A Few Impressions Of The John Muir Trail In No Real Order

Continued from A Look at My Typical Day of hiking on the John Muir Trail

The JMT is super clean, has no visible trash, and is well maintained (let’s keep it that way, please). Trash used to be an issue in the parks, but a little education goes a long way and patrons now have greater awareness of the environmental impact of litter. I was also impressed by the signage. The signs were so clear that I did not need serious navigation skills for the JMT, though I believe all hikers should possess a map and compass—and the ability to use them.

Etched anodized aluminum signs of the John Muir Trail and Inyo National Forest. Photo credit: Brien Crothers

Etched anodized aluminum signs of the John Muir Trail and Inyo National Forest. Photo credit: Brien Crothers


A Look At A Day On The John Muir Trail


Continued from, Preparing to hike the John Muir Trail

An Anecdote from the Trail

One long day during my trek, I planned to camp by a lake that was almost 12,000 feet in elevation. This particular day was going to be another eighteen miles of hiking. Later that afternoon I met an older gentleman (older than me, at least) coming down the same trail I was headed up. We offered the usual greetings, and he asked where I planned to camp that night. After hearing of my planned destination, he asked if I had hiked this portion of the trail before (that should have been a warning sign!). I replied that I had not since this was my first JMT. He remarked that the next few miles were “a bitch.” Hoping for a different reality, I told myself he must have been a negative type: the whole trail is hard if you looked at it the way he did. WRONG. The man was not negative—he was coarsely stating the obvious. That short section of just a few miles is unusually rugged and was a lot of work for weary legs at the end of a long day.

As I neared my destination, the trail made a quick turn to the right along a dry streambed. As I was looking around to see where the track led, I got tripped up in my trekking poles and did a pounding face-plant into the rocks. This all hurt so bad—you know, that traumatic shock!—that I thought it possibly the end of my journey right then and there.

Slowly, I recovered enough to do a self-assessment: sprained fingers and a wrist, scraped knees, and something quite askew with my face. (I’ll save your sensibilities by not including the iPhone selfies I took of that facial injury!) I rinsed everything and felt about to see how bad the injury might be, finding a hole with my tongue on the inside of my lip and a hole with my finger on the outside. Did I have a hole through my lip? How am I going to blow up my air mattress with a hole in my lip? Fortunately, the hole did not go all the way through, the injury did not end my trip, and the damage did eventually heal.

To offset this painful and, I’ll be honest, embarrassing event, that night was so very quiet, eerily calm, and sublime—it was beyond imagining. I wrote of that night in my journal the next morning:

“Last night, no sound whatsoever. No ripple slap on the shoreline of the glass-smooth lake. Not even the smallest itinerant breath of air to rustle my abode. No bird or rodent sounds. Nothing. The creatures appreciated as much as I did those surreal night hours when it was so quiet and the evening’s darkness was so keen. There was no light pollution at all. The celestial brilliance of the stars could only ever be overshadowed by the nearly overwhelming quiet, the freakish calm of that night.” 

My Typical Day on the JMT

It all begins by slipping out of the sleeping bag and into the cleanest clothes available at the time.

I collect my food cache in its bear-proof storage container, the BearVault™ 500, then come back to my campsite to heat water for breakfast. Oatmeal and tea. Always oatmeal and tea. (Stay tuned for reviews of the BV500 and some of my other gear in future posts.)

An idyllic setting off-trail near Upper Palisade Lake, north of Mather Pass. Photo credit: Brien Crothers

I am a minimalist in the wilderness and heat water for the oatmeal, then heat water for my tea, drinking the tea right from the same pot. I pack no mug. While sipping my tea, I begin to break down camp and reload my pack.

Even though my gear is spread over a quarter acre during the night—bear vault over here, cooking gear over there, and lean-to with sleeping cocoon at the flattest place in camp— it all goes back into place and rests on my back before I walk away the next morning, with one last glance over my shoulder to make sure I have everything.

