The two most popular places to stay before your John Muir Trail hike, assuming you are hiking southbound, are Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite Valley. (There are certainly other options, including Tuolumne Meadow, Oakhurst, and Mariposa, but Mariposa and Oakhurst are too low, and staying at Tuolumne means a Spartan, wilderness experience. Most folks want a little more, particularly since they’re going to get a whole lot of the wilderness in the following weeks. A new option is Fresno, since there is now YARTS service to and from the valley, but Fresno is even lower than Oakhurst!)
Before you decide where to stay, however, you are going to have to decide how long to stay. If you don’t live in the mountains, I would suggest three nights. I recognize that adding three nights to your time away can be difficult, but so can HAPE and HACE. Spending three nights (and all or part of four days) at a higher elevation can give you a tremendous head start at acclimatizing to the backcountry. If three is out of the question, two is better than one, and so on.
There are certain advantages to spending those nights in Yosemite Valley. To begin with, the options for accommodations run the gamut from a spot in a campground, to a tent cabin in Curry Village (which is an easy walk to the trailhead), to a room in Yosemite Lodge, to the luxury of the Ahwahnee hotel. Staying in the valley will also give you the opportunity to check in with the Wilderness Center, where you pick up your permit. (You even may be able to switch your permit for one you prefer.)
There are some disadvantages, though. The most significant is that Yosemite Valley, at 4,000 feet, is not very high. You’ll certainly gain some benefit if you are coming from a home near sea level, but you will likely be above 8,000 feet on the second day of your hike, and it will be nearly a week before you descend to Red’s Meadow.
The other disadvantage is that it is hard to get reservations, unless you can make them a year out. The park fills up quickly, particularly in the summer and fall.
My choice is Mammoth Lakes; it has a lot to recommend it.
First, you can fly right into the town from either San Francisco or Los Angeles. A cab ride to one of the town’s hotels from the airport is about $20.
Speaking of hotels, I like the Shiloh Inn. It is inexpensive, near one of the town’s shuttle stops (more on that in moment), has a restaurant next door with the best huevos rancheros I have ever eaten (The Breakfast Club), and is mere steps from the YARTS bus stop. You will take the YARTS bus into the valley the day before you begin your hike. There are plenty of other alternatives to the Shiloh Inn, at a very wide variety of prices.
Mammoth Lakes also happens to be a delightful place to relax for a few days. The town has a scheduled shuttle that is free, and it will take you to good restaurants, a movie theater, and a number of well-equipped outdoor stores, in case you want to make some last minute changes to your gear list. It is definitely a place that caters to tourists, but I’ve never quite been able to summon the condescension necessary to dislike those sorts of venues.
Most importantly, at nearly 8,000 feet, by the time you leave for Yosemite Valley you will be ready for the high country ahead.
Good hiking, Ray