The Hike

Permit Info:Available from the Yosemite Conservancy
Trip Duration:One month on the trail plus three to five nights in hotels.
General Description:An arduous long-distance, multi-week wilderness backpack
Distance:~220 miles
Traffic:Moderate near the various trailheads, lighter between
Elevation Gain:50,000+ feet overall
Trailhead / Elevation:Happy Isles Trailhead / 4,035 feet  - -  Whitney Portal / 8330 feet
Maximum Elevation:Mount Whitney / 14,505 feet
Topo Maps:Half Dome, Merced Peak, Tenaya Lake, Vogelsang Peak, Tioga Pass, Koip Peak, Mount Ritter, Mammoth Mountain, Crystal Crag, Bloody Mountain, Graveyard Peak, Florence Lake, Mount Hilgard, Ward Mountain, Mount Henry, Mount Darwin, Mount Goddard, North Palisade, Split Mountain, Mount Pinchot, Mount Clarence King, Mount Brewer, Mount Williamson, Mount Kaweah, Mount Whitney, Mount Langley
Other Maps:Tom Harrison's John Muir Trail Map Set   
Reference:John Muir Trail by Elizabeth Wenk with Kathy Morey   

The John Muir Trail climbs out of Yosemite Valley from the Happy Isles trailhead. The sign at the trailhead indicates the 211 mile distance to Mount Whitney. This is truly the start of something big. Our first climb takes us along the Merced River and past Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. Depending on when we've started our hike, Nevada Falls might be a good place for lunch. We'll most likely pass through the campground at Little Yosemite Valley and continue for two more miles and another 800 feet of climbing until we reach a campsite along Sunrise Creek. Map 13 / 6.6 / 3,150'

The next morning we have a tough climb ahead of us as the trail veers to the north to pass behind Half Dome. After climbing 800 feet in just a mile and a half, the trail turns back toward the east but continues climbing, although at a more moderate pace. After another mile or so, the views open to the south as the trail looks out over Lost Valley immediately below. We can't tarry too long, however. We have a lot of climbing to do over quite a bit of distance to get to our second night's camp at Sunrise High Sierra Camp. Map 13 / 7.0 / 2,450'

Our third day on the trail covers a good number of miles but, once we get over Cathedral Pass, the elevation gain is negative. We have to give up some of that hard-earned elevation as we make our way to Tuolumne Meadows. There we can restock our packs from the store or from whatever supplies we may have prestaged through the mail. We'll spend our third night in the backpacker's campground there. Map 12 / 10.2 / 800'

After our afternoon and evening at Tuolumne Meadows, the trail descends slightly into Lyell Canyon, which it follows south. We'll have mostly level walking for several miles until we begin to reach the southern end of the canyon. There are several good campsites along the way, but we will try to continue as the trail begins to climb toward Donohue Pass. Shortly after passing the 10,000 foot level, we'll come upon a small lake which is the headwaters of the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. That will be our campsite for the evening. Map 12 / 10.9 / 1,500' We'll leave Donohue Pass for the next morning's hike.

At 11,050' high, Donohue Pass is our first real High Sierra pass. This is also the point at which we will leave Yosemite National Park and hike into the Ansel Adams Wilderness in the Inyo National Forest. The largest glacier in the Sierras lies on the face of Mt Lyell, and we should have great views of the glacier as we climb toward the pass.

Over Donohue Pass the trail descends into the valley of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, a wet region with many lakes and streams that attracts fishermen. We will hike down into the valley, passing several lakes including Thousand Island Lake, Emerald and Ruby Lakes, and try for our campsite along the north shore of Garnet Lake. Map 11 / 9.9 / 1,500'

From Garnet Lake, the trail continues to descend to Shadow Lake, a famously-beautiful lake. There the trail skirts along just inside the National Forest boundary past Rosalie and Gladys Lakes and on to Trinity Lakes. We will camp here for the night. The next day we may be able to resupply at Red's Meadow. This resupply point is a bit "iffy" and we don't want to have to rely on it, however. Map 11 & 10 / 8.0 / 900'

In the morning, we'll hike out of the Inyo National Forest and cross into Devil's Postpile. A small national monument, Devil's Postpile features the unusual formation of hundreds of posts of basalt that had the opportunity to solidify without mixing, allowing them to freeze in hexagonal posts. A mile from Devil's Postpile lies Red's Meadow which has a campground, a hot springs plumbed into shower stalls providing free hot showers, a store (food but few supplies for hikers - it appears to serve fishermen more) and cafe, both open 7 AM to 7 PM, and a shuttle bus that goes to the town of Mammoth Lakes (round-trip: $9.00).

