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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