Classic Treks: The John Muir Trail

The U.S. offers plenty of great options for long distance hikers looking for amazing trails to explore. Of course, there are the three epic hikes, The Appalachian Trail, The Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail, all of which extend for at least 2000 miles in length. But for those who don’t have months on end to spend on an extended trek, there are some excellent alternatives that may be shorter in length, but no less scenic and challenging.

Take for example the John Muir Trail, a 211 mile long route that runs in parallel to a section of the PCT from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney in California. Named for the first president of the Sierra Club, the trail passes through some of the most scenic backcountry in the U.S., as it winds its way through the Ansel Adams and John Muir wilderness areas, and across Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park.

One of the great challenges of the JMT is altitude. It passes through a stretch of the Sierra Nevada mountains, rarely dropping below 8000 feet and crosses through six passes, each of which exceed 11,000 feet in in height. It that wasn’t enough, more than 90% of the hikers who cover the route travel north to south, which means they end on the summit of the 14,505 foot tall Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states. Those same trekkers will also have to deal with another 11 mile hike, dropping 6000 feet in altitude, just to get to the Whitney Portal, and a ride home.

The best time of the year to make the trek is between July and September. In the high passes, snow is a consideration late into the summer, and the weather can be an obstacle at any time. During those months, it tends to be warm on the JMT, but cold weather clothes are needed as a contingency none the less. There are also plenty of bears to be found along the route, and while they are rarely a threat, bear proof storage for your food is a necessity.Speaking of food, unlike the Appalachian Trail or PCT, there are very few places along the John Muir where you can resupply. Road access is at a minimum once you leave one of the trail heads, so be prepared to carry your food with you at all times. Water is generally not a concern however, as it is plentiful in the mountains, although a good water filter is highly recommended.

All told, it will require approximately two to three weeks to hike the JMT from end to end, depending on your pace and if you make any side trips to places such as Half Dome or Vermillion Resort. The hike down to the Whitney Portal will extend your hike as well, even though it is not an official part of the trail. The fact that the trail can be completed in a relatively short time is part of what makes it so popular with backpackers.

A permit is required to make the trek, and they can be obtained from the Federal Recreation Reservation Service. Those hoping to hit the trail are encouraged to get their permits early however, as the wait list can be more than six months in length. But once the permit is obtained, the hikers are good to go, and enjoy one of the best, and most beautiful, trail experiences in the U.S., if not the world.