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

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

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.

From that moment on, he becomes known as Stumbles.

We laugh, because the nickname’s funny and appropriate, and because our packs weigh in at only six pounds, and because the four of us have trained and trained some more for the insane undertaking we’ve just begun—so we’re practically running uphill effortlessly, feeling as fit as racehorses. But mostly we laugh because we are only at the beginning of an odyssey that seemed impossible when we first contemplated the idea. We haven’t yet entered the zone of constant pain, so it’s easy to delude ourselves into believing that we aren’t pursuing an ambition of fools.

Besides, we’re in Yosemite, a place crazy with distractions. In the faint first light, 600-foot Nevada Falls looks like a wavering white apparition, and our inability to see it well seems to amplify the sound of the free-falling water sheering through air like a liquid guillotine. Deer bound away silently in the chilling dawn. At mid-morning, from ledges at 9,000 feet, we go slack-jawed at a shark’s grin of peaks: Tenaya, Tressider, Cathedral, Matthes Crest. We’re giddy as little girls, knowing this is just a scenic appetizer for the feast of alpine vistas awaiting us over the course of the week ahead on the JMT: snow-draped mountains and jagged granite spires, passes from 11,000 to over 13,000 feet, and a constellation of lakes reflecting it all upside down.

That’s right, I wrote “the week ahead.” We’re out here as guinea pigs testing a theory that, by arriving ultra-fit and going ultralight, we can collapse a hike normally stretched out over three weeks or more into seven days. We’re taking what Ray Jardine preached in The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook back in the 1990’s—a then-controversial gospel that called for drastically slashing pack weight and ramping up daily mileage—to a questionable extreme. The math sounds pretty simple: trim pack weight by two-thirds (or more), and hike three times as far. A lot of Ray’s disciples have since embraced the ultralight strategy with great satisfaction, including many Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers, who would not complete that 2,600-mile thru-hike in one season without going light.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


 

I’ve made a steady evolution into that style of backpacking, going from regularly lugging 50-pound loads for eight or 10 arduous miles a day to carrying sub-30-pound packs on 15- or 20-mile days. Instead of suffering under an unwieldy load and taking five days to hike 40 miles, I’d walk more comfortably and finish in three days, or hike farther in the same five days, and feel less taxed physically. I’ve found it easier to train for walking farther with a moderate load than for walking less distance with a heavy one. And based on personal experience and what I’ve seen happen to other hikers, I’m convinced that backcountry injuries are more often attributable to excessive pack weight than to excessive miles.

To purist backpackers who object that I’m not stopping to smell the roses—or whatever it is one smells when bent double under a huge pack—I point out that I’ve simply gone from walking 2 mph to walking 3 mph. I’m not missing anything; in fact, I’m going farther and seeing more than I used to. But just finishing a day on the trail feeling great was evidence enough for me.

Get the right backpack for a hike like the JMT. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs
and the best thru-hiking packs.

Fastpacking the John Muir Trail

For a few years, the idea of speed-hiking the JMT had been stabbing the button of my obsessive-compulsive disorder, demanding my attention like a tiny thorn in my sock. I learned that fit hikers going überlight were sailing “America’s most beautiful trail,” as the JMT is often called, in just 10 days; it sounded reasonable, given the Sierra’s dry, mild summer weather and the trail’s moderate grades. Then I bumped into one ultralight guru who suggested cranking it in seven days. Another Muir Trail veteran told me that “30- to 40-mile days are totally doable.”

Unfortunately, where another hiker might think that pounding out 31 miles a day for a solid week sounds just slightly over the top, my admittedly altered brain chemistry rationalizes, “How hard could that be?” I also had the ulterior motive of simply wanting to hike the entire trail, but knowing I couldn’t possibly abandon my working wife and two young kids for three weeks. Before long, I’d convinced myself that a seven-day thru-hike of the JMT—221 miles including the 11-mile descent off Mt. Whitney (the 211-mile JMT terminates at its summit), with more than 40,000 feet of elevation gain—was not only feasible: It would even, quite possibly, be fun.

Right now, anyway, my prognostication is looking pretty good. At the risk of sounding cocky, we’re chewing up ground. We roll into Sunrise High Sierra Camp—nearly 13 miles out—by 10 a.m., as fresh as if we just did a 10-minute warm-up. The afternoon heat drains us, but we refuel on burgers, fries, and milkshakes at the Tuolumne Meadows café at around mile 22, and rendezvous with Mark’s wife and kids, who’ve driven there with our camping gear and a food resupply for the next two days. Then we set out again with 18-pound packs to hike into the evening.

Want to hike the John Muir Trail? Click here for expert, detailed advice you won’t get elsewhere.

