Fast-packing the John Muir Trail Part 1
My good friend Dana and I began planning our John Muir Trail adventure, way back in November/December of 2014. Dana wan’t sure she’d be able to swing it but as she was trying to plan her 40th birthday running adventure, her husband told her that for her birthday he would single parent their two kids for almost 2 weeks while we were off on our adventure. And so the planning began….
We had to think about gear and spent a lot of time researching lightweight tents, sleeping bags, packs, etc. Our friends Ken, Glenn and Erin had all done the trail previously so we quizzed them endlessly. The permit process for the John Muir Trail has become a bit more difficult over the past few years especially if you want to go from Happy Isles to Whitney. You need to apply 182 days prior to the day you want to start and you should have a window of time available for your to start as 90-95% of permits get d enied. In April, we began our permitting applications. We also had gotten a back up permit going Northbound from Cottonwood to Happy Isles but this direction was an extra 50km. We ended up getting lucky on our application and got our permit for Happy Isles to Whitney for September 18. It was going to be officially on.
Initially I was in obsessive planning mode, researching the trail, appropriate gear and the weather conditions, and potential wildfires right up until about a month before we left.
There was a lot of planning to do, especially in regards to food. We began planning our our menu in August. We each borrowed dehydrators and looked up fun recipes that would give more bang for our back. We needed our food to be light to carry, yet heavy on the calories and of course taste good too! We opted for a combo of things we made ourselves and store bought Mountain House meals. For most of August we worked on this as we had to send a bucket a few weeks in advance to our resupply point on the trail. It was during this time we learned that Muir trail ranch, which we thought would be our resupply point, was closing on September 19. This meant we would have to opt for using Vermilion Valley Ranch as a resupply point. This would prove to a bit more logistically challenging for us later.
We had planned on doing the trail in 8 days but decided it would be good to have 9 days worth of food in case we needed an extra day. We packed 4 days with us and sent 5 days worth in our bucket. Now, some challenges had arisen just prior to us sending our bucket. There were some significant fires close enough to the trail that people had been abandoning their trips because the smoke was so bad. I was obsessively trying to be an optimist and hoping this would get better over the 3 weeks prior to the start of our hike, but it wasn’t looking good. Anyhow, what this meant was that in our resupply we ended up sending food and batteries only and didn’t send the changes of clothes and socks, etc. that we had planned to send, for fear we wouldn’t get them back if we decided not to go.
Initially, in the summer we had booked flights to Vegas and planned on renting a car to drive to Whitney Portal and leave for the week. However, we still needed to book transportation to the trailhead in Yosemite. As we researched the shuttle options which were pricey at $400 US and the bus option which was $19 and required some hitchhiking. We went back and forth on this until we both thought, “where is our sense of adventure?” of course we’ll bus and hitchhike!
The Adventure Begins
We arrived in Vegas, picked up our rental car and were on our way. Stopping at REI on the way out of town for a few last minute supplies and then it was off for the drive through Death Valley to Lone Pine and Whitney Portal. Aside from a stop for some fantastic Mexican burritos at a little Mexican diner in Death Valley and the super friendly bikers we met at our rest stop to eat said burritos, the trip was relatively uneventful. No major hiccups, we were off to a good start.
We arrived in Lone Pine and head up to Whitney Portal which will be the finish of our trip. We arrive there just before dark and needed to change into our hiking clothes. These clothes would be our clothes for the next 10 days. Once we double checked that we had everything for the hike and quickly hide some beer in the creek (in case we finished the trail and the store was closed), we set off to hitchhike down to our hotel in Lone Pine. It felt strange leaving the car as if we are forgetting something with just our backpacks in tow and a bag with salami and beer. We manage to stick out our thumbs just as it’s getting dark and the second car that drives by picks us up. Luckily, the driver was a really sweet hiker who had just finished Mt. Whitney and we had a nice chat all the way to our hotel. She also told us about the snow storm that dumped a foot of snow on Mt. Whitney 2 days before and they’d had to close the trail. The town of Lone Pine was a bit sleepy on this Wednesday night but we managed to get ourselves a burger and beer.
