By Michael Lanza
Like moths to a flame—or perhaps pikas to talus—at some point, many serious backpackers will decide they must thru-hike the John Muir Trail. But some will wonder whether they’re ready or have the time for a 221-mile hike that may take up to three weeks—and many will fail to get one of the most sought-after wilderness permits in the country. What then?
Well, there’s no better Plan B for a JMT thru-hike than knocking off a section of it as a consolation prize or to dial in your strategy and gear for eventually adding “America’s Most Beautiful Trail” to your tick list. And for virtually any JMT section hike, you’ll have much better chances of getting a wilderness permit than you will for a JMT thru-hike.
I put together the John Muir Trail section hikes described in this article—which vary greatly in distance and lie spread out along the entire JMT (most of which overlaps the Pacific Crest Trail/PCT)—based on my personal experience thru-hiking it in an admittedly insane seven days as well as numerous trips on JMT sections and throughout the High Sierra from Yosemite to Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. I’ve also backpacked thousands of miles all over the country over the past three-plus decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor at Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
This article includes links to feature-length stories about trips, which contain numerous photos and often a video. While roughly the first half of those stories—and this one—are free for anyone to read, reading them in full, including my tips on planning those trips, is an exclusive benefit for readers with a paid subscription to The Big Outside.
You’ll see on maps that it’s certainly feasible to combine some of the section hikes described below in a longer, partial-JMT trek. Camping restrictions exist on some heavily used sections of the John Muir Trail; check each park’s or forest’s website when planning a trip. Bear canisters are required throughout the High Sierra.
See “How to Get a Yosemite or High Sierra Wilderness Permit,” “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail: What You Need to Know,” and all stories about backpacking the John Muir Trail at The Big Outside, plus “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
And check out my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan any of these adventures, variations of them, your JMT thru-hike, or any trip you read about at The Big Outside, and my expert e-guides to several classic backpacking trips.
If you have any questions or suggestions for other JMT sections or High Sierra trips, please share them in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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Tuolumne Meadows to Reds Meadow
From the Lyell Canyon/Rafferty Creek Trailhead at the east end of Tuolumne Meadows, at 8,700 feet in Yosemite, you can hike just over a half-mile to jump on the JMT southbound. From there, you’ll remain on the John Muir Trail for the next 35 miles to Reds Meadow.
A likely easier permit to get compared to starting at the JMT’s traditional northern terminus, the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley, this section hike ascends some 2,300 feet to cross 11,056-foot Donahue Pass from Yosemite into the Ansel Adams Wilderness, then mostly cruises downhill past Thousand Island and Garnet lakes and a few smaller ones before reaching Reds.
A relatively easy but scenic JMT introduction, this 35.7-mile section also offers the logistical conveniences of not requiring two vehicles or to pay for a shuttle or have someone drop you off, with public bus and shuttle services connecting Tuolumne and Reds (as well as Yosemite Valley). Add about 24 miles—making it a 60-mile hike—by starting at Yosemite Valley, also a great, weekend or three-day JMT section hiking to Tuolumne Meadows.
See photos and read about this section of the JMT in my story “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail in 7 Days: Amazing Experience or Certifiably Insane?”
Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.
Agnew Meadows to Yosemite Valley
You may notice that this hike is the only one in this article described as hiking the JMT northbound—not because any of these trips cannot be hiked in either direction, but because many JMT thru-hikers and section hikers go southbound in order to gradually acclimate to the higher elevations of the southern trail. But the benefit of hiking this section northbound is an easier wilderness permit to obtain—versus trying to start at the JMT’s northern terminus in Yosemite Valley—for a hike that combines a great stretch of the trail through the Ansel Adams Wilderness and the JMT’s entire Yosemite segment.
From Agnew Meadows at over 8,300 feet—where there are various possible starting trailheads—the shortest route to the JMT reaches it just 3.7 miles from the trailhead, at the west shore of Shadow Lake, where you’ll turn north and remain on the trail for the next roughly 48 miles to Yosemite Valley (depending on the route you take through Tuolumne Meadows and whether you opt for diversions off the JMT to Clouds Rest and Half Dome).
After passing two of the trail’s prettiest lakes, Garnet and Thousand Island, this route ascends steadily to enter Yosemite at 11,056-foot Donohue Pass. From there, it’s virtually all downhill through Lyell Canyon to Tuolumne Meadows, Cathedral Pass and Lakes, the meadows of Sunrise below the peaks of the Cathedral Range, past the Half Dome Trail junction—a highly recommended side trip—and the brink of thunderous, 594-foot Nevada Fall, finishing at the JMT’s northern terminus, the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley.
See photos and more info about this route and Yosemite in “High Sierra Ramble: 130 Miles On—and Off—the John Muir Trail” and “The 12 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite,” and all stories about backpacking in Yosemite at The Big Outside.
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North Lake-South Lake Loop
From the Piute Pass/North Lake Trailhead, at 9,360 feet, to the South Lake/Bishop Pass Trailhead, at over 9,800 feet, this near-loop—the trailheads lie a short drive apart—constitutes, mile for mile, one of the best multi-day hikes in the High Sierra.
Located within the John Muir Wilderness of the Inyo National Forest (which is the permitting agency) and a corner of Kings Canyon National Park, this hike features nearly 27 miles of the JMT’s finest miles along the South Fork San Joaquin River, past alpine lakes rippling below soaring cliffs in the Evolution Basin, over 11,955-foot Muir Pass, and through LeConte Canyon, with its own towering granite walls and peaks.