As I repack my belongings, I refill my water bottles and load the day’s lunch and snacks into a pouch on my waist belt. As I hike along the route, I snack on nuts and bars, only occasionally pausing to refill a water bottle. I stop at midday for a lunch break of fifteen or twenty minutes. My afternoons are much like the mornings: I snack on nuts and bars as I stride along, ascending and descending hills, and taking pictures. 

I covered the 211-mile JMT in twelve days, hiking about eighteen miles a day. As I planned the trip, I reasoned that if I were to hike at a slow pace of 1.8 miles per hour, it would take only ten hours to cover eighteen miles per day. My pace was about average, but I usually don’t stop very often and I hike for more hours in a given day than most. I enjoy the trail so much, I can’t get enough! 

Most people attempting the JMT will take around three weeks to complete the distance, but other hikers I spoke with along the trail were on track to complete it in seven days. It’s important to remember to hike your own hike, at a pace that works for you. 

The key to a successful day of hiking was finding the right campsite. I generally knew in advance where I wanted to camp by looking ahead in my map book, but sometimes there were several sites to choose from. I wanted my site to have shade and a view, be near to water, be flat, and be previously established. Upon arrival, the first order of business is to set up the lean-to, followed by washing my clothes and myself. I washed my feet every day, my hair every other day, and went swimming whenever I could to wash all the other bits.

Washing clothes is quite taxing at the end of a long day on the trail. I would wet the item in a stream or lake, then walk some distance away (to keep the waterways clean) and apply a biodegradable soap. I would scrub and beat the item on a rock, rinse it with water from my water bottles, wring it out, and finally hang it up or lay it on a granite slab heated by the sun to dry.

Then it’s dinnertime: eating a freeze-dried meal is a ritual. I begin by telling myself how very hungry I am and how the meal is going to taste so great. I read the directions on the package, heat some water, add it to the package, stir the concoction, and set it aside for several minutes. Then, before eating, I try to convince myself again of how great the dinner is going to be! After awhile, I got used to these modern-day freeze-dried meals. Sure, they were not fantastic home-cooked meals, but they did provide needed nourishment and got me through the next major phase—sleeping. After dinner, I clean up and critter-proof the camp.

As soon as the sun sets behind the canyon walls—usually about 7:00 p.m.—I slip into my cocoon, read for an hour or two, and fall asleep. Only to repeat the whole cycle the next day.

I found that the truly hardest part of the day was getting up in the morning (after all, I’m a grandfather). The many mountain peaks would glisten in view from my sleeping bag. It was early, but it was time to get up and get moving, and it was usually cold out there.

I would eventually slip out of my bag, turn slightly to bring my feet out, and slide them into a pair of old Crocs™. From there, it took all my upper body strength to rise from the ground to my feet. 

Sophia Loren once said about aging gracefully, “Don’t make old man sounds; don’t grunt with effort.” It’s an attitude thing. I would have disappointed Ms. Loren greatly each and every morning on my JMT journey.

All this routine, this daily effort, begs the question of why do I do this? Why should anyone put in so much effort?

I remind myself that I do the work for the chance to experience something I don’t get to see and experience every day: incredible beauty! The visceral response I have to such beauty in the world is worthy of the work.

The following pictures are some of my favorites, but they do not come close to the beauty witnessed in that particular moment. Because I took these pictures, I can slip back into that moment, that setting, and feel again a bit of the grandeur, the scale, and the solace. You’ll have to experience the JMT for yourself. Photo credits: Brien Crothers

Coming up next in this series, A Few Impressions of the JMT (in No Real Order)

Preparing to Hike the John Muir Trail


Continued from, A Brief History of John Muir and the John Muir Trail

I was originally inspired to hike the JMT thirty years ago when I first climbed Mount Whitney. On the mountain, I met a man who was just start ting his weeks-long trek of the JMT. I was hooked, but it took awhile for me to get back to that item on my ever-lengthy bucket list.