The next day, we were up early to catch the 6:15 bus. As we were waiting,we meet a group of French Canadian hikers who’ve just finished 24 days on the John Muir Trail. They informed us how cold it was on the trail and how they got snow and rain and hail. I think they were concerned with the size of our packs, that we may not be prepared for the cold. I also began to worry that I had brought the wrong down jacket out of my collection and worried I should have brought my heavier one!
When our bus ride was over, we needed hitchhiking to the trail head. We get off the bus in a place called Lee Vining, got dropped off just down the street from the Mobil which is at the turn off for Yosemite. After a quick bathroom stop at the Mobil we stuck out our thumbs again and again, 2nd car that drove by picked us up. This time it was two German girls on a camping adventure around parts of the US pick. Thankfully they gave us a ride all the way into Yosemite Valley. We get a massive lecture from the ranger on trail regulations, rules and use the facilities on the trail. The Ranger finished by giving us she gives us poo bags for Mt. Whitney (that weigh a lot).
After a little last minute organizing, sending postcards home to kids and nieces, setting up camp at Happy Isles, finding a little last minute wifi, a few beers and a giant pizza, it was officially off to bed for our early morning start the next day.
Day 1 – Happy Isles to Tuolumne Meadows via Cloud’s Rest (approx 31 miles)
Since we weren’t successful in getting a half dome permit; we decided that we would take the scenic route to Tuolumne meadows adding 4 miles of distance and giving us a 5000ft climb to start the day. Cloud’s rest is at 9930ft and we’d be climbing up from 4000ft.
It was a beautiful start to the day at 5:30am. We thought we were alone as we began in the dark but as it got light we began to realize there were quite a few half dome hikers who got an early start and we gradually began to catch them. This is where we met our first trail friend Nigel, who was an interesting Irish guy who was just getting back into hiking/camping and some trail running and he was quite interested in all our gear. We chatted all the way up until we parted at the half dome trail where we took a group photo and then we were on our own up to Cloud’s rest.
It was a spectacular day and the views just kept getting better and better the higher we got. It was our first taste of all the switchbacks we’d encounter over the next week. Cloud’s rest did not disappoint. We felt like we were the only people on the trail until we reached the top where we encountered a few others who’d camped there overnight. A guy who’s trail name was Pilgrim gave us some advice for later in our trip as he’d done most of the trail before and he asked us to send him some photos as he’d broken his camera on the last part of the trail.
We spent a half hour or so admiring the view, taking photos, eating left over pizza and chatting as more and more people seemed to be arriving. Now it was time to move on as we still had 20 miles to cover and it was already 11am. As the day went on, it got pretty hot and the trail was pretty exposed to the sun. I ended at some point with a splitting headache, but I tried to ignore it and hoped it would go away. The miles tick away past Cathedral Peak, a few alpine lakes and meadows, with lots of up and down. Finally we stop for lunch at about 2pm at Sunrise High Sierra camp, we ate the oatmeal we were supposed to eat for breakfast. At this point we realize Dana has left her spork in the car, a little late to get a new one. We contemplate whether we might make Tuolumne by 5 so she can buy one but we aren’t so sure if that’s a possibility. We decided to do our best!
We headed through a beautiful meadow, past Cathedral Lake and then down the 10ish miles of downhill to Tuolumne. My headaches gets worse through this section until finally we get down near Tuolumne and I can’t bear to do anything but get to a campsite and set up camp. I felt horrendous and thought OMG this only Day 1! I managed to take a Tylenol and pull myself somewhat together as I survived to tell the story!
The Tuolumne backpackers is not my favourite campsite. We had planned to go further but given my state of exhaustion this is where we landed; however, we met a nice couple Mary and Alvaro. Mary had done the JMT from Whitney and Alvaro joined her for the last couple days so we shared a fire with them and got a bit of advice from Mary before we were off to bed we went. Luckily, Dana managed to scrounge up a metal fork which someone had dropped, which she used for the rest of the trip!
