As wilderness permits for a traditional Happy-Isles-to-Mount-Whitney hike get harder and harder to get, many people are considering alternatives. Some of those alternatives (e.g., hiking northbound) include the northern twenty-one miles of the trail. Others (e.g., starting north of Yosemite National Park, in the Hoover Wilderness) mean that you will not see anything between Happy Isles and Tuolumne Meadow.
If you decide to skip Happy-Isles-to-Tuolumne-Meadow, are you missing anything? Here is my take.
Why You’ll Be Sorry
The first 2.7 miles of the John Muir Trail (when hiking southbound) are among the most popular miles on all of Yosemite’s trails. There are reasons for the popularity. Before you get the straps on your backpack fully adjusted you will cross the Merced River on a footbridge with an amazing view of Vernal Fall. As you continue to ascend you will do so in the shadow of the back of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall. At a little less than three miles from Happy Isles you will cross the Merced again (and again by bridge) just a few feet upstream of Nevada Fall. When I take this route my first break of the day always comes on the warm granite just south of the bridge.
Once across the Merced you will walk parallel to the river for a little less than a mile before turning north and beginning your ascent to the Sunrise Creek area. Many hikers find forest walking boring, but I rather enjoy it. You will be in lots of trees for several miles until you start the climb that culminates at the Sunrise Wilderness Camp.
Most people find the next four miles to be quite beautiful as the trail meanders through meadows that provide great views of the unusual geology of the area, best typified by Unicorn and Cathedral Peaks.
At around eighteen miles from Happy Isles you will find the first of the two Cathedral Lakes. Both are beautiful (Lower Cathedral Lake is a mile or so off the trail) and either would be a great place to spend the night. Cathedral Peak reflected in the first or second, around sunset, is not a sight you will likely forget.
The last few miles to Tuolumne Meadow are unremarkable, although it does have the advantage of being downhill!
Why You’ll Be Glad You Missed It
Did I mention that the first 2.7 miles of the John Muir Trail are among the most popular miles on all of Yosemite’s trails? That means lots of people on the trail with you. Almost none of them will have backpacks like yours, which means you will draw the attention of day hikers. Expect lots of questions. (One way to avoid 90% of the inquiries would be to attach a sign to your backpack that reads, “No, I am not afraid of being eaten by a bear, and, no, I do not have a gun.”)
Having said that, if you are going to have an unpleasant encounter with a bear, this is where you are most likely to have it. Particularly between Happy Isles and the bridge near Nevada Fall, I always keep my backpack close. Bears in this area are so conditioned to having humans nearby that they will literally sneak up behind you, lift your pack without making a sound, and then find a convenient spot (like on top of a boulder in the middle of the river) to do a not-too-careful inspection of the contents. Your hike could be complete before noon on the first day.
Lastly, hiking the John Muir Trail is all about ascending. That makes the first eighteen miles a perfect introduction. Even if you stop at Little Yosemite Valley the first night you will be climbing in excess of 3,000 feet. There is a lot of climbing between Happy Isles and Tuolumne.
There is no doubt in my mind, even with the inquisitive crowds, the felonious bears, and the relentless climbing, that this stretch is worth the effort. To my mind, that isn’t even a question. Unfortunately, with the current wilderness permit process that is also kind of dodging the issue. A better question is this: if I can’t get a permit that allows me to start at Happy Isles should I just wait until next year? To that I have to say, “No.” This is a wonderful twenty-one miles of the Sierra Nevada, but there’s lots more on the other 190 miles of the JMT. You’ll never regret taking an alternative from another trailhead.
Good hiking, Ray
I completely agree that this part is not to be missed. And as you said it is harder to clinch now with the high demand and re-jiggered permit rules. I found myself in this position while planning last spring and I came up with an alternate start that many rangers told me was a better alternative to the original.
Pohono Trail, Wawona Tunnel start TH brings you up to the southern rim of the Yosemite valley, ~3500 off the valley floor. There are many lookouts and points that afford jaw dropping panoramic views and…there are no crowds (except around Glacier Point). You end up hiking right into the JMT only missing the first 3 miles. IMO it was totally worth it and I would use the same start again.
