Tips For Hiking the John Muir Trail

Hiking the John Muir Trail Tips from My Trip Featured Image

Way back in 1884, a 14-year-old boy named Theodore Solomons wrote in the Sierra Club Bulletin, “The idea of a crest-parallel trail through the High Sierra came to me one day while herding my uncle’s cattle in an immense, unfenced alfalfa field near Fresno.” His idea spawned the creation of the John Muir Trail, which was eventually completed in 1938. It’s a trail that hundreds of people now flock to every summer and if you’re planning to be one of them, I hope you’ll benefit from these tips for hiking the John Muir Trail!

hiking the john muir trail - tips from my trip theodore solomons
Theodore Solomons

I hiked the trail back in the summer of 2014, along with seven college buddies. The trip wound up being 26 days of hiking with two off-days in Mammoth. The sights and sounds along the trail, especially through Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks are astounding, but the trail was not without its trials and tribulations. Group chemistry and decision making processes sometimes threatened to complicate and/or derail the effort entirely.

But we managed to stick together and accomplish our goal, and we learned a lot about ourselves and each other in the process. I’ve done my best here to compile some of the knowledge I gained through this experience in order to share it with anyone who is interested in spending precious time in nature and solitude and beauty that embodies the JMT!

How Do You Secure JMT Permits?

tips for hiking the john muir trail - pond reflection

If you’re interested in exploring the wild places accessible via the 210-mile-long JMT, it’s really never too early to start planning. Because the JMT is so popular, you’ll need to purchase a permit whether you’re thru-hiking the entire length of the trail or simply completing a select section. These permits are obtained through whichever management agency is in charge of the trailhead where you plan to begin.

If you plan to begin in Yosemite, for example, you’ll need to obtain a permit through the National Park Service. I have chosen to start with how and where to secure permits because this can often dictate where you’ll start your trip, which plays a significant role in how you plan your daily mileage. You can learn more about obtaining JMT permits on the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s website.

Those interested in fishing while hiking the JMT should also purchase a fishing permit before starting out on the trail. You’ll have a few options when selecting which specific permit to choose, but you should have no issue doing this either in Yosemite Valley or Whitney Portal before getting underway.

When Is The Best Time To Go?

hiking the john muir trail - tips from my trip forester pass
Forester Pass – Sequoia National Park

The simplest answer to this question is that the best time varies depending on a number of factors, such as seasonal weather, the previous winter’s snowpack, and your preferred starting location. In general, however, the majority of hikers hit the trail anywhere between early July to the end of September. This doesn’t mean the trail is completely inaccessible outside of those months, but the conditions might require a bit more heavy gear if you wish to be truly prepared.

For example, I heard a story from a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker last summer. She began at the U.S.-Mexico in early April. By the time she reached the John Muir section of the trail, there was still so much snow that she actually had to secure transportation up and around the highest and snowiest section of the trail and then come back to complete the middle section later in the season.

The moral of the story is that you shouldn’t just pay attention to what kind of weather you might see when you’re on the trail, but you’ll also need to be aware of how the remnants of the winter snowpack will affect trail conditions. Check out this convenient FAQ page for more info on the best times, and the best direction, to hike the JMT.

Let’s Talk Logistics!

hiking the john muir trail - tips from my trip camp
One of Many Campsites From Our Trip

There are a number of logistical factors that you’ll have to consider when planning for the JMT. Crafting a meal plan for a month in the wilderness can be difficult in its own right. But you’ll also have to send meal resupply packages ahead to certain points along the trail months in advance. Sometimes the hardest part can be finding someone willing to drop you off at your desired trailhead and then pick you up 200+ miles away a month later!

It’s important to note that every individual hiker on the JMT must carry a bear-proof container for food storage. There’s also the tricky aspect of deciding just what personal supplies you’ll need and/or want for a month on the trail. Is that book worth the extra weight? Do you want to bring a journal to handwrite your thoughts or would you prefer an audio recorder to speak your insights along the way?

