I remember quite clearly the first time I picked up a Wilderness Permit to hike a significant portion of the John Muir Trail. I asked the Ranger if the mosquitoes were bad this year. She said, “Yes, but then if you are hiking the JMT you have to love mosquitoes and walking uphill!”
This was long before the internet. I knew a little about the trail, but not that much. I suppose I had to be aware at some level that there would be climbs and descents ahead, but I had never really thought about it. I must have had a strange look on my face, because she looked at me and said, “You still want the permit, right?”
After two complete thru-hikes and more section hikes than I can count, I can say—without fear of contradiction—that there is lots more to the John Muir Trail than mosquitoes and walking uphill. The JMT is an amazing journey and I’m looking forward to getting back out there next year.
But, like most journeys in life, some parts are harder than others. Here are my nominations for the easiest and hardest parts of a JMT thru-hike. I assume you are hiking southbound.
First runner up for easiest: first day out of Muir Trail Ranch. While it’s true that you are climbing this entire day, if you work things like I do (a two-night stay at MTR) you are stepping off well-rested, well-fed, clean-beyond-clean thanks to their ringer washing machine and opulent spring-fed baths, and probably (because of what you have been doing for the last week or so) in the best shape you’ve been in months, maybe years. The trail that day is mostly shaded, mostly wide, and mostly dirt. Great stuff.
Easiest: Tuolumne Meadow to the end of Lyell Canyon. Take a look at a profile of the entire trail. You can’t miss this eight-mile stretch. It’s just about the only portion of the entire 211 miles that isn’t going up quickly, or going down quickly. Add that you are walking alongside a river, between two ridges, towards mountains that often are dusted with snow, and you have just about the perfect setting for walking in the wilderness. There is a reason the cover of my book displays a photo from this part of the trail. It’s easy on the legs and easy on the eyes.
First runner up for hardest: the last day on the trail. This is cheating a bit, since much of what you will negotiate on the last day is actually off the John Muir Trail, but if you hike from Guitar Lake, to the summit of Mount Whitney, to Whitney Portal, you are in for a very long day with two great challenges. The first is obvious: the climb to the summit. Two days before I hiked that part for the first time I met someone who described it as “two hours of easy walking.” Well, perhaps for her. For me it’s about six hours of hard climbing. The second challenge is the middle-third of the descent from the summit. The switchbacks, which you encounter first after going over Trail Crest, are repetitious, but no big deal. The last few miles are in relatively thick air, on a wide, well maintained trail, which gently descends. The middle third may be downhill, but it is steep, rugged, and an easy place to break a limb if you get in a hurry.
Hardest: Glen Pass. Many people disagree with me on this, but Glen Pass has taken just about all I had each time I’ve climbed it. It’s a long, steep climb, with a cruel psychological twist near the end. Just as you reach the top of a climb that seems to go on forever, you find what appears to be the top of the pass. As you sit there, resting, it occurs to you that you can’t see where the trail goes back down. You also can’t really see where it could go up. The only thing in front of you is a sheer, black wall rising in your face. It’s about then that you start to pick up the zig-zagged lines of the final switchbacks to the true top of the pass. Glen is a son-of-a-gun.
Good hiking, Ray
I used to think the hardest was Forester. But I’ve
Come around. Glen is the monster!
I remember once a Mule train passed me. An hour later I had barely moved and there were the mules on top
Way way way way on top.
Another convert to the Glen Club!
Would you feel the same way about these nominations if you were going South to North?
Just curious, jc
Great question. Lyell Canyon would still be the easiest, I think. I haven’t hiked it northbound, but Forester Pass sure looks tough when looking at it from the south!
Forester is MUCH easier from the South, IMO. After this years hike I concur that Glen is brutal the last section! I still think for the overall hardest though, my vote is Forester heading South. It’s just a constant climb, with shelf after shelf of climbing ounce you get above tree-line. It’s not too bad now, but my first time doing it I kept thinking I was getting close, only to ‘smacked upside my head’ with ANOTHER rocky shelf to ascend!
There was a discussion on JMT Yahoo a few months back on people’s fear of Clouds Rest. After having done Clouds Rest and Glen Pass this June, if people are scared on Clouds Rest, they’ll be scared on Glenn Pass as well. I think the exposure, while not unsafe, is worse on Glen than Clouds Rest, IMO.
Interesting, Robert. I never really thought much about the exposure…I’m one of the lucky ones who doesn’t mind the better view! I guess Forester from the south looks tougher than it is.
I dislike steep downhill more than uphill. I’m not a big fan of hiking down the 99 switchbacks either with or without a backpack.
Maybe I was just really tired that day, but the hardest section for me was heading down the south side of Muir pass. Lots of large step downs with awkward rocks trying to trip me up. I’ll be doing that section again in early August and see if my opinion is still the same.