In the mountain dusk of 7 p.m., we pitch our tarps near a windswept, unnamed alpine tarn at 10,180 feet in Lyell Canyon. We pass the ibuprofen like we’re doing shots, rub tired-but-not-aching feet, and take stock. On our first day, we’ve walked 34 miles, with 7,000 feet of uphill. Mark’s pedometer reports the day’s mind-boggling tally: 72,376 steps. We should look like enemy combatants with indefinite leases at Guantanamo, but instead, we’re just tired.

As we take an icy dip in the lake, below a skyline of granite cliffs, Stumbles tells me with an ears-wide grin, “You know what? I can’t believe how good I feel.”

I smile, naively thinking: We’ve got this thing licked.

On the JMT overlooking the Cathedral Range, Yosemite.
On the JMT overlooking the Cathedral Range, Yosemite.

Planning a John Muir Trail Thru-Hike

“Subject: Re: You’re going to do what in 7 days?!”

That was Mark’s response to my e-mail, months earlier, baiting him with a passing mention of my plan. Mark, who lives south of Boston, is an author of books on fitness walking and a former U.S. race-walking team member who’s now, like me, past 40 with a demanding career and a young family. I wanted him in, but knew I couldn’t just invite him outright. Mark’s a hyper-analytical MIT guy: He would react to this supremely irrational idea in a very rational way—dismissing it as a plan for masochists.

I knew that before agreeing to this level of insanity, he would have to go through something like the stages of grief: First there is denial (“No way I’m doing something that stupid”), then anger (“Why me?!”), followed by bargaining (“Okay, I’m tentatively in, but I reserve the right to back out at any time”), depression (“Oh, my God, we’re actually going to do this”), and finally, acceptance (“I’m an idiot”).

Get the right shelter for a trip like the JMT. See my “Gear Review: The 5 Best Backpacking Tents
and my expert tips in “How to Choose the Best Ultralight Backpacking Tent for You.”

Honing my sales pitch as Fenton chewed on my proposal, I started recruiting a team of the blissfully ignorant.

My fellow-Idahoan friend Todd Arndt takes hours-long trail runs and still fondly recalls the time we hiked 8,000 feet up out of Hells Canyon—108° F., no shade. Todd’s a doctor, so if one of us perished—assuming it’s not him—at least we’d have someone who’s qualified to pronounce the time of death. When I called him and broached the idea, there followed a long pause, then he said slowly, as if he’d just bumped his head very hard: “That. Sounds. Great.”

Heather Dorn on the JMT below Cathedral Peak in Yosemite.
Heather Dorn on the JMT below Cathedral Peak in Yosemite.

Heather Dorn, mother of two girls and living at the time in Pennsylvania, exhibited impeccable judgment—a valuable wilderness asset—by avoiding my calls and e-mails for weeks. But proving demonstrably that a Y chromosome is not a prerequisite for bad judgment, she ultimately gave in to the lure of the impossible disguised as plausible.

And Mark Godley, of the Bay Area, was tough enough for it: He had hiked with me through the rugged Bailey Range of the Olympics carrying a sleeping bag the size of a prize-winning pumpkin. In a two-career marriage with three preschool children, he couldn’t escape for a week, but would join us for our last two days.

And a month after that first e-mail to Fenton, he was in. Defying reason, I had a team.

We set out to get in the shape of our lives in four months—going out on 5 a.m. speed hikes, grinding out 25-mile dayhikes in blistering heat, doing ridiculous numbers of lunges. A few weeks prior to meeting up in Yosemite Valley, Fenton and I banged out a one-day, 32-mile hike of the Pemi Loop in New Hampshire’s White Mountains with 10,000 feet of ups and downs.

We were ready. Or so we thought.

Hike stronger and smarter. See my stories “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb
and “10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier.”

. . .

About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.

25 Comments

  1. Avatar

    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.

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    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.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      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.

      Reply
  3. michaellanza

    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.

    Reply
  4. Avatar

    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!

    Reply
  5. Avatar

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

    Reply
    • michaellanza

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

      Reply
  6. Avatar

    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….

    Reply
  7. Avatar

    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..

    Reply
    • michaellanza

      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.

      Reply
  8. Avatar

    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.

    Reply
    • michaellanza

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

      Reply
  9. Avatar

    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…?

    Reply
    • michaellanza

      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.

      Reply
  10. Avatar

    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

    Reply
    • michaellanza

      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.

      Reply
  11. Avatar

    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?

    Reply
    • michaellanza

      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.

      Reply
  12. Avatar

    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.

    Reply
    • michaellanza

      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.

      Reply
  13. Avatar

    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

    Reply
  14. Avatar

    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!

    Reply
    • michaellanza

      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.

      Reply

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Hi, I'm Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside and former Northwest Editor at Backpacker magazine. Click my photo to learn more about me and my blog. Sign up for my free email newsletter in the blue box above. Click on Subscribe Now! in the main menu (top right) to get full access to all of my stories on America's best backpacking, hiking, and outdoor adventures. And click on Ask Me in the main menu to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

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