The John Muir Trail

The gem of the High Sierras of California

There are three hiking trails that transect our country from north to south, one in the east, the Appalachian Trail, one in the central Rockies, the Continental Divide Trail, and one in the west, the Pacific Crest Trail. In addition, there are a number of shorter “thru-hikes” on shorter point-to-point trails, the most famous, and arguably the most scenic, being the John Muir Trail of the high Sierra Nevada mountains of California. It runs from Yosemite National Park to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 United States. It runs for 210.5 miles up and down the passes and basins of the Sierras.

My good friend, Joe, his wife Sara, and I spent 9 days backpacking the most scenic (and I must add the most vertical) 65 miles of this trail during the first two weeks of September.

Looking west through an arch in the Alabama Hills toward Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states at over 14,500 feet.

Day 1 started west of the town of Bishop, CA, at the trailhead at 9800 feet elevation, then climbed up past Long Lake, Sadderock Lake, and up over Bishop Pass at 11,980 feet in a driving rain and sleet, hands frozen to our hiking poles, plodding through a river flowing down the trail with lightning dancing off the adjacent 14,000+ foot high peaks. A nice way to start the trip.

My first look at the jagged peaks of the Sierra Nevada front range from the upper end of South Lake on the climb up to Bishop Pass on day 1.
A waterfall drains the remaining snow fields of the High Sierra, left from a very high snow year with an estimated snowpack of 150%.
My companions, Sara and Joe, plod upwards through snowfields in a cold sleet and rain storm, struggling to gain the top of Bishop Pass at an elevation of 11,980 feet.

We made camp below the pass in the upper Dusy Basin at about 11,300 feet elevation. The rain and sleet cleared just before we made camp, and the aspenglow on the peaks was magical. Overnight temps held at about freezing, not too bad for this elevation.

Camp 1 in Dusy Basin, just below Bishop Pass.
Aspenglow against the wall of 14,000+ peaks that rise at the eastern end of Dusy Basin.
The Milky Way in all its glory after the storm clears and the stars appear.

On day 2 we drop down through the Dusy Basin drainage, headed for LeConte Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Kings River. We have a total descent of 3140 feet to our low elevation of 8700 feet at Grouse Meadows.

Sunrise just making its way onto the peak above a nameless lake in Dusy Basin.
The far walls and spires of LeConte Canyon.
A falls on Dusy Creek.
The peaks of LeConte Canyon.
We surprise two whitetail deer in Grouse Meadows, site of our camp for night 2.

After we set up camp at a campsite in Grouse Meadows, we are joined by two “thru-hikers,” a man from Akron, OH, with the trail name “Just Jeff,” who is finishing up the final 200 miles of his 2400 mile journey on the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. His partner was Christina, a solo girl from Belgium doing a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail from south to north. Thru-hikers are characterized by light packs and no unnecessary gear, including food. They are always hungry and always ready to eat any and all extra leftovers.

Campsite in Grouse Meadows, with Just Jeff and Christina.
Afterflow of sunset below the parting storm clouds at Lower Palisade Lake.

Day 4 we climbed 1500 feet up and over Mather Pass from Lower Palisade Lake in a cold rain, then down 1100 feet into the upper basin below Mather Pass.

Cresting the top of Mather Pass at 12,100 feet, looking back down through rain clouds to the basin below.

Day 5 we break camp and head down the wide, beautiful basin, down about 1000 feet to the trail junction at the Middle Fork of the King’s River, then climb back up 1000 feet to Lake Marjorie for the next night.

Morning, looking back at Mather Pass from the upper basin campsite.
Hiking along the headwaters of the King’s River that drain the upper basin.
It’s Crocs only for crossing the Middle Fork of the Kings River. There was a fatality at this crossing last year involving a girl who did not cross with her backpack unbuckled and was swept away when she fell into the fast waters.
Campsite on Lake Marjorie at 11,050 feet altitude.

Day 6 we leave Lake Marjorie and climb 1080 feet up and over Pinchot Pass, then drop down 3670 feet to the beautiful Woods Creek Suspension Bridge for camp.

Yours Truly atop a spire at the crest of Pinchot Pass at 12,130 feet altitude.
Woods Creek Suspension Bridge (one hiker at a time, please).

Day 7 starts cold and early, leaving the low point of 8510 feet elevation and heading up over 2000 feet to the Rae Lakes at an elevation of 10,550 feet.

Confluence, Woods Creek & S. Baxter Creek.
One of the Rae Lakes, one of the most picturesque (and popular) lakes in the region.

Day 8 greets us with a beautiful reflection on upper Rae Lake, then it’s to work, climbing up 1430 feet to the summit of Glen Pass, then down over 1400 feet to the Kearsarge Pass trail junction, and back up past Bullfrog Lake to make camp.

Sunrise reflection on upper Rae Lakes.
A look back down from the 11,970 elevation of Glen Pass.
Campsite above Bullfrog Lake our final night on the trail.

The final climb: up and over Kearsarge Pass (11,835 feet) and down to the trailhead and the end of the trail.

A look back at the Kearsarge Lakes and the awesome spires of the Sierra, on the way up the switchbacks to the summit of Kearsarge Pass.
Joe, Sara and I having a “pass party” at the top of Kearsarge Pass 11,835 feet.
Farewell to the Sierras and the John Muir Trail.

This was a backpack trip I’ve always had on my “bucket list,” and it was definitely everything I expected, and more. There are many guide books available on the trail which include advice on access points, permits required, and all the other pertinent info you need to know in planning a hike on the John Muir Trail. Happy Trails.