Richard Moore

The John Muir Trail (JMT), often quoted as “America’s most famous trail”, runs between Yosemite N.P. in the north and the summit of Mt. Whitney (4421 m) 340 km to the south, passing through some of the finest mountain scenery in the US along the way. There are many superlatives that could be used to describe this trail (epic, sensational, breathtaking, beautiful, etc) and I highly recommend it for anyone with at least a moderate level of fitness and an appreciation for the outdoors.

The JMT is a popular trail and there is already much information available online, including maps, route descriptions, food plans, etc. On this page I simply want to document some of the advice that I found most pertinent, and to add some from my own experiences.

Happy trails!

Yosemite Valley from Glacier PointLooking towards Donahue Pass from Lyell Forks

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The route

My girlfriend and I completed our through-hike from the northern terminus in Yosemite N.P. to the southern terminus at Mt. Whitney before exiting at Whitney Portal. According to our maps, we walked a total of 363 km and gained (lost) +13,224 (-11,894) metres of elevation, which includes a few short detours. We took 19 days to complete our hike including a rest day to resupply at the Muir Trail Ranch.

    Elevation

The elevation profile for our route is shown below, colour coded by daily segments. Note that I put this together by hand using our maps, so the resolution is only a couple of miles in places.

John Muir Trail elevation profile

An advantage of completing the trail from north to south is that the passes get steadily higher as you head south and therefore you are well acclimated by the time you reach the highest passes near Whitney. Pack weight is also a big concern and by completing the hike in this direction, our packs got lighter as the hills got bigger. Finally, most people (possibly 90%) complete the hike from north to south, so by hiking in this direction you will encounter fewer people overall, but you might encounter the people that you do see several times throughout your hike - which makes for many enjoyable reunions along the way.

    Pace

My partner and I were both a young and spritely 29 years of age when we completed our hike, and we found our route and pace very comfortable. We walked on average about 20 km per day, typically leaving camp about 9 am and arriving at the next campsite before 4 pm, with a couple of long breaks along the way John Muir Trail daily mileage and elevation change (we enjoyed many long lunch breaks). Our walking pace was probably faster than average, and we usually overtook people during the day, only to reunite with them when they passed our camp. There are very few dedicated campsites along the route of the JMT but there are many suitable places to camp, so it is very easy to complete the hike at your own pace and in fact many of the people we passed on the trail were retired couples who were following 25+ day schedules. There was also a smattering of younger and spritelier hikers who passed us on schedules as short as 14 days.

    Trail condition

The hiking surface varies dramatically throughout the trail (dirt, stones, rocks, sand, water, etc), but the trail conditions for our hike were generally excellent. Most of the passes were quite rocky and you’ll spend a considerable amount of time walking through talus fields, however the track has been constructed at comfortable grades and is usually quite smooth, with few large steps or other obstacles to overcome. In fact, almost the entire trail is passable on horseback - evident from the almost continuous covering of dried manure and regular mule resupply caravans.

The biggest concern for us was dust. In combination with hot weather, long distances, and limited pairs of socks, dust causes blisters. I have never had trouble with blisters in many years of hiking, but I picked up a couple on the JMT after a dusty day 5 and my efforts to administer first aid to those led to more appearing throughout the rest of the hike. I recommend pre-emptive taping and you should rotate out your socks regularly (I washed a pair at lunch then dried them on my pack in the afternoon). If you have well ventilated or low-cut shoes you might also consider taking low-cut gaiters to keep the dust out.

    Water

We encountered water frequently on the JMT, even though we completed our hike in September 2014 after one of the driest years in California on record and when the region was under exceptional drought conditions. The trail passes many flowing streams and alpine lakes and, for most of the hike, 2 litres each of treated drinking water was sufficient to tide us over until the next water source. However, there were a couple of extended dry sections (up to 6 miles) where we carried and used 3-4 litres each. Stream crossings, although frequent (several per day), were not an issue for us, and the only crossing that required getting our feet wet was Evolution Creek.

Looking towards Banner Peak across Thousand Island LakeA typical view from the John Muir Trail

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References

Route finding was not difficult for us anywhere along the JMT. The trail is so well used that we simply followed others’ footsteps - with two significant caveats. Firstly, the JMT itself is not usually signposted, with junctions instead describing local features, so maps or guides are necessary for navigational decisions. Secondly, the trail is not marked or blazed in any obvious way, so with snow cover, for example, the route could be much more difficult to follow.

