The John Muir Trail

As you may know, I plan to hike the John Muir Trail, called the JMT for short, in September. It’s less than 3-weeks before I fly to the US to make final preparations (mostly buying food and sending myself re-supply) before embarking on the trail. My friend Libby suggested I tell you all a bit about what the JMT is and why I am doing it. Sorry if I have been chewing your ear off about the JMT this and the JMT that without first explaining what it is.

What is the JMT?

The John Muir Trail is a 211 mile (340km) trail from Yosemite Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, in the High Sierra backcountry of California.

To give you a better idea, 211 miles is the distance between New York and Boston or Tokyo and Kyoto.

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JMT Elevation Profile (stolen from the Internet)

The trail is named after pioneer conservationist John Muir (1838-1914), founder of The Sierra Club and chief advocate for the creation of Yosemite National Park. John Muir called the Sierra Nevada the “Range of Light” for the light colored granite peaks carved by glaciers 2.5 million years ago.

Construction of the JMT began in 1915, a year after Muir’s death, and the last sections were only finished in 1938 due to the intervening Great Depression. So, hiking the JMT is not really walking in Muir’s footsteps, but maybe it can be considered walking his footsteps in spirit.

It would be really hard to follow John Muir’s footsteps. In his books, Muir bushwhacks and scrambles up mountainsides with no particular trail or path in mind, getting himself in and then extricating himself from hairy situations, carrying only a few pieces of hard bread in his pockets and making beds out of fallen pine boughs. He had none of the modern high-tech, quick-drying, light-weight gear, but I’d say he was the ultimate bad-ass ultra-light hiker.

Despite the badassity, Muir was no macho peak-bagging exploration expedition leader set out to conquer nature. He was a naturalist and philosopher who believed that man needed to go into nature to commune with God and witness the glory of His creation. Through his careful observations while exploring the Sierra, Muir theorized that Yosemite Valley and its surroundings were shaped by glaciers (now the accepted theory) and later went to Alaska multiple times to study glaciers still in the moment of Creation there. He believed that we need nature for spiritual reasons, and that we cannot think of nature merely as resources to be exploited by man.

Find out more about the JMT at the Pacific Crest Trail Association website. The PCT, popularized by the book and movie Wild, pretty much overlaps with the JMT in the Sierras.

Why am I hiking the JMT?

Maybe you can tell from my description above, John Muir is a personal hero. When I learned about him as an 8 year old on my family’s trans-America road trip, his story and environmental philosophy really fascinated and appealed to me.

Before moving to Taiwan, my parents drove our family from Atlanta, Georgia to San Jose, California on a two-week road trip across the American West. We covered the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Arches, the Great Salt Lake, Redwood, and probably did a small trip to Muir Woods before flying out of SFO. We came back another summer to do Yosemite, Sequoia and King’s Canyon. Thinking back now, those family road trips to the big and sexy National Parks of the American West cemented my American identity, associating freedom with wilderness and patriotism with conservation. I don’t remember many details of what I saw, but this fed into a subconscious attraction to and romanticized notion of the American West. There is a whole genre of film devoted to this feeling: the Western.

Despite taking my brother and I to the National Parks, my parents are not athletic or outdoorsy people, so these were just car trips to the most accessible parts of each park, staying at some highway motel. After I grew up, I knew that what I’d seen and could barely remember was the tip of the iceberg. If barely the tip of the iceberg could continue to have such an impact on me, I knew I had to go back and experience them more fully, but I didn’t think I had the experience or know-how to do so.

I read Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra a couple years back and it became my dream to hike the John Muir Trail. (Note: Muir’s writings are in the public domain and free on Kindle e-book.) I didn’t have any concrete idea how I would do it though, until I read Carrot Quinn’s Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart, which made long distance hiking seem possible to me. Instead of continuing to wish I were more outdoorsy, I would just DO THE THING and become outdoorsy!

I started collecting my backpacking gear last fall, and after getting a permit for the JMT over the winter, started gaining experience with multiday backpacking trips in the spring. 

My hiking plan

My hiking partner Jackie and I have a permit to begin hiking the JMT from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley on Sept 18. Long story short, I originally had a permit for July 12, but due to the unusually high snowpack in the Sierras from last winter, we reapplied and got a later permit. Unfortunately, that pushes us into shoulder season and we face risks of early season snowstorms in October.

We plan to hike at a pace of about 10 miles a day and complete the trail in about 25 days, weather permitting. Our actual hike will be longer than the official 211 miles because we plan to hike Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest, resupply via Onion Valley and will need to get down to the trailhead from the top of Mt. Whitney at the end of the hike.

My goal is not to hike fast, because I want to have time to enjoy, explore and take everything in, but we are somewhat limited in how leisurely we can go by the late season. I’m not hung up on completing the trail. If you know me, I like to be prepared and am pretty conservative and risk adverse, so if the weather looks iffy, we are definitely open to bailing early. In any case, I’m sure it’s going to be awesome!

Resources

Here are some of the JMT planning resources I have been relying on. The JMT is really popular and there are so many great resources out there. I’m never going to write a “how to” trip planning guide for the JMT, but you can look forward to my trail journal.

Elizabeth Wenk, John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail

This is the bible for JMT trip planning. I’m also planning to bring this along on the hike, since the detailed descriptions are going over my head now, but I’m sure they’ll be invaluable on the trail.

Bearfoot Theory blog

Kristen hiked the JMT in 2014 and her blog has the best and easiest to follow guides for all your preparation needs, from how to get a permit to how to pack your food. She’s a quit-the-day-job-to-become-an-outdoor-adventure-blogger success story, but only because her content is so good! You can hear her tell her story here.

Facebook Groups:

All of your stupid questions asked by someone else and plenty of up-to-date photos of trail conditions.

  • John Muir Trail
  • John Muir Trail Hikers 2017
  • Ladies of the JMT

John Muir Trail Yahoo Group

Run by Roleigh Martin and John Ladd, seasoned JMT and Sierra veterans. These guys and Lizzie Wenk are also active on the Facebook Groups.

Ape Man’s Youtube Channel

I really like this older California gentleman’s take on hiking and the outdoors. His videos are less polished than a lot of the videos by younger, better looking folks out there (sometimes he looks down to a sheet of looseleaf paper for his notes), but he’s got great no-nonsense practical advice that comes from many years of experience and familiarity with the Sierras and bad dad jokes.

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