As wilderness permits for a traditional Happy-Isles-to-Mount-Whitney hike get harder and harder to get, many people are considering alternatives. Some of those alternatives (e.g., hiking northbound) include the northern twenty-one miles of the trail. Others (e.g., starting north of Yosemite National Park, in the Hoover Wilderness) mean that you will not see anything between Happy Isles and Tuolumne Meadow.
If you decide to skip Happy-Isles-to-Tuolumne-Meadow, are you missing anything? Here is my take.
Why You’ll Be Sorry
The first 2.7 miles of the John Muir Trail (when hiking southbound) are among the most popular miles on all of Yosemite’s trails. There are reasons for the popularity. Before you get the straps on your backpack fully adjusted you will cross the Merced River on a footbridge with an amazing view of Vernal Fall. As you continue to ascend you will do so in the shadow of the back of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall. At a little less than three miles from Happy Isles you will cross the Merced again (and again by bridge) just a few feet upstream of Nevada Fall. When I take this route my first break of the day always comes on the warm granite just south of the bridge.
Once across the Merced you will walk parallel to the river for a little less than a mile before turning north and beginning your ascent to the Sunrise Creek area. Many hikers find forest walking boring, but I rather enjoy it. You will be in lots of trees for several miles until you start the climb that culminates at the Sunrise Wilderness Camp.
Most people find the next four miles to be quite beautiful as the trail meanders through meadows that provide great views of the unusual geology of the area, best typified by Unicorn and Cathedral Peaks.
At around eighteen miles from Happy Isles you will find the first of the two Cathedral Lakes. Both are beautiful (Lower Cathedral Lake is a mile or so off the trail) and either would be a great place to spend the night. Cathedral Peak reflected in the first or second, around sunset, is not a sight you will likely forget.
The last few miles to Tuolumne Meadow are unremarkable, although it does have the advantage of being downhill!
Why You’ll Be Glad You Missed It
Did I mention that the first 2.7 miles of the John Muir Trail are among the most popular miles on all of Yosemite’s trails? That means lots of people on the trail with you. Almost none of them will have backpacks like yours, which means you will draw the attention of day hikers. Expect lots of questions. (One way to avoid 90% of the inquiries would be to attach a sign to your backpack that reads, “No, I am not afraid of being eaten by a bear, and, no, I do not have a gun.”)
Having said that, if you are going to have an unpleasant encounter with a bear, this is where you are most likely to have it. Particularly between Happy Isles and the bridge near Nevada Fall, I always keep my backpack close. Bears in this area are so conditioned to having humans nearby that they will literally sneak up behind you, lift your pack without making a sound, and then find a convenient spot (like on top of a boulder in the middle of the river) to do a not-too-careful inspection of the contents. Your hike could be complete before noon on the first day.
Lastly, hiking the John Muir Trail is all about ascending. That makes the first eighteen miles a perfect introduction. Even if you stop at Little Yosemite Valley the first night you will be climbing in excess of 3,000 feet. There is a lot of climbing between Happy Isles and Tuolumne.
There is no doubt in my mind, even with the inquisitive crowds, the felonious bears, and the relentless climbing, that this stretch is worth the effort. To my mind, that isn’t even a question. Unfortunately, with the current wilderness permit process that is also kind of dodging the issue. A better question is this: if I can’t get a permit that allows me to start at Happy Isles should I just wait until next year? To that I have to say, “No.” This is a wonderful twenty-one miles of the Sierra Nevada, but there’s lots more on the other 190 miles of the JMT. You’ll never regret taking an alternative from another trailhead.
Good hiking, Ray