A Guide to Hiking the John Muir Trail

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.

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.

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.