You can view it here: http://www.rangeoflight.info/blog/2015/8/28/day-1-north-pines-yosemite-village-pohono-trail-head-brideveil-creek
Happy Hiking to you all!
Thanks, Chris, for the comment and the link. I encourage everyone to check it out.
Thanks Ray for the great post!
I don’t know if you or Chris (hopefully he’ll see this!) can answer my query? I’ve just been rejected from the lottery for Aug 2017 and am now researching alternate starting options (I’d already booked 3+ weeks off work and I’m travelling from Canada so i want to get on the trail!) How do I apply to begin via the Pohono trail and still have a permit to continue on the JMT? It’s all so complicated now so if you have any tips that would be great!
Sorry, David, but I don’t believe you can enter the wilderness via the Pohono trailhead. Instead, you would have to get Glacier Point to LYV. Your best bet might be to try to get a walk-up, either at Yosemite Valley, or Tuolumne Meadows. My book also describes other alternatives. Thanks for the question, David.
Thank you so much for your reply. I’ve now secured a reservation to enter at Rush Creek and hike south to Whitney – a huge relief to at least get that reservation in the bag! Prior to that I’m hoping to luck-in on a walk-up permit to hike north out of Rush Creek to Happy Isles (currently the advance permits are gone for this option) Anyhow, whatever I manage to do in the end, I can’t wait!
Good luck, David!
I think walking through the burned out area above Little Yosemite Valley is a bit of a bummer, too. I think about 3 miles stretch. But I still love the views of the Falls and camping at Cathedral Lake.
I had forgotten about the burned out area, Keith. Good point. Thanks for the comment.
Its worth noting that perhaps the most famous hike ever on the JMT – the Muir Project/Mile, Mile and a Half, skipped the first few miles, and made it up the next year. Its a section definitely worth hiking, ut is it necessary for the essential JMT experience? I don’t think so.
Hello again Ray!
I am so twisted on this subject. I could only secure the permit starting at Lyell Canyon. From the pictures and reading I have been so twisted to miss this section. I guess being hard headed as outlay not going at all. I have thought about being able to do a day hike before my start date. Is there any negative to that? Can you just store your backpack for the day and take a day pack into the falls and head as far into the trail with leaving enough time for the walk back to Happy Isles?
I have never seen anyone mention that so I’m thinking there must be something wrong with theach idea.
Also, haven’t seen anyone ask this question. At what point does a day hike turn into a wilderness hike? Is it how far you have walked in? Does it start once you physically put your pack on? Seems like if you are doing a “day hike” it would be as far as you can hike and walk back? Is it just some arbitrary milage?
I thought after that I would drive to Lyell Canyon for sleep to start my actual permit the next day. And last question. If I have time before the hike can I walk back as long as I don’t carry my pack to cover another small section that I would be missing?
I know that is a TON of questions but I can’t think of a better person to ask!
This may not be doable for all, but my wife and I got our permit out of Lyell Canyon in late August last year, hiked to Whitney Portal, then took a shuttle back to Yosemite Valley and hiked from HI back to our car in TM, spending one night in the Sunrise Creek area. This turned out to offer several advantages. For one, the permit from Lyell gave us more of a chance to obtain, as several more are issued from here. It also allowed us a night at high elevation so we could acclimate. After hiking from Lyell to Whitney portal, we were in great condition. The hike up from HI to TM, which I would imagine could be a bugger for someone who did not have the advantage of 189 miles of conditioning beforehand, was very “familiar” to us in terms of difficulty, and seemed easier to handle. Also, by splitting up the permit process into 2 parts, getting a second permit from HI to TM did not present a problem in the latter part of September when we tried for it. It seems less people try for permits after the 3rd week in September. When we went to get our HI to TM permit, the Ranger offered us Half Dome permits as well!
Well thought out, Paul. Thanks for recommending it.
Thanks for the comment and kind words, Sally. When a day hike turns into a backpacking trip (which requires a permit) is often debated. I think everyone agrees, though, that if you are out overnight and you stop to sleep you are probably not day hiking. If all you are doing is walking to Nevada Fall and back from HI, no one would say you need a permit (even if you have a backpack, although there is no reason to carry it). If you have never been to Yosemite Valley I would definitely suggest a day hike to Nevada Fall before you start your main hike, provided you have time to get down to the valley and back to Tuolumne. It kind of depends on where you are staying and how far in advance you arrive. As far as the “walk back” question, you could do it, but that it the least interesting part of the trail between HI and TM. I wouldn’t take the time. Good luck!
