The first thing you’ll need to do is get a permit. These are given by lottery; depending on the starting trailhead and time of year, you might have very narrow odds, and may need to try several times.
When should you hike? For how long? How will you get there?
The general consensus is that you should hike in August, plan for about 21 days, and go from Happy Isles (from Yosemite Valley, in the North) to Whitney Portal (to the South).
Why August? In June, the passes are very likely to be covered in snow, and difficult to cross. In July, there may still be snow; and mosquitoes are likely to be thick. By August, the snows are gone and you’re likely to get the best weather. By September, the days are getting quite short and the chance of getting caught in a snow storm are rising.
If you hike in August, you won’t need snow equipment. Don’t bring an ice axe or crampons – you’ll curse the extra weight.
The southern half of the hike is a lot tougher than the northern part; it’s higher, and each day requires going over a steep pass. Most people go north-to-south so they’ll be in shape and acclimatized by the time they reach to the rough bits.
There are any number of itineraries, but it seems that 21 days from Yosemite to Whitney is the most popular plan. This allows for an average of about 10.5 miles a day, which is a pleasant pace. We planned for 19 days, which is doable but would have required a few long painful days.
I highly recommend the National Geographic John Muir Trail map. It’s a lightweight waterproof booklet that includes the maps you need, along with useful information including a sample 21-day itinerary.
You simply cannot carry 19+ days of food; you’ll need a resupply.
There are three places on the trail where you can ship food for pickup: Tuolumne Meadows; Red’s Meadow (near Devil’s Postpile); and Muir Trail Ranch. There are more options if you’re willing to hike out, but that will cost you more time.
Budget time for your resupply. It takes a few hours to shuffle through your packages; and you’ll want to do a bit of shopping, share stories, and eat the real human food you’ll find for sale.
Backpacking gear en route
The only fully equipped mountaineering store you’ll find near the trail is at the start of the trip, in Half Dome Village (which used to be called Curry Village). It sells ISO fuel, boots, socks, jackets, etc. There used to be a mountain store in Tuolumne meadows, but it closed; there is a store with snacks and very limited gear, but honestly the camping equipment wasn’t appropriate for backpacking. Red’s Meadow sells ISO fuel, as does Muir Trail Ranch, but you should contact them to confirm. They do not have boots, filters, stoves, or other gear.
If you’re halfway through your trip and really need gear, it is possible to exit at Red’s Meadow / Devil’s Postpile and take a series of busses to Mammoth, where there are a number of stores. This will take most of day.
Even the best of plans…
Your itinerary is just a rough initial plan; you need to adapt to circumstances as they develop – especially with regards to weather and health. The most common issues I’ve seen are: blisters and/or raw skin; altitude sickness; and knee problems. Beyond just being a source of misery, these can have serious implications.
Blisters can ruin your trip. Everyone will get blisters, especially on your first three days. On the first day, stop frequently and add check your feet to treat hot areas before they develop into blisters. Badly fitting boots can stop a trip in its tracks.
Attitude sickness is no joke. Most of the time, when you hike up to about 9500 feet you’ll have one unpleasant evening with a headache, slight nausea, and wooziness; and this passes by the morning. However, if you have a cold, or are dehydrated, or if you’re just unlucky, it can be much worse and last for many days. Bad altitude sickness is serious and potentially hazardous; your party should drop to 8500 feet and rest. If possible, when planning your trip it’s a good idea to allow for acclimation. Car-camping at a higher elevation is nice because you have an evening without exertion to start the process.
If possible, it’s a very good idea to add an extra day to your trip itinerary. This gives you a rest day to recover from the unexpected. The unexpected happens a lot more than you may think; we encountered many groups suffering from “I’ve got a problem, but I don’t have time in my schedule so I have to keep going.” If later in your trip you haven’t used your extra day and are feeling strong, use this spare day to climb a mountain or explore.
Route hack: start from Tuolomne Meadows (twice)
We ran across some hikers who did a very clever thing. They got two permits: one to hike from Tuolomne Meadows to Yosemite; and another permit (a few days later) to hike from Tuolomne to Whitney. There is an easy shuttle bus from Yosemite to Tuolomne; so this didn’t add too much logistical difficulty. And they could say in all sincerity that they hiked the full John Muir trail.
This is a great plan for several reasons.
