There are eight major passes on the John Muir Trail. Each has its own character and beauty, and each is named for an individual associated with the Sierra Nevada. The first you encounter, if you hike southbound, is Donohue Pass.
(Note: The two minor passes are Cathedral Pass and Island Pass, neither of which is named after anyone!)
You’ll likely reach Donohue Pass on the third, fourth or fifth day, if you begin at Happy Isles. The pass is about thirty-seven miles from the northern trailhead, and is just tough enough to give you a confidence boost, while at the same time easing you into this whole “pass-climbing” routine.
The sense of accomplishment comes from a couple of geographical coincidences: first, at the top of Donohue you leave Yosemite National Park—after starting in the valley you will have walked all the way out. Second, on the way up you have some fabulous views of Lyell Canyon. For the first time during the hike you’ll get a sense of how FAR you’re walking, as it appears on the ground. It’s pretty impressive, particularly to those who are new to backpacking.
On the other hand, the fourteen miles prior to beginning your ascent will be on downhill or relatively flat terrain. There are also good camping areas at the very beginning of the climb, so you can spend the night before in one of them and tackle the ascent in the cool morning air, with fresh legs. Last, it’s among the least steep of the climbs-to-passes that you’ll encounter.
Lieutenant N. F. McClure, of the 5th U.S. Cavalry (a unit that still serves today) named Donohue Pass after a sergeant in his unit. There is little known about Sergeant Donohue, but Lieutenant McClure’s fame (and terrain features named by him) stretch throughout the Sierra Nevada.
One last recommendation: about a third of the way up there is a gorgeous mountain tarn with a single shade tree under which a long break is almost mandatory. It a great place to top off your water and to take in your first view of the Sierra Nevada at or above tree line. Once you’re done, cross the outlet stream from that very same tarn to be on your way.
Good hiking, Ray