By Michelle Schroeder, President and Lead Backpacking Instructor at Backpack The Trails LLC
Even on day 18 of my 21-day hike along the John Muir Trail, I was never certain that I would finish my hike. Anything could happen, and it did. I suddenly found myself in a tangled heap - poles, legs and backpack straps askew. Surrounded by breathtaking scenery, I assessed my new ankle injury as I lay in the middle of the trail, acutely aware of just how remote a place I was in. How would I get out if I had broken my ankle?
The John Muir Trail (JMT) is often recognized as one of the most beautiful trails in the world. The JMT runs along the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. It is stunning, whether you hike it in its entirety or just a segment. Its 211 miles traverse the high country between Yosemite National Park and Mt. Whitney. There are 11 passes and mountain lakes too numerous to mention. Not one road crosses the JMT, permits make for limited foot traffic, and there are ample resupply options.
Fortunately, I was able to finish out the remaining 3 days of my thru-hike, including a dreamlike summit of Mt. Whitney at sunrise, the highest point in the Lower 48.
Preparing to Hike the JMT
The JMT can be intimidating, as are most thru-hikes, and preparation is daunting. There is an extremely high demand for permits, with a 98% rejection rate. It is very confusing to decipher trailhead options and confidently establish an itinerary for 21 days in the wilderness. Some hikers will try to adhere to a solid itinerary, while others, like me, utilize the itinerary as a general guide. I like to go with the flow when interesting opportunities pop up.
While I found it comforting to pack trail-tested equipment, I also had to carve out time to research which solar and GPS devices to purchase, being versed in their use before hitting the trail. I also did not want to pay for a rental car for 21 days just to leave it at the starting trailhead, so I had to carefully pick my way through the byzantine transportation connections for both ends of the trail. Advanced reservations are advised and keep in mind that some options are very seasonal, so rigorously check schedules.
Because the trail is so long and rugged, I established exit plans ahead of time. Being out of state, this information is really hard to find. I made many calls to the Yosemite Backcountry Office for guidance and am grateful for the staff’s patience.
It took me 3 full days to pack and send resupplies, some of which needed to be sent 3 weeks in advance. I spent the full Summer season honing my physical preparedness and mental fortitude. For the rest, I had to put my faith in some good old guessing. It was impossible to fully know what to expect until I was actually doing it.
Transit between San Francisco International airport to the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite, the traditional Northern terminus of the John Muir Trail.
New solar and battery pack, the Guthook navigation app, study materials and a rough itinerary
Common Sights Along the JMT
Resupply and Precious Comforts
Hikers can resupply roughly every 4 days, which makes hiking the trail manageable. Resupply locations are independently owned and each one offers different amenities, from a small grocery store to a full-service restaurant. Some offer a free lemonade to thru-hikers, while others offer free camping, paid showers and laundry.
I found out from others on the trail that the third resupply point, Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR), was featuring BBQ night. There are two ways to reach VVR, which is not technically located on the JMT. One option is to hike an additional 4.6 miles, the other is to take a ferry. I liked the idea of riding a ferry across mountain-rimmed Edison Lake. The view was stunning from the middle of the area’s largest lake.
Inevitably, everyone sends more in their resupply than needed. The legendary “Hiker Boxes” are packed with free items intentionally left behind for other hikers to claim. Take a quick glance through to see if you can score gourmet chocolate or Baby Bel cheese, or even simply for edification on how the hard-core backpackers go about creating their own vacuum-sealed recipes.
It’s worth mentioning that Pacific Crest Trail hikers also use these resupply locations, since the JMT and PCT intersect for 160 miles. It becomes quickly apparent combing through the Hiker Boxes that a person can go really deep into the sport, simply by looking at what people leave behind and how they prepared for their own trip.
Above, the resupply at the Tuolumne Meadows Post Office - a happy hiker found Baby Bel cheese!
Below, the backpacker resupply at Muir Trail Ranch, a resort accessible only by horseback or on foot. Accommodations and a chef-driven restaurant are provided to paying guests only, with a 2-night minimum stay.
Staying Clean (sort of) On Trail By Swimming A Lot ~ Thankfully, I Love to Swim!
I always know that I will get a better night of sleep if I can rinse off the day’s sweat. With actual showers only every four or five days, swimming helped a lot to rinse off some of the grit and itchiness. September and elevation mean frigid lakes and streams filled with the prior winter’s runoff. I tried to ignore my body’s instinctual cold response when jumping into the icy water. I knew that my hyperventilating would finally pass after about 30 seconds or so and I would try to wait it out past that threshold. That’s when I can actually enjoy being in the water.