Preparation to hike the JMT starts months in advance. I found that obtaining a wilderness permit can be the most difficult and confusing part of the whole process. There are very strict quotas for entering the Sierra Nevada wilderness, and the entry points are controlled by lottery systems and somewhat complex bureaucratic paperwork.

Obtaining a Wilderness Permit

Backcountry wilderness permits are required for anyone staying overnight in the wilderness and entering the wilderness from a trailhead (originating in either a national park or national forest). Each national park or national forest has their own lottery system.

Here’s a list of national parks and forests the JMT passes through with links to their wilderness permit pages:

Yosemite National Park (Yosemite Valley or Tuolumne Meadows with access over Donohue Pass)

Sierra National Forest (West-side access near Florence Lake and Lake Edison)

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (Road’s End, Mineral King)

Sequoia National Forest (Kennedy Meadows, Golden Trout Wilderness)

Humboldt/Toiyabe National Forest (Twin Lakes, north of Mono Lake)

Inyo National Forest (Mount Whitney – Whitney Portal, Cottonwood via Horseshoe Meadow and others)
The Yosemite National Park lottery system (for Happy Isles trailhead in the valley) works by faxing an application (the PDF is available on their website) to the park service 168 days in advance of your chosen departure date. In this process, you are only making a reservation to get a permit, not actually securing a permit. Hence, if you do not show up to pick up the permit, it becomes available for others on a walk-in basis.

Walk-in permits: 60 percent of Yosemite National Park permits are available through the reservation process. The other 40 percent are available on a walk-in basis. For highly desired dates, you may need to get in line for a walk-in permit during the wee morning hours the day you want to hit the trail. Read up on this process on the Yosemite National Park website noted above and watch this YouTube video for more information.

The Inyo National Forest lottery (Mount Whitney and surrounding trailheads) occurs through the federal reservation system and begins on February 1each year. Identical to the process for Yosemite National Park, you are only making a reservation to pick up a permit, and failing to do so allows others to claim the permit on a walk-in basis.

Walk-in: Permits not claimed are then available on the day of trailhead entry on a walk-in basis. Use the link to Inyo above for more information.

Are You Northbound or Southbound?

Because of the difficulty in securing a permit, I ended up getting permits for my friend and me to enter the backcountry well south of Mount Whitney, at a place known as the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead in Horseshoe Meadow (click here for map). This southern entry point resulted in two additional days (thirty-to-forty extra miles) being added to my complete journey. My friend planned to return to the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead after accompanying me for the first few days, rather than walk the 211 miles to Yosemite with me. I couldn’t really blame him!

The location of the entry point also determines the direction of the trek. In my case, this meant I would be traveling northbound (NOBO) on the JMT, which is opposite of what most people see as the proper direction, southbound (SOBO) from Happy Isles trailhead in Yosemite Valley. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but either way the trail is amazing, covers the same distance, and requires the same amount of work.

Come Prepared! 

As I’ve addressed in previous posts, you must train to meet the goal. I routinely walk, run, cycle, or go to the gym six days a week. This twenty-year-old habit gives me the physical foundation to take on something like the JMT. I have this attitude about my training and my outdoor endeavors: “Do what you set out to do, and then some.” If I go out for a ten-mile run, I’ll take the long way home to make the mileage just a bit more. Having to walk an extra thirty-to-forty miles to even begin hiking on the John Muir Trail was not as big a deal as it could have been, thanks to adequate preparation! See my blog post, How To Train For The John Muir Trail, for more specific advice.

Finally, you’ll need proper gear and sufficient food. A gear list is a must for me, and I plan every detail. I believe that most things must have more than one purpose. Pack becomes pillow; pot becomes tea mug; trekking poles become lean-to poles, etc.