The loop also crosses two other passes, Piute at 11,423 feet and Bishop at 11,972 feet; Humphreys Basin at 11,000 feet below Mount Humphreys, which towers to almost 14,000 feet, and the wall of peaks along the Glacier Divide; plus Dusy Basin at over 11,000 feet, below the massive crest of the Palisades’ 13ers and 14ers; and follows the courses of Piute and Evolution creeks past waterfalls and roaring cascades. There’s not a dull moment on this entire hike.
Find more information at fs.usda.gov/recarea/inyo/recreation/recarea/?recid=21048&actid=51 and fs.usda.gov/recarea/inyo/recarea/?recid=20358&actid=50.
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Rae Lakes Loop
This 41.4-mile loop in Kings Canyon National Park owes its status as one of the most enduringly popular backpacking trips in the entire High Sierra for a few good reasons—foremost that it features an outstanding section of the JMT through the Rae Lakes Valley and over 11,978-foot Glen Pass, the loop’s only high pass.
Starting at Road’s End, at 5,035 feet in Yosemite Valley-like Kings Canyon, the loop gradually ascends the valleys of the South Fork Kings Canyon River and Bubbs Creek (when hiking clockwise) and finishes down the Bubbs Creek Valley. Most of the loop stays off the JMT, exploring the backcountry of Kings Canyon National Park amid the skyscraping peaks of the southern High Sierra.
Besides the convenience of a loop hike at a distance that many backpackers will consider moderate—plus just one high pass to cross, making it a bit easier than several section hikes in this article—it also begins on the west side of the High Sierra, less than a day’s drive from major airports and most Californians, helping to explain the huge demand for this permit.
Find more information at https://www.nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/rae-lakes-loop.htm.
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Kearsarge Pass Trailhead to Whitney Portal
This section hike is not for the faint of heart or backpackers who struggle with high elevations. But the reward for this serious effort is some of the biggest scenery and highest points on the John Muir Trail, including the summit of Mount Whitney—certainly a highlight of any JMT thru-hike or section hike.
While it begins with a climb of almost 2,700 feet in 4.7 miles from the Kearsarge Pass Trailhead, at 9,185 feet, past a string of small lakes in the John Muir Wilderness to 11,845-foot Kearsarge Pass—where you enter Kings Canyon National Park—you’ll reach the JMT south of Glen Pass in just 7.5 miles and follow it southbound for 30.7 miles to its southern terminus atop 14,505-foot Mount Whitney.
The JMT makes a gradual ascent of the Bubbs Creek Valley to 13,180-foot Forester Pass, the trail’s highest, enters Sequoia National Park and descends through a stark alpine lakes basin at over 12,000 feet, and then makes a long, grueling ascent of almost 4,000 feet up the west face of Whitney to its broad summit. From there, it’s a long, 10.4-mile and over 6,000-foot descent to the Whitney Portal Trailhead at nearly 8,400 feet. Starting at the Kearsarge Pass Trailhead lends you better odds getting a permit than trying to start at Whitney Portal—one of the most popular trailheads in the High Sierra.
See my story “Roof of the High Sierra: A Father-Son Climb of Mount Whitney.”
See all stories about backpacking the John Muir Trail at The Big Outside and “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
4 thoughts on “10 Great John Muir Trail Section Hikes”
Thanks Michael. I was fortunate enough to hike Duck Pass to Onion Valley in September with two of my sisters. Previously I hiked Reds Meadows to Yosemite with a buddy. One day soon I hope to do that leg from Onion Valley to Whitney Portal. I appreciate your words on it.
I also hear the hike down from Whitney can be quite the slog with so many dayhikers coming from the other direction hoping to summit in one day.
Do you have any advice on how to avoid the crowds that are ascending outside of not going at all? Maybe descend at night.
Thanks for the nice words. You’ve already done a couple of nice section hikes and I think you’ll find some of these others are even better.
Good question. The answer would be the same for virtually any long dayhike that will take most people many hours to get up and down, like Whitney. For starters, the highest demand for dayhiking permits will be weekends from July through September; that said, I also suspect that weekday demand will outpace the number of permits issued daily, and if all daily permits get issued, the day of the week won’t necessarily affect the number of actual hikers.
Most of those dayhikers will start in early morning, hoping to reach the summit by anytime from late morning to early afternoon. Looking at it that way, you can expect that pulse of most Whitney dayhikers to be ascending the trail in morning and coming down in afternoon; much smaller numbers will be ahead of or behind that big crowd of hikers.
If you’re backpacking in either direction, you’ll have a quieter summit if you reach it by mid-morning. If you’re backpacking southbound, that would require a very early start from the west side of Whitney because that’s a big climb from that side, too. But it’s certainly possible. If you start very early from Whitney Portal hiking northbound, you’d have to move as fast as most dayhikers, despite your greater pack weight, to stay ahead of them.
Then, of course, you’ll encounter that group coming uphill as you’re going down the Mount Whitney Trail.
Otherwise, you’re right, if you come up the west side of Whitney and hit the summit in the afternoon, most hikers will likely be off it and heading downhill ahead of you. But then you’re finishing well after dark.
Afraid that’s the reality of it. Good luck.
Thank you, great article, very well written and you are right, some of us are not able to take the time to do the full thru-hike, but portions of would be great.
In the Tuolumne Meadow to Reds Meadow, you mentioned a way to turn this into a loop, by adding 24 miles or so, by starting at Yosemite Valley.
when looking at the maps, having difficulty finding that trailhead you may be referring to. Got the Tuolumne Meadow and Reds Meadow and the John Muir between, just can’t find this 24-mile stretch.
Any help would be appreciated.
Thanks, Jeff. To clarify, that Tuolumne to Reds description doesn’t call it a loop, it’s still a one-way hike entirely on the JMT from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne and continuing to Reds. As with hiking just Tuolumne to Reds, you still have to arrange transportation between the trailheads.
I hope that clears it up. Good luck with your trip planning.