Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail in 7 Days: Amazing Experience, or Certifiably Insane?

In Backpacking, National Park Adventures   |   Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,   |   29 Comments

By Michael Lanza

“Umm, hey buddy, you okay?”

It’s 4:30 a.m., a time of day that puts us in the questionable company of cat burglars and alpinists. Our headlamp beams seem to bounce off the inky black of a moonless night in Yosemite Valley. Four of us are taking the first steps on the 221-mile John Muir Trail. And my friend Mark Fenton is staggering like a frat boy on a weekend bender.

“No problem, just a little vertigo I get hiking in the dark. I’ll be fine.” As if scripted for a sitcom, he then lurches too near the edge of the trail—which drops off into the dark roar of the Merced River far below.

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29 Responses to Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail in 7 Days: Amazing Experience, or Certifiably Insane?

  1. Steve   |  June 4, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    Thanks Michael, that was an absolutely fantastic read. Some lovely, evocative writing there. You managed to convey both the joy and madness of such an ambitious undertaking. Still, you have a story you will never forget. Would love to know exactly what gear you took, though I guess most people get way too hung up on gear. Arcteryx, Berghaus and the like, no matter what they cost, can’t walk the thirty miles a day for you. The photos were amazing. I live in Gran Canaria but have long been eyeing the John Muir Trail, though it would be a standard three or so weeks for me, I imagine. Thanks again, that was the best thing I’ve read in a while on the outdoors.

  2. joe   |  May 9, 2017 at 4:25 pm

    Got a question. What backpack do you recommend for doing your JMT 10 day trip.
    There are a lot of options. was looking at zpacks but am concerned about the fitting a bear canister inside it.
    What pack did you use for your 7 day trip? Any thoughts would be much appreciated.

    • MichaelALanza   |  May 11, 2017 at 9:45 am

      Hi Joe, I had used a GoLite ultralight pack on my JMT thru-hike, but GoLite is no longer around. I have not used a Zpacks. In my experience, though, the most ultralight packs, which have essentially no suspension, are only comfortable if you’re keeping total weight under 20 pounds, which requires very judicious packing, especially given how much food you have to carry on the JMT. I like the Osprey Exos packs because they offer enough support for at least 25 pounds, but are still quite lightweight. My review: https://thebigoutside.com/gear-review-osprey-exos-58-backpack/.

      Good luck with your hike.

  3. michaellanza   |  January 9, 2016 at 7:30 am

    Hi Andrew, if you’re prepared to hike with all of your gear the 22 miles (and it’s uphill) from Happy Isles to Tuolumne, I doubt any rangers you see (if you see any) would question your plans. You would only have a problem if they found you camping illegally. Yes, you may want to camp that night in the campground in Tuolumne; reserve a campsite as soon as you have your permit and know your plans, because I don’t think you’d find a first-come campsite available if you show up late in the day: http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/tmcamp.htm.

    Good luck. Once you’ve dealt with the permit headaches and have all of the logistics planned out, it’s a great trip.

  4. Andrew   |  January 8, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    Thanks for the great post! I’m planning a 13 day trek on the JMT this summer and the permit process out of Yosemite is brutal! Even the Lyell Canyon permits are getting filled every day now (can request up to June 24 right now). I’ll be with a group of 3-4 and we are all out of state so will be relying on public transit.

    I was contemplating the approach of trying to get a permit out of Lyell Canyon and doing a dayhike from HI to Tuolumne Meadow. I was wondering, because I believe you did this part without much gear?, would it be allowed to do this with all our gear? I feel like if a ranger saw us it would be hard to convince them we were indeed hiking to Tuolumne with full packs.

    I’m also debating if we did this to request a late permit pickup so that we could get the permit and then hike some more or camp at the Tuolumne Meadow’s campground and get the permit the next day.

    I’d appreciate any advice on this!

  5. Rich   |  August 19, 2015 at 10:32 am

    I have to catch shuttle Sunday at 5:00 pm…

    • michaellanza   |  August 19, 2015 at 10:40 am

      That’s a reasonable goal if you start early and maintain a strong pace. Have fun.

  6. Rich   |  August 19, 2015 at 10:31 am

    Thanks…I plan on passing through t meadows on Saturday mid morning and stoping near sunrise creek…looks like about 15 miles from there to Forsyth trail around CR down to HI….

  7. Rich   |  August 19, 2015 at 9:49 am

    Sorry
    I’ll be on jmt northbound…planning on early lunch at T meadows then pushing on some where around sunrise lakes trail/sunrise high camp junction. Any idea which route would be better to do CR off jmt? Looks like I can take sunrise lakes trail or Forsyth trail..I’ll need to be at HI before 5 so need to start early on that day..

    • michaellanza   |  August 19, 2015 at 10:07 am

      From the north/Tuolumne, Sunrise Lakes to Forsyth Trail looks to be a couple miles shorter than taking the connecting trail off the JMT farther south; and hiking the Forsyth up Clouds Rest is way cool, anyway. That’s a big day, you may need to leave Tuolumne well before lunch to reach Happy Isles by 5. Enjoy, Clouds Rest is quite amazing.

  8. Rich   |  August 19, 2015 at 9:22 am

    Michael
    Im hoping to be able to have enough time to do HD or CR. from others recs I think I’ll try to do CR as seems to be highly recommended. I’ll be headed from the south. What route would you recommend as I must catch the uarts back to mammoth at 5 on Sunday.

    • michaellanza   |  August 19, 2015 at 9:28 am

      Hi Rich, please explain your question: What do you mean by which route?

