When the new John Muir Trail permitting rules were implemented this year I knew I would need a back-up plan if I failed to secure one of the “exit quotas” over Donohue Pass. After after a solid map reconnaissance and discussing different ideas with other hikers, I settled on a route that would begin at Glacier Point, go over Red Peak Pass, exit Yosemite at Isberg Pass, and work its way into the Devils Postpile and Red’s Meadow. More about that route here.
Sure enough, my attempt to get a Happy Isles permit, which allowed a trip over Donohue, did not succeed. The Isberg Alternative, however, was wide open.
The hike is about 70 miles, which is longer then you will calculate if you use some of the more popular web-based mapping software. It is also, on average, a little more strenuous than the more conventional Happy Isles/Donohue Pass route. Part of that is because you go over two passes (Red Peak Pass being a particularly tough one), and part is because you don’t get that long relatively flat stretch through Lyell Canyon.
Red Peak Pass is very interesting geologically. While standing on the trail you can literally see a red peak to your left and a gray peak to your right, obviously completely different rock.
The view is what makes Isberg Pass special. It is not very strenuous to get over and when you get to the top you can see the backside of Banner and Ritter as well as the Minarets. Looking back towards Yosemite I was sure I could see Unicorn Peak and think I could see Donohue Pass, which was kind of neat.
The other real highlight of the hike is Hemlock Crossing and its two waterfalls and beautiful scenery. I had intended to camp there for the night, but didn’t quite make it that far that day, so I ended up having second breakfast there.
Otherwise it is mainly a forest walk, which is something I like quite a bit, but won’t appeal to everyone.
One thing it definitely is, is deserted. I saw a total of five hikers and six Rangers from Glacier Point to the Devils Postpile. From about 1 PM on Monday until 7:20 AM on Thursday I saw no one. I might recommend any solo hiker intending to do this stretch to carry a personal locator beacon (PLB). Otherwise, one might have to endure a broken leg for a few DAYS until someone comes along.
Those of you who follow my blog know I was intending to do a cross country stretch. After a careful map reconnaissance and scrutinizing Google Earth and other satellite images I had determined that this would be an easy stretch. I cannot begin to tell you how wrong I was. When I arrived at the point where I would leave the trail I could see that I’d be lucky to do a quarter of a mile an hour over that terrain. I stayed on the trail.
I’m not sure if this is because I was hiking in a relatively deserted area, or if this is something trending throughout the Sierra Nevada, but I saw a lot of bear scat on the trail. I saw no bears, but they are out there and apparently they are also on the trails!
Those of you who may have considered this route may have heard that there is a portion that is hard-to-follow from Naked Lady Meadow to the east. I had no problem. In fact, it hardly slowed me down. I’m not sure if that’s because by the time I got there more people had walked through the area and marked the proper route, or if perhaps some trail maintenance was done, but there was no real issue. Some tips for that area: look for cut logs, the trail probably goes next to or between them. Look for trail markings on trees, i.e., the vertical cut in the bark. Look for obviously man-arranged rock formations. Lastly, I found that taking my sunglasses off and on sometimes revealed subtle shadings in the vegetation that gave me a hint.
Overall: if this is your first JMT I would not recommend the Isberg Alternative. You are giving up Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, Cathedral Peak, Cathedral Lakes, Tuolumne Meadow, Lyell Canyon, Donohue Pass, Thousand Island Lake, and Garnett Lake. In return you get the fabulous Hemlock Crossing and a terrific view from the top of Isberg Pass. On the other hand, if you are looking for a somewhat more challenging route, and you have already done the more conventional route several times, this is a very interesting alternative. I’m glad I did it!
Good hiking, Ray