Then there’s the question of whether you hike north-to-south or vice versa. If you’re starting on the north end of the trail in Yosemite Valley, you’ll need to know which entrance will be most convenient for you. There are four gates into Yosemite Valley: Lee Vining in the east, Groveland in the North, Mariposa in the west, and Oakhurst in the South. When starting in Yosemite Valley, it can be beneficial to arrange an overnight cabin in Curry Village to give yourself a final evening to dial in last-minute details before departing the following morning.

If you’re starting in the south, things may be a bit simpler, as there is only a single access point to the southern terminus at Whitney Portal, which is located just outside Lone Pine, CA. Staying near the Portal the night before you start the trail is also recommended, and the Whitney Portal Hostel and Hotel is a great location to rest up before you get started and to meet fellow hikers embarking on the same journey!

Comfort is King!

tips for hiking the john muir trail - hikers on trail

When I hiked the trail, I made the critical mistake of choosing the wrong hiking boots. I went with a pair of Columbia boots that were great boots, but they were more designed for winter activities and keeping your feet warm in very cold weather. In hindsight, they weren’t the greatest choice for boots that you’re going to put 200+ miles on.

As a result of this choice, my feet were sweating profusely throughout the day, and remaining wet for extended lengths of time. After about four days, my feet became incredibly sore and hiking became a slog. I toughed it out for three more days into Mammoth, California, but it was clear I needed to adapt.

I wound up sticking with the boots but buying several new pairs of socks and an all-important bottle of Gold Bond. I took to changing socks three times a day and applying Gold Bond at each change to keep my feet dry. Eventually, the soreness in the bottoms of my feet went away, but I could’ve avoided this altogether with a little better planning on the front end.

In my opinion, your feet are the #1 area to consider when it comes to comfort on a long hiking trip. Sure, it’ll be nice to have a few extra layers for the upper body in camp. And you might not regret overpacking underwear, but the health and comfort of your feet are essential if you hope to complete the journey. They are, of course, your only method of locomotion, save having one of your hiking buddies carry you!

Where To Find Maps or Books About The JMT

hiking the john muir trail - tips from my trip national geographic john muir trail map
National Geographic John Muir Trail Map

You’ll most likely obtain the best trail maps at the Ranger Station where you pick up your permit, but you might want to secure a map a little further in advance than that to begin scouting your route and potential camping sites. Most local Ranger Stations in California sell waterproof, fold-out maps specific to various regions in the state. You may also like to get your hands on National Geographic’s Complete John Muir Trail Map or the Full John Muir Trail Map Pack by Tom Harrison Maps!

There are a number of online trail maps that will help you plan your daily mileage in advance. The most up-to-date versions of maps for the JMT section of the PCT are available here, while a breakdown of mileage separating popular waypoints, as well as elevation gain per day, can be found here. When it comes to useful literature, Elizabeth Wenk’s, John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail, comes highly recommended.



Plan and Prepare

But Be Ready to Adapt!

tips for hiking the john muir trail - alpine lake

In my experience, I was extremely fortunate to have organized and detailed companions who handled much of the meal planning and trail logistics. With that said, we quickly learned that all the planning in the world cannot always prepare you for what you’ll face on any extending backpacking excursion.

Consistent rains for the first seven days challenged our will to continue, facilitating group cohesion proved to be a task none had even considered before beginning the trail, and heavy packs threatened unnecessary wear and tear on knees, hips, ankles, and backs.

But while the trail will challenge you, it’ll also give you a window into some of California’s most pristine, untouched wilderness areas. It’ll give you a chance to catch rainbow trout in high alpine lakes. You’ll have an opportunity to summit California’s highest peak, Mt. Whitney, either at the start or conclusion of your trip.

In my mind folks, the challenges are most certainly worth the rewards, and I would highly recommend the John Muir Trail to anyone. If you’re interested in learning more about my personal experiences on the trail, you can purchase a digital or paperback version of my John Muir Trail Journal!

tips for hiking the john muir trail book cover

Share Your Journey!