It is best to just jump in, rather than to go slowly. No one can truly coax themselves into thinking that this is a good idea. Every swim requires mental commitment as well as some level of deep denial, with a clear end goal in sight and a solid belief that you will feel better afterward. Several people saw me swim and were inspired to do so themselves, incorporating it as part of their trip going forward. Swimming is one of my favorite aspects of backpacking and I always feel like a million bucks after a quick daily dip.
My Favorite Stretch of Trail?
I was surprisingly unprepared the first time someone asked me which stretch of trail was my favorite. They would guess, “Evolution Valley?” “Silver Pass, right?” “I bet it’s Guitar Lake! or Rae Lakes!”
The trail is so beautiful and wildly varied that I found it impossible to choose just one stretch of trail. It felt like an injustice to the rest of the trail’s exquisite beauty.
I quickly realized that the stretches of trail I enjoyed most were sparkly bodies of crystal-clear water, found along the entire length of trail. Whether it was the wind caressing the top of a lake intermittently at just the right angle, or a cascading river catching the light just so, I found the shimmering water the most deeply compelling spaces on the trail.
211 miles of endless scenery
No roads cross the JMT
Includes 11 high passes with sweeping views
Bear-proof food canisters are required
July-September is the typical season
Most of the JMT is above 8,000 feet
The southern third of the JMT is above 10,000 feet
North to South provides easier acclimatization to elevation
The complete traditional trail is Happy Isles (out of Yosemite N.P.) to Mt. Whitney’s summit
Mt. Whitney, at 14,505 feet, is the highest point in the Lower 48 States
Half Dome requires a separate permit (but I suggest Cloud’s Rest instead - see below)
The trail crosses Yosemite N.P., Ansel Adams Wilderness, John Muir Wilderness, Kings Canyon National Park, and Sequoia National Park
The cat-hole method is mandatory as is hauling out all toilet paper
A Wag Bag (portable, plastic-bag toilet for #2) is mandatory between Crabtree Ranger Station and Whitney Portal and must be carried out
Clouds Rest is a much better alternative, with an additional 1,000 feet of elevation and uninterrupted views in all directions. Even Half Dome looks small from here. Clouds Rest draws fewer people, it does not require a special permit, and there are no horrific cables to climb.
September 14th became what I now call The Weirdest Day
The JMT is also an equestrian trail, but it is very rare to actually see any riders. Much to my delight, my hike that day started with my second—and final—packhorse train, consisting of two young women and five horses for hauling clients in the day before. I am always inspired when I see other women on trail and I wished that I had been courageous enough at their age to venture into the wilderness like that.
But things turned scary after that bright start. Twenty minutes later, a young couple hiking toward me had to cut their trip short. She was holding her broken wrist all wrapped up in a first-aid splint. I felt really sorry for them as they made their way to exit the nearby Bishop Pass trail.
Another twenty minutes in, a backpacker heading my way erupted around a tight corner, things clearly seriously wrong. He was wearing his regular backpack, carrying a clear Bear Vault under one arm and a big daypack with his free hand. That’s not how people do wilderness backpacking.
His friend’s backpack had been nabbed by a bear in the middle of the night, because of the scented items he had left in his pack. These were the two clients hauled in the previous day by the packhorses. A few minutes later, his friend appeared, carrying two folding lawn chairs. Again, not how people do wilderness backpacking. Those two guys were very flustered.
A little further along, I came across the abandoned campsite where they had left behind their water filter and second Bear Vault, clothes hanging up on a post, with a freshly-prepared Mountain House meal sitting on the ground, sealed, with a spork nearby. Their vacation had been ruined. I hoped that these two would calm down and realize that they would still need to be safe about getting off the trail. They had a hefty distance ahead of themselves, especially without proper backpacks, and would spend at least one more night in the wilderness before getting out. They needed to grab essentials, like the water filter, leaving the lawn chairs behind instead.
A half-hour later, not even 10 am, I met two hikers heading northbound and told them about my strange morning. Other than the pack train, everyone I met so far was having a serious issue. I was stunned when one of these guys replied that they had their own issue as well, having “lost their third person,” and were en route to the Bishop Ranger Station to file a missing-person report.
None of them carried methods for outside communication, so they could not locate one another in the backcountry after splitting up the previous day. I recorded all of their names, a physical description of the missing friend, what he was wearing, pack color, and contact info.
Fortunately, Rangers found their friend intact the next day and he had chosen to continue on with his own trip after failing to meet up with his friends, saying that this was their original Plan B, if they lost one another on trail.