We used two resources to plan our daily segments and to track our progress:

  1. John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America's most famous trail. Elizabeth Wenk & Kathy Morey (2007).
  2. John Muir Trail map pack: shaded relief topo maps. Tom Harrison Maps (2009).

The Wenk & Morey book was useful pre-hike for constructing a rough schedule and planning food drops and permits, and in combination with the maps en route for finding campsites - it contains elevation profiles, detailed route descriptions, and most usefully notes on almost all of the suitable campsites along the route. I found it necessary to rip out roughly two thirds of the book’s pages prior to commencing our hike, however, as it contains two full route descriptions - one N-S and one S-N (!) - as well as much information that was mainly useful for pre-hike preparation. My main criticism of this book is that it contained very little information on water availability at each of the campsites. However, we found that water sources labelled in the Harrison maps were generally accurate and we had no trouble locating water at most of our campsites.

Other essential references include:

Looking up Evolution Valley from McClure MeadowLooking towards Wanda Lake from Muir Pass

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Campsites and facilities

I hope you enjoy camping. If you don’t enjoy camping then perhaps you will come to enjoy it as you hike the JMT because you will camp in some absolutely stunning locations. The JMT follows a succession of high alpine passes and low valley crossings. Most of our campsites were close to the northern (uphill) side of passes, above treeline in some cases. These areas were often quite rocky and camping was only possible in sites that had been cleared previously. We found our book and maps very useful for tracking down specific campsite locations without the aid of GPS. Lower down in the valleys campsites are more frequent but a book / map is still useful for choosing a site close to fresh water or other facilities.

The following table lists our campsites, along with their altitude (feet) and cumulative distances (miles) from our start location at the Backpackers' Camp in Yosemite N.P., as well as the equivalent campsite number in the Wenk & Morey book and any detours we took.

Campsite locations and mileage

    Facilities

In general, you will encounter very few facilities along the route. Some exceptions include:

In addition to these facilities there are also several opportunities to resupply or have a shower within reasonably close proximity to the trail (up to one day’s walk). There is more information about resupply locations in the following section.

Grouse Meadow in Le Conte CanyonAscending talus en route to Mather Pass

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Meals and resupplying

Most people who hike the JMT will resupply for food at least once. We chose to resupply at the Muir Trail Ranch because it is located immediately next to the trail and it lies almost exactly at the half-way point by distance. There are several other resupply options during the first (northern) half of the walk, but the options in the lower half are much fewer. There is detailed information on resupply options in the Wenk & Morey book. Briefly though, resupplying once at the half-way mark worked perfectly well for us, but if I were to attempt the hike again, I would start with only a couple of days of food and have an additional resupply point at either Tuolumne Meadows (day 3) or Red’s Meadow (day 5). Climbing out of Yosemite N.P. with soft legs and soft lungs and a pack full of ten days’ worth of food was one of the most challenging aspects of the hike.

The main factors influencing when you must resupply are your itinerary (a longer walk requires more food) and restrictions on the volume and weight of food you can carry. All food (and any other scented items, such as toothpaste) must be carried in approved bear canisters, and this strictly limited the volume of food we could carry at any one time to 20 L (2 x 10 L bear canisters).

Muir Trail Ranch provides a service whereby you can ship your food parcel to their P.O. Box address ahead of time and they will transport it to the ranch (right by the trail) for a fee. We were charged about $65 USD by MTR and about $50 USD by USPS to ship our 20 L (13 kg) food parcel across the country (USPS gave us a delivery date and tracking number too). Additionally, if you pass by late in the season, there may well be a stockpile of discarded items from other hikers (everything from gas canisters to prepared meals to toilet paper), which you can pick through to supplement your supplies. There is also a simple store, but it contains little more than basic first aid supplies - we found the discard buckets to be much more rewarding. Both Tuolumne Meadows and Red’s Meadow had much more complete stores for purchasing dehydrated meals and other trail food.

    Meal plan

Our meal plan was based around the food I usually take on shorter multi-day hikes: cereal and powdered milk for breakfast; wraps with salami and cheese for lunch; and dehydrated pasta sauces with carbohydrates for dinner. We supplemented this basic plan with additional high energy foods to increase our average calorie intake, and also went to some effort to ensure that we had enough variety (protein, vegetables, etc) in our diet due to the duration of the hike. Finally, we had to make sure that everything packed into less than 40 L of volume (a 10 L bear canister each for both halves of the walk).

