Hiking the John Muir Trail

Author shares experiences hiking through Yosemite and California's Sierra Nevada.

Island Pass on the John Muir Trail

Island Pass on the John Muir Trail

Banner Peak reflects off a quiet lake at Island Pass on the John Muir Trail.

Room with a view on the John Muir Trail

Room with a view on the John Muir Trail

Sharon and Joe enjoy the view from their campsite on Lower Cathedral Lake on the John Muir Trail.

Yosemite Valley on the John Muir Trail

Yosemite Valley on the John Muir Trail

The sun casts a heavenly glow on Yosemite Valley with El Capitan on the left and Half Dome rising in the distance.

Cozy campfire on the John Muir Trail

Cozy campfire on the John Muir Trail

A spectacular campsite rewards hikers near the John Muir Trail detour to Half Dome.

    Story and Photos by Sharon Mammoser

    Imagine a land where granite walls soar high into a perfectly blue sky and graceful raptors float on invisible air currents. Meadows teem with lush grasses and wildflowers, sapphire lakes nestle in verdant valleys, and crystalline streams and rivers carve paths through canyons filled with cascading waterfalls.

    Sounds like heaven on earth? That’s as apt a description as any of the magnificent John Muir Trail, a 211-mile footpath that winds its way through the grand Sierra Nevada of eastern California. (You’ll find more spectacular photos from Sharon’s trip in our scenic photography section.)

    A couple of years ago, my friend and hiking partner extraordinaire, Joe Goldston, and I spent a month camping and hiking along this amazing trail, named for the famous naturalist who founded the Sierra Club and helped create Yosemite National Park. We agreed we didn’t want to rush through it, so we took a leisurely trip, allowing time to sit beside a lake, swim in a stream, take pictures, write in our journals, go fishing and talk to other hikers. We planned to average 10 miles a day but ended up going even slower because of all the wonderful distractions.

    The JMT offers some of the best hiking in the United States, including stretches well suited to novice or older hikers. In fact, we were amazed at how many older hikers we saw during our month-long trek along the trail. Many people hike to the trail or take public transportation from towns near the John Muir Trail, ­including Bishop, Mammoth Lakes, Lone Pine and Independence. Others join the path from trailheads in Yosemite, like Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows or the beautiful Happy Isles in the Merced River.

    Like most people who hike the entire trail, we started at the north end, in Yosemite, and finished at Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental U.S. at 14,494 feet. The first stage of the route runs close to Yosemite’s mighty Half Dome, which Joe and I wanted to climb.

    If you start from the valley floor, a strong hiker will need a full day to climb to the top and back, plus some nerve to scale the last 400 or so feet, which are so steep you must pull yourself up via a pair of thick metal cables. But people of all ages do it every day it’s open (weather permitting, from Memorial Day through early October). In fact, traffic on the cable route has gotten so heavy that the climb now requires a permit. (For details, go to nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/halfdome.htm.)

    If you start from the John Muir Trail, though, it’s just a two-mile hike to the bottom of the cables. I wasn’t afraid until I neared the top and very carefully turned around to take a picture of Joe. I felt a rush of emotion as I looked down at my friend and the cables and the other hikers now gathering far below! Farther down and beyond them, I saw Little Yosemite Valley stretched out before me; beyond it were mountains as far as the eye could see.

    At last, I set foot atop the famed slab of granite, 4,737 feet above the valley floor. What a thrill! The summit is about as large as a football field, though from a distance one would never guess it’s quite that large. Standing on Half Dome was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

    After this, it was very difficult to imagine the trail could get any better. But on the way up the first pass, we met two women who had hiked the entire trail before. When I told them I feared the rest of the journey would be anticlimactic, they said, “Just wait!” Amazingly, they were right. In the weeks that followed our trip up Half Dome, the narrow footpath took us through the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Devils Postpile National Monument, the John Muir Wilderness and parts of Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks.

    John Muir, the man for whom the trail is named came to the U.S. from Scotland with his family when he was 11 years old. In his 30s, Muir headed west and ended up in what’s known today as Yosemite. He became enthralled with the area and worked passionately to preserve this national treasure.

    Muir once said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than one seeks.” Those words rang on each day of our memorable journey along the trail.

    Want to see more of scenic photography of Muir Trail? Click here!

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    Ray Rippel July 26, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    Great article and nice pics. The John Muir Trail is just about the finest medium-distance hike in the world, with great scenery and little danger. Congratulations on finishing it!

    Ray Rippel
    Author, Planning Your Thru-Hike of the John Muir Trail

    Reply

    Sharon Mammoser August 10, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    Thanks Ray. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done and I would return to hike it again if the chance comes up. Such a lovely place. I will have to look up your book…

    Reply

    Ann Jass July 29, 2012 at 5:04 am

    The summer before we were married my husband and I hiked to the top of Half Dome and back in 8 hours – I still remember that last 400 feet of the cable climb! Your trip and photos sound wonderful. Maybe 34 years later we can find the gumption to hike part of The John Muir Trail. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Reply

    Sharon Mammoser August 10, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    Ann,

    Thanks so much for writing….. the JMT is well worth doing. I highly suggest it! It is not a technically difficult trail like some–if you can walk you can hike it! Slow but steady gets you there with plenty of time to enjoy the scenery.

    Reply

    Sharon Myers October 3, 2012 at 8:29 pm

    Hi Sharon,
    We have just one day to hike/explore upper Yosemite, and the park’s website indicates the Half-Dome cables may be taken down the day after Columbus Day, which coincidentally is the day we have at the park. I’m wondering, if the Half-Dome hike is not available, if you have any recommendations as to how we spend the day to get in a little of the John Muir Trail experience. Thank you so much for your time!

    Reply

    Douglas Lewis April 29, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    I too have hiked the length of the John Muir Trail. My favorite part is in Kings Canyon National Park. Most of Kings Canyon, and the entire length of the portion of the JMT that is there is a designated Wilderness Area. The closest road to the JMT in Kings Canyon is at least 20 miles of hiking. That area is nothing but sheer canyon walls, with many peaks over 14,000 feet. The JMT traverses three 12,000 foot passes in that area as well. The Rae Lakes are the highlight of the trip. I agree with Star’s Guide to the JMT, where he says the Rae Lakes are the most beautiful area of the length of the JMT. A nice 50-mile loop starting and ending at Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon is the easiest way to get to the Rae Lakes, and can be hiked in as little as three days. Be prepared to do a lot of steep hiking however. Thanks for this great review of the JMT. It takes me back to the many times I have been there.

    Reply

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