History of the John Muir Trail

In 1884, Theodore Solomons was the first to have the vision of a high-elevation trail, passable by stock, which followed the spine of the Sierra from Yosemite Valley to Kings Canyon. He was only 14. "The idea of a crest-parallel trail through the High Sierra came to me one day while herding my uncle's cattle in an immense, unfenced alfalfa field near Fresno," he wrote in the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1940.

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After more than 50 years, Solomons' idea became what we know today as the John Muir Trail, thanks to the efforts of people who explored the Sierra both before and after him. Between Yosemite Valley and Mount Whitney, features on maps honor John Muir, Josiah Whitney, Theodore Solomons, Joseph LeConte, Joseph "Little Joe" N. LeConte, William Brewer, Clarence King, James Gardiner, Bolton Brown, and Wilbur McClure - to name just a few. Each man helped in the exploration of the High Sierra and the subsequent creation of the John Muir Trail.

The exploration of the High Sierra began with government surveys during the 1860s. State geologist Josiah Whitney was tasked with making "an accurate and complete" geological survey of the state. In 1864, he assembled an impressive team of scientists to spend a summer exploring the High Sierra. His staff included William Brewer, a botanist; Charles Hoffman, an engineer and topographer; Clarence King, a geologist; James Gardiner, a surveyor; and Dick Cotter, an assistant. The party was the first to see many of the sections of the Sierra through which the JMT would later pass: the headwaters of the Kern River, Bubbs Creek, and the country along the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. They also discovered that in the southern Sierra there were two parallel crests, the Great Western Divide and the Sierra Crest, and they determined that the Sierra Crest was over 14,000 feet high.

To survey the landscape, Whitney's team climbed prominent peaks, including Mt. Tyndall and Mt. Brewer. In 1864, King and Cotter made a daredevil crossing of the Great Western and the Kings-Kern divides. King spent years obsessed with reaching the top of Mt. Whitney, and while he did finally make it up the 14,505-foot peak, he was not the first to summit. Unfortunately, this period of state-sponsored exploration was short-lived. Frustrated by the team's focus on exploration and science rather than the discovery of mineral resources, the state discontinued funding in 1865 and later dissolved the survey.

Soon thereafter, Sierra admirers began entering the High Sierra on recreational trips, first exploring the Yosemite high country, and then moving southward. John Muir was one of the first people to head deep into the backcountry, ascending peaks and exploring the country, often on solo "knapsack trips." However, he was a naturalist at heart, more interested in staring at the plants, animals, and rocks than in producing maps of his travels or scouting routes for future parties.

Among the handful of other people venturing into the rugged country during the 1890s and 1900s, three names stand out: Solomons, who first envisioned the JMT; "Little Joe" LeConte, the nephew of Joseph LeConte; and Bolton Brown. Like Solomons, LeConte was intent on finding a route, passable by stock, between Yosemite Valley and Kings Canyon, while Brown simply enjoyed long, exploratory mountaineering excursions.

By 1895, Solomons discovered a route from Yosemite to the southern end of the San Joaquin drainage. Eight years after his inspiration to build the trail, Solomons had saved the money and procured the free time to begin scouting this route. During the summers of 1892, 1894, and 1895, he took extensive trips into the High Sierra and mapped a route from Yosemite Valley south into Evolution Basin. However, he was unable to find a stock-passable route across the Goddard Divide. Instead, he climbed through boulder fields and bushwhacked, without stock, through the Ionian Basin and down to the Middle Fork of the Kings River. Little Joe LeConte accompanied him for part of the 1892 expedition, and in 1896, he followed a path similar to Solomons' from Yosemite to the Goddard Divide. There, he, too, failed to see today's Muir Pass as a navigable route and instead led his party far to the west and into the North Fork of the Kings River.

In contrast to the northern areas, the headwaters of the Kings River presented a barrier to crest-parallel travel for many years. It remained a challenge to find routes crossing the Kings-San Joaquin Divide, the Kings-Kern Divide, and the divides between the many forks of the Kings. Instead, parties accessed the region by traveling up the river drainages. The route from Cedar Grove to Bullfrog Lake and over Kearsarge Pass, and the route from Cedar Grove over Granite Pass and into the Middle Fork of the Kings River, were both stock-accessible and had already been traveled for many years by sheepherders.

