John Muir Trail, Part 1: Don’t Hike the JMT

We live in Seattle. The three of us planned to hike the John Muir Trail in August 2016, spending 19 days to make it from Yosemite to Whitney.

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As it turns out, my wife had to exit partway through due to altitude sickness (more on that later), and I left with her. We loaded our friend up with necessary supplies, and she finished the hike.

In spite of not having finished, I feel like our planning process and notes may be of use to others. My background: I grew up backpacking the Sierras with my dad and family, and have gone on several dozen trips. I’ve also backpacked a bit in Washington State (the Cascades and Olympics), as well as the desert Southwest. My longest prior trip had been for 10-days, so the logistical challenges of a 19-day trip were certainly new to me – especially with regards to food planning and arranging re-supply points.

Don’t hike the John Muir Trail

I’ll start by advising against hiking the John Muir Trail.

If you’re lucky enough to have roughly 20 days of time and an inclination to explore the wilderness, there are better trips. The JMT has become kind of brand-name trail, especially following the release of the book and movie “Wild.” My issues with the JMT are that it is crowded; trashed; sections aren’t that great; and its trendiness diminishes the authenticity of the experience. 

Crowded.  While the number of visitors is restricted by permits granted by lottery, it’s still a very popular trail. You’ll see people every few minutes, and won’t find a campsite where you won’t see other people. On the plus side, everyone we encountered hiking the trail was very nice and trustworthy; but it makes it feel much less like wilderness to be running across that many people.

Trashed. While most campers take care to respect the wilderness, it is inevitable that there are a handful of people who don’t seem to know or care to do the right thing. Given the sheer crush of hikers, that can add up a lot of gross things, like: toilet paper drifting across the landscape, tampons shoved into cracks in the rock, downed trees and branches, huge bonfires scars, and soap in streams. It was depressing.

Some sections aren’t that great. The JMT is roughly 220 mile trail that approximately follows the Pacific crest from Yosemite (in the North) to Mt Whitney (in the South). It crosses some remarkable areas; but there are some slogs to cross dull areas. The dusty haul down to Touloumne meadow and up Lylell canyon is a day and half of “meh” terrain. The flat hike up King Canyon features pretty much the same “yup, I’m still in a forest” landscape for miles. Coming down to Red’s Meadow / Devil’s Postpile and back up again is an exposed march through desert scrub of the boring variety. All backpacking trips of course involve effort to reach some destination; and that effort is usually of the type “go up and up and up and up some more, then admire the view.” But this is something different, because the effort is more lateral – you’re chewing up miles to cross between the good stuff.

There’s something distasteful about popularized wilderness. It bothers me that so many people around the world plan to do the JMT instead of literally hundreds of equally great trips in the Sierras because the JMT has status; it’s kind of a brand name. You get bragging rights if you say you hike the John Muir Trail; you get blank looks if you say you crossed the Ionian Basin. Is your goal to appreciate your immediate environment, or to earn a badge? Certainly many people hiking the JMT are doing it in the spirit of specifically appreciating this trail; but given the sheer crushing mass of people on this one trail and the relative isolation to be found on pretty much any other trail, it’s clear that too many people are choosing to hike the JMT just because it’s popular and trendy.

Mix it up

I think it would be more fun to break the JMT into several backpacking trips, where you skip the boring in-between stuff and focus on the good bits. Do the Ansel Adams wilderness. Make a loop in King’s Canyon. Climb a mountain or two, and find some hikes off the beaten path. The logistics of arranging several shorter trips are much easier than one 18+ day trip.

For the rest of my posts in this series, I’m going to assume that you’re going ahead with your plans to hike the JMT; but please consider your alternatives!

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