There are lots of ways to divide a thru-hike of the JMT. Muir Trail Ranch, about 108 miles south of the Happy Isles trailhead and about 103 miles north of the summit of Mount Whitney, splits the trail nicely into halves, and not just in regards to mileage.
There are four easy resupply points in the north half and none in the south. While the first half of the southbound hike is lower, has fewer passes and a bus to the trailhead, the second half has more elevation, more passes, and an eleven mile hike-after-the-hike to get from the end point of the JMT to the nearest transportation at Whitney Portal.
First half/second half is definitely one way to look at it.
But there’s another way to divide this hike that I find to be even more meaningful: the beginning, the middle and the end. The best phase—at least for me—was the middle.
The stretch from Happy Isles to Donahue Pass (thirty seven miles and three-and-a-half days) is the beginning. It’s hard to believe, but after less than one hundred hours in the woods my body was already adapting to the new environment. The walking was easier, the backpack had practically disappeared on my back, and I was sleeping better on the ground. More importantly, it takes a few days for the distractions and minutia of your normal life to recede and for the chatter of your life before the trail to quiet. By the time I crossed Donahue Pass I had a wonderful feeling of being present at each moment of the day.
Donahue Pass was also a significant milestone in that I had walked completely out of Yosemite National Park. Crossing that boundary was the end of the beginning of the hike.
I think of Glen Pass as the beginning of the end of the hike. From the top of Glen Pass you have about thirty-five JMT miles left and only one major pass. Like the proverbial horse “smelling the barn,” you can feel those hot showers, good food, soft mattress, and pleasant company pulling you towards the end. Instead of concentrating on what’s around you, you start to concentrate on what’s ahead.
It’s those 139 miles in the middle—between Donahue and Glen Passes—that really make the hike. You’re not starting. You’re not finishing. You’re just hiking.
If you’re walking solo expect this to be pretty amazing. When was the last time you spent several hours of the day in simple contemplation? Your most important hiking accessory at this point is a notebook and pencil. My Rite-in-the-Rain notebook was full of ideas, including the initial outline of “Planning Your Thru-Hike of the John Muir Trail,” and some recipes that have become my favorites. Photos I took during these miles are better because I took the time to set them up. On top of that, there is something so incredibly therapeutic and recuperative about just being there.
If you’re hiking with someone expect some conversations that meander delightfully. You might start with weather and end with hiking gear, but between there could be stops at football, politics, cooking, religion, travel and philosophy.
Don’t get me wrong; all three phases are great. There is plenty of excitement at the beginning and tons of satisfaction at the end. But for sheer hiking pleasure nothing can beat those miles in the middle.
Good hiking, Ray