In July 2013, my two brothers, my father, and I hiked the last 23 miles of the John Muir Trail. We spent three days two nights hiking through the wilderness of Yosemite National Park and even got to climb up the world famous Half Dome! Being my first overnight backpacking trip, I was nervous yet excited to experience what I would consider my first true grand adventure. Granted it was tough and I did have one mental breakdown (I blame trail mix raisins for that), this trip planted the seed for what has now come to fruition – hiking the entire John Muir Trail!
When I told people I was planning on hiking the John Muir Trail, I was received with blank stares and “Oh… okay, cool” responses. I briefly described the trail, but the lack of enthusiasm persisted and “Why would you want to do that?” was a quick retort. Well let me explain just why I would want to do it, and no, it’s not because I’m crazy! Named after the naturalist John Muir, the JMT is a 210 mile long distance trail in the Sierra mountain range in California, passing through King’s Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Park, and Yosemite National Park. Having already hiked some of the Yosemite portion of the trail, I can attest to the awe inspiring stunning beauty of 10% of the trail, I can only imagine what the rest looks like!
Now that I have certainly sold you on the wonders of the trail, I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “wow, that sounds absolutely wonderful! How do I sign up for it!?” Well, I’m here to walk you through that, and boy, prepare yourself for one heck of a stressful planning process.
I was always aware that in order to hike the JMT, you would need a permit. Having gone through the permit process two years in a row to hike rim to rim in Grand Canyon, I know of the serious and permanent heart break/trauma that comes with being denied. I was very well aware that getting a denial for the JMT was a very real likelihood (I believe 65% get denied) and that all my dreams could potentially be shattered. A few days before the permit lottery process was going to start (February 1st), I decided to do a little more research on obtaining a permit. After rummaging around the internet for a little, I stumbled upon a blog that suggested starting at a different trailhead than the wildly popular Whitney Portal (the southern terminus). Not reliant on a corrupt lottery system (only my opinion that it’s corrupt… stupid Grand Canyon….), you can get a guaranteed permit online months ahead of time. I must’ve looked at the website to book the exact moment it opened reservations, because I could reserve any day for up to 24 people! I had the pick of the litter! After 2 days, the majority of the permits were already reserved, including 4 heading out from Horseshoe Meadows July 17th. Those were mine! After reserving the permits, the reality that I will soon be hiking my first thru-hike really hit.
If you’re anything like my mother, the fact that I reserved 4 permits likely allowed you to breathe out a sigh of relief. I am not crazy enough to hike through bear country alone! In a long convoluted story, one of my childhood friend’s sister caught wind that I was interested in hiking the JMT. She contacted me and said she wanted to join. Just the year prior she herself was denied permits for the trail, those pesky permits!! So far it is just me and Mary Beth hiking, but she has two friends who might meet up with us further along the trail. We’re still working on logistics for that to work.
Speaking of logistics, there are a ton that go into planning a hike like this. Starting south of Mt Whitney, we are adding around 20 miles to the entire trip. Worth it to be guaranteed a permit for hiking AND a permit for climbing Half Dome! In fact, Half Dome was a huge inspiration for starting at the Southern terminus of the trail. Most people go SOBO, however, ever the rebel, I wanted to go NOBO just to end the trail climbing Half Dome. With a 45 degree slope up/down a slick granite rock face, your only hope for not sliding to oblivion is clutching for dear life onto a cable. Climbing Half Dome in 2013 was easily top 5 scariest moments of my life, and I can’t wait to do it again!
