Hiking the JMT (John Muir Trail) - Summary : Aug 11-30, 2021

by - Sunday, September 05, 2021


"Of all the mountain ranges I have climbed, I like the Sierra Nevada the best." 

- John Muir (pictured on the right with Theodore Roosevelt)

John Muir, also known as the "Father of the National Parks," was a famous naturalist, founder of the Sierra Club and the key activist who helped preserve the Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park. Although the idea of this trail was originated by Theodore Solomons, it was named in the honor of John Muir who died a year before the trail construction began in 1915.

Today the John Muir Trail (JMT) stretches 211 miles from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. It passes through the finest mountain scenery and has been described as the "America's most famous trail". I have uploaded my pictures in high resolution. You can click on any image to enlarge it further.

The idea of through hiking the JMT first occurred to me when I climbed Mount Whitney in Aug 2018. However, I only seriously started thinking about it late last year (Oct 2020). I contacted some of my previous trekking partners who I thought were crazy enough to sign up for JMT and soon had a group of seven nutcases. This was the easy part. The hard part was getting the permit. The permits are allocated on a lottery basis with an estimated win rate of just 3%. As luck would have it, we not only managed to get a permit, we got the most coveted route - southbound JMT from Happy Isles to Whitney including a permit for Half Dome!

My signature headstand signaling the completion of JMT :) It was really hard to balance on the rocky uneven surface especially after a hard climb

JMT Route Overview

JMT Route Map


JMT passes through some of the crown jewels of America's park system: Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks;  Ansel Adams and John Muir Wilderness; and Inyo and Sierra National Forests. It can be done both southbound (SOBO) or northbound (NOBO). SOBO is the more popular and coveted option. It starts at Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park and ends on the top of Mount Whitney. The trail goes over 11 mountain passes in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Here is  6 min video which shows an incredible 3D view of the entire trail.

For a detailed account of the trek including day by day itinerary and route traveled, please read my Hiking the JMT in 20 Days: Daily Itinerary blog


Team

From left to right: Samir, Meenal, Anu, Jai (me), Ankur, Arun and Ashutosh. The fresh looks on our faces did not last very long!

With the exception of Arun, none of us had ever done a through backpacking hike. Starting with JMT was akin to running a full marathon as your very first race - which is incidentally exactly what I did back in 2016 when I ran my first marathon :)

Official Start Line: Love how the mileage board shows trail lengths ranging from 0.8 to 211 miles !

Quick Stats

  • Distance Covered: 230 miles (370 km). Official distance is 211 miles to the top of Mt. Whitney but one has to then descend 11 miles from the summit to Whitney Portal. We also added a side trip to the top of Half Dome which added another 7 miles.
  • Elevation Gain/Loss: 50,000 ft gain (That's 1.7x Mount Everest!), 46,000 ft loss
  • Days Needed: We had planned for 21 days but finished it in 20 days
  • Average Daily Stats: 11.5 miles of walking with 2,500 ft of climbing and 2,300 ft of descending with a 40lb+ (~20kg) backpack. That's like covering a half marathon distance everyday, going up and down the mountains while carrying a heavy check-in bag!

JMT Elevation Profile: 11 passes with increasing difficulty


Highlights

If I were to describe the entire experience in one sentence, I would say "It was harder than I had expected but prettier than I could have imagined." I also want to give a shout out to the trail engineers and rangers who have done such an amazing job of maintaining the trails and making this unspoiled wilderness accessible to us. We got incredibly lucky because all national forests in California were closed one day after we completed our trek due to wildfire dangers!


Unparalleled Landscape and Scenery

JMT lived up to its reputation of being the most scenic trail in the USA. The landscape changed every few miles as if we were in a totally different world. We saw lush meadows, crystal clear alpine lakes, gushing waterfalls, scary vertical cliffs, roaring streams, endless mountain peaks, unforgiving rocky terrain, burned out forest areas from previous wildfires, intimidating granite walls and much more. There is perhaps no other place on earth with such diverse and such amazing views.

Vernal Falls - on the way to Half Dome

Half Dome and Liberty Cap

On top of Half Dome

Half Dome Cables. Many people freeze on the way. Fortunately I have always been able to do them with ease.

With so many wildfires in recent years, it was inevitable for us to walk through many burnt forest areas

Lush green landscape made us forget about the multi-year drought California is in :)


The beautiful Sunrise Meadows brought out my inner SRK :)

Lyell Fork. One of the best campsites we stayed at. Mount Lyell can be seen in the distance

Thousand Island Lake with the massive Mount Banner in the background

Shadow Lake: the morning light created some of the best reflections we saw

Devils Postpile National Monument. The columns are hexagonal and were created by cooling lava flow!

The forest is still recovering from the massive Rainbow fire in 1992!

Purple Lake. It was in a basin surrounded by mountains on all sides

We had clear blue skies for most days but today the clouds decided to show off their creativity :)

Verdant meadow around Tully Hole

Relaxing in the middle of Bear Creek. We took ample time to stop in the middle of our hike to enjoy the surroundings and watch live streams!

Marie Lake. It was one of my favorite views. I took so many pictures that it was hard to pick one for the blog

Heart Lake. Many of the lakes are named after their shapes. Some names require you to stretch your imagination a bit but this one is spot on

The views changed dramatically as we continued on the trail. Every few miles it felt that we were in a completely different place. This is the start of Kings Canyon

Spectacular Evolution Lake. Notice the change in color between the two parts of the same lake! The area around here, including the mountain peaks, is named after the prominent figures in evolutionary biology. E.g., the peaks are named after Darwin, Fiske, Haeckel, Huxley, Spencer and Wallace.

