There are three portions of the John Muir Trail any first-time thru-hiker will inevitably be warned about, often in hushed tones of foreboding. All three are steep sections, and I found that all three were far less difficult than I expected.
The hike into the backcountry from Happy Isles. Many folks complain about this first day of the hike, but I always find it to be no big deal. The trail is wide, well-marked, and passes Vernal and Nevada Falls – the largest two waterfalls you’ll see along the trail. If you are stopping at Little Yosemite Valley for the night, it also makes for a short day. Even if you are going past LYV and the trail to Cloud’s Rest, you are still walking fewer than ten miles. True, there are more than 4,500 feet of elevation you’ll need to climb that day, but you do it with fresh legs and a well-fed body. Don’t let this first day scare you and, when it’s over, don’t make the mistake of thinking that every day will be like this. You will be in much better shape before you are required to do this much climbing again.
The fifty-plus switchbacks up Bear Ridge. I’ll admit it; I was plenty intimidated by the reputation of this stretch, at least until I hiked it the first time. The key here is to head up early, when the trail is in the shade. Plus, we’re only talking 2,000 feet of elevation gain. When you reach the top, by the way, you’ll find the exertion was well worth it; the next few miles to Rosemarie Meadow are among the best of the whole trail.
The Golden Staircase. The Golden Staircase itself, while rugged, and certainly an impressive engineering feat, is nothing a fit hiker can’t handle. More significantly, it is only the last part of a 4,000 foot climb from Palisade Creek to Mather Pass, spread across eleven miles. This is going to be a tough day, but by then you’ll be far fitter than you were on day one. Slow and steady will get you to the top every time.
Interestingly enough, the one climb on the trail I almost never hear anyone mention, and that I found the most challenging, was the hike to the top of Mount Whitney! If you start your climb from Guitar Lake you will ascend nearly 3,000 feet in about four miles, all of it in thin air. The difference here, however, is that you have that shower, cheeseburger, and ice cream sundae pulling you towards Lone Pine. After two or three weeks on the trail, that’s a powerful incentive!
Good hiking, Ray