Backpacking the John Muir and Ansel Adams Wildernesses

By Michael Lanza

Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks loom large on the radar screens of most backpackers. But savvy Sierra aficionados know that the two major wilderness areas that sprawl over nearly 900,000 acres along more than 100 miles of the High Sierra between those parks, the John Muir and Ansel Adams wildernesses, harbor just as rich a cache of soaring, jagged peaks and shimmering alpine lakes—not to mention sections of the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail that enable almost endless possibilities for multi-day hikes, short and long. And while competition is stiff for permits to backpack in the John Muir and Ansel Adams wildernesses, those permits are not nearly as hard to draw as permits for the most popular trips in Yosemite or Sequoia-Kings Canyon or to thru-hike the John Muir Trail.

Having backpacked many hundreds of miles throughout the High Sierra on numerous trips over more than three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog, I have seen much of the abundant gorgeous backcountry in those mountains—and concluded that, while Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon certainly do belong on your tick list, you must add the John Muir and Ansel Adams wildernesses as well. And it’s often easier to get a permit from the Inyo National Forest for backpacking in the Muir and Adams wildernesses than to get a permit for popular areas in either Yosemite or Sequoia-Kings Canyon.

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Backpackers hiking the John Muir Trail to Silver Pass in the John Muir Wilderness, High Sierra.
David Ports and Marco Garofalo backpacking the John Muir Trail to Silver Pass in the John Muir Wilderness, High Sierra.

On my most-recent hike of nine days and almost 130 miles through the Adams, Muir, and a corner of Kings Canyon National Park in August 2022 (the lead photo at the top of this story was taken on that trip), two companions and I walked some premier sections of the John Muir Trail, explored high, off-trail terrain, and hiked through and camped by alpine lakes below skyscraping granite peaks and spires.

That trip illustrated how the extensive trail network throughout the High Sierra’s national parks and forests enable myriad options for multi-day hikes of virtually any distance—and the Ansel Adams and John Muir wildernesses protect those lands in as pristine a condition as you will find in any of the national parks. If you don’t have the time or desire for, say, a full John Muir Trail thru-hike, countless options for JMT section hikes and other trips exist throughout these wilderness areas.

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A backpacker hiking the Italy Pass Trail through Granite Park in the John Muir Wilderness, High Sierra, California.
Jason Kauffman backpacking the Italy Pass Trail through Granite Park in the John Muir Wilderness of the High Sierra.

The photos in this story are from various trips in the Ansel Adams and John Muir wildernesses. Below the photo gallery, you’ll find links to many stories about High Sierra backpacking trips.

Please share your questions or comments about your own experiences in the High Sierra in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

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See all stories about backpacking in the High Sierra at The Big Outside, including “10 Great John Muir Trail Section Hikes,” “How to Get a Yosemite or High Sierra Wilderness Permit,” “High Sierra Ramble: 130 Miles On—and Off—the John Muir Trail,” and “In the Footsteps of John Muir: Finding Solitude in the High Sierra,” plus “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.” Those feature-length stories about trips contain numerous photos and information on planning them. While roughly the first half of many stories about trips are free for anyone to read, reading them in full is an exclusive benefit for readers with a paid subscription to The Big Outside.

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3 thoughts on “Backpacking the John Muir and Ansel Adams Wildernesses”

    • Hi Kody, well, besides it being really spectacular every step of the way, the sense of remoteness was quite unique. As I hope the story conveys, it was also a very difficult trip on the off-trail sections.