Don’t forget about the resupply logistics. A thru-hiker—someone walking a trail in total—cannot carry all the food from the beginning, it would simply weigh too much. Not only that, the bear-proof food container (required by federal regulations) cannot hold all that one needs for weeks on the trail.

The BearVault™ 500, fully loaded for my first nine days on the JMT. Photo credit: Brien Crothers

Resupply must be dealt with in some way. Before beginning my trek, I mailed a resupply bucket to Muir Trail Ranch, which is near the midpoint of the JMT. When I needed to resupply, I left the JMT for a couple of hours, reclaimed my bucket from the friendly folks at the ranch, repacked, left trash in their collection cans, purchased a new fuel canister, and returned to walking the trail that same day.

Resupply storage building at Muir Trail Ranch near the midpoint of the official JMT route. Photo credit: Brien Crothers

I started this process in January and hiked the JMT in August of the same year. The permit process may take months, and your training may last a long while to best prepare you for the trail. But once all the pieces are in place, “There’s nothing to it, but to do it,” as they say.

Coming up next in this series, A look at my typical day of hiking on the John Muir Trail

A Brief History of John Muir and the John Muir Trail

Many know his name, but I’d like to share a bit of background on the iconic John Muir.
John Muir was born in 1838 and spent his life passionately enjoying nature and advocating for its protection. He was most active in the late eighteen hundreds and passed in 1914. Considered to be a spiritual teacher, John Muir wrote many books, especially about his adventures in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. He was also a Scottish-American naturalist, an environmental philosopher, and an early advocate of wilderness preservation in the United States. His activism helped to preserve the Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park, and other wilderness areas. Muir was also the founder of the Sierra Club.

Central California and the Sierra Nevada mountain range, home of the John Muir Trail. Map data ©2016 Google; key annotations by Brien Crothers.

The 211-mile John Muir Trail, a hiking trail in the Sierra Nevada that passes through Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia national parks, was named in the naturalist’s honor. John Muir walked the Sierras and wrote so eloquently about the beauty he saw that his writings inspired others to build the trail that would eventually bear his name. Hikers refer to the trail as simply the JMT.

Muir’s writings inspired readers, including presidents and congressmen, to take action to help preserve large nature areas. Muir petitioned the US Congress for a national park bill to establish Yosemite National Park. It successfully passed in 1890. For this legislative effort, and many other endeavors, John Muir is today referred to as the Father of the national parks and was the inspiration behind the National Park Service. 

On The Trail kindly provided the following topographical map detailing the John Muir Trail. On The Trail is another excellent resource for planning your next travel adventure.

Detailed topographical map of the John Muir Trail. “JMT Overview,” reprinted with permission by On The Trail

The JMT meanders, at times, through sparse sequoia forests with views beyond of granite spires, domes, and a multitude of 14,000-foot peaks. The trail winds its way down one watershed, then up another, to eventually climb ten passes along its length—passes that impressively range from 10,000 to over 13,000 feet, with the southernmost terminus of the trail at the 14,496-foot summit of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental US.

Much of the John Muir Trail is through very exposed terrain above the tree line, where marmots are the only regular inhabitants. Sometimes the hiker finds himself or herself rambling through musty-smelling fern groves in the shade of aspen and pine trees. The path is sometimes smooth and fast paced; other times, it’s slow and very rugged.

The views are awe inspiring. A hiker may look upon vast square miles of roadless wilderness from a high altitude pass, or walk beside a brook of stunningly clear water at the base of a rock face thousands of feet tall, or enjoy the quiet solitude of a forest of lodgepole and Jeffrey pines—it is an experience worth preserving, as John Muir knew so well.

This is the John Muir Trail, the JMT.

Coming up next in this series:
Preparing to Hike the John Muir Trail

Hiking the John Muir Trail – Early Days

I was freezing! Pondering this notion over and over in my head as I lay in my sleeping bag, I decided: Indeed, I am freezing! And freezing every night for the next two weeks was not going to be much fun. Did I underestimate the cold? Did I not pack the right gear? It was far too late for these questions. (more…)

An Ambulatory Retreat: Hiking The John Muir Trail

My blog has been quiet these past couple of weeks, as I’ve been busy hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT). I’d like to spend a few posts sharing my latest adventure with you. These vignettes will, hopefully, inspire you to continue preparing for your own travel adventures.

