Most backpackers who complete a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail eventually come to the decision that they want to do it again. Some come back year after year, racking up thousands of miles between Happy Isles and the summit of Mount Whitney. I can’t imagine ever being bored with the hike, but I can imagine – after a few trips – wanting to do something different that still included much of the JMT. Here are four ways you can tweak your 2018 JMT hike to make it seem new.
Switch directions. Most first-time JMT hikers go southbound, and there are lots of good reasons to do so. Several years ago, almost all JMT thru-hikers started in Yosemite. But, as permits to enter the wilderness from Happy Isles get harder and harder to obtain, more people are starting at Whitney Portal, or south of Mount Whitney, and heading north. The trip reports I’ve read all have encouraging things to say about hiking in this direction. Many mention that some of the passes are easier to negotiate and that the scenery looks much different. Also, if you start at the portal, you will be exiting the trail 4,000 feet below where you started. In many ways, your hike will get easier each day.
Start someplace else. Have you hiked in Yosemite extensively? Do you know the trail between Happy Isles and Tuolumne Meadows like the back of your hand? Why not avoid the crowds, make permitting easier, and see some new sights? I am a big fan of the Isberg Alternative. You can even start at Red’s Meadow, hike north, take the bus back to Red’s Meadow from Yosemite Valley, and then hike south. Looking for more of a challenge? How about starting at Ebbetts Pass and heading south? Starting there would add between three and six nights to your standard JMT hike, but it would also be uncrowded and beautiful.
Take some side trips. The very best way to plan some side trips off the JMT is to consult Elizabeth Wenk’s fifth edition of her book: John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America’s most famous trail. Starting on page 209, there are thirteen pages devoted to peaks you can bag, spots with amazing views, and – best of all as far as I’m concerned – uncrowded lake basins where you are likely to camp alone.
Do it faster – or slower. Just hiking the 211 miles and climbing the eight major passes is sufficient challenge for this little guy, but if you are of a mind to really push yourself, why not step it out a bit? I believe the unsupported fastest known time is about three-and-a-half days. If you are going to bring a team along to support you, and you are looking for a record, you will need to finish the entire trail in less than two days, nineteen hours, and twenty-six minutes. There is no need to try for a record, though. My unscientific opinion is that anything less than a week would put you in the top 1% of JMT thru-hikers.
A more intriguing option, at least to me, is to take a little more time (instead of a lot less). Why not spend a whole day exploring the upper end of Lyell Canyon, or the shores of Thousand Island or Garnet Lakes? Other places where I could easily spend a day are: Lake Virginia, Bear Creek, Marie Lake (maybe two days there!), Evolution Meadow, Lake Majorie, and Rae Lakes. As I get older, the idea of walking less and spending more time in my camp chair, with some good food (thanks, Inga!), and a great view appeals to me. Perhaps it would to you as well.
For those of you who have hiked the trail more than once or twice, I challenge you to recall how amazing the John Muir Trail was the first time. Trying one of these suggestions might give you a chance to relive that experience and add to your Sierra Nevada repertoire.
Good hiking, Ray