At The Backpack Guide, I’m always looking for new trails and wildernesses to explore. I’m also excited to see and share photos of readers with their new backpacks. Please don’t hesitate to share your latest adventure or backpack purchase on social media by tagging @thebackpackguide on Instagram and Facebook, or @backpackguide1 on Twitter!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this review and I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section below. I’ll be quick to reply to any questions, comments, or concerns you feel like sharing!

Happy Trails!

The Backpack Guide

tucker@thebackpackguide.com

Comments

  1. joshkay00

    Great post – a lot of great details in planning the hike and some of the pitfalls all hikers fall into!

    You hit the two biggest issues most hikers have in my opinion – hiking companions and the dynamics between humans having to count on each other and our FEET! Gold bond is a life saver!

    Thanks for sharing this information.

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  2. Rose

    Thanks for this post on the tips for hiking John Muir trail. With the reviews and points you have made I really think I would love to go on this hike this summer, I wanna ask a question: how do you make do with your camping area? Or is it already built there? Thanks for this great post.

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      Tucker Ballister

      Great question Rose! There are many places to make camp along the trail. It will all depend on how you plan out the hike and how many miles you want to hike each day. But there are no shortage of places to pitch a tent! 

  3. Rodarrick

    Wow! This Is really great to see here and I must confess that this John Muirtrail has been on my radar for quite some years now and still, I’m yet to embark on its exploration because of the issues with securing the permit and all. Thanks so much for providing all these your personal help and information here. They will really be vweey helpful overtime for me. Thanks

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      Tucker Ballister

      You are very welcome Rodarrick! I’m happy to hear that the JMT has been on your radar. If you have any questions or concerns as you plan for your trip, please don’t hesitate to reach out! 

  4. Benny

    Hello, I really want to appreciate your effort in putting together this website and writing this review. Hiking, aside from its tremendous physical and health benefits, can be helpful in creating a bond when it is done with companions. I have never taken a hike through the John Muir Trail but every detail you have given here will help me when I decide to do it. Thanks!

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      Tucker Ballister

      Hey Benny! You’re very welcome! And I definitely agree that hiking together is a great way to strengthen bonds within a group. One way or another, you’re going to learn more about yourself and your hiking companions! 

  5. Joseph Stasaitis

    Thanks for your informative article on the John Muir Trail.  Your twenty-six (26) day trip sounds like it was both challenging and fun.

    Also I am not surprised about the issues with group chemistry and decision making, since I have been in involved in similar group activities where the same sort of challenges arose.  I have also been able to look back on those times with a sense of gratitude because of all I learned about myself and others.

    Thanks for mentioning that you need a permit for this journey.  Planning and logistics are very important and you made several good points including the weather factor.  Bear proof containers are extremely important.  

    I appreciate you sharing this information as it will be very helpful when planning future trips like this with friends and family.  All the Best.  Joseph

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      Tucker Ballister

      Thanks Joseph! What kinds of activities have you previously participated in where group chemistry became challenging? 

  6. Melissa

    I more than enjoyed reading this blog. There is a lot of thoughtful detail here from preparing your drop-off meals beforehand, to wearing the boots, and even packing bear-proof containers. You raised so many different points, only an experienced hiker would know to think of these things. Can anyone obtain a permit and can you also hire a hiking guide?

    Thanks, Tucker

    ~melissa

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      Tucker Ballister

      Hi Melissa! Yes, anyone can obtain a permit as long as you plan ahead far enough in advance. There are also several guide services available. Please send me an email directly if that’s something you’re really interested in! 

  7. MrBiizy

    Hello Tucker. Thank you for sharing these amazing tips for Hiking the John Muir Trail. The idea and creation of this trail has been quite a very long time ago, cool! You have covered in great detail everything needed to make hiking enjoyable and successful at the same time. This review is definitely a guide to successful hiking.

    All the best!

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