Is the John Muir Trail too crowded? I think that’s a great question; here’s my answer.
I’ve spent most of my adult life being in charge of stuff, with admittedly mixed results. I know how hard it is to balance competing priorities, opposing interests, and conflicting policy. That’s why, even when I am tremendously frustrated with the way wilderness permits are issued or what is or is not permitted on the trail, I can’t help but have a huge dose of sympathy for wilderness managers who must try to follow the law, while keeping as many of their customers as happy as possible.
I often find myself concluding that they are doing both a horrible job — and the best job possible — a conclusion as contradictory as the rules they are forced to follow.
One of the complaints I often hear is that the John Muir Trail is a “highway”; that it is so crowded that it ruins the wilderness experience. My experience has been far better. I think the various government agencies have it just about right.
One thing to remember is that “when” and “where” have a lot to do with how many people you are going to encounter. If you are walking between Happy Isles and Nevada Fall, over the Fourth of July weekend, you are unlikely to find solitude on the trail (even at midnight). That same hike on a Tuesday in October (if the trail is still open) will have a fraction of the hikers. This year, with the season likely shorter due to the copious amounts of snow, there may be more hikers-per-day than normal. (The impact of the snow on the PCT season will be interesting. It’s likely that those northbound hikers will be entering the Sierra Nevada later than they have the past several years.)
The same is true at the other end. The two miles between the intersection of the Whitney trail and the John Muir Trail, and the summit, are probably going to be congested. (As will the summit, unless you get up there early.) I get up early on the last day of the hike, and leave Guitar Lake in the wee hours. I’ve never passed anyone (or have been passed) between Guitar Lake and the intersection just down from Trail Crest.
What’s the rest of the trail like?
My experience, hiking in July, August and September, is that on a normal day you will pass about a couple dozen hikers, many coming the opposite direction. Some days will have more; some days will have fewer. The most I ever encountered was a large group (they identified themselves as Sierra Club members) in the Rush Creek drainage; they had about twenty. The fewest occurred during a long day going over Mather Pass. I saw ONE hiker coming the opposite direction, and ONE hiker about two miles ahead (I saw him from the top of the pass).
If you want to walk a couple of hundred miles and see almost no one, and you are a very advanced backcountry hiker, I recommend the Sierra High Route. If you want to meet a few marvelous people doing something they love, stick to the John Muir Trail. I think you’ll find that your fellow hikers will add, not detract, from the experience.
Good hiking, Ray