That’s a great point, Bill. Also worth noting is that extra pack weight is just as strength sapping going downhill, particularly when steps are involved. It puts lots of stress on the knees. Thanks for the comment!
On my thru-hike in 2012, I climbed Glen Pass at night because I had to meet my resupplier at Onion Valley (other side of Kearsarge Pass) the next day and was behind schedule. So I couldn’t see what I was up against, the air was cool, and the moon was beautiful. Didn’t seem like a difficult climb, but I lost the trail once, and when I found it again I started hiking uphill. Got to a crest quickly and started down the other side. Noticed that it wasn’t strikingly different on the other side, as with most passes. Checked my compass watch and realized I was hiking back down to Rae Lakes and turned around. Camped late that night at Charlotte Lake, then hiked over Kearsarge to Onion Valley trailhead and a welcome resupply next morning, with the added fun of a good friend to hike with me the rest of the way to Whitney Portal. Looking forward to meeting “the monster” in daylight next time.
I love to hike at night, but I’ve always feared I would step off the trail, relieve myself, then accidentally walk in the wrong direction! Doesn’t sound like you went too far, though. Thanks for the comment!
Hi Ray, I’ve been saying that for years! Glen Pass is the hardest pass on the JMT. I know it shouldn’t be but it is!
Thanks, Larry, like I say here:
Glen is a sonofagun!
I thought Glen Pass was cake compared to either HI to Cathedral. 5500 at the start? Gotta put Glenn or Forester for that matter to shame. As for easiest, Lyell is too early in the hike to be the easiest. especially with that climb at the end of the day. Maybe NoBo. Same for MTR to EVO. SoBo I would put South side of Forester to Wallace Creek as my easiest stretch, maybe even to Crabtree, climb out of Wallace included.
Can’t really argue that, Peter. If you go from Happy Isles to Cathedral it would be quite a haul. Most folks don’t do that much the first day. In fact, many have to spend the first night in Little Yosemite Valley. Thanks for the comment!
You are returning in 2015? Have you set a start date? If my feet don’t fail me, I am shooting for July 4!
I sure have, Loren. Day 1 is Monday, August 31st. This big difference this time around: I am going to be 30 pounds lighter and my pack 20 pounds lighter. Do you think it will make a difference?
It will make a huge difference! As long as you haven’t dropped so much body weight that it is affecting your energy levels, the combination should have a major impact on your overall trail enjoyment, and/or help you put up some bigger miles, ( if that is in your agenda ).
I have hiked up Glen from the south and found it more difficult than Trail Crest or Forester with heavier pack. I will be going from North to South this year and see how it goes this time.
Sounds tough no matter which direction. Thanks for the comment, Keith!
Hi Ray, Mary Jane here with a question. I am thinking about the JMT in 2017 or 18. I do have a knee issue. I just bacpacked 20-miles. My concern is that on the JMT there may be some climb that might be too much. It sounds as though Glen Pass is a challenge…I appreciate your experience and feedback. Thanks much.are Jane
Thanks for the question, Mary Jane. If you can hike 10 – 12 miles, several days in a row, you can probably do the trail without a problem. (Obviously, I’m no doctor and I don’t know the particulars regarding your knee, so I’m extrapolating from your 20 mile trip.) If I was concerned about the passes, this would be my strategy: get myself in shape and the weight of my pack down as much as practicable, aiming for the ability to hike strongly AT THE END OF THE DAY. Then, I would plan my itinerary so that I hiked about halfway up the passes before camping. That would give you a full night’s rest in between the two halves of the climbs. This would also have the beneficial side effect of getting you over the passes early. I rant a lot about Glen, but it isn’t THAT much tougher, and the scenery is amazing. The biggest thing you can do to prepare yourself for Glen is to remember that it is going to try to fool you: you will get to what you think is the top and it won’t be! Good luck!
Just completed the Rae Lakes loop counter clockwise, which required hiking Glenn Pass from the south. I’m 58 years old and in decent shape, but found myself, because of the lower oxygen levels, having to take it very slowly as I approached the summit. It was a one step at a time experience with a lot of heavy breathing! Of course the views are extra ordinary.
I’m 67 and just did the JMT SOBO. Slept at Arrowhead Lake, and after 12 days on the trail at that point (started at Rush Creek, near June Lake), I found Glen to be kind of a cake walk. I think I was just in great shape, having trained extensively before starting and then having all those miles behind me. I did Glen previously on a Rae Lakes loop hike and found it pretty manageable then, as well. On this trip, the one that got me was Mather. Day before was a long walk from Le Conte Ranger Station up the Golden Staircase to Lower Palisade Lake. I think I was suffering from a calorie deficit the morning I went up Mather. I was struggling. Later, though, after packing in some calories at lunch, I felt good again. Haven’t done Forester. Had to bail from weather at Onion Valley.
You make a great point: so much of the difficulty of any section depends on where you are fitness-wise, calorie-wise, and psychological. Congratulations on the hike!