If we are able to resupply, great. If not, we should have made plans to have resupplied more heavily at Tuolumne Meadows all those miles back. Either way, we'll continue hiking for several more miles past Red's Meadow to Upper Crater Meadow, where we'll set up camp for the night. Map 10 / 8.4 / 1,300'

The trail climbs out of the valley of the Middle Fork and reenters the National Forest and the John Muir Wilderness through an area still burnt from a 1993 fire. It then continues through a meadow, past Deer Creek, and then along the west face of the ridge above Cascade Valley to Duck Creek. From Duck Creek, the trail ascends a ridge-point then descends into Purple Lake and that's where we'll camp for the evening. Map 9 / 9.6 / 1,200'

The trail then climbs another ridge-point before descending into Lake Virginia. The trail continues descending steeply to Tully Hole, on a fork of Fish Creek. The trail continues dropping for another mile, then begins to climb and wind between the Indian Lakes (Squaw Lake, Warrior Lake, Lake of the Lone Indian, Papoose Lake and Chief Lake). When we come to the Goodale Pass Trail, we'll camp for the evening just north of Squaw Lake. Map 9 & 8 / 7.6 / 1,600'

The next morning we'll hike up and over Silver Pass on Silver Divide. After a break, the trail descends past Silver Pass Lake, follows Silver Pass Creek to the North Fork of Mono Creek at Pocket Meadow then descends to Quail Meadows, a mile east of Lake Edison. We depart the JMT here for another resupply stop and a one-day layover at Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR). Map 8 / 8.2 / 600' They are attempting to cater to the John Muir Trail hiker and may offer a free night in a tent cabin with a soft bed! The first beverage is on the house, too!

After two restful nights at Vermillion Valley Ranch, we'll take the boat back to the other side of the lake and return to the JMT. From here, it crosses Mono Creek then rises steeply to Bear Ridge, follows the ridge then descends to the bank of Bear Creek. This will be a relatively easy day to get us back into the swing of things: we'll only hike 6.7 miles and climb 2200 feet today. We'll stop here at Bear Creek for our first night back on the trail. Map 8 / 6.7 / 2,250'

After our short day on the trail the previous day, we hit the trail again as it winds through high meadows following Bear Creek all the way to its source at Marie Lake. The trail then leaves the meadows and trees behind and climbs over Selden Pass. From the pass, Heart Lake lies ahead and below. The John Muir Trail now descends Selden Pass, meanders through a meadow and arrives at our next campsite at Sallie Keyes Lakes. Map 7 / 8.8 / 2,100'

The next morning the trail crosses Senger Creek and descends an exposed ridge to the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. About halfway down a trail that leads directly to Blayney Meadows and the Muir Trail Ranch with its hot spring meets the JMT. The JMT itself descends a little less steeply than that trail to the bank of the South Fork to where the Piute Creek joins the South Fork and the border with Kings Canyon National Park.

The JMT continues up the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, passing the John Muir Trail Cabin and John Muir Rock before crossing into Kings Canyon National Park and reaching Aspen Meadow. There are several campsites scattered along the river and we will choose one of them and spend the night before heading for Evolution Valley. Map 7 / 9.2 / 600'

Early the next morning, the trail crosses the San Joaquin on bridges twice until it reaches Goddard Canyon, where it heads east steeply up into meadow-filled Evolution Valley. After passing Evolution Meadow, McClure Meadow and Ranger Station, and Colby Meadows it climbs to Evolution Lake, Map 6 / 10.6 / 2,500' surrounded by many high mountains named after famous scientists who contributed to the theory of evolution. These mountains are very popular with climbers. We may be able to spot Darwin Glacier on the north slope of Mount Darwin.

From Evolution Lake the JMT passes four more lakes before ascending to Muir Pass on the Goddard Divide. Muir Pass has a well-built stone shelter suitable for photos, but hikers should not plan on spending a night in the hut. Instead, continue just another mile down the trail beyond the pass and camp at Helen Lake. Map 5 / 7.8 / 1,600'

The JMT then follows the Middle Fork of Kings River down to the meadows of LeConte Canyon. After crossing Big Pete Meadow, we can slow down as we approach Little Pete Meadow and LeConte Ranger Station. Here we will resupply one last time and have one more layover before the final stretch to the finish. Map 5 / 6.3 / -2,800'

