The John Muir Trail (JMT) is a 211-mile backcountry trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.
The trail boasts some of the world’s best scenery and runs from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney and barely touches civilization… no roads, no towns, just pure unadulterated nature. The John Muir Trail crosses Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks and countless other wilderness areas giving it distinctly unique terrains at various points along the trail.
And I should know…
In 2013, a few friends and I celebrated my husband, Brock’s, 30th birthday by hiking the John Muir Trail and what a celebration it turned out to be.
Don’t miss my insider secrets in this tell-all interview…
Details for hiking the John Muir Trail:
Best time of year to hike:
You’ve got a pretty short window to hike the John Muir Trail; mid to late July through mid September to avoid snow. Of course, you can hike the John Muir Trail during other seasons; it just becomes a little more precarious with snow on the passes and carrying winter gear.
Most common starting/ending point:
It all depends really which way you want to go. You can either start in Yosemite Valley and hike south towards Mt. Whitney and build to an epic finish.
Or, you can tackle Mt. Whitney first and have that “it’s all downhill from here” sort of experience.
I’d say more people start at Yosemite, but there are still plenty of people that chose the other route as well.
Total # of miles:
211 miles of High Sierra wilderness. While it might not be the longest long-distance trail out there, it makes up for it by packing every single inch of trail with amazing views and tons of alpine solitude.
Average miles per day:
This is another personal preference type thing. I think the speed record for hiking the trail is two and a half days. Then there are people that take a month and a half and soak it all in. We were somewhere in between.
We took our time and ended up averaging somewhere between 8 and 10 miles a day, but there were plenty of 17 or 18-mile days thrown in there, too.
Climate and weather:
The John Muir Trail is almost entirely an alpine hike. And, as such, the weather can be unpredictable and unforgiving. This isn’t a bring-one-shirt-and-pair-of-shorts sort of hike.
You have to be prepared for everything.
In the dead of summer the weather is unpredictable and can bring snow, lighting storms, hail, rain, cold, and scorching sun. You name it the John Muir Trail has it all.
The valley tends to have a little more stable weather and once you get above 10,000 feet elevation plan on some cold night. We woke up a few times with a layer of frost on everything. So warm sleeping gear is a must.
How did you research hiking the John Muir Trail?
My husband, Brock, is my go-to resource for all things hiking. He had previously hiked almost the whole trail so he knew what we would need, and he had also hiked the Appalachian Trail a few years ago. He outfitted our whole trip, prepared permits, scheduled re-supply drops, and arranged transportation to Yosemite.
He also helped both of our friends pack and prepare for the hike.
There are also Facebook groups you can join where people share about preparation and stories from their hike.
How did you train and prepare for the trek?
I didn’t. This was a major problem for me and I’m not proud of myself for being so naive. I don’t enjoy climbing mountains (not on a bike or walking) and considering the trail is either straight up or straight down for the better part of 200 miles, I wasn’t having much fun in the beginning.
If I could go back in time I would do a lot more cardio and run uphill on a treadmill. If I had been living somewhere with mountains or any amount of elevation above sea level I would have gotten outside and hike.
What gear did you pack?
You can read my full packing list here, but to keep it brief:
- pair of Exofficio pants
- pair of shorts
- long-sleeved base layer
- short sleeved Merino wool shirt
- sun sleeves
- two pairs of Smartwool socks
- sun hat
- Under Armour leggings
- two pairs of underwear
- sports bra
- Patagonia Torrent Shell
- Patagonia down sweater
….Most of which I was wearing at all times.
- Black Diamond Elixer 45 backpack
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Shelter tent
- Monte Bell spiral down sleeping bag
- Therm-a-rest NeoAirXLite sleeping pad
- Nemo travel pillow
- Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock hiking poles
- alcohol stove
- titanium pot
My huge piece of advice is to pack light, don’t bring the kitchen sink on this trip. You will be exhausted at the end of each day so don’t bother with bringing heavy books. The lighter your pack the more pleasant the hike will be and the less stress on your body.
Did you need a permit?
Yes you need a permit. You can apply in advance, but that is tricky because they only give out so many for each day in advance.
We did what most people do…
We showed up in Yosemite ready to hike and got up at 3am in the morning to wait outside the ranger station where they give out permits. We were first in line and got a permit for all four of us to start the next day. So we had a day to relax and play in Yosemite.
How did you get supplies and water?
We filtered water whenever we needed to. We were fortunate that there was no shortage of water the year we hiked so we didn’t have to carry massive amounts of water with us at all times.