I got a permit from Lyell to WP on July 30.
So on July 28 I’ll park in YV, take the bus to TM, stay at TM HSC that night.
At the crack of dawn on the 29th I’ll day hike the easy way. TM to HI. Get in my car. Drive back to TM
Stay the second night at TM HSC. And then start the rest of the SOBO journey the next morning
I agonized over “cheating” by going downhill. And then remembered 2 things:
1. I’m 60 years old!
2. Nobody is watching or cares!!
I’m watching, Byron, and will alert the press! (Not really.) Thanks for the comment!
How long will that take you to go from Tuolumne to HI? I’m interested in doing this and it might be a good option for my son.
Not sure if Byron will jump in, but it is a little more than 21 miles. The first six miles are uphill and the last 11 downhill, with rolling terrain in the middle. It would be a pretty easy two day hike for most, and an awfully tough one day hike for most. Hope this helps.
I have done that section a few times and I don’t think going down hill is cheating. I rather think it might actually be harder for me, but I am 66 now. BTW I did that stretch last summer. May do it again this summer ending up a NOBO. May have to quit before then however, because of schedule issues.
Thanks for the comment, Keith, and good luck this summer.
I wholeheartedly agree with your recommendation, Ray, not to allow the absence of a Happy Isles permit stop a person from experiencing the rest of the JMT experience. In September 2013, I actually had a Happy Isles permit, but with the Yosemite Rim fire still burning, the entry point was tentative at best.
The problem was that portions of Tioga Pass had been shut to allow firefighters access, and since I was sharing a shuttle coming from the East, that was an issue.
It was not until the morning of our hike, that my shuttle mate and I came to grips with the reality of NOT starting at Happy Isles. Did I consider dropping out of the hike entirely? Yes, for about two seconds the previous night. But I realized very quickly that I was lucky to have an experience (not matter how long) most people would never have. I had 30 days off (paid!) of work to do nothing but hike and camp and enjoy myself (solo hiker!). And when I finished 23 days later, I did not regret that decision one bit.
BTW That’s hilarious about the bear sign. Hands down, that was the most common question I got from coworkers before leaving on the trip.
Good call! What is the old saying about never letting the prefect become the enemy of the good enough? Missing the HI to TM stretch is unfortunate. Missing the rest of the trail would be tragic. Thanks for the comment.
Viable Happy Isles alternative to Happy Isles or Glacier Point JMT permit.
Last summer two of us from Canada failed to get a permit from HI or GP in our timeslot, but we got one from TM with the Donahue exit and Whitney Portal. To fill the HI-TM gap, I lined up for the day before, first-come first served permits. I was first in line (at 4 am), but no one else turned up until 6 am. It’s a long wait to 11 am when these permits become available, but it’s possible to snooze on the porch, read and chat. I think this two-permit system is quite legal (except maybe for the 2 nights at the Backpackers’ Campground). The exit for the first permit is TM. It’s necessary to pick up the second permit at TM.
Glad it worked out, Paul, and I think it’s legal, too! Thanks for the comment.
I have a Lyell Canyon permit but really don’t want to miss this part. Is it possible to hike from Happy Isles to Tuolemne Meadows in a day with a day pack then strap on the larger pack from the rest?
Great question, Adam. It is certainly possible: Andrew Skurka started at Happy Isles a few years back and camped his first night in the Rush Creek Drainage. It sort of depends on your level of fitness. (Remember, the question isn’t “can you do it”, the question is “can you do it and be in any shape to continue hiking the next day.” Good luck.
Ray, Thanks for all your info. I have been reading everything I can get my hands on about the JMT. My husband and I (both almost 60) are going from Horseshoe Meadows to Tuolumne Meadows starting mid August. Living near Sacramento, we have decided to go down in July and hike from Tuolumne to HI as a day hike (or visa versa). We hiked part of that trail last summer as a day hike, going from Tenaya Lake over Clouds rest to Happy Isle. We hiked up to Half Dome 2 times, 2 summers before that. We haven’t made a final decision as to which direction we will hike. We were going to hike down until we met an ultralight hiker who does most of the JMT yearly and he said we should hike up it instead of down. Since I did get tender feet after hiking from Clouds Rest down to HI, we’re reconsidering and may possibly hike up it…So many decisions….Is the JMT between Tuolumne Meadows and HI much harder than the Tenaya Lake-Clouds Rest-HI trail?
