I’ve mentioned before how truly memorable a John Muir Trail hike will be—and I mean that literally. You will be amazed at how much you will remember months and even years later.
Among those memories, two shine brighter than all the others: starting and finishing. Today: what’s it like to actually start?
To begin with, unless you’re an experienced backpacker who has walked these sorts of distances before, don’t expect to sleep very well the night before. I certainly tossed and turned. I even got some phantom aches and pains which I attribute to the weak part of my psyche attempting to talk me out of the hike. Eventually you will fall asleep and before you know it the alarm will go off. It’s time; you are actually going to do this.
(Tip: if you had to stand in line for a permit, and you lost a night’s sleep two nights before, try to resist the temptation to sleep all afternoon once you get your permit. If you do, getting a good night’s sleep before you step off at Happy Isles will be even more difficult.)
I’m a proponent of an early start for a couple of reasons. First, you are going to do some serious climbing on this first day, which is fine! After all, you’ll be well fed and well rested. But there is no need to make it harder by waiting for the heat of the day. Second, the hike to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall are the most popular in the park. Stepping off early will mean fewer folks on the trail.
If you’ve selected your pre-hike accommodations well, getting to the trailhead should be easy. It’s hard to beat the convenience of staying that last night in Yosemite Valley. Of the choices available (the Lodge, the Ahwahnee, Camp Curry, or at a campground) Camp Curry is far more comfortable than a campground, and very close to the trailhead. That’s where I stayed.
By staying in the valley you can also take advantage of the bus that picks up and drops off at all the places I’ve mentioned above, as well as near the Happy Isles trailhead. The bus starts at 7:00 a.m., so if you’re up by 6:00 a.m. you should have plenty of time to get cleaned up a little, get dressed and grab some breakfast.
I was up and dressed by about 6:30 a.m. The butterflies in my stomach warned me not to go overboard on breakfast, so I nibbled on a muffin as I waited for the bus.
Expect some questions from your fellow bus riders. “Where are you going?” is the most obvious, and when I told them Mount Whitney, I got several acknowledgements of, “Good luck!” I have to admit feeling a bit like a poser. People were looking at me as if I had accomplished something and here I was riding with the tourists in flip-flops and swimsuits—I hadn’t walked a step!
Once you’re off the bus you’ll need to cross the bridge, turn right, and walk towards the trailhead. Within a minute or two you’ll be at the famous sign, which reads, in part: Mount Whitney via John Muir Trail – 211.0 miles. I don’t know if anyone ever got all the way to this point and then decided to turn around, but it’s possible. Expect some second-guessing. If any of your friends and family told you that you were sure to be eaten by bears or, perhaps, never heard from again, those are the voices you’ll probably hear.
Ignore them all. In a few days you will have become a hiking machine, ready for any challenge. All the planning and preparing is now behind you; get your photo in front of the sign, hoist your pack, and start walking. Your adventure is about to begin!
Good hiking, Ray