John Muir Trail follows John Muir's footsteps
The Sierra's granite peaks soar high above the thick pine forests that tower above lush meadows. Multi-hued wildflowers in a riot of color find purchase in every nook and cranny in early summer. Azure lakes dot the succession of wide basins stretching south. Dawn in the high Sierra is an especially magical time as the first rays of golden light dance across rock faces tinted with brilliant yellow, rust orange and deep russet.
You can get a glimpse of all this on a day hike, but it doesn't have to be so fleeting. The John Muir Trail offers the chance to spend weeks opening up to the wonders of the wilderness. With a little planning, just about anyone can hike it if they are very fit and motivated, even a few hardy souls in their 70s and 80s.
Fueled in part by books and films such as “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods,” more and more people are looking to the backcountry to get away from it all. Their reasons are varied. Some are looking for solitude while others seek dramatic scenery. Still others are running away from something or seeking to understand themselves better. Many describe the peace they find in the simplicity of trail life, stripping away the conventions of society and the burden of being constantly connected.
I was introduced to backpacking at 45, with weekend trips around Tahoe leading to week-long trips. A chance visit with a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker on one of those treks piqued my interest in long trails. The thought of spending six months on the trail repelled and fascinated me at the same time, but when I learned that the John Muir Trail could be completed in mere weeks, I thought maybe, just maybe, I could do it.
The John Muir Trail traces a 210.4-mile path along the jagged spine of the Sierra, one of the premier long-distance hiking trails in the U.S. Lacing along the crest of the High Sierra, the trail begins among throngs of excitable tourists at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley. It ends with a spectacular flourish at the top of Mt. Whitney, at 14,505 feet the highest peak in the contiguous U.S.
Named after John Muir, the intrepid rambler, prolific nature writer and founder of the Sierra Club, the trail was actually the brainchild of Theodore Solomons. As a teenager who herded his uncle's sheep amid the towering granite spires, Solomons wondered whether a trail could be constructed through the rugged terrain. That was 1884, and 50 years later his vision became a reality.
The trail meanders through an impressive patchwork of jurisdictions that include national parks, national forests and wilderness areas, but thankfully only one entrance permit is required. Ten high passes ranging from 9,700 to more than 13,000 feet must be surmounted, and with most of the trail higher than 8,000 feet, acclimatizing to altitude is an important consideration.
After months of training hikes, navigating the archaic permitting process, packing and mailing resupply boxes to remote backcountry camps and investing in lighter gear, Steve and I stepped onto the trail with lingering doubts. Was this a crazy idea? I kept going, one foot in front of the other for 23 days.
We went through smoky skies from raging fires, steady rain, lightning that nipped at our heels and endured the fatiguing effects of high altitude. We climbed ever higher, each hard-earned gain immediately followed by a huge descent over the other side as we passed through vast, boulder-strewn bowls, each separated by another high pass. The dramatic scenery unfolded as we moved south, coniferous forests giving way to lofty spires of granite reaching for the heavens.
I expected to find such stunning scenery but was surprised months later to find that what I remembered most were the people I met. The ties that bind a trail community together in any given year are tenuous at best, held together by brief encounters, a few exchanged words and longer visits on the tops of passes or at resupply points. And yet, I remember every conversation vividly. Every photograph brings me right back to that moment on the trail.
The doctors still laugh with us at the memory of Steve falling into a mud pot at Blaney Hot Springs, where we soaked our sore muscles for hours at the half-way point. Sipping whiskey one afternoon with the Texans while delving into water rights issues in drought-stricken states showed us how much we had in common. The teens, the pair of 16-year-old friends doing the trail by themselves was a lesson in maturity, self-sufficiency and poise that many adults could learn from. Grandma, an 81-year-old Japanese-American woman hiking the entire trail solo gave new meaning to retirement possibilities. And we'll never forget 2-year-old Sage, singing to her parents from her baby carrier as they climbed Glen Pass.