The JMT is possibly the most famous multi-day trail in the United States. It is certainly worthy of the acclaim. Here’s what you need to know to hike this wonderful trail.
The traditional route on the JMT runs north to south from Happy Isles in Yosemite to the summit of Mt. Whitney. Although the trail officially runs 211 miles, there’s an additional 10 miles down to Whitney Portal once you reach the summit. Before I get into the fun I had on my trip, here’s some logistical info for a JMT trip for anyone interested in making their own foray into the Sierras.
Maps and Guidebooks
The best map for the JMT is Tom Harrison’s John Muir Trail Map-Pack: Shaded Relief Topo Maps. They’re widely available (online, REI, etc.) and are easy to use. An alternate for those who are trying to keep it cheap is Section H of Halfmile’s Pacific Crest Trail maps. They’re not quite as clear as the Harrison’s maps, but contain a mountain of information on water sources, trail markers and camp sites. I didn’t use a guidebook for my trip, but I’ve heard good things about Elizabeth Wenk’s John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail.
Navigation is extremely easy once you’re on trail. The trail is well marked throughout with signs at the major trail junctions. Beyond that, the trail has enough traffic, especially in the high season, that there is no worry about losing the trail.
Because it is one of the most popular trails in the country, access to the JMT is severely restricted. A very limited number of wilderness permits are available for JMT hikers each day for a nominal fee of $5. Of these, 60 percent may be reserved ahead of time. The National Park Service holds the remaining 40% as first-come, first-served permits that must be registered for at the Yosemite Valley Wilderness Center either the day of or the day before the scheduled start date.
Permit reservations open 24 weeks before the trail date. For the prime hiking seasons running from May-September, all available permits are typically reserved the same day that reservations open. This means that if you want the certainty of a reserved permit for those dates, it pays to plan ahead and book as soon as reservations. Use this calendar to help determine when you should submit the permit application for your desired start date. Off-season permits are required but are available on a self-registration basis.
More information about the JMT wilderness permit process is available here.
Most JMT hikers require several resupplies to complete the trail. Resupply points are easiest along the northern half of the trail. The first common resupply point is Red’s Meadow Resort and Campground, which is located around 20 miles south of Tuolomne Meadows.
A benefit of resupplying at Red’s is that you can make a visit to the Mulehouse Cafe for a nice, hot meal. I recommend the bacon cheeseburger. Red’s accepts resupply packages through either mail or hand-delivery. A trip to Red’s also gives hikers a chance to visit the Devil’s Postpile National Park, which contains an fascinating geologic formation.
For those who can’t pull together a resupply package before hitting the trail, it is possible to catch a shuttle from Red’s to Mammoth, where you can find any supplies you need. This can even include a hotel room for less dedicated JMT’ers.
The next resupply points are located at Vermillion Ranch Resort (VRR) and the Muir Trail Ranch (MTR). The two resorts are located about twenty miles apart (near Edison and Florence Lakes, respectively) so Hikers typically pick one of two. I went with the MTR. VRR requires JMT hikers to hike 12 miles (roundtrip) off the JMT to reach the resort. In contrast, the MTR is an easy mile (each way) off the official JMT. As with Red’s, resupply packages can be mailed or hand-delivered to either location.
One great reason to resupply at MTR is the row of 5-gallon buckets filled with excess food, fuel, and other supplies left behind by hikers who overestimated their resupply needs. You can find just about anything you need there. In my case, I made out like a bandit and scored several bags of dehydrated mangos. Worth every extra ounce and then some.
South of the MTR, resupply gets a bit more complicated. Instead of resorts located just off the trail, resupply in the southern sections involves hiring an agency to deliver food to specific points on trail, strong-arming a friend or family member to do the same, or hiking as much as 20-miles off-trail (roundtrip) plus some hitchhiking to resupply in one of the towns that dot the eastern Sierra.
I was fortunate enough to go the friend route and had my good friend Taylor Foss bring my resupply over Taboose Pass. As it turns out, Taboose is a bitch. Taylor and I, and moreso Taylor’s heels, would all recommend choosing another pass for the resupply. Onion Valley is a more popular and less demanding resupply route.
The weather is generally great in the Sierras during the hiking season. You can expect to be hit with an occasional afternoon squall, but nothing too major. The temperatures will likely be quite hot during the days, but even at high altitudes don’t drop much below freezing under normal circumstances.
Pre- and Post-Trail Logistics
For those starting from Yosemite, an easily accessible backpackers campsite is located about a mile and half from the Happy Isles trailhead. The wilderness permits include a single night stay for backpackers at the campsite. If you need more nights in the park, Yosemite’s Camp #4 is available for longer-term camping, although sites can be difficult to get.
On the other end, Whitney Portal offers the Mount Whitney Trailhead Campground for backpackers. With only 25 spots and no reservations allowed, relying on spending the night there can be dicey.
Transportation from one trailhead to the other is the last big hurdle for JMT hikers. The Pacific Crest Trail Association has the best write up I’ve seen on transportation options from one end of the trail to the other.
If you enjoyed learning about the John Muir Trail, check out Hike The World: The Guide to the Planet’s Best Trails, my new guide book to the best multi-day trails in the world. Explore thirty incredible hikes, five on each continent, that will take you to the most beautiful, iconic and remote places on the planet. Find all the information you need to start your own amazing adventure!