There are plenty of articles and guidebooks about hiking the John Muir Trail—but after thru-hiking the JMT myself last summer, I learned a few things, some the hard way—things nobody tipped me off about beforehand. The JMT’s countless views, passes, scenic mountain lakes and lush meadows make it the crown jewel of thru-hikes. It will most likely be the hike of your life. And planning ahead with a few of these tips can make a big difference in your overall experience and success on the JMT.
Make backup logistics plans–you won’t regret it.
The JMT can be a logistics nightmare, and one of the biggest logistics hurdles you'll face is getting to and from the trail itself.
The YARTS bus service that runs from the Park to Mammoth Lakes is the most common option for those coming and going from the park without a car. When it arrives in Mammoth, your connecting bus, the Eastern Sierra Transit has already left for Lone Pine! There is a later bus, but you have to waste half a day in Mammoth Lakes. There are plenty of private shuttle services but they can be costly. If you go southbound, chances of cell service after Red’s Meadow area is non-existent, so scheduling a pick up from a trail head is very difficult.
Before you leave, review your options in detail. Make a plan that fits your schedule but remember that things can go wrong. With this in mind, be sure to have screenshots of the different bus schedules or private companies available. This way, if you do have to bail on your original plan, you'll have the ability to research and plan a new exit strategy without the headache of having to research the material from the backcountry.
The sun can be your enemy—here’s how to fend it off.
The southern section of the JMT is pretty much void of trees and shade—until you get to the Evolution basin, sun will be more constant than shade. So you really need sunscreen or a good way to cover up.
A good bucket hat or sun hat will go far in protecting you from the sun. Not only can that sun burn you—it will sap your energy levels. The day I summited Mt. Whitney, 15 of our 19 miles were in the sun.
Also consider the following items from Outdoor Research to help protect you from the sun:
Rethink your direction of travel.
Almost every guide you'll read tells you that going in the southbound (SOBO) direction is the easier way to go. Most claim starting at a lower elevation is easier on your body than a start at Mount Whitney where the elevation is higher. In my opinion, this is utter BS. You start with a climb of close to 6,000 feet in the first 15 mile and end up climbing from 4,004 feet to 9,710 feet on the first day of your hike!
If you look at the chart below, I list the mileage, elevation gain or loss, and total grade for each pass. (These numbers are from the Guthook App.) I started at the lowest point before and after each pass to determine the numbers.
If you compare the numbers for NOBO vs. SOBO, you can see that using the standard approach, NOBO wins 18 to 11. That ratio jumps to 23 to 6 if you look at the full approach numbers. Pinchot Pass is the only clear winner for SOBO.
That’s why I suggest starting at Horseshoe Meadow. Hike an extra 10 miles verses using Whitney Portal, and use the extra day in the area to get more used to the elevation. The grades along the Pacific Crest Trail are easier, you don’t have to climb the 99 switchbacks from Mt. Whitney Portal, and perhaps most importantly: the permit process is so simple compared to the JMT Lottery.
If you plan on going SOBO, be ready for long approaches on almost every pass. Without question, both directions are difficult. But luckily the view from top is the same and spectacular.
Give up the dream of solitude—brush up on LNT priniciples.
The JMT is insanely crowded. While on the trail for only 13 days I counted over 1,800 people, and this doesn't include the people in tents I couldn't see.
This means you should expect crowded tent sites. And your odds of experiencing solitude are greatly diminished. If you’re looking for a hike with minimal people, the JMT is not it. It’s still amazing—just don’t expect to be alone.
The trail, which was a single track 12 years ago is now a three track in most areas. To help avoid increased degradation, stay on the trail. Be careful not to trample vegetation on the sides of the trail. This requires effort when passing other hikers. Stick to solid dirt or rocks. The vegetation at those altitudes has a very small growing season and it takes years for minimal growth. If we’re going to keep the trail from becoming a highway, we need to stick to the narrow singletrack. Review your Leave No Trace principles before you hit the trail.
Snag the best seats for views.
If you get on the bus in Yosemite's Lower Valley to leave, be sure to sit on the right side of the bus. I made the mistake of sitting on the left side and found out the hard way that all the views are on the right side. If you're headed into that part, I would suggest the left side of the bus.
Most of these tips are about planning ahead. When you plan, it’s almost like buying insurance for your hike. If you plan well, you ensure a greater success rate. Small details can make a big difference in your experience. So do your homework, make a plan, cover up out there, know the terrain and—most importantly—have fun!