Note: thanks to Dean in Portland for this blog post idea.
Before I start giving certain campsites a “bad” reputation, I should probably point out that bad is pretty darned good when it comes to the John Muir Trail. It’s likely that the worst of these have views better than the best view you will see during your typical work week. Still, there are spots I’ve come to avoid over the years. Read the reasons why and then decide for yourself.
The Southern End of Lyell Canyon. If I’m not stopping a mile or more short of the Lyell Fork Bridge (and since I almost always start the day I hike through Lyell Canyon at Tuolumne Meadows I’m always going farther), then I keep going until I am at least to the small lake that is a mile or so from Donohue Pass. It is often said that we carry canisters on our hikes because of the bear problem. It is probably closer to the truth to say we carry canisters because we have a people problem. The south end of the canyon is a perfect example; it tends to get lots of hikers who do not want to end the day with a sustained climb, and many of them don’t follow the rules as closely as they should regarding food. Noisy hikers and inquisitive bears do not make for a good night’s sleep. Keep going and not only will you be rewarded with a better view and a quieter evening, you will get a head-start on Donohue Pass in the morning.
Purple Lake. This is a logical stopping point on day one out of Red’s Meadow, given the distance involved. There is nothing wrong with the scenery — the lake is quite pretty and the mountains on the east side put on a very nice alpenglow show in the evening. My problem is that I’ve never been there without the companionship of discourteous campers. There are a number of established campsites that are actually illegal (they are “established” in the sense that they are used again and again) and, because of the distance from Red’s, it tends to be crowded. As I’ve stated before, Lake Virginia is only a little farther, albeit uphill, and is a far better choice.
Anywhere in the First Few Miles South of Muir Pass. I’ve stopped at several places along this stretch, since I tend to camp near Colby Meadow the night before. I’ve never found a really outstanding campsite. I’ll continue to pour over Google Earth’s satellite view to find something I’ve missed, and I’d appreciate suggestions in the comments if someone has had a great experience between Muir Pass and LeConte Canyon. My suggestion: save one of your favorite meals for this night to make it special. (I did see an American Dipper fishing in a nearby pond at a campsite down from Muir Pass once, and that was neat!)
Guitar Lake. This is the only campsite on the list that I’ll probably continue to use. Why? Because I’m old and slow. If I were younger I wouldn’t mind camping at Crabtree Meadow. There is cover, a composting toilet, good water, and even a Ranger! The problem? There are three uphill miles before you get to Guitar Lake. The last day, if you start at Guitar Lake and end at Whitney Portal, is already a long one. Adding a three-mile climb to the beginning is just a little too much for me. What’s wrong with Guitar Lake? It’s crowded, cold, and has no cover at all (the only way to break the wind is to set up between boulders). On the other hand, in the wee hours on a clear morning, the sky is pretty amazing.
Good hiking, Ray