All our dinners were dehydrated beforehand and simply required soaking in hot water to prepare. We sourced our dehydrated bolognese meat sauce from MRE Depot, which we supplemented with dehydrated diced capsicum, carrots, beans, and peas, also from MRE Depot. Our alternative dinners were simply dehydrated meals from Backpackers' Pantry, which we repackaged and supplemented with vegetables as above.

The tables below detail the dietary statistics for our individual meals. The values in the upper half of each table show the volume or weight and calories for one serve (for two people) of each meal; Meals indicates how many serves we took for the whole hike (19 days + 1 spare); and the values in the lower half of each table show the totals for the whole hike. Our grand totals were 25.5 kg and 103,000 calories for two people for 19 days hiking, averaging out at about 2750 calories each per day. This is significantly below our presumed average energy consumption of 3000-4500 calories each per day, and so we lost about 3 kgs each in weight over the course of the hike. Note: a handy rule of thumb is that you will lose around 1 kg per week for every 1000 calories you under-eat per day.

JMT meal plan for breakfast JMT meal plan for lunch

JMT meal plan for dinnerJMT meal plan for dinnerJMT meal plan for dinner

JMT meal plan for snacks

My only other remarks on food are that this meal plan kept us in high spirits and fitted exactly into the bear canisters - with no spare room (you can carry the first day’s food outside a canister if you keep it on your person), and that we had the most luxurious looking meals of any others that we encountered.

    Bear canisters

All food and scented items must be carried in approved bear canisters. Canisters are available for rent in Yosemite N.P. and can be posted back there from Lone Pine upon completion. Most of the parks you will pass through have regulations similar to those of Yosemite N.P., and although you will occasionally encounter bear boxes, they do not occur frequently enough to replace a portable canister.

Bear canisters are heavy and bulky and limit the volume of food you can carry, but thanks to them we did not have any disastrous wildlife encounters - plus we also had a handy stool to sit on at each campsite! We certainly encountered evidence of bears during our hike and spoke with others who had had much closer encounters than us, plus our canisters were inspected by rangers out on the trail, so I would definitely recommend following regulations.

Looking towards Mt Whitney from Treeline Lake

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Clothing and equipment

I am not going to provide an exhaustive list of our equipment, as anyone attempting the JMT should have had previous hiking experience and there is no special equipment required on the JMT. I will just highlight a few items of our equipment that I think warrant special attention.

  1. Boots. The wide variety of trail surfaces means that no single piece of footwear will be ideal for the whole length of the trail. I’m not advocating that you take multiple pairs of shoes, just that you ensure that your footwear is sturdy enough and general purpose enough to handle all conditions. Generally the trail surface is very smooth, so heavy full length boots are not required unless you prefer hiking in them. I hiked in a pair of Merrell Ventilators (low cut and breathable) and I would say they were perfect, except for the dust.
  2. Socks. Eastern Mountain Sports brand wool hiking socks are not sturdy enough for three weeks hiking through the dusty High Sierra. I learned that the hard way, no matter how much I enjoyed them during day hikes in the White Mountains. I would strongly recommend forking out for more durable thin wool hiking socks. Take at least three pairs so that you can wash and rotate them out during the day.
  3. First aid. Specifically, blister prevention and treatment. I never get blisters. Until the JMT. Sticking plaster and duct tape will not do. You will need Compeed or similar, and sturdy strapping tape (not the CVS brand). Prevention is better than a cure. We neither took nor required any medication for the altitude.
  4. Stove fuel. I took my trusty MSR Whisperlite and it was fine. I bought a 1 L bottle of white gas in the mountain store at Yosemite N.P. and it lasted the entire journey, although we used it simply for heating about 1 L of water per day. You can purchase extra fuel cheaply at the Muir Trail Ranch if needed.
  5. Toilet paper. You are meant to carry out all toilet paper for the full duration of your hike and to also carry out any human waste from the region of Whitney Portal. Make sure you are equipped for such activities. Durable zip lock bags are your friend. The rangers will give you a WAG bag at Yosemite N.P. if you're through-hiking.
  6. Zip lock bags. Again, yes. Take lots of them of various sizes for packing out trash and for water-proofing electronics. We packed each meal and each day’s snacks into separate zip lock bags and then each day’s worth of zip locks bags into a large zip lock bag to simplify food maths en route.

Mt Whitney summit hut

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© 2016 Richard Moore.