After our well-deserved rest, we'll hit the trail down to lovely Grouse Meadows. Here the trail turns east along Palisade Creek to Deer Meadow, from which it ascends very steeply on the Golden Staircase. This section of the trail - the last to be completed - was cut into the face of rock, sometimes with steps, and leads to Palisade Lakes. Apparently there's a cave on the left as you climb the Golden Staircase, so keep your eyes peeled. Map 5 & 4 / 10.7 / 2,700'

Four miles beyond our campsite is Mather Pass. This is the first pass over 12,000 feet. From Mather Pass the JMT descends into the Upper Basin, a spectacular, broad, high basin covered with small streams and ponds. This basin contains the headwaters of the South Fork of Kings River. The trail follows the South Fork until it turns southwest, at which point the trail crosses and begins to climb out of the valley. After leaving the valley, the JMT comes to a pond and the Bench Lake Ranger Station, then passes three more ponds before coming to Lake Marjorie. Map 4 / 12.0 / 2,600'

Once again, within a few miles of leaving camp, we have another pass to cross. This time it's Pinchot Pass. The climb to this pass is much easier because of the grade and because of our acclimation.

From Pinchot Pass the JMT descends to the North Fork of Woods Creek. It follows this fork into a steeply-walled canyon until just past the point where the South and North Forks of Woods Creek meet. Here the most impressive bridge on the entire JMT rises far above Woods Creek and crosses to a campground with bear-proof lockers on the south side. Map 4 & 3 / 9.1 / 1,000'

The trail then climbs the South Fork of Woods Creek to Dollar, Arrowhead, and Rae Lakes, which have campgrounds with bear-proof lockers; Rae Lakes has a ranger station. Map 3 / 6.8 / 2,050'

Directly out of this valley the JMT climbs steeply up a rocky trail, past the Painted Lady and by a group of ponds to Glen Pass. From Glen Pass the trail passes near Charlotte Lake and the Charlotte Lake Ranger Station, then drops very steeply into Vidette Meadow. The trail continues along the floor of the valley with the Kearsarge Pinnacles looming above to the north. Another few miles along, our campsite will come into view along with the trail to Center Basin. Map 3 & 2 / 10.0 / 2,300'

The trail goes up along Bubbs Creek, fording many smaller creeks along the way, past a high lake, until it climbs snowy Forester Pass. This pass, the highest on the John Muir Trail, rises to 13,200 feet and separates Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Descending Forester Pass into Sequoia National Park, the trail passes high ponds and lakes before reaching Tyndall Creek. We'll stop here for the night. Map 2 / 8.5 / 2,700'

The next day is a very tough day and one of the longest of the trip. The trail continues across the Bighorn Plateau and crosses Wright and Wallace Creeks. From Wallace Creek it ascends gently through Sandy Meadow to Crabtree Meadow. The JMT leaves the Pacific Crest Trail at Whitney Creek, passes Crabtree Ranger Station, bypasses Timberline and Guitar Lakes, then ascends a small ridge to a tarn just past Guitar Lake. Map 1 / 13.6 / 1,000'

From here the trail leaves water and vegetation behind. Now it climbs and switchbacks steeply toward Trail Crest, the pass on the ridge which separates Sequoia National Park from Inyo National Forest. Just before the JMT reaches Trail Crest, the trail to Mount Whitney splits off to the north. Drop your packs here (don't leave any food for the marmots), take your daypack and head for the summit.

Mount Whitney, 14,505 feet tall, is the highest mountain in the continental United States. The two-mile-long trail climbs steadily past four "windows" before making a final turn to the east and the summit. Rest here for an hour before heading back down to the packs.

Once we've donned our full packs again, we'll climb the 160 feet to Trail Crest and carefully head east down the ninety-seven switchbacks to Trail Camp. We'll swing through that rocky "campground" until we meet and follow Lone Pine Creek past the cutoff trail to Consultation Lake. In just a short while, we'll go past Mirror Lake before arriving at Outpost Camp, where we'll stop for our last night on the trail. At this point, there are 217 miles of trail behind us to contemplate as we set up our last campsite. Map 1 / 13.3 / 3,000'

In the morning, we have less than four miles to go to Whitney Portal. The trail moves rapidly downhill, winding through Bighorn Park, past the cutoff to Lone Pine Lake, and another series of switchbacks before you get to the scale at the bottom of the trail at Whitney Portal. Once we've weighed our packs, we'll definitely stop for breakfast and/or lunch at the store before heading to Lone Pine, fifteen miles away by car. Map 1 / 3.5 / -1,600'