A Day on a JMT Thru-Hike

A Day on a JMT Thru Hike Featured Image PC Tucker Ballister

No day is the same as another on the John Muir Trail (JMT). But let’s take a journey into a day on a JMT thru hike and see where the trail leads today!

JMT Mornings

A Day on a JMT Thru Hike - jmt mornings PC Tucker Ballister
PC Tucker Ballister

The first light of morning on the JMT begins to stream over the mountains, through the tree’s canopy, and into your tent. These mornings are welcome, as seeing the sun’s morning glory while still bundled up warmly inside your tent can be a rarity on the JMT. 

More often than not, however, you’re confronted with the unenviable task of rising to the dark, cold blanket that lies heavily on your campsite before the sun’s rays have the chance to lift it.

Chilly mornings seem to thicken the blood and slow down bodily processes. Everything happens a little more slowly first thing in the morning.

Naturally, it takes time to work out the kinks from the previous day before mustering up the courage to throw your pack on again and step out confidently to meet the day ahead.

After a warm helping of oatmeal, a much-needed shot of instant coffee, and a glance at your planned mileage for the day, you break camp and continue down the same comfortable path you were so eager to leave the night before.

Completing the JMT only requires the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. The challenge really lies in the sheer number of times one must be willing to endure this simple act if they wish to complete the entire trail.

There are days when simply putting the next foot forward is much more challenging than you’ve possibly imagined. Every hiker that’s been out for weeks will tell you that you’re simply bound to have “off” days, much like even the greatest athletes in human history.

There are days when your feet seem detached from the body. You feel clumsy. Your feet can’t seem to pick out the right spots. You struggle to find the path of least resistance.

Then, there are other days when the ground simply flows beneath your feet effortlessly, and you’re left to take in the beautiful surroundings with your head up and your eyes alert.

A Much-Needed Lunch Break

A Day on a JMT Thru Hike - much needed lunch break PC Tucker Ballister
PC Tucker Ballister

Let’s get back to today: After three hours of hard hiking, it’s time to take your first major break. Depending on the number of miles you’re going that day, you might choose to break for an early lunch or you might choose to push into the early afternoon before making your first pit stop.

The morning is undoubtedly the best time to hike once you’ve given yourself over to Nature’s schedule. The air is crisper and lighter, and lower temperatures make pushing hard miles much easier on the body in the early part of the day.

Lunch is always a welcome reprieve on the JMT. It typically signals the onset of that, “It’s all downhill from here,” mentality for the remainder of the day. While this is almost always figuratively true, it’s quite often accurate in a more literal sense as well.

Because you’ve already put so much time into planning, you’ve probably thought about NOT lining yourself up for a stormy pass or backbreaking climb in the afternoon.

While everyone has their unique style, most hikers prefer to knock out the toughest mileage before noon so that they can literally cruise “downhill” in the afternoons.

Lunch on the JMT typically consists of whatever “ready-made” foods you’ve compiled leading up to the trip. Not many use their mid-day break as an opportunity to bust out the camping stove and burn up precious fuel.

The knowledge that your lunch will be ready as soon as you fetch it from your pack, however, often motivates you to push those few extra miles before giving in to a well-deserved rest.

Mid-day on the JMT, on sunny days, was the best time to throw the pack off your shoulders and hurl yourself down on the grass. 

When it comes to moments of sheer satisfaction on the JMT, stopping for lunch was on par with finally settling on a consensus-approved campsite at the conclusion of each day.

Into The Afternoon Sun

A Day on a JMT Thru Hike - into the afternoon sun PC Tucker Ballister
PC Tucker Ballister

Hiking in the afternoon was always the most physically taxing, as the heat and the accumulation of morning mileage begin to take their toll.

Short rests are much more frequently interspersed throughout afternoon hiking, and that funny energy I can only describe as a mild mania is much more likely to settle upon the group after lunch. 

Afternoons were the playground for random outbursts of song, prolonged attempts to communicate with nearby wildlife, and any other general shenanigans that could be mustered.

The boundary line where physical exhaustion meets mental stubbornness can be a wonderful place to forget your fears and lose your mind for a few moments, and the warm rays of the afternoon sun presented the comforting atmosphere necessary for many of these moments to be fully embraced by the group, without worries or trepidations of any kind. 

