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A Guide to Hiking the John Muir Trail

The John Muir Trail is one of the most popular and well-known hiking trails in the U.S.
The John Muir Trail is one of the most popular and well-known hiking trails in the U.S.
©iStockphoto.com/Thinkstock

If you're familiar with the famous nature photographer Ansel Adams, you probably know that Yosemite National Park was one of his favorite places to shoot. Adams' time in Yosemite produced some of his most widely known masterpieces, including the familiar "Moon and Half Dome." But did you know that Yosemite National Park might not even have existed if not for a single man?

John Muir (1838-1914) is still one of the world's most renowned naturalists and environmentalists -- and with good reason. He dedicated his life to nature and its preservation by founding and serving as President of the Sierra Club and spearheading conservation efforts that eventually led to the establishment of the U.S. National Parks Program. He even went so far as to spend three days camping in Yosemite with President Teddy Roosevelt make his case [source: The Sierra Club]!

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In 1915, the year after Muir's death, the Sierra Club began constructing the iconic trail that would be named in his honor -- a stretch of more than 200 miles (322 kilometers) that spans three national parks [source: The Sierra Club]. In 1938, the trail was completed, and it remains one of the most popular and highly regarded hikes in the world today. Wooed by Muir's impassioned writings -- not to mention some of the most beautiful scenery in the U.S. -- nature aficionados hike the John Muir Trail to connect with what author James Vlahos calls Muir's "enhanced sense of discovery [...] to not just see the mountains but to feel them" [source: Vlahos].

If you hike the John Muir Trail (affectionately known as the JMT), you'll encounter the mountains that Muir himself treasured most. We'll explore the trail's topography on the next page.

John Muir Hiking: Trail Maps

Spanning 211 miles (339 kilometers), the JMT's breadth is just about as great as Muir's influence. Beginning in the Yosemite Valley and ending at Mount Whitney -- the highest point in the contiguous United States -- the trail winds through three different national parks: Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon. The JMT runs in concert with a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mexico to Canada and traverses the widely varying climates and elevations of California, Oregon and Washington [source: Pacific Crest Trail Association].

As you might guess, the JMT isn't a day hike -- in fact, hikers should be prepared to take some substantial time off work. At an average pace of 10 miles (16 kilometers) per day, hiking the trail's full 211-mile span will probably take you about three weeks [source: Sierra Mountain Center]. Despite its prodigious span, however, the JMT isn't one of the most strenuous trails in the California Sierra -- it's more of an endurance race than a sprint.

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Those who trek the full length of the trail reach elevations ranging from 7,560 to 14,494 feet (2.3 to 4.4 kilometers) above sea level [source: Pacific Crest Trail Association]. Most experts recommend that hikers move north to south (from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney) in order to slowly allow their bodies to get used to the altitude [source: Bastone]. With only 59 percent of the oxygen that exists at sea level, if you jumped right to the summit of Mount Whitney, you'd probably remember your altitude sickness more than the view [source: Baillie].

As you might imagine with such a long trail, the scenery -- widely considered some of the most beautiful in the United States -- is also highly varied. Hikers will find everything from thick woods to clear rivers and snowy peaks to plunging valleys; visitors during spring and summer might also catch the spectacular wildflowers that the meadows of the JMT are known for.

If you're having trouble convincing your boss to give you three weeks off to go hiking, you're not out of luck. Read on to find out about the various segments of the JMT and the landmarks you'll find along the way.

John Muir Hiking: Trail Segments

Hiking the John Muir Trail is a challenge to even the most experienced backpackers.
Hiking the John Muir Trail is a challenge to even the most experienced backpackers.
©iStockphoto.com/Thinkstock

By virtue of its length alone, the JMT offers a challenge to even seasoned backpackers. However, there's no better way to acquaint yourself with the California Sierras and the many stunning sights contained within.

If you're hiking north to south, as most do, you'll begin in the Yosemite Valley. The valley is home to Half Dome, a sheer rock peak that stands about 5,000 feet (1.52 kilometers) above the valley floor (and nearly 9,000 feet, or 2.74 kilometers, above sea level) and is the subject of one of Ansel Adams' most famous photographs [source: National Park Service]. Other notable sights in Yosemite include Vernal and Nevada Falls.

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A good stopping point is Tuolumne Meadows, a rare stretch of flat greenery that explodes into wildflowers in the spring. The site also has a café and general store -- not terribly rugged, but good for rest and refueling before leaving the park. As you head south to enter Inyo National Forest on the trail's first major pass, you'll see a number of lakes nestled beneath the mountains. Further south is the Devil's Postpile National Monument, massive columns made of volcanic rock reaching heights of 60 feet (18.3 meters) [source: National Park Foundation].