Day 2 – Tuolumne to Johnson Lake (approximatley 30’sh miles)
4:30am soon becomes our usual wake up time. Our routine became: get dressed, get up, I would pack up the tent and clothes in a bear canister, Dana would pack the food in her pack. Afterwards, Dana would hand out our food rations of bars, cheese, meat, crackers for the morning and we’d set off planning to stop and make coffee somewhere along the route. This rarely happened as the heat of the day set in early and we stopped wanting coffee (I know, that’s crazy talk!).
This day we set off to make the 34 miles to Reds Meadow. Day started off cold and frosty through Lyell Canyon, until we began the climb up to Donahue pass. Then the heat set in and it was off with all the warm clothes. Donahue pass was spectacular and after a short break here we headed down the valley and up the next pass which was Island pass. At the top of Island pass, there are a few small lakes where we were dying to swim, but had our sights set on Thousand Island lake, which initially looked like it was just over the pass until we realized how many switchbacks there were along the way. When we finally made it to Thousand Island lakes, where we decided to stop for lunch and do some laundry. We were there for about 45 minutes until we realized it was 3 in the afternoon and we still had 18 miles to go! We quickly gathered our things and continued on at a faster pace.
We pass several lakes on this section and each time we go down into a lake, we realize we there was ALWAYS a climb back up. This was starting to get a bit stressful when you have 18 miles to get to you next campsite! So now, it’s Dana’s turn to have a meltdown. “This is supposed to be a vacation, it’s not supposed to be stressful”. “We can’t even stop at a lake for lunch because we still have a billion miles to do. Why are we always the people who need to do things to the extreme!? Why are we those people, can’t we just relax?”
Finally, we hit the downhill section, but now it’s getting dark and we need to revise our plan a bit as we are NOT going to make it to Reds Meadow before sundown. We decide to camp at Soda Spring campground which was only it’s 1.5 miles away. As we began our hike to Soda Spring, we soon realized we were had misjudged our location on the map. We were going downhill for what felt like an eternity. We wonder if we are lost and have missed a turn off until finally we hit Johnson lake. It’s not where we want to be, but we realize we misjudged where we were on the map, it’s dark and we are camping here.
Don’t ask me what Johnson lake looks like,I camped on it’s shore but I have no idea! We quickly make friends with a girl we need to camp beside because there are no camp spots left that we can see. She’s sleeping under the stars with not tent. Seemed rather cold for that. We quickly set up and boil some water, tonight’s dinner is an add water only mountain house lasagna meal. We try to revise our plan as we realize we don’t want to hike 50km/day tomorrow. We want to swim in the lakes and have lunch and get to camp before dark and watch sunset! So…we realize that we need to make VVR tomorrow in order to make this happen. We decide we’ll give it a go, it’s 34 miles, but one more day of 34 miles means 5 days of 23 miles and one day of 16!
Day 3 – Johnson Lake to VVR (35’sh miles)
Despite the 34 miles, this day was a lot of fun. It started with Devil’s Postpile, which we didn’t really see since it was still dark. We then hiked through some burnt out forest just outside of Red’s Meadows where we experienced about 30 minutes of the smell of smoke and some haze in the distance. We had to stop just before Duck pass to deal with some blisters on my feet and get some water and then we essentially just laid down the hammer. We were fueled by some delicious salami and crackers for most of the day.
Purple Lake and Lake Virginia were beautiful. It got hot as we went down the exposed switchbacks into Tully Hole. At Lake Virginia we ran into a man who was out on the trail for the weekend doing a loop to scatter his Dad’s ashes at the campsites they’d camped at when they did the trail in the 70’s. People on this trail had the most incredible stories, you just wanted to talk to everyone!
We climbed back out of Tully Hole up to some beautiful alpine lakes and made the cut off to Goodale Pass, which was our route into VVR at 3:30pm. We had both in our own heads made 3:30/4 our cut off point for whether we’d make it to VVR that night. We had 11-12 miles from here mostly downhill aside from going over the pass. The pass was incredibly beautiful as we were told it was and then we pretty much followed a river all the way down into the valley.
