17 Days on the John Muir Trail
260 miles, 17 trail days, 12.8 pounds of gear, 8 alpine passes, 2 frostbitten ears, and 1 camera.
California’s John Muir Trail extends from the summit of Mt. Whitney, winding 211 miles north to Yosemite National Park. The JMT follows the spine of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, rarely dipping below 8,000 feet in elevation, and includes some of the most rugged scenery in the western United States.
My thru-hike of the JMT started soon after sunrise on September 11, 2017, roughly 40 miles south of Mt. Whitney. I would be hiking northbound, the reverse of the more popular north-to-south route, with a rough itinerary of 21 days on the trail. I had mailed my resupplies of food and meticulously weighed and packed up my gear. There was nothing left to do but trek 260 miles north to Yosemite.
DAYS 1-5, COTTONWOOD PASS TO ONION VALLEY
The first few days on the trail validated a common saying: “The Sierras make their own weather.” A crystal-clear sky in the morning would turn dark with thunderstorms and hail in the afternoon, only to clear up again for sunset. Add the extra volatility of hiking in the late season, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for some wet socks. And a wet tent. And a wet pack. Remind me again what dry clothes feel like? Despite this, the first section was an exciting culmination of months of anticipation.
Reaching the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14,500 feet in elevation, marks the end of the JMT for most hikers. For me, it was just the beginning. I sat with a small group of other hikers, quietly watching as the first morning light turned the horizon flaming orange under a swath of thunderclouds. Every now and then, lightning flickered in the distance. The lights of the small town of Lone Pine glittered far below us. Even though I had already hiked more than 30 miles to get to Mt. Whitney, I felt like that morning was the true start of my trek.
Days 6-11, Onion Valley to Vermillion Valley Ranch
After Onion Valley, I set off to finish my trek solo. Hiking the JMT alone as a woman was an interesting experience. I encountered a wide range of reactions from other hikers, from raised eyebrows and cautious “wow”s, to fist bumps and words of encouragement. I had hiked and traveled solo before, but thru-hiking alone was different. You learn quickly to trust yourself and recognize when you can push your limits and when to stop. I found myself hiking longer days, reaching for my camera less, and focusing more on the trail as it unfolded around me.
On Day 9, I began to hear rumors of an incoming snowstorm. I woke up on Day 10 to steadily falling snow and reports of near-polar conditions to come. The camera stayed in my pack for most of the next few days while I focused on navigating snow-packed passes and icy trails.
I hit my low on Day 11. I was exhausted from trekking over snowy passes, much of my gear was either wet or frozen, my camera batteries were dying within minutes due to the cold, temperatures were not expected to rise anytime soon, and I was feeling very much alone. I decided to head off the trail for a night at Vermillion Valley Ranch, not sure if I was going to return. I felt defeated and frustrated. But that night at the Ranch gave me exactly what I needed to reset: a hot meal and cold beer, good company, and a pep talk from my partner via satellite phone. The next morning, I hopped back on the trail ready to push through to Yosemite.
Days 12-17, Vermillion Valley Ranch to Happy Isles Trailhead
The last few days on the trail were bittersweet. My thoughts were starting to wander ahead to returning to “real life”. I purposely stretched out my days to get the most out of them as possible—staying up late to photograph the Milky Way, or taking extra time in the morning to pack up and watch the sunrise.
Hiking into Yosemite on my last day was a whirlwind. Suddenly, there were people everywhere. Day hikers, school groups, tourists with iPads taking pictures of squirrels, people who smelled like soap instead of sweat and dirt and campfire smoke. For many of them, the John Muir Trail was just a few miles that got them to the base of Half Dome or a view of Vernal Falls. I was walking towards the culmination of an experience that many people around me didn’t even know you could achieve.
After 260 miles of hiking and 17 days (four days earlier than planned), I set down my pack at Happy Isles Trailhead. The blisters, frigid nights, and emotional lows faded to small blips in an otherwise incredible experience. I had found a new sort of strength and trust in myself. My SD card was full of photographs, but for each shot, there were a thousand that could only be savored by being present in the moment. The second I stepped off the trail, I was ready to go back.