But, back to logistics. We obviously will be carrying everything we need on our backs. Being in bear country, it is necessary that we carry a bear canister to prevent those nosey bears from knocking on our tents late at night and stealing our food – ultimately putting them in danger. In fact, that’s why canisters are required. Not for your safety, but so bears don’t become accustomed to getting food from humans easily, making them more brazen than they already are and increasing their chances of having to be euthanized. If you are caught without a canister, you will be escorted off the trail and served with a $5,000 fine – yeah, no thanks. Being confined to a bulky canister with limited capacity poses a pretty huge problem. Planning on taking 23 days to complete the trail (July 17-August 8th), we cannot possibly fit all our food in the canister. Not that we would even want to… hello back pain! Only able to carry 7 days of food at a time, we are forced to resupply along the trail. For the Northern end of the trail, that’s easy! There are a surprising amount of resorts who perform resupply in the backcountry wilderness. Essentially you mail them a bucket of your food, pay a fee for them to hold it, and pick it up right along the trail. Being so remote, they have to mule pack train it in, accounting for the relatively high fee for holding the bucket. Perfect! Simple solution to a huge problem.
Ah, not so fast. The Southern end of the trail does not practice typical southern hospitality. There is a huge span without any on trail resupply options. A lot of people hike 7 miles off the trail and hitchhike into a town to resupply, which adds a day to the trip. Being on a time constraint, we are not able to consider this as an option. Instead, we are likely going to use a pack train of mules to haul our food in, where we will meet them on the trail. Able to carry 250 lbs of food, we will not be at a risk for going hungry! However, there is an extremely high cost that comes along with this. We are looking for other hikers to share the cost and resupply with us. Here’s to hoping someone bites at our offer!
Okay, so food and timeline is all figured out (itinerary is above… a lot of time and frustration was put into that schedule, but look at how beautiful it is!), what about camping?? Where do you camp in the middle of the wilderness?? Well the beauty of backpacking in the middle of the wilderness is that you can camp basically anywhere. Just as long as you’re so many feet from the trail, pretty much anywhere is fair game. I used Elizabeth Wenke’s guidebook at my number one resource for mapping out the itinerary. Within the pages of the book are suggested areas to camp as well as trail notes for every section of the trail.
Because I’ll be shipping out my food weeks before I arrive, I have to prepare it weeks in advance. Obviously, I have to pack food with a long shelf life. Can you tell I have a super sweet tooth? In addition to candy (gummy bears not pictured) I’ll basically be living off of freeze dried food, peanut butter, and tuna. Can’t wait! Without a doubt I’ll be craving a nice juicy cheeseburger the entire time. But suffering builds character, right?
So how does one prepare for a trail that remains above 8,000′ elevation with a total of 47,000′ elevation change? Well, my friend Sheena and I will be biking down the pacific coast just weeks before embarking the JMT. That will hopefully help with cardio! Once I get back from that, my father and I will be hiking the White Mountains in New Hampshire to make sure all the gear works and if I have to make any last minute cuts/additions, I’ll have a good 3 weeks to make the necessary adjustments. New Jersey isn’t ideal for training for a high elevation adventure. I’ll be heading out to California 5 days before the start date in an attempt to acclimate. Also, I’m forced to go out early because transportation doesn’t run during the weekends. Really. What bus company doesn’t run on the weekends?! As inconvenient as it may be, at least it gives me time to acclimate, right? Cause with conquering Mt Whitney (elev 14.5k’) day 3, I’m gonna need all the time I can get so as to not get altitude sickness.
Above is a picture of my gear. It is by no means a full representation of all that I’ll have to pack (literally just ordered more junk online), but all the important stuff is there! Except the bear canister. Of course, I forgot the canister. But I’m too lazy to set it all back up just for that. So it gets a solo shot. All in all, I’m expecting the pack total weight to come in at just under 40 pounds. That was actually my goal. Now to some super experienced ultra light backpackers, 40 lbs is blasphemy and they potentially risked an aneurysm just reading that last sentence. In fact, I am totally expecting people who I run into on the trail to pick apart my pack and actually judge me for all the weight I’ll be carrying. People can be such snobs. But you know what? I simply don’t care. I have a few items some might call “a luxury” and poo poo on my decision to pack it. Psh, I would rather be comfortable with all my “luxurious” items (I would hardly call a pillow a “luxury”… please that’s necessary!) than miserable with a lighter pack. I’ll so tell them to go pound sand. Hmph.
July 17th is right around the corner and the anticipation is already mounting. I can’t wait to get out there and see all the sights and be amongst some of the greatest scenery few have ever experienced.