We were pretty focused on getting to VVR by 7:30pm because we ran into the one cranky gentleman of our whole trip that morning who in his crankiness did tell us that VVR’s restaurant closed at 7:30. Down the hill we went and really was all downhill for once, although walking miles are still slow when you are used to running. Near 3-4 miles there were some really nice long runnable switchbacks and as we began to worry a bit about time, Dana says “do you want to run a bit?” So we began to run 20 seconds as Dana counted to 20 and then we would walk. I had a massive blister on the entire sole of my foot, but it felt better running than walking so I was having fun!
As we neared the end of the trail it was beginning to get dark and we didn’t want to stop to get our headlamps out. We finally arrive at the end of the trail after busting our butts the last 4 miles and there’s a sign: “VVR, follow the orange tape to a small trail on the left.” DAM! It was already 7:10pm, how much further did we have to go? It felt like eternity and the suspense of whether we’d get food was killing us!
We walked in at 7:20pm and must have looked completely destroyed. We found the server and asked if we could have food, he had to check with the cook who must have thought we looked like the sorriest things that walked in all day, but thankfully he said YES!!!! And we were treated to quite possibly the best burger, beer and milkshake I’ve ever had!! AND that my friends was the last 50K+ day we ever had to do!! We couldn’t get our resupply until the next morning, so the next morning we had to be quick to get breakfast (oh yeah bacon and eggs and coffee!!!), sort our resupply, get the supplies we needed and catch the shuttle to the trailhead.
Day 4 – Bear Creek Trailhead to Blarney Hot Springs (23 miles)
We got the luxury of sleeping in until 6:00am today. We were at the mercy of the restaurant and the shuttle so would have a later start today at 8:30am. From VVR there are a few options out. We mulled over taking the traditional JMT which meant taking the boat and heading out over Bear Ridge, heading out on a trail that we heard was mostly for pack animals I think called the bear ridge trail or heading out on the Bear Creek trail. They all gave us the same elevation gain and the Bear Creek trail was apparently about 2 miles longer. We asked around and in our limited survey heard that Bear Creek was the most beautiful so we opted for the shuttle ride and not the boat. We don’t what the other trail was like but we really enjoyed Bear Creek. There was no shortage of waterfalls. They were everywhere. We also saw a big snake as Dana almost stepped on him.
Today was up and over Selden Pass, which was absolutely spectacular. It had a couple of beautiful alpine lakes and down the other side we followed a creek and there were more hanging lakes, it was phenomenal. I wasn’t hungry much this day, the sausage and eggs must have stuck to my ribs along with the burger from the night before.
After Selden Pass and all the lakes, we had decided to camp at the hot springs near Muir Trail Ranch. Our only stressor of the day today was whether we could still camp there given we knew MTR was closed. After the last lake the downhill into MTR was one of those long seemingly endless, exposed bits of trail. It was not our favourite part of the trail to say the least,but we finally got the turn off for MTR and took it. Just at the point where we were standing at the sign trying to figure out where the campsites were, a girl walked up (she was hiking out to try to find a friend who was bringing her a resupply, this friend to our knowledge was never found). However, she filled us in our where the campsites were and we picked a cute little campsite just above the river and life was peachy.
Funnily enough we were camped at the hot springs but never actually crossed the river and went to the hot springs, mainly because we both had blisters we didn’t think would love the hot springs, so we chilled at camp and ate our favorite fritos meal and dried out our feet. Since we resupplied that morning, this was the ONE night we had to hang a bear bag (at least I didn’t carry all the extra weight of that string for nothing!). We then ended up sharing a fire with our neighbours who happened to be the girl we’d seen earlier. She had not found her friend who was supposedly coming from Florence Lake with her resupply who was going to hike with them for a few days to VVR (they were going the opposite direction).
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Fast-packing the John Muir Trail!