Supplies we got from our resupply boxes we mailed to ourselves along the trail before leaving. We sent priority boxes to the post offices labeled General Deliver with our names on it and we picked them up.
There is one stretch of the trail where that isn’t possible so we had to send a sealed 10-gallon bucket to a ranch along that trail (this cost big bucks, but you don’t really have a choice).
Did you have any issues with acclimated to the elevation?
Surprisingly no. I am typically pretty sensitive to my environment so I approached the altitude issue cautiously, but had no issues at all.
I think the trail is designed to the hikers advantage going South, because you gradually start gaining elevation, you don’t jump to 14,000 feet on the first day like you would if you started in the opposite direction.
Did you face any challenges being a woman?
Not a challenge as a woman, but a BIG challenge as a human being.
I wrote a huge account of this very personal experience on my website, but I’ll try to explain it in a nutshell here.
There were several days on the trail that I was ready to quit and give up. I wasn’t having fun, it was difficult, and I had blisters exploding on my feet constantly. I felt pathetic and defeated.
But, then this thing happened where I was actually hurting…
My foot started to really hurt and the pain traveled to my ankle quickly. I knew to listen to my body and stop for the day, but this new issue meant I had a big decision to make. We were 15 miles from an exit to the trail behind us, but in front of us we had 70+ miles and five mountain passes before our next opportunity to get off of the trail.
What’s worse is we only had enough food to last us exactly six days so we HAD to put in long days we had schedule to do or we’d run out of food.
This could have easily been my ticket out of there. I could have opted to give in, give up and accept defeat. No one else could make this decision for me, or help me rationalize what I was physically capable of because only I knew the pain in my body.
I knew that if quit, Brock would also be done.
After sleeping on it, I was able to recognize that it was just muscular, not anything wrong with my bones in my ankle. I was just extremely sore and the pain was now moving into my calf muscle. I decided to push through and complete the trail.
It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done, climbing those five mountain passes dragging my sore leg, but it was so worth it.
Any crazy animal (or people) encounters?
Nope. We saw a bear in Yosemite, but that’s about it. (Thank, God!)
How were the people on the trail? Was it crowded? Did you walk alone?
People on the trail were interesting. I think it has a lot to do with expectations. We liked our little group, weren’t in a hurry, and the John Muir Trail isn’t usually where you make friends like you would on something like the Appalachian Trail.
Some people seemed competitive, always asking us how many miles we hiked or how many days we’d been on the trail, and others were just so genuine and wanted to chit chat about the terrain and great camping spots.
I wouldn’t say it was crowded except in the beginning and very end where there are day hikers.
I walked with my husband, his best friend and my best friend. The four of us started together, my best friend, Laura, only hiked two-thirds of the trail because she had to get back to work.
Then, Brock and I split from Bart when I needed to new shoes and he could finish in time for his flight home.
So, the second half of the trail was just Brock and me. It was a monumental journey for us to do that last tough part together.
What advice would you give women who want to hike the John Muir Trail?
Do it alone or with someone. Either way it will change you in beautiful ways. To be in the stunning scenery on this trail so far from civilization is truly a gift in today’s world.
Don’t be intimidated by the huge elevation gains and losses, if I can do it anyone can do it.
It is 90% mental, 10% physical.
What was your overall experience hiking the John Muir Trail?
Hiking the John Muir Trail was life changing. It was a gift to hike the first half with two of our favorite people on the planet. We were just delighted that it worked out that we were all available at the same time to make it happen.
When I had to make that decision to give up or press on, and then proceeded to become such a strong hiker and prove to myself that I could do anything I set my mind to, something changed in me.
It was an extraordinary experience.
Any other thoughts or advice for our women readers?
Do it, do it, do it. There is so much peace out there.
Take your time. Don’t try to squeeze it into a week and half. Give yourself a few no-hike days to rest your body and eat mad amounts of food that you’re craving. Enjoy the scenery and don’t rush.
Pack light. I can’t tell you how many women I saw carrying packs as big as them. My pack was right around 30 pounds with food and some water. You don’t need a book, a cell phone, four changes of clothes or anything else you’re thinking about bringing.
Your body will thank you for packing ultralight and being minimalistic.
If you need help on this one let me know, we actually help people create packing lists for adventures like the JMT. 😉
Kathleen Ventura is a life coach and nomadic traveler. She and her husband have been traveling the world slowly for the past two years. Kathleen has taught English in Costa Rica, house sat in New Zealand and Australia, and thru hiked the 211-mile John Muir Trail. Right now she is focused on maintaining a nomadic lifestyle by devoting her energy to her life coaching business helping women who want to have outstanding lives. You can sign up for her free newsletter here.