During a recent hike with like-minded local chapter members of American Pilgrims on the Camino, I first overheard the term ambulatory retreat used to describe walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. An ambulatory retreat, in my mind, can be any trek out in nature. It is a restorative trek, a healing one. I don’t remember the woman’s name who used the term, or I’d give her credit, but perhaps she, too, had heard it elsewhere. Either way, I am quite fond of the term and its intended meaning.

Members of the local chapter of American Pilgrims on the Camino, Muir Woods National Monument. Photo credit: Brien Crothers

Members of the local chapter of American Pilgrims on the Camino, Muir Woods National Monument. Photo credit: Brien Crothers


Packing List For The John Muir Trail

Don't let your gear weigh you down-Camino de Santiago Photo credit: Brien Crothers Don't let your gear weigh you down-Camino de Santiago Photo credit: Brien Crothers

When it comes to a gear or packing list, I’ve become a minimalist. Most of what I know I learned from a British friend of mine who has an extensive adventure travel résumé. I’ve also learned from other friends and through my own trial and error from many years of backpacking, mountain climbing, foot racing, mountain biking, and even horseback riding.

How to Train for the John Muir Trail

The John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, central California 
Photo credit: Miguel Vieira, Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 The John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, central California Photo credit: Miguel Vieira, Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

The Allure of the Trail

Any serious thru-hiker will have the John Muir Trail on his or her bucket list. In a few short weeks I will begin hiking the 215-mile long trail for the first time. I am looking forward to my latest trip (of a lifetime) as I finish the last few weeks of my conditioning schedule. I want to share some thoughts on how to prepare for the John Muir Trail.

High Country Along the John Muir Trail Photo credit: Ken Lund, Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

High Country Along the John Muir Trail
Photo credit: Ken Lund, Creative Commons CC By 2.0

Also known as the JMT, the John Muir Trail is considered to be a serious trekking endeavor. The trail’s website states that it “is the premier hiking trail in the United States. The trail starts in America’s treasure, Yosemite National Park, and continues 215 miles through the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and ends at the highest peak in continental United States, Mount Whitney at 14,496 ft.” Due to the length and terrain, this particular trail is not to be taken lightly. (more…)

How to Properly Train for Your World Travel Adventures

Some of the world’s great sights (such as the ancient Mayan city of Coba on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico) include a fair amount of walking Some of the world’s great sights (such as the ancient Mayan city of Coba on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico) include a fair amount of walking

Last week, in my latest installment on preparing for world travel, I encouraged you to check with your physician or, at a minimum, do a very honest self-assessment before starting a conditioning schedule to meet your adventure dreams. This week, I’d like to discuss progressive training, a method of gradually conditioning your body, to meet the demands of your travel destination. I will also provide you with a generic training plan. In future posts, I will discuss specific goals like hiking the John Muir Trail in California and the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Though specific, the training methods for these locations can be modified to meet your needs. (more…)

Ready, Set, Go!

Photograph: Alamy Photograph: Alamy


Last week I introduced a new series on preparing for your world travel adventures. In that post, I invited you to step out of your comfort zone, broaden your horizons beyond your usual athletic activities, and allow me to be your guide as you embark on traveling the world. I also told you about some of the great once-in-a-lifetime trips that have inspired my lifelong love of travel.

Depending on how your health may, or may not, align with your travel dreams and adventure plans, before you head out the door to aggressively train in the nearest hills, let’s discuss preliminaries (yes, boring stuff, I know!). Some of the first steps to preparing for your adventure are getting a medical assessment from your doctor and then beginning a gradual training program.   (more…)