Afternoons on the JMT: the place where your body is pushed so far that your mind begins to break. But is it a breakdown, or should it be viewed, more positively, as a breakthrough?

But I digress, and whilst you’ve allowed my intense period of reminiscing to run its’ course, you’re undoubtedly still waiting for more about the actual, physical experience of hiking through the Sierras.

Mother Nature’s Discretion

A Day on a JMT Thru Hike - mother natures discretion PC Tucker Ballister
PC Tucker Ballister

Just for fun, let’s jump to a splendid section of trail with a river on our left and towering rock piles with clever nicknames rising thousands of feet to our right. 

You come to a hanging suspension bridge. Yes, you heard that right: A hanging suspension bridge built over a river way out in the middle of the woods, expressly for the purpose of transporting backpackers and hikers from one side to the other.

Your group crosses, one at a time, as the instructions clearly dictate, and it begins to drizzle as you marvel at the fact that you’ve walked nearly 200 miles only to find a perfect suspension bridge, crafted and constructed by the hands of skilled men, waiting in such a seemingly wild place. 

Such surprises, and indeed many much better than this, are commonplace on the JMT. In this case, the slight drizzle that dissipated as you began to prepare dinner in the twilight was a foreboding sign of things to come.

After a hearty dinner of your JMT staple: dehydrated chicken and quinoa with a healthy variety of spices, your group chips in for clean up and, before long, you’ve settled into your respective tents to spend time writing or reading before finally closing your eyes for the night.

But a clap of lightning and the low, heavy rumbling of thunder shake you awake around 4 am. You can hear the incessant beating of raindrops on your tent, but you can only lay your head back down and hope the storm blows through before you’re supposed to hit the trail again. 

It doesn’t. It sticks around and graces you with its domineering presence for close to 24 hours. All you can do is sit inside your tent and read or write, leaving only to prepare food or quickly scuttle over to a companion’s tent to discuss the JMT hiker’s eternal dilemma when confronted with unfavorable weather: “Do we stay or do we go?”

Such is life on the JMT. Mother Nature ultimately holds all the cards. She has the power to delay, suspend, or cancel your trip if she desires.

All you can truly hope is that she shows you enough compassion to give you fighter’s chance at testing your mettle, and pushing your boundaries, on the JMT.

Securing Permits

A Day on a JMT Thru Hike - securing permits PC Randy Herring via Flickr
PC Randy Herring via Flickr

If you’re interested in exploring the wild places that are accessible via the 210-mile-long JMT, it’s best to start planning as early as possible. Each group of hikers needs to purchase a permit for the JMT, regardless of whether you’re through hiking or just completing a select section. 

If you’re truly interested, you should be sure to visit the National Park Service to explore the process of obtaining a wilderness permit.

Those interested in fishing while hiking the JMT should also be sure to purchase a fishing permit before setting foot 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.

Best Time to Go

A Day on a JMT Thru Hike - best time to go PC Robert Cross via Flickr
PC Robert Cross via Flickr

While the best time to hike the JMT will vary depending on seasonal weather, as well as your desired starting point, most hikers prefer to tackle the trail anywhere from 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 and technical expertise if you wish to be truly prepared. 

Check out this convenient FAQ page for more info on the best times, and the best direction, to hike the JMT.

JMT Logistics

A Day on a JMT Thru Hike - jmt logistics
PC Tucker Ballister

Planning meals for a month in the wilderness and sending resupplies to the proper locations months in advance is difficult in its’ own right, but those who wish to complete the JMT successfully must also consider a number of other logistical factors, including monitoring weather conditions to be sure you include the proper gear and arranging pick-ups and drop-offs at either end of the trail. 

Every individual hiker on the JMT must carry a bear-proof container for food storage purposes, and the details of pick-ups and drop-offs can vary greatly depending on which terminus you start from and where you’ll be traveling from to get there.

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 any 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.

Maps and Books

A Day on a JMT Thru Hike - maps and books

While you’ll most likely be able to obtain the best maps of the trail at the Ranger Station where you pick up your permit, 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.

About The Backpack Guide

the backpack guide - rei adventures 2020
The Backpack Guide on the John Muir Trail

As The Backpack Guide, I’m on a mission to explore the wilderness, create learning opportunities, and connect with nature. These are the objectives that underline all the content I create on this site.

