I’m often asked to comment on itineraries. I’ll usually make a recommendation or two – I’ll suggest going a little further here or not quite as far there – but I’m reluctant to completely redo the trip. After all, the hiker presumably put some thought into the legs he or she chose. Who am I to judge?
That’s not to say I’m not tempted. The problem with the itineraries for first time thru-hikers is that they are making decisions strictly based on mileage and elevation. They haven’t walked the terrain. They don’t know what they don’t know.
What if I tore up “plan A” completely? What itinerary would I suggest for an average hiker wanted to successfully finish the hike with a minimum of pain and suffering, spend nights in scenic and interesting places, average around twelve miles a day (except for the last day), and work in some rest days and half days? If these objectives sound about right for you, consider this as a good start for your plan.
I’ll do from Happy Isles to Muir Trail Ranch today, and Muir Trail Ranch to Whitney Portal next week.
Day 1: Happy Isles to Sunrise Creek, ~9 miles. If you are intending to hike Half Dome (see last week’s post for more on that), then you are going to want to stop at Little Yosemite Valley. Otherwise, take advantage of your fresh legs, first day enthusiasm, and good breakfast to walk a little farther. Once you pass the Clouds Rest trail intersection, look for a small rivulet flowing across the trail, right-to-left. Its source is a spring less than 75 yards to the right of the trail, and there are some nice campsites near the spring. Plus, there are a dozen or so fewer bears waiting to visit you in the middle of the night than there will be in Little Yosemite Valley.
Day 2: Sunrise Creek to Upper Cathedral Lake, ~ 9 miles. Is day 2 too early for a spectacular campsite? I don’t think so. Pitch your tent here, or, if weather permits, sleep under the stars. The alpenglow on Cathedral Peak as the sun sets will be amazing. Get on the trail early this day, so that you get to camp early and have plenty of time to explore, or just to sit and take it all in.
Day 3: Upper Cathedral Lake to Tuolumne Meadows, ~6 miles. Are you looking to challenge yourself with as many miles and as much sleeping on the ground as possible? Then this itinerary isn’t for you. On day 3 you get a half rest day, lunch at the Tuolumne Meadows snack bar, dinner at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, and a good night’s sleep on a mattress inside one of the lodge’s tent cabins. Oh, and you get a good breakfast in the morning. (You will need to make reservations, possibly as much as a year out, to stay at the Lodge, and while you can walk-up and be served lunch at the snack bar and breakfast at the Lodge, you need to make reservations to have dinner there.)
Day 4: Tuolumne Meadows to Tarn below Donohue Pass, ~ 8 miles. Tonight is your first taste of life above the treeline. The hike up Lyell Canyon is a joy, and this campsite has great views, water – and even a little shelter from the wind. Best of all, you will be over Donohue Pass the next day before second breakfast.
Day 5: Tarn below Donohue Pass to Near Garnet Lake, ~11 miles. It’s tempting to see the amazing photos of Thousand Island Lake and Garnet Lake and plop a mark on a map, intending to camp there. The problem is that legal campsites that are easy to get to are few and far between, especially near the lakes. If you walk past the outlet stream at Garnet Lake, however, you can find some smallish sites with amazing views – to the east of the trail.
Day 6: Near Garnet Lake to Red’s Meadow, ~ 11 miles. After two nights in the woods, why not a break? Most of this eleven mile stretch is downhill, and it will culminate at Red’s Meadow. My recommendation is that you spend two nights here (or in the town of Mammoth Lakes), recharging, picking up your resupply box, and making gear changes based on your experience so far.
Day 7: Rest Day. Stay off you feet, stay hydrated, eat well, and limit the celebration to a beer or two.
Day 8: Red’s Meadow to Lake Virginia, ~16 miles. Yep…this is the longest day yet, but you are well rested and well fed, so why not? You will be climbing almost the entire day, but I’ve never found the climb to be all that tough. Lake Virginia is doable, even if you get a bit of a late start because you indulged in breakfast at the Mulehouse Cafe. (They don’t start serving until 7 a.m.) Lake Virginia has lots of nice campsites, and is gorgeous in the morning.
Day 9: Lake Virginia to Mono Creek Bridge, ~14 miles. By camping at Lake Virginia, you will be up and over Silver Pass fairly early – probably before lunch. Then you will descend through some nice terrain to Mono Creek. I’ve heard that the camping rules around the bridge have changed, so be prepared to react accordingly. Stopping near the bridge will put you in a great position to tackle the 52 switchbacks up bear ridge first thing in the morning.
Day 10: Mono Creek Bridge to Marie Lake, ~11 miles. Bear Ridge is, well, a bear, but your legs are fresh and you have some terrific scenery to look forward to. Tonight you will camp at what I consider to be the prettiest campsite on the John Muir Trail – Marie Lake. As you did on day 2, get on the trail early so that you can enjoy the late afternoon and evening at the lake. The next day is an easy one, so go ahead and push it!
Day 11: Marie Lake to Muir Trail Ranch, ~8 miles. Even if you sleep in a bit, you should be to MTR by noonish. Since you have made reservations for two nights here, you will be able to take full advantage of the place during your half rest day (the day you arrive). Congratulations; you have made it half way.
Day 12: Rest Day. Stay off your feet, eat well, take at least two baths in the opulent hot springs available to MTR guests only, and enjoy the books and great company in the library.
Good hiking, Ray