Despite the fact that I was shoveling snow from my driveway today, and even though there is more snow in the forecast, this winter is looking like a dry one. Less snow is bad news for the ski resorts and the California & Nevada communities that depend on it, but for John Muir Trail hikers it is more of a mixed bag. First, the advantages.
Hikers who reserved wilderness permits for July, even early July, might be feeling pretty smug right now. July is often too early for JMT hikers who want to avoid snow and the problems associated with trekking and navigating over it. This year, the trail will possibly be snow-free by the end of July, and may present few problems at the beginning of the month. (Assuming we don’t get a huge snowfall in March or April.)
You will undoubtedly see snow, and there may be some very short stretches where there is snow on the trail, but it should be more of a novelty than a challenge.
The white stuff won’t be the only thing missing. A few years back, over an extended Fourth of July vacation, my wife and I hiked between Tuolumne Meadow and Lake Edison, when the mosquitos were just about at their peak. We dealt with them when we camped, when we ate, and even as we walked. It was my only trip when I actually used my head net. The swarms in the Rush Creek drainage were especially unforgettable and ravenous. Less snow means less water; less water means fewer of the flying, persistent pests.
Less snow also means fewer swollen streams and creeks. By the end of July it’s possible that the only stretch of water deep and wide enough to require hikers to remove their footwear would be Evolution Creek. Other crossings with bad reputations, like Silver Pass Creek, the North Fork of Mono Creek, and Bear Creek should present few problems from snow runoff. (Note that any of these can become dangerous during and after heavy rains. Snow isn’t the only source of water in the Sierra Nevada.)
There are some disadvantages, however.
Crossing streams frequently, passing lakes seemingly around every bend, encountering water just about everywhere you look, during most summers staying hydrated on the John Muir Trail is as easy as dipping your cup into whatever is nearby. Not so this year, especially if you are hiking in August or September (and surely if you are hiking in October). Water won’t necessarily be a worry, but it will take some careful planning.
Before I discuss the where and the how, a few words about hydration: it’s absolutely critical.
Blisters may cause you to abandon your hike, as can sprains and broken bones. Improper nutrition can make you weak, irritable, sluggish and lethargic.
Heat stroke, often the final phase of serious dehydration, can make you dead. Dehydration, along with HAPE and HACE, is nothing to fool with.
There are going to be times on the hike when you are uncomfortable – times when the best course of action is to just ignore the hill, the tired legs, or the weight of the backpack. Dehydration cannot be ignored. Plan ahead and make sure you not only have enough water, but that you have a little extra in reserve.
It’s tough to predict precisely where the dry stretches will be this year, but here are the most likely candidates. I am assuming that you are hiking southbound.
The Merced River (in Little Yosemite Valley) to Upper Cathedral Lake; Approximately Thirteen Miles
There are two water sources along this portion of the trail that may or may not be available. The first is Sunrise Creek, about three-and-a-half miles from the Merced. It’s not unusual for Sunrise to be reduced to little more than a tiny brook in the latter part of the summer, but it is unusual for it to disappear entirely. Then again, this is an unusual year.
The second somewhat unreliable source is at Sunrise Camp, about ten miles from Little Yosemite Valley. I’ve always helped myself to the water available at the spigot (located just a few feet off the trail, near one of the buildings), but, last year the camp was closed for repairs. All indications are that it will be open this year.
If there is no water between Little Yosemite Valley and Upper Cathedral Lake, you’re in for a long haul. Fortunately, there is a way to get current information on the water sources ahead. More on that in a moment.
Crater Meadow to Duck Creek; Approximately Seven Miles
The unknown here is Deer Creek, situated a couple miles past Crater Meadow. The five-mile stretch between Deer Creek and Duck Creek is always dry. The less reliable of these two tributaries is Deer Creek. If it’s dry you’ll need to carry enough from Crater Meadow for the entire stretch.
Mono Creek to Lake Italy Trail Junction; Approximately Eight Miles
You’ll cross Mono Creek via a bridge near the junction where the trail splits off from the JMT and heads to Lake Edison. I mention that for a reason: if you’ve spent the night before at Vermilion Valley Resort, you are going to start up the fifty-two switchbacks of Bear Ridge during mid-morning. (The ferry doesn’t depart until 9:00 a.m., and it’s a couple of miles back to the trail junction from where the ferry drops you.) A late start means it will be hotter and you will need more water.
On the other hand, Bear Creek will almost certainly have some water in it. Unfortunately, the accessibility to Bear Creek varies greatly. If it’s extraordinarily dry, there will be times were you are just ten or twenty yards from water, but it will be practically unreachable.
Sallie Keyes Lakes to Muir Trail Ranch; Approximately Five Miles
Senger Creek is the unknown. If it is still running (it’s a fairly robust little creek) you’ll have an additional source not long after Sallie Keyes Lakes. Water is available at Muir Trail Ranch even if you are not staying there.
Palisade Lakes to the South Fork of the Kings River; Approximately Six Miles
This stretch will take you up and over Mather Pass. If you climb the pass during the morning, and do your descent in the hotter part of the day, you will need less water.
Wallace Creek to Crabtree Meadow; Approximately Four Miles
This part of the trial is not heavily forested, but there are quite a few trees. The shade they provide should make this stretch a little less taxing. Besides, with the stamina you’ve acquired on the trail, you’ll speed through these four miles in no time.
Guitar Lake to Whitney Trail Camp; Approximately Eleven Miles
There are water sources between Guitar Lake and Trail Camp, but they are of variable quality. First, there is a small, unnamed, tarn, less than a mile east of Guitar Lake. Since it’s so close to your previous night’s campground, stopping here doesn’t make much sense. There are no further water sources between this tarn and the summit of Whitney.
Personally, I always leave Guitar Lake assuming that my next water resupply will come from Whitney Portal. That means I fill everything available (including my stomach) with water before I leave my campground. I also leave Guitar Lake very early and do much of my ascending in the cool night and morning air.
Final Remarks About Water
If you are reading this it probably means you are reading everything you can to prepare for your John Muir Trail hike. Good for you. However, there is a better source of information available to all hikers. I’m talking about timely information, delivered to you, daily, as you walk the trail. What is this source? Some sort of satellite down-link? No, it’s the hikers you pass coming the opposite direction!
Before you leave camp each day, have a plan on where you intend to refill your bladder or bottles. On days during which I anticipate long stretches between water sources, I start drinking the moment I get out of my sleeping bag, and continue as I pack and eat breakfast. My goal is to be peeing clear before I take my first step on the trail.
Then, as you see hikers, quiz them on what’s up ahead.
There will be a cost for this service, of course: the same sort of information from you. As you travel down the trail, note what is flowing and what is dry, and be ready to school folks going northbound.
The Ferry at Vermilion Valley Resort
There is one final disadvantage, which pertains only to those folks stopping at Vermilion Valley Resort. In wet years, that detour will mean a mile-to-mile-and-a-half walk to the ferry that will whisk you across Lake Edison, and an equal distance back to the trail junction. This year, I would be surprised if the ferry is still running by mid-August, and wouldn’t be surprised if it was discontinued by late July. If that happens, you’re looking at a six-mile walk to the resort. (The desserts at VVR make those six miles well worth it, though!)
Good hiking, Ray