  9. Rich   |  August 18, 2015 at 8:55 am

    Think I’ll probably take cap 2 top and bottom as they are a few oz lighter. For leg warmth also may drop to one pair of compression underwear boxers and add a pair of long compression undies for leg warmth and not risk getting sleep pants wet..can always layer cap 2 over the tights if cold. I’ll be using a 15 deg marmot helium down bag so should sleep warm enough w layers…I don’t care for zip offs..never can find any that fit good as I have a athletic build…5’11” 210lbs…aka big butt and legs…?

    • michaellanza   |  August 18, 2015 at 9:02 am

      Sounds smart. The other key point about tent vs. tarp is that if it’s raining a lot, with a tarp, you’re lying down on wet ground, meaning you’d at least want some ground cloth. Then you’re pushing up toward the weight of an ultralight tent, anyway.

  10. Rich   |  August 18, 2015 at 7:51 am

    Mike
    I’m set to do a flip flop jmt thru out of Devils (north then south after taking yarts back to mammoth) starting sept 10. I often hike on the southern AT and use a lightheart gear solong 6 hybrid tent that comes in just under 2lbs. Was thinking about trying a 8×10 tarp on jmt to save over 1lb but seems like they are getting more rain and storms currently…since I’ve never tried tarping in not totally sure now. My base weight is around 12-13 with my bear can..so my pack should stay under 30lbs even for my 7 day food carry out of mtr. I also plan out jogging shorts with a long sleeve rei sahara button up shirt to keep some sun off…shorts ok for sept..I guess can wear sleep capilene in morning if cold under my shorts..here is my clothing list for your input. Thx again
    all cloths for sept 10(14 day jmt hike)
    Rei Sahara ls button up
    Rei ul tech t??
    Lt jogging shorts
    Under armour compression boxers x2
    DT hiker socks x 2
    DG gaiters
    OR helium 11 rain/wind shell
    Ula rain skirt??
    Montbell ul down parka
    Capilene 4 quarter zip hoody or capilene 2 is lighter????
    Under armour compression thermal leggings 2.0 or 3.0????
    Lasportiva Wildcats
    OR sun runner hat
    Mountain hardware micro done beenie and liner gloves
    Buff

    Thanks
    Richard

    • michaellanza   |  August 18, 2015 at 8:33 am

      Hi Rich, Your gear and clothing list is very close to what I would use on a late-summer JMT thru-hike. Your choice of lighter or heavier Capilene and Under Armour tops and bottoms depends on how warm or cold you get as well as the long-term forecast at your trip’s outset–it could be lows 40s at night or high 20s. If you decide on the heavier bottoms, I would consider whether it makes sense to just trade out those and your shorts for zip-off pants. I’ve heard from other JMT hikers this summer that they’ve been getting wet. An 8×10 tarp can be rigged to keep the rain off you and your gear, though you may need to seek campsites that are protected from wind if it’s really stormy; but short of getting in some practice with pitching the tarp before your trip, you might be happier with a tent, especially on a two-week trip. Good luck, be safe, and have fun.

  11. Rich   |  August 5, 2015 at 4:14 pm

    Michael
    How many hour per day did you hike? I’m planning for 14 days…I avg around 2.5 mph on southern AT. Any altitude issues?

    • michaellanza   |  August 7, 2015 at 5:06 am

      Hi Rich, we averaged around 2.5 mph (as you may, it sounds like) and hiked 12 or more hours a day. Yes, there are a number of passes between 11,000 and over 13,000 feet. Hiking north to south gives you a little more time to acclimate before hitting the highest passes. Have a great trip.

  12. Michael   |  August 5, 2015 at 4:01 pm

    I just finished a 14 day hike of the JMT. I was planning on 13 days but was held up on the north side of Forester by a storm and ended up doing 3 easy days instead of pushing it the last two days from Bubbs Creek to Whitney Portal. Based on my experience this year, and what I read last year, assuming good weather in August or September is probably a poor assumption. I did have a good time in between rain storms though. Something it taught me though was that the National Weather Service has no clue when predicting weather in the Sierras.

    • michaellanza   |  August 7, 2015 at 5:04 am

      Hey Michael, the two experiences you refer to may simply be short-term anomalies, although it would also appear that weather in many areas, including the three West Coast states, has not been following historical norms in recent years.

  13. Rich   |  August 3, 2015 at 8:07 pm

    I’ve enjoyed your article several times….after 2 years with no luck getting a permit I’m doing a flip flop hike. September 10 start out of Devils post pile…4 days go get to happy isles..catch 5:00pm yarts back to mammoth then on a separate permit hike south from Devils to Whitney. My base weight with canister will be under 13lbs. I’m on the fence about buying a tarp to save a pound from my 2lb lhg solong 6 tent…any advice as all my hikes are on the southern AT. I have no prob doing 16+ miles per day…thx

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  15. Brooke Thomas   |  February 15, 2015 at 11:40 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post! We’ve backpacked sections of the John Muir Trail, with hopes to hike the whole thing eventually (likely over a 21+ day span). Thousand Island Lake is one of my favorite places on Earth! Thank you for the stories and sharing your adventure. Random questions – have you ever hiked the Goat Rocks in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in WA? I think that’s where we’re headed this summer. Happy Trails!

    • michaellanza   |  February 17, 2015 at 9:11 am

      Hi Brooke, thanks for the nice comment. Good luck realizing your goal of hiking the entire JMT. I have not yet backpacked the Goat Rocks area, though it’s on my list to do.

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