This year is shaping up to be one of the strangest in memory for John Muir Trail hikers. Some are suggesting that hikers just stay out. Those who are venturing into the Gentle Wilderness are finding raging streams, difficult navigation over snow-covered trails, and swarms of mosquitoes ready to exsanguinate any patch of bare skin. There is so much snow in the backcountry that the Tioga Pass Road is still not open (I hear July 1 will be the date), and the Wilderness Center at Tuolumne Meadows won’t be open until who knows when. This is going to compress the hiking season, with optimum conditions, to perhaps as little as eight weeks. Per-day quotas for wilderness permits remain the same, which means lots of people are looking for alternatives.
One you might want to consider is an entry into the wilderness at Glacier Point, and an exit from Yosemite at Isberg Pass. I did this route a few years ago. The hike from GP to Red’s Meadow, where it joins the John Muir Trail, is about 70 miles. It is also, on average, a little more strenuous than the more conventional Happy Isles/Donohue Pass route. Part of that is because you go over two passes (Red Peak Pass being a particularly tough one), and part is because you don’t get that long relatively flat stretch through Lyell Canyon.
Red Peak Pass is very interesting geologically. While standing on the trail you can literally see a red peak to your left and a gray peak to your right, obviously completely different rock.
The view is what makes Isberg Pass special. It is not very strenuous to get over and when you get to the top you can see the backside of Banner and Ritter as well as the Minarets. Looking back towards Yosemite I was sure I could see Unicorn Peak and think I could see Donohue Pass, which was kind of neat.
The other real highlight of the hike is Hemlock Crossing and its two waterfalls and beautiful scenery. I had intended to camp there for the night, but didn’t quite make it that far that day, so I ended up having second breakfast there.
Otherwise it is mainly a forest walk, which is something I like quite a bit, but won’t appeal to everyone.
One thing it definitely is, is deserted. I saw a total of five hikers and six Rangers from Glacier Point to the Devils Postpile. From about 1 PM on Monday until 7:20 AM on Thursday I saw no one. I might recommend any solo hiker intending to do this stretch to carry a personal locator beacon (PLB). Otherwise, one might have to endure a broken leg for a few DAYS until someone comes along.
I’m not sure if this is because I was hiking in a relatively deserted area, or if this is something trending throughout the Sierra Nevada, but I saw a lot of bear scat on the trail. I saw no bears, but they are out there and apparently they are also on the trails!
Those of you who may have considered this route may have heard that there is a portion that is hard-to-follow from Naked Lady Meadow to the east. I had no problem. In fact, it hardly slowed me down. I’m not sure if that’s because by the time I got there more people had walked through the area and marked the proper route, or if perhaps some trail maintenance was done, but there was no real issue. Some tips for that area: look for cut logs, the trail probably goes next to or between them. Look for trail markings on trees, i.e., the vertical cut in the bark. Look for obviously man-arranged rock formations. Lastly, I found that taking my sunglasses off and on sometimes revealed subtle shadings in the vegetation that gave me a hint.
If this is your first JMT it would be a shame if you had to take the Isberg Alternative. You are giving up Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, Cathedral Peak, Cathedral Lakes, Tuolumne Meadow, Lyell Canyon, Donohue Pass, Thousand Island Lake, and Garnett Lake. In return you get the fabulous Hemlock Crossing and a terrific view from the top of Isberg Pass. On the other hand, if you are looking for a somewhat more challenging route, or if you can’t get another permit and you are determined to walk from Yosemite to Whitney, this is a very interesting alternative. I’m glad I did it!
Good hiking, Ray