I remember quite clearly the first time I picked up a Wilderness Permit to hike a significant portion of the John Muir Trail. I asked the Ranger if the mosquitoes were bad this year. She said, “Yes, but then if you are hiking the JMT you have to love mosquitoes and walking uphill!”
This was long before the internet. I knew a little about the trail, but not that much. I suppose I had to be aware at some level that there would be climbs and descents ahead, but I had never really thought about it. I must have had a strange look on my face, because she looked at me and said, “You still want the permit, right?”
After two complete thru-hikes and more section hikes than I can count, I can say—without fear of contradiction—that there is lots more to the John Muir Trail than mosquitoes and walking uphill. The JMT is an amazing journey and I’m looking forward to getting back out there next year.
But, like most journeys in life, some parts are harder than others. Here are my nominations for the easiest and hardest parts of a JMT thru-hike. I assume you are hiking southbound.
First runner up for easiest: first day out of Muir Trail Ranch. While it’s true that you are climbing this entire day, if you work things like I do (a two-night stay at MTR) you are stepping off well-rested, well-fed, clean-beyond-clean thanks to their ringer washing machine and opulent spring-fed baths, and probably (because of what you have been doing for the last week or so) in the best shape you’ve been in months, maybe years. The trail that day is mostly shaded, mostly wide, and mostly dirt. Great stuff.
Easiest: Tuolumne Meadow to the end of Lyell Canyon. Take a look at a profile of the entire trail. You can’t miss this eight-mile stretch. It’s just about the only portion of the entire 211 miles that isn’t going up quickly, or going down quickly. Add that you are walking alongside a river, between two ridges, towards mountains that often are dusted with snow, and you have just about the perfect setting for walking in the wilderness. There is a reason the cover of my book displays a photo from this part of the trail. It’s easy on the legs and easy on the eyes.
First runner up for hardest: the last day on the trail. This is cheating a bit, since much of what you will negotiate on the last day is actually off the John Muir Trail, but if you hike from Guitar Lake, to the summit of Mount Whitney, to Whitney Portal, you are in for a very long day with two great challenges. The first is obvious: the climb to the summit. Two days before I hiked that part for the first time I met someone who described it as “two hours of easy walking.” Well, perhaps for her. For me it’s about six hours of hard climbing. The second challenge is the middle-third of the descent from the summit. The switchbacks, which you encounter first after going over Trail Crest, are repetitious, but no big deal. The last few miles are in relatively thick air, on a wide, well maintained trail, which gently descends. The middle third may be downhill, but it is steep, rugged, and an easy place to break a limb if you get in a hurry.
Hardest: Glen Pass. Many people disagree with me on this, but Glen Pass has taken just about all I had each time I’ve climbed it. It’s a long, steep climb, with a cruel psychological twist near the end. Just as you reach the top of a climb that seems to go on forever, you find what appears to be the top of the pass. As you sit there, resting, it occurs to you that you can’t see where the trail goes back down. You also can’t really see where it could go up. The only thing in front of you is a sheer, black wall rising in your face. It’s about then that you start to pick up the zig-zagged lines of the final switchbacks to the true top of the pass. Glen is a son-of-a-gun.
Good hiking, Ray