Heavy, dark clouds had been swirling around all morning, which was unusual for that time of day. Clouds usually gather over the passes in the afternoon. Experienced hikers stage their campsites so that they can get up and over the passes early in the day before any potential storms hit.
Things continued to feel very ominous. I was really hoping that I was just having a backpacking nightmare and would wake up shortly.
About 15 minutes later, I hesitated when I saw 9 hikers headed my way, wondering which strange issue they might be having, considering everyone else I’d met on trail that morning. Alas, that group had things under control, and everyone was enjoying a really fine trip. My day took a 180-degree turn from that point on, ending with a fabulous evening at Upper Palisade Lake.
My JMT Family
I am generally pretty social on trail and it would be incredibly difficult for anyone to truly “solo” the JMT. After about 3 days, I got my trail legs, and bonded with other social hikers. At one point, the group expanded to 10 people and Aayla, a sweet Australian Shepherd. Some JMT family members were paired up, but most were solo hikers, four of whom were women. Some would hike ahead and others might take a more leisurely day or two, often rolling into camp later that evening or the next.
Chris became my most steadfast trail friend, and dinner was usually at Chris’s house or mine. He is the most generous and thoughtful person I have ever met.
Chris tried his hand for the first time ever at fly fishing, doubling his hiking pole as a fishing pole. Thanks to his boundless energy and big heart, he shared all of his fresh rainbow trout. I certainly didn’t imagine I would be eating fresh rainbow trout on the JMT, let alone four times. True trail magic.
Aayla, the adorable Australian Shepherd, was the star of our JMT family, carrying her own little pack. Before I started my trip, I didn’t expect to see many people on the trail, but my JMT family was vast: Chris, the best Trail Angel anyone could ever have; Stan, the Medical Resident, who struggled just as much as I did descending Half Dome; sweet couple Darci and Steve, who helped me rescue 6 unprepared hikers in the dark; Uliy, a fellow solo hiker and fellow Farkle player; Sarah, the fitness instructor who went on after the JMT to fulfill a life-goal of working as a ghoul for a haunted house, and then segued to being a fitness instructor on a cruise ship in Hawaii; super-fit and elegant Sarka from the Czech Republic with whom I woke at 12:45 am to summit Mt. Whitney at sunrise; Gregg, the Pulmonary Physician, and his pal Gedeon, the retired architect; ambitious Rich and Megan, both Optometrists from Madison, who did the trail in 11 days; Nutrition and Health Coach Danielle, who generously gave me 1/4th of her hanky at the beginning of my trip (thank you, Danielle!); crazy Robert, who dove into icy water headfirst; the Paul-Randy-Paul trio; Mike, the Clinical Psychologist who headed off cross-country into the wilderness; and Caiti, Aayla’s mom and a Wrangler, to name a few.
News travels quickly on trail. We always knew where the members of our JMT family could be found or where they were intending to camp, whether they were struggling and needed help, or when we would gather at resupply locations.
We got football scores from hikers heading the opposite way. And we all knew that the random howl off in the distance during daylight was actually Chris trying to locate us, and that his appearance was imminent. We would howl in response so that he would know he was close.
At one stop, with five of us and a dog howling back to Chris as loud as we could, we unwittingly startled another backpacker heading toward us whose view was obscured by the rocky terrain. He said we sounded pretty legitimate and it gave him pause. I suppose it helped having a dog in the group howling along with us. The relatability of his honest fear was perhaps the funniest moment on the entire trail.
Soloing and Its Advantages
Soloing is the by far the most flexible way to backpack. A person can opt in to a variety of different plans. Or not. Everyone has his or her own style. I generally like hiking alone during the day, because I like snapping photos and devoting all of my attention to my surroundings, stopping to take it all in whenever I wish. But I truly relish the social aspect of camp in the evenings and adore everyone eating dinner together surrounded by various cooking contraptions and food. Evenings are also a great time to learn different tips and tricks from other backpackers, as technology continues to evolve and improve the outdoor gear world. Plus, backpackers are creative, often crafting interesting recipes as a solid reward at day’s end.
After crossing Muir Pass, Chris decided to hang back in the afternoon to wait for Sarah, disheartened after having left her battery pack at VVR. Ever-helpful Chris was lending his charging device to her and needed to retrieve it to charge his own GPS device.
A short while later as I hiked along, I noticed someone hanging out of the infamous JMT Rock Monster’s mouth and knew that had I found even more kindred spirits. Megan and Rich, ambitious optometrists from Madison and my newest trail friends, had slated to finish the trail in 11 days and were falling behind. Megan said she was in tears the previous night from the physical duress and feelings of potential failure.
