How to Hike the John Muir Trail
March 31, 2019
The John Muir Trail, named for the man sometimes called “the father of the national parks,” spans 215 miles of backcountry and icon American wilderness areas. This epic hike stretches between Yosemite Valley, California, and Mount Whitney, California, with a peak elevation of 14,505 feet. The staggering canyons, multitude of crystalline lakes and pristine granite cliffs make the epic trek more than worthwhile, but seeing it through to completion is no joke. Know what to expect, pack accordingly and keep your safety in check and we guarantee you got this.
Trip Planning: The Basics
According to the Pacific Coast Trail Association, the best time to hike the John Muir Trail is usually during June through September (after the majority of the snowpack has melted) for casual backpackers, though more hardcore hikers may choose to challenge themselves with substantial snowfall starting in October. While hitting the trail from north to south is the more popular route (mostly because it saves the toughest, tallest, and most rewarding terrain for the end), you can choose the flipside, too.
The PCTA recommends driving yourself to the trail, where you can take advantage of long-term parking lots from Yosemite all the way to Whitney Portal. The nearest airport is in Reno, but Las Vegas, San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland, and Fresno also provide reasonable access and local shuttles are plentiful. This is an on-foot hike, so while horses are OK, you’ll have to leave all wheeled and motorized vehicles behind.
But how long does it take to hike the John Muir Trail? That boils down to experience, pace, and planning, but many hikers pull the whole 211-mile hike off in about three weeks.
What to Pack
In general, lightweight is the way to go. Try to keep your backpack around the 20-pound mark (or less, if possible), but don’t neglect the essentials. In addition to your pack and poles, include gear that caters to your route, such as a shelter and sleeping tent (plus the necessary stakes, lines, and sleeping items), a bear canister, pack cover, batteries and chargers for any electronics, a raincoat, heavy-duty gloves, water filter, plenty of water bottles, a cookset, lamp, toiletries, maps, compass, firestarters, a first aid kid, GPS, multi-tool, and enough food and clothing to see you through to the end (about two or three pairs of durable shirts, pants, and undies should do the trick). As you weave through national parks, you’ll find resupply locations at Tuolumne Meadows, Mammoth Lakes, the west end of Lake Edison, Kearsage Pass, and other handy spots.
Black bears and other wild creatures share the space along the JMT, so you’re required to store your food in bear canisters along the part of the trail that spans from the Kennedy Meadows to the Sonora Pass, as well as in the Lassen Volcanic National Park. That goes for all of your food and scented items, and caching food is a no-go. The John Muir Trail is known to have the mildest climate of any major mountain trail on earth, but it’s also known as one of the sunniest, so sunscreen and UV protection like hats, shades, hoods, and long-sleeve shirts are essential.
Before you hit the trail, you’ll need to obtain the appropriate wilderness permit from the National Park Service in advance. The NPS processes reservations via lottery 168 days (that's 24 weeks) in advance of the hiking start date, so you'll want to submit your application as early as possible as popular trailheads fill up quickly. Campfire regulations vary per each park you pass through and are especially stringent near lakes and high-use areas and at certain elevations, as well as during drought periods and late in the summer. Camping sans fire is your safest bet, but if you insist on s’mores, check each park’s site as you plan your trip. The overall group size limit here is 15 people, and pets—for their own safety—are not allowed at Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon. Firearms and bear spray also are prohibited. Each park has different camping limitations. Check them out before you pitch a tent.
Train for the Trail
Knowing the ins and outs of the John Muir Trail is half the battle; acting on that knowledge is the other half. You’ll be dealing with about 80,000 feet worth of elevation changes along the way, so start training your lungs and legs about 16 weeks before you set foot on your hike. Cardio, weight training, core work, steep climbs, weighted walks, squats, and lunges will get you into the sort of shape that would make John Muir proud. Invest in pre-made map packs and guide books for the JMT and map out your own detailed itinerary, breaking the trail into reasonable daily chunks. Send your resupply packages to those stations about three weeks before your trip and make plenty of mindspace for unforgettable memories.
Written by Dan Ketchum for Knockaround