- It’s much easier to get permits from Tuolomne. Permits are restricted by the starting trail-head; Happy Isles in Yosemite is the hardest starting point to get(because everyone insists on doing “The Full John Muir Trail”.
- Get used to altitude. Yosemite Valley floor is about 4000 feet above sea level. If you start there, you haven’t had much of a chance to acclimatize. On the other hand, Tuolomne Meadows are at around 8000 feet; if you camp a night before your trip there, you’ll be doing your body a big favor.
- You skip the uphill slog from Happy Isles to Nevada falls. The first part of the “standard” John Muir Trail route is an uphill slog out of the valley. Why not do it in reverse, and go down into the valley?
- You start with a “mini test trip” to figure out your gear. The hike from Tuolomne gives you a 2-3 day test trip to see how well your gear and boots are working. There’s a mountaineering story in Yosemite Valley, so you can fix what’s not working.
Getting there, getting back
We debated between driving and flying down. We researched both options; both have drawbacks, but I’d say overall that driving is probably easier if it’s possible because it gives you much more flexibility on your exit date if plans change.
We opted to fly on this trip, but here are our insights on both options.
Flying + Bus
We flew into Fresno (FAT), spent the night at a hotel literally 2 minutes from the airport, and took the YARTs shuttle from the airport to Yosemite in the morning. This was surprisingly smooth, and I’d highly recommend this entry to get to Yosemite.
An alternative we investigated was to fly to Mammoth Lakes, and get a bus to Tuolomne meadows; then to take another bus into Yosemite valley. Flights into Mammoth Lakes are limited and expensive.
Coming home, our plan was to hitch-hike from Whitney Portal to Lone Pine; spend the night in Lone Pine; then take the Eastern Sierra bus from Lone Pine to Reno, and fly out of Reno. This worked well in practice, but took a lot of logistical wrangling.
It’s important to note that the Eastern Sierra Transit busses have limited and weird schedules; some busses don’t run on certain days. Be very careful putting together your plans!
Driving one car
If we had driven, I’d probably have wanted to drop the car near the trip start, and take a bus to pick it up on the way back.
It looked like there was ample parking in Yosemite (near Half Dome Village); and also in Toulomne. Some people park in Mammoth Lakes; you can use the airport parking for a fee.
If I were doing this trip again, I’d probably drive to Toulomne and leave the car there.
- Car-camp one night in Toulomne
- Take the hiker bus to Yosemite valley (reservation required)
- At the end of the trip, hitch-hike from Whitney Portal to Lone Pine
- Spend the night in Lone Pine
- Take the 6:15am Eastern Sierra Transit bus from Lone Pine to the Tioga Pass intersection
- There’s a great restaurant here, the Whoa Nellie Deli.
- Get a shuttle bus to Toulomne, and pick up the car.
Camp sites are FULL in the summer
Your backpacking permit lets you spend one night at the trailhead, at the backpacker’s sites. This is good, because EVERY SINGLE CAR CAMPSITE IN THE SIERRAS IS BOOKED MONTHS IN ADVANCE. I’m not joking; it’s totally nuts. If you’re planning on car camping a night or two before your hike, reserve this ASAP.
While everyone has their own rhythm and routine, it’s absolutely critical that everyone in your group agrees on a time to break camp in the morning; and when a what time people expect to arrive to camp. Hold yourselves accountable; if the goal was to get started at 7am and you find you’re actually hitting the trail later, talk about it. Was it really necessary to get started so early? Should you get up sooner, or is there something that could be skipped or done faster? How fast do people want to walk (roughly)?
In my experience, I hate getting to camp after dark (there’s no time to relax and everyone is hangry + cold); but I also hate hiking before dawn (it’s inhumanly early and cold). Daylight hours are limited in August. It gets cold starting around 5pm. Put all this together, and my general preference is to wake up at dawn (around 5:45am) such that we start hiking at 7am; and we reach camp by 4pm with time for some sun and warmth.
Everyone hikes at a different speed. For our group, we were averaging about 1.4 miles an hour, including rest breaks but not including lunch. That means that if we started a 13-mile day at 7am, with a half-hour lunch, we’d get to camp on the early side of 5pm.
“Lunch” as an Ongoing Concept
I’ll talk more about meal planning later, but I’d suggest planning you mid-day food less as “lunch” and more as an series of snacks. Make sure you give yourself the time to take regular breaks to recharge and refuel; we had a 10:30 snack, a 1pm “lunch,” and a 3pm break.