The following day, I caught up with them again just above The Golden Staircase, having a snack. Moments later, Chris came cruising through with his shirt off and hat flapping in the wind, and joined us. I was hoping those three would have an opportunity to meet and, as I suspected, it was an instant connection.
Mather Pass was within view and Megan and Rich wanted to cross it that evening, but the menacing clouds hugging Mather Pass, backed by an icy wind, reminded us all of how small we are and that it’s more important to make smart decisions in the wilderness. I promised them during dinner at my house that evening that if we turned in early, would could get up at 4:30 am and cover both Mather Pass and Pinchot Pass the next day.
We started hiking in the dark, arriving at Mather Pass right as the sun rose, bathing us in lusciously warm sunlight. Megan and Rich were back on track, blasting ahead after crossing Pinchot Pass later that day. They were able to finish their trip in the originally-planned 11 days. I hope to see them on trail again someday.
Worries About Soloing?
As a 51-year old female soloing, was I ever scared on trail? I was apprehensive when my San Francisco flight flew over the Sierra Nevada, knowing that my future would be swallowed by that vast wilderness for the coming weeks.
The most common fear-inducing topic of conversation is about mountain lions, and there are plenty of visible warnings about not hiking alone, especially at night. Whenever I was hiking alone, I often looked behind myself to ensure I was not being stalked. When I hiked in the dark, I would pan my headlamp around occasionally to search for glowing eyes.
I intentionally tested my mettle a few nights and camped away from the group after eating dinner together. I was never afraid of anyone else on the trail, only potential animal encounters, which is why I always make sure to include all scented items in my bear-proof canister. Injuries or getting lost were also a minor concern, which is why I carried a SPOT Gen3 beacon locator, in case I needed to trigger an evacuation or a search and rescue.
Wildfire was perhaps my biggest concern. We all saw heartbreaking footage of the tragic California wildfires this past Summer and Fall. My trip dovetailed in between all of them, but the potential for wildfire was never far from my mind. It was so excruciatingly dry that if felt like if I looked at anything for too long, it would instantly combust. During the entire 21-day trip, I experienced only one hour of light rain culminating in small hail.
Coming out Kearsarge Pass for a resupply, we noticed several firemen rushing down the end of the trail to their firetruck, assessing a fire that had popped up about 15 miles north of where we had just been the day before. That was a chilling moment.
Typical Trail Vibes
In contrast to any fear about soloing the JMT, the trail is actually covered with love. I met a young couple and their dog when I hiked out Kearsarge Pass for my final resupply. The next morning, as I headed back up to the JMT, we crossed paths again and she immediately held up the back of her left hand, excitedly showing me her new diamond. He had proposed to her (and she accepted) at beautiful Heart Lake. Another couple was celebrating their 1-year anniversary, and yet another couple was 2 days into their honeymoon. Friends were bringing in resupplies for them as their wedding gift!
I, too, fell in love every day, with both the profound wilderness and the beautiful people I was so privileged to meet. I saw all sorts of crazy stuff out there. SanDiegoMitch (on Instagram), a Type 1 diabetic, ran the entire JMT in 4 days and 15 hours! Likely a record-breaking diabetic JMTer.
A couple of guys hiked together in Jesus sandals, another in a kilt was planning to take his mother to the John Muir Trail in Scotland, and one couple was crafting fabulous memories for their child, while yet another guy brought his favorite lawn chair. I met three amazing California women who spend almost every day playing outside, as well as a grubby solo PCTer who had already seen three mountain lions on his journey. I fully realize my rare fortune and will never be able to recreate this experience as long as I live.
Wild animals crashed through the woods at the edge of my campsite at Upper Palisade Lake just as I was preparing to set out on my hike. At first, I couldn’t tell what it was. Soon, out popped a lovely doe and her two adorable fawns, pausing a moment to make sure I was not a threat. Nice way to start Day 3!
As one would expect in an alpine environment, I saw a few Marmots throughout my trip, but the happiest one I saw was at the very end, cruising around Guitar Lake searching for something to eat. I never knew that Marmots could use their tails so rigorously.
The JMT’s Magic
As I stood in the desert heat after checking in to the beloved Mt. Williamson Motel in the one-restaurant town of Independence, the final and most far-flung, but entirely worthwhile, resupply on the entire JMT, I looked Westward at the looming Sierra Nevada. I realized that I will never see a mountain range the same way ever again.
Yes, my heart was beating in my chest, but I could feel that my heart was actually living up there in those mountains. I was elated to know that I had four more days to spend on the JMT!
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