In August 2015, after nearly a year of dreaming and planning and waiting, I hiked the John Muir Trail with a dear friend. We took 19 days to make the trip, which in the span of a lifetime is merely a moment. But those days on the trail changed my life, and still profoundly affect me even today. I look back on this trip with upmost fondness, and can only hope to have similar ‘peak experiences’ again in my life. And perhaps my story will inspire you to take this or a similar journey. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
With the ever increasing popularity of wilderness experiences, and the relative accessibility of the John Muir Trail as a beginner thru-hike due to its length, it is becoming harder each year to obtain a permit to hike the ‘traditional’ thru-hike from Happy Isles to Mt. Whitney. I knew this going in, and so in addition to putting in applications for the standard hike, I also requested an altered start. Yosemite National Park’s permitting system recently decided to manage the booming number of permit requests by putting a cap on the number of people who can exit the park hiking over Donahue Pass (the first major pass on the JMT). This is essentially what allowed us the opportunity to do this trip. The trail, for all its wonder, is impacted at tragic levels, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the National Park Service and other land agencies crack down on these types of trail variations. That being said, I cannot speak for the wonder of the first 20 or so miles of the trail, but the modification that we did took us through absolutely spectacular terrain and we were able to enjoy true wilderness solitude for a few days before we hit the ‘highway’ that the northern section of the trail can be. Here I’ll share some of the musings from my journal entries from day 1 to our reration at Muir Trail Ranch.
Day 1 – Mono Pass Trailhead to the base of Koip Peak Pass (6.5 miles)
After driving to pick up our permit in Tuolomne, we got dropped off at the Mono Pass Trailhead. The weather was sunny and cool and we had just over 5 miles of gradual ascent to gain Parker Pass. Before we hit treeline we hiked under tall evergreens, appreciating the shade in the heat. Above treeline as we approached the pass, mountain vistas of so many colors surrounded us.
The mountains and rocks are stained deep red from iron, and other spots are black from volcanic rock. We seem to have left behind the stark grey of Yosemite’s granite for now. On the East side of the pass we passed an impressive cascade of water descending from an unseen lake or snowfield above. The water was a strange milky green, pooling in a pond that almost looked like pea soup. I assume the water was tinted from mineral deposits in the rocks above. We are camped by a small turquoise green lake at the base of the switchbacks that climb up Koip Peak Pass. We have an expansive view of Mono Basin below to the East, and towering peaks to the West.
It was a perfect first day. Long enough to feel accomplished, but allowing ourselves to break in. Unbelievable scenery already.
Day 2 – Koip Peak Pass and Gem Pass to Gem Lake (9.7 miles)
We let the sun wake us today, and because the tent was on an exposed ridge, the tent got too hot around 8AM. Even taking our time to pack and make coffee and breakfast, we moved very efficiently. We departed camp by 9:30 and made a quick stop at the first running water we crossed to fill up. Then we climbed 1400 glorious feet of switchbacks to the summit of Koip Peak Pass at 12,200 feet. The views on the climb were amazing, the valley where we camped as well as Mono Basin far below to the East. The summit revealed the Alger Lakes Basin. The rocks and mountains were so diverse in color. Bands of black, orange, tan, red, even purple. The lakes below were crystal clear with patches of incredibly vibrant turquoise.
As we hiked through the valley, each lake revealed a different shade of blue-green. One turquoise, one emerald, another Kelley. We left the valley and made a short climb to Gem Pass. The ground became dusty and we reentered the shade of the trees. Cresting the ridge we could see dramatic peaks to the West, revealing views we’ll see up close in the coming days. We’re enjoying the relative solitude before we hit the JMT tomorrow.
Day 3 – Island Pass to Shadow Creek (13.5 miles)
We hiked from Gem Lake to Waugh Lake, which we were totally surprised to find was dammed. And it wasn’t exactly apparent why, either. It was bizarre and disappointing. From there we continued until we finally got on the JMT proper. Immediately there were so many people. Whereas yesterday we only saw one group of other hikers all day, today we could barely hike ten minutes without running into people. At times it felt a bit like a highway. But the scenery was no less remarkable!
As we ascended Island Pass, we could see Donahue Pass to the North, where the JMT comes between two large grey granite peaks. On the other side we could see Thousand Island Lake, which is massive and lies at the base of Banner Peak. We could see the peak most of the day, even as we rounded Garnet Lake, and it is one of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen! The ridges around it match the knife edge as well. When camping at Garnet Lake didn’t pan out, we decided to keep on until we found a good spot. We ended up traveling an extra 2.8 miles because of dry creek beds. We settled down at a beautiful spot next to Shadow Creek.
Day 4 – to Red’s Meadows, past Rainbow Falls (11.5 miles)
Today was quite a whirlwind! We began our trek to Red’s Meadows, but took a nice long break at Gladys Lake where we both swam for the first time on the trip. It was cold but glorious! We hiked around 10 miles to arrive at Devil’s Postpile National Monument. We took a shuttle bus from the ranger station to Red’s Meadow. There we were able to pick up our restock package and purchase more cheese (vitally important!) for the rest of our trip. Once we had sorted that all out, we took the bus into Mammoth so we could retrieve the repair kit and make a couple of gear changes.
At this point we detoured slightly from the JMT one last time to check out Iva Bell Hot Springs for our one layover day. We finally returned to the trail at 7:30PM and camping looked bad. We aimed for a creek but stopped early after finding a very flat spot that could be our last option for miles. The sunset hiking was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, the sky lit up orange and pink above the Minarets.