The second major pass on the JMT is the Silver Pass, which winds hikers through a variety of creeks, lakes, and the occasional meadow on the way to the last opportunity to stock up on supplies at Muir Trail Ranch. What is until this point a relatively easy trail, moderate in incline, becomes increasingly challenging as Mount Whitney draws closer.

The final section? Climbing Mount Whitney itself to reach its nearly 15,000-foot (4.57- meter) peak [source: Castle].

If you feel a little daunted by the notion of climbing the highest peak in the lower 48 states immediately after already trekking through three national parks, don't worry. Since the JMT is so expansive, some hikers choose to split their journey into sections, whether taking time to rest at the resorts that dot the trail sporadically or returning months or years later to complete another leg.

So what's the best time to visit the JMT? Read on to find out the ups and downs and what you can expect to see during each season.

John Muir Hiking: Popular Season

Technically, you can hike the JMT any time you want -- as long as you're prepared for some pretty heavy snowfall. However, the most popular time to hike the JMT is in the summer -- typically, from July to September, although timing can vary based on the previous season's snowfall [source: Pacific Crest Trail Association].

Hikers who choose to trek the JMT in the summer can expect to enjoy balmy temperatures up to about 87 degrees Fahrenheit (31 degrees Celsius). Although some waterfalls run all year, a few dry up by June; wildflowers reach their peak around the same time. At higher elevations, however, subalpine flowers begin to bloom around July.

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The downside of a spectacular summer on the JMT? Lots of other hikers. It's hard to mar the trail's beauty, but folks looking for a solitary experience should be aware that the same warm weather and blooming flowers that attracted them for a June hike will likely attract a number of other visitors as well [source: National Park Service]. Also, be sure to bring bug repellant, as warm weather and high water levels are a strong lure for mosquitoes.

Spring and fall on the JMT have their perks as well -- melting snowfall makes spring the best season for lakes and waterfalls, and the relatively few deciduous trees you'll find burst into spectacular color in the autumn. However, since both seasons back up to winter, hikers should be prepared for colder temperatures, path closures and possible snowfall.

The cold and icy conditions that can seep into surrounding seasons are challenging, but what's it like to actually hike during winter? We'll discuss the risks and rewards of winter on the JMT on the next page.

John Muir Hiking: Winter Trail Conditions

The John Muir Trail is gorgeous in winter, but hiking it can be dangerous once the temperature dips.
The John Muir Trail is gorgeous in winter, but hiking it can be dangerous once the temperature dips.
©iStockphoto.com/Thinkstock

If you're truly looking for solitude on the JMT, the time to come is winter, when snowfall and chilly temperatures -- which often drop below freezing -- deter many would-be hikers. Sunny but crisp days are interspersed with heavy snowfall from December through March, but expect rain and snow to begin in October and last as late as April.

Whether you love snow or are just bent on celebrating Christmas on Mount Whitney, consider the following tips before you pack up for your winter on the JMT:

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  • Bring emergency equipment, such as a whistle, emergency blanket, flashlight, and extra batteries. Yosemite and other areas of the JMT are known for their sudden snowstorms; if you get stuck, these items can keep you alive.
  • Remember that your pace may be slower than it would in warm weather, so don't push beyond your limits.
  • Plan ahead! Snowfall in the Sierras is measured by a unique system of pillow-like sensors that weigh the snow at various points throughout the mountains. Hikers can access this data through the California Snow Survey Page to better plan for hiking conditions [sources: National Park Service, Pacific Crest Trail Association].

There are no truly bad seasons to hike the JMT, but prospective hikers need only to read a few Jack London stories to fully understand the import of winter preparedness on a long excursion like this. First-timers may be better off -- not to mention safer -- hiking in summer.

If you love the California Sierras, there's plenty more to learn about the John Muir Trail. Explore lots more information about the trail -- and Muir himself -- on the next page.

Author's Note

I'm not going to lie -- when 13-year-old me found out that our annual school trip was going to be to Yosemite, I was a little bummed. I liked hiking enough, I guess, but I hated getting rocks in my shoes, and I sure wasn't excited about the possibility of running into a bear. However, I came back a changed girl, and I defy anyone who sits at the top of a mountain overlooking the Yosemite Valley to be unmoved. Twelve years later, I'm a rabid Ansel Adams fan who is still yearning to go back, and writing this article has made me seriously consider putting in for three weeks off work to take a nice, long hike.

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Sources

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