Its been interesting reading all of your info and recommendations. I’ve enjoyed Chris’s info. on his trip, too (Range of Light). Thanks for your patience in answering questions. Many of us are reading this along with the JMT yahoo groups-even though we aren’t joining in the conversation.
Thanks for the kind words, Laurie, and good luck this summer. Let’s hope for no fires!
Hello Ray – a little late to this thread, but… I have a JMT permit starting from Lyell this year. I am considering a day hike from HI to TM the day before my permit starts. Working concept is to store pack/gear in TM the day before the day hike, shuttle down and overnight in the valley (Curry Village?), then get up early and hike up with a day pack (big hike, I appreciate). Regarding storage of gear in TM overnight – do you know if this possible? I could pitch tent in the TM backpackers camp and leave most of my gear there overnight, but wilderness permit only gives access for one night before your permit starts (which would be the night of the day hike from the valley). Other possibility is to book a standard TM campsite for the night, but that seems like a waste of money and campsite – which would be occupied by an empty tent for the night! Are you aware of any other options to store gear in TM for a night? Thanks in advance for your advice!
This is not a cheap alternative, but I would get a tent at the Tuolumne Lodge for a couple of nights. Other alternatives would be to make a friend who is staying in the TM campground while you are doing the day hike, or persuading an employee (perhaps with a $20 bill?) at the lodge to hold your stuff. Good luck and thanks for the comment. Oh, and get an EARLY start on the day you leave HI!
So I’ve day-hiked Happy Isles to Half Dome twice…
Between the half dome and Clouds rest junction and Tuolumne meadows… am I missing much?
I’m thinking I could always fall back and day hike from tuolumne to happy isles (downhill)
Hi. My two sons and I have decided we want to hike the JMT this summer if the COVID situation allows. I hiked it about 20 years ago, and my oldest son is now 16. I neglected to think about the permit process until much too late. Anyway, I was able to secure an entry at Dana Lake in Inyo Forrest right outside of Yosemite with a Whitney exit 15 days later. My thought is that I will just take a shuttle bus to Tuolumne Meadows and start the hike from there. In other words, we won’t even actually stay at Dana Lake at all. Is there a problem with this strategy? I assume that it would be OK if I started at Dana Lake and hiked up to Tuolumne Meadows and continue from there. My concern is that with only 15 total days, I don’t want to hike the stretch from Dana Lake to Tuolumne for fear we will run out of time. I know they have the quota on exits from Donohue Pass, but I think that only applies when originating from Yosemite. Am I thinking about this right? Thanks much.
Thanks for the question, Erik. I’m not sure I understand what wilderness permit you have obtained, but I am sure that you can only enter the wilderness at that point. Also, if you were to hike to Tuolumne Meadows from there, you would technically need an exit quota to leave via Donohue Pass. I’m not sure when you are thinking about entering, but an alternative might be to try to get a walk-up permit at Tuolumne. Readers report that they have good luck frequently with that strategy (although NOT 100%.) Good luck with your planning!
Thanks so much for the reply! My permit is an Inyo National Forest permit originating at Glacier Canyon, which is just outside of Yosemite on the Eastern side along Tioga Rd. The permit is to exit at Whitney Portal 15 days later. My current thought is that I can just start at Glacier Canyon and walk along Tioga Rd for about 5 miles and meet up with the JMT near Tuolumne Meadows. If I do this, my thought is that the Donohue Pass exit quota would not apply since I was just passing through Yosemite for a day or two. Does this make sense? My understanding is that you can hike through Yosemite without a Yosemite permit if you have a valid permit for Inyo National Forest entry and exit. Please let me know if I am understanding this incorrectly. Many thanks!! Erik
Ray. Please disregard my last question. I just spoke with Inyo National Forest, and it turns out that I cannot pass through Yosemite without the Yosemite permit. Oh well! Take care, Erik