Day 5/6 – to Iva Bell Hot Springs (12 miles), Zero Day
I’m beginning to feel like a broken record saying today was another incredible hike, but it was! Each day and even every mile provides such diverse scenery and ecology. I find myself at such a loss to describe today. Expansive granite slabs and cliffs, looking down into the depths of the canyon that houses the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. We crossed the boundary into the John Muir Wilderness today, and not long after found and ice cold creek to soak our feet in. We rounded the bend and hiked along cliffs, the creek eventually cascading the crest towards the river below.
It was hot today as we moved through high desert habitat. We descended almost 1,000 feet to the valley floor where we crossed a large bridge over Fish Creek. We took a long break there. We both found our own spots to swim and perch on rocks. One can find lovely moments of shared solitude when traveling through the wilderness with only one companion.
The travel took us up Fish Creek, through dense ferns and wildflowers, through patches of thick deadfall. We were extremely grateful for a very well-maintained trail today! We camped beneath large trees next to our own ‘private’ hot spring pool sitting at the edge of a meadow full of wildflowers. Granite cliffs tower above the valley here. Just a short walk takes us to a rushing cold creek, with a small pool and water flowing directly over granite. After we made dinner, we sat in the pool for about an hour. I cannot possible think of a better spot to take a day off and relax.
Day 7 – Iva Bell Hot Springs to intersection of Fish Creek Trail with the JMT (10 miles)
We allowed ourselves one last soak in the springs before packing up and departing, which meant we started hiking later but it was well worth it! After some tedious switchbacks to get out of the lower valley, our hike today meandered beside Fish Creek. This is one of the most astonishing bodies of water, perhaps that I have ever encountered. The water is icy cold and crystal clear, cascading over weathered and smoothed granite. The moving water has formed deep pools, potholes, and impressive waterfalls. We’ve made camp on a massive granite slab, where the creek glosses over its thinly, gathering in pools and eddies where the water has eroded pockets in the granite. It is a remarkable juxtaposition, this meeting of liquid and rock: a soft substance coursing over and shaping something so solid. Today we ascended around 1700 feet in elevation.
Day 8 – Silver Pass to Mono Creek (10.6 miles)
We returned to the JMT proper today and realized we will not stray from the trail again for the rest of our journey. The tranquility of yesterday quickly faded, we quite literally saw people the very second we met the junction. But now there seem to be fewer than our first day, and most seem to be thru-hikers as well. It’s hard to bemoan them too much when we ourselves are a part of that group.
The climb today was rather spectacular. A steady ascent from 9100 feet to 10,895 at the top of Silver Pass. The pass is so named for the ‘Silver Divide’, and impressive ridge of pinnacles and knife edges, a crystal grey of granite. By the time we reached the summit, we felt amazing. The hiker’s high was tangible and we laughed and joked as we took an extended lunch break. From the pass, we could see all the way back to Banner Peak and the Minarets. At this point we’ve hiked about 74 miles and the view back to where we traveled from is a proud reminder! We lost almost 3,000 feet after the pass, so it was slow going in a different way than climbing.
Day 9 – Bear Ridge and Selden Pass to Heart Lake (14.5 miles)
We climbed a total of 4,000 feet in elevation today. Right off the bat we ascended 2,000 feet away from Mono Creek to gain Bear Ridge and hike across, the switchbacks were absolutely relentless. Thankfully it was well-shaded, but that also meant that there weren’t very good views or vistas to accompany the hard work. Ever since yesterday afternoon the smoke haze has been severe. Today we even saw distinct plumes coming from the Southwest side of Bear Ridge as we descended down to Bear Creek. The creek was beautiful, and we made two stops to enjoy it. From the creek it was a slow and steady climb of another 2,000 feet to Selden Pass. By the time we reached the pass, we were exhausted and moving at a snail’s pace. Sadly, the haze shrouded a beautiful view. We camped just south of the pass at Heart Lake, hoping the haze might disperse and we can enjoy the view before we leave.
Day 10 – to Muir Trail Ranch (6 miles)
We’ve come to the end of day 10 and our second reration! Not quite halfway in miles, but halfway in time spent on the trail. We were blessed with beautiful clear blue skies this morning. We allowed ourselves a slow, leisurely morning after yesterday’s push. The towering peaks blocked the sun from our campsite until almost 9AM making it easy to sleep in late. The 6 mile descent was a bit of a drudge but only once we left the alpine zone. Heart Lake where we camped and Sallie Keyes Lakes were truly stunning. Their vistas provided good views, as well. But it wasn’t long until smoke rolled in, and our glimpse up towards Evolution Valley was once again shrouded by haze.
3,000 feet down we went, and arrived at Muir Trail Ranch just past noon. We were a day early, but our buckets had arrived so we were able to hammer out our restock. I was surprised to see so many people headed North today, but I guess people hike the trail in whatever way they are able. The way the trail goes so far, I am very glad to be headed South. It was interesting to be at MTR today after all I’d read and heard. Neat to see the place in person. The hiker bins were fascinating. The things people think they need! And then realize they don’t, I guess. It was very amusing.
The camping at Blarney Hot Springs is outside the Ranch, and it’s horrendous. It’s incredibly impacted and packed with people who either don’t want to or can’t stay at the Ranch. They have bathrooms on the Ranch but they’re not available unless you’re staying there, which seems like bad practice as they are providing an essential service to thru-hikers.
Next week I’ll share the second portion of our journey: Muir Trail Ranch to Mt. Whitney!