It was by these routes that Bolton Brown entered the Sierra when he made long excursions into the South and Middle Forks of the Kings River (1895 and 1899) and the headwaters of the Kern (1896). Atypical for the period, he was often accompanied by his wife, Lucy, and, in 1899, also by their daughter, Eleanor. For JMT hikers, their most significant explorations included the discovery of Glen Pass (or Blue Flower Pass, as he named it) and the Rae Lakes region. However, he and Lucy were also the first people since the Brewer survey to cross the Kings-Kern Divide, and Brown extensively explored the headwaters of the South Fork Kings River and Woods Creek drainages, climbing peaks wherever he went.

It was LeConte who finished piecing together most of a route through the headwaters of the Kings forks. By 1900, Brown had left for the East Coast, and Solomons was working in Alaska. During the early 1900s, LeConte made numerous trips to scout for possible passes across which trails could be built, focusing his efforts on the Middle and South Forks of the Kings.

In 1907, a US Geological Survey party had succeeded in crossing the Goddard Divide (a.k.a. the Kings-San Joaquin Divide) with stock, via the route that is now Muir Pass. A route across this divide had been the missing link in LeConte's route, and with this information, in 1908, he set out to travel from Yosemite to Kings Canyon. Excepting a detour up Cataract Creek, when their horses could not navigate what would come to be known as the Golden Staircase, the LeConte party's route was very similar to what would become the John Muir Trail between Yosemite Valley and Vidette Meadow. Thereafter, he descended Bubbs Creek to Cedar Grove.

As the headwaters of the Kern are less rugged, routes parallel to the Sierra Crest were easily found. Indeed, by 1908, the Kern River drainage was well-mapped, numerous parties had already climbed Mount Whitney, and a rough use trail formed from Crabtree Meadow to Mount Whitney's summit.

Ever more people entered the High Sierra with stock during the next years, often as part of the large Sierra Club summer excursions. But travel between the river basins was still difficult, and parties continued to enter from the west and visit single basins. In particular, Muir Pass, Mather Pass, and Forester Pass did not exist as navigable routes until the JMT was constructed, and most other passes sported only rough use trails.

In 1914, someone on an annual Sierra Club excursion suggested applying to the California legislature for funds to construct a high-mountain trail to facilitate access to the mountains. The following year, limited funds were procured in Sacramento. The legislature gave Wilbur McClure, the state engineer, the task of selecting a route from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney. From Yosemite Valley to Vidette Meadow, the route he selected follows, with remarkable fidelity, the route identified by Solomons and LeConte. To the south, he initially selected a route through Center Basin, over Junction Pass to the east side of the crest, and back across the drainage divide at Shepherd Pass, as no navigable routes were known across the precipitous Kings-Kern Divide. Only late in the construction of the trail was Forester Pass "discovered" and the decision made to reroute the trail along this more direct route.

Many of the explorers' tales are written as articles in old Sierra Club Bulletins, other magazines, or in published journals, gaining them fame for their efforts. Less flashy, less recorded, but equally important are the efforts of the many men who built the trail. By the end of your walk, you will appreciate the effort expended to dynamite cliffs and build switchbacks through the never-ending talus fields encountered over most passes.

Impressively, a rough trail in two sections, from Yosemite to Grouse Meadow (Middle Fork of Kings), and from Vidette Meadow (Bubbs Creek) to Mount Whitney, was constructed within two years of funding. This included completely new stretches of trail over Muir Pass and Junction Pass. However, hikers had to detour to Simpson Meadow along the Middle Fork of the Kings, and then across Granite Pass to Cedar Grove to bypass the Golden Staircase and Mather Pass. (Once good sections of trail existed over Pinchot Pass and Glen Pass, Cartridge Creek and Cartridge Pass were used to cross between the Middle and South Forks of the Kings.) Over the next many years, new stretches were built and rough sections improved as funds became available. The trail to the summit of Mount Whitney was completed in 1930, Forester Pass was finished in 1931 (only a year after the route was discovered), and the final section, the Golden Staircase, was completed in 1938.