I want to inspire others to recreate in their respective wildernesses and to do so in the safest, most enjoyable manner possible. 

I’m also very interested in the experiences of others in the wild and I want to create a community of people that share those experiences and the lessons they’ve learned as a result.

If my mission resonates with you, you think we may have an awesome opportunity to collaborate, or you simply want to connect, I’d love to hear from you! 

Feel free to reach out to me directly (email below), or share your adventure by tagging @thebackpackguide on Instagram, which is where I’m most active. You can also find me on FacebookPinterestTwitter, and LinkedIn.

More Resources From The Backpack Guide

I’d also like to kindly invite you to check out the other content on my site. That includes Hiking Tips and Trails and my Outdoor Gear page with reviews on water filters, tents, hiking shoes, trekking poles, and more. Also, you might enjoy my Backpack Reviews if you’re in need of a new pack, which includes brands like Kelty, REI, and Gregory. 

Finally, my YouTube Channel is full of informative video content if you’re not really into reading! I do receive a commission on purchases made through the affiliate links on this website. Those earnings go directly back into my efforts to produce more informative content for my readers!

“Walking solves it.”

– Uncle Chuck

The Backpack Guide

tucker@thebackpackguide.com

Comments

  1. Derek.

    Thanks for your insight.  I have never thought about backpacking, I do believe it fits a certain type of person and even though that’s not me, your post gives me a really good insight to what it would be like. I’m a creature of comfort but you have captured my attention with your detailed review.  Maybe one day?

    1. Post
      Author
      Tucker Ballister

      With the right gear and preparation, there’s no reason a backpacking trip shouldn’t be comfortable Derek! Have you ever considered a guided adventure (you know, like once this world reset is behind us)? Maybe like some of the options I’ve outlined in this article: https://thebackpackguide.com/r

  2. Kayla

    Thank you so much for this post! Your writing is excellent. I hadn’t ever heard of the JMT before, but just reading about it makes me excited! Just curious, what was your favorite part about the trail? I’d love to know more details.

    1. Post
      Author
      Tucker Ballister

      Hi Kayla!

      Thanks for your comment. I think, at the time, my favorite part of the trail was every sunrise and sunset (more so the sunsets because there were a lot of beautiful sunrises, but some chilly and with the body feeling a little sore). In hindsight though, it was the camaraderie amongst our hiking group and all the lessons I was consciously and unconsciously picking up along the way. If you’d like to know more about the details of the trip, check out My Journal from the John Muir Trail!

  3. Victor

    Reading your article on which you provided those pictures of this unbelievable place that Earth has granted us, literally made me feel that I’m part of it.

    Truly magnificent, every person would absolytely enjoy visiting this incredible peace of nature!

    I’m a person that prefers maountains and forest more that everything else, I truly hope that one day I get to visit this place!

    1. Post
      Author
      Tucker Ballister

      Thanks Victor! This was truly one of the best trips of my lifetime. I’ll be honest that I went in relatively unprepared for what I was getting myself into. That’s easy to say now, with another six years of backpacking and outdoor recreation experience under my belt, but we learned a lot of great lessons on this trip that will stick with me forever. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions about planning a thru hike of the JMT! 

  4. Benny

    Hello, the first thing that i noticed when i opened this page is the beauty of the website. i am sure you have put much effort into creating this article and the details are really clear here. the details that you have given here is a real guide to make the hiking come easy. i think i am now ready to go through with the hiking.

    1. Post
      Author
      Tucker Ballister

      Hi Benny! What else would you need to be prepared for a month-long hike like the John Muir Trail? Gear? Resources? A guide? Happy to provide more support and assistance!

  5. Smoochi

    I would love to create a website like yours as the template used is really nice, simple and brings about clarity of the write ups, but then you wrote a brilliant article on some guide on hiking. i have only been to a few places and this is a real exposure for me the tips that you have given is really helpful

    1. Post
      Author
      Tucker Ballister

      Thanks Smoochi! I have tried many different templates over the years and have learned that simpler is almost always better. As you said, it prioritizes the content and (hopefully) minimizes distractions. I’m glad you found some useful tips as well! 

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