched over in the middle of the trail. What was he doing? He looked up at us, startled, and a clump of horse crap fell out of his mouth. I’ll bet he had terrible breath! Apparently horse shit is a delicacy to a marmot. Who knew?
Later, we passed a small snowfield at the base of a granite outcrop. There were a couple of German tourists nearby, and we greeted them as we passed. They seemed friendly, until they started throwing snowballs at us. What was up with that? Were they trying to start World War Three?
A bit later we started passing junctions with trails leading into Tuolumne Meadows. One led to a trailhead, another went to the Visitor’s Center, and a third headed through the actual meadows towards Parsons Lodge. The description in each of the guidebooks for this area is confusing, and we really weren’t sure which way was the best to go. We knew we needed to find the campground though, so when we reached a turn for it, we took it. We wandered through a long stretch of the campground, which was far from full. Eventually we reached the main highway, which was convenient, as we were right next to the “café”. We had skipped lunch in hopes of getting something more appealing. Believe it or not, the burger and fries I got there was one of the best meals of the whole trip.
After eating we went in search of Bob and a campsite. Bob had gotten a pretty good head start on us that morning, and we hadn’t caught up to him. We headed over to the campground, and followed the directions to the backpacker’s sites. These spots were secluded from the rest of the campground, on a hill above the river. There were many to choose from, and we took one towards the back. We were just setting up when we spotted Bob looking for us. We waived him over, and he set up nearby.
After setting up camp, we picked up a 6 pack of Fat Tire and headed down to the river to relax for the rest of the afternoon. It didn’t take long to find a nice swimming hole, with a fantastic open rock for relaxing in the sun. Getting to it was an adventure, as it required wading the river. This was exciting, as the current was strong and river bottom felt like polished marble. Christy and I tiptoed across, and it was relief to reach the far side. We spent the next couple of hours lounging, and we took a dip to cool off. Christy even went for a ride through one of the rapids, body surfing a natural waterslide.
That evening, we headed over to the Tuolumne Meadows lodge, where we had dinner reservations. The lodge is a mile or so from the campground, and I’m not ashamed to admit that we took the shuttle bus. Hey, when you’re already walking over 200 miles, it’s ok to skip the extra stuff. The meal was quite good, although not as enjoyable as the burger from that afternoon! We each some more beers there, and I think we all had a nice buzz by the time we headed back. Unfortunately, the shuttle bus had stopped running, so we had to walk it this time. It was a pleasant walk on the JMT, although now we were heading northbound. Along the way, we caught the end of a pretty sunset and enjoyed some brilliant stars. After an afternoon of relaxation and good food, we were recharged and ready for the next stretch of trail through the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Continue reading about our trip as we continue our thru-hike of the John Muir Trail from Tuolummne Meadows to Reds Meadow.
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