View of Wanda Lake. It is named after one of John Muir's daughters. Lake Helen, on the other side of Muir Pass is named after his other daughter. So the John Muir Pass is flanked on both sides by lakes named after his daughters!

Ceiling of the Muir Hut. It is a small structure constructed at the top of Muir Pass to provide shelter during storms

Le Conte Canyon. To navigate one of the sections here the trail had to be blasted out of the canyon's sheer granite wall!

View from Golden Staircase / Mather Pass. Golden Staircase is a steep series of switchbacks that takes you up, up and up to Mather Pass very quickly. It is a natural StairMaster! Palisade Creek flows through this area

Early morning view of the Lower Palisade Lake

What an interesting geological formation! You can see the avalanche chutes on the top and then a trim line which shows the level of ice in the valley when these avalanches happened

Dollar Lake with the Fin Dome to the left of my head. Not sure why it is called Dollar Lake

Upper and Middle Rae Lakes with an isthmus joining the two where I am standing. What a lovely view and how often does one get to use the word isthmus let alone stand on it? :)

Top of Glen Pass. It is 11,980 ft but really felt more like 12,000 ft :). This was one of the hardest climbs

View from Bighorn Plateau. This is one of the best spots on the trail to get a panoramic view of the mountains

Guitar Lake. In case it is not obvious, I am trying to pose my hiking pole as a guitar :). This was our final camping pace before the Whitney summit

Woohoo! We made it! The trail officially ends at the top of Mount Whitney. We had started the summit push at night to catch the sunrise at the top

It was really cold here but we braved the cold briefly to show off our custom made T-Shirts

No, we are not about to bow to the shelter, we are just showing off the backside of our T-Shirts

Panoramic view from the top of Mount Whitney. No picture can do justice to the views and feeling of being actually there

We had left our backpacks at the trail crest for the final climb. Now we are heading back there to retrieve them and complete the remaining 11 miles to reach Whitney Portal

One final view of the incredible mountains before we end our trek

Emerging back to civilization after 20 days.

We finally hung up our boots


Stunning Sunrises and Sunsets

We typically slept between 7:30-8:00pm everyday after watching the sunset and woke up between 4:00am and 5:30am to catch the sunrise. Another reason for waking up early was to avoid the afternoon heat. Depending on the location, each sunrise and sunset casted its own magical spell. The lakes reflected everything with such perfection that they doubled the panoramic beauty around us. The mountains glowed with vivid colors and changed from being inhospitable and intimidating to serene and wonderous. The forest created unusual silhouettes and carried soothing sounds from nearby streams and waterfalls in the quietness of dusk and early morning hours.

Sunrise at Tuolumne Meadows

Notice how a single ray of the Sun is lighting up a path in the forest. It was truly dramatic


Sunrise near Marjorie Lake

Californians will be excused for thinking that it is a real fire :)

The Moon is already making its claim to the sky before the Sun has set fully

Every sunset and sunrise would light up the peaks in golden hue. The changes in color is simply mesmerizing

Morning rays are getting framed by the mountain peaks

Breathtaking or taking your breath away - take your pick. Either way sunrises don't get much better than this

Dramatic sunset bathing the forest in gold

Sunrise at Mount Whitney with the Sun shining through the bear (California State Animal)

Breathtaking Night Sky Views

While we pay a lot of attention to air and noise pollution, we rarely think about the light pollution in our daily lives. That's because we have nearly forgotten what we are getting robbed off! Gazing gratuitously at a star-filled night sky with no agenda or worry in mind is a feeling words cannot describe. You feel small yet somehow connected with the universe.

I tried to capture the night sky using my phone camera. Using my very limited knowledge, I played around with the settings hoping to capture at least some of the magic. Most of these pictures are from early morning between 4am and 5am after I woke up.

Night sky view at Lyell Fork

Similar picture as above with a slightly longer exposure time

The light in the foreground is from the headlamps of my fellow hikers

This was the last day I could capture the night sky. After that the moon was too bright

Milky Way! I had always gawked at the Milky way pictures taken by others. Now I have my very own. I know it is nowhere near professional quality but I am very proud nevertheless :)

Being Cut Off From The World

While we knew that we would be disconnected from the world during our trek, for the first few days we kept taking our phones out of airplane mode to see if we could get a signal. The urge gradually died and finally when I did get a signal at the end of the trek (on top of Mount Whitney) I made a couple of calls to my family but did not care to check any messages or emails. The familiar 'new message' beep which once felt irresistible, fell on deaf ears now. I was truly living in the present. Focusing on and enjoying everything around me without a care about what was going on in the world. I posted a quick message to let everyone know that we had completed the trek successfully but did not bother to check the number of likes or congratulatory comments. It just felt so insignificant.

We did carry a Garmin satellite device which allowed our friends and family to track our progress/location and also exchange text messages.

Yeah, I know I am just posing for a picture but it really was meditative

Recharging the soul (and my battery pack)
My favorite part of the day was taking off my shoes and soaking my feet in cold alpine lakes/streams after completing the hike. It was deeply relaxing and gave me time to reflect upon the day

These places exist for real - they are not just screensavers


The best moments in life are when you are truly in the present, enjoying everything around you

There was no wi-fi or cell signal but we still had the best connection ever! 

Minimalistic Life

The evening before our last day we were reminiscing about the incredible journey when Anu asked - "What did you really miss besides your friends and family?". We all thought about it deeply and realized that we really did not miss anything else. Yes we would've loved to have better food and physical comforts but they didn't feel as important any more. We had even forgotten about Netflix! :)

I realized how little one needs to live a fulfilling life. Everything I needed could fit in my backpack including shelter, clothes and food. Yet somehow we are running out of space in our five bedroom house.

This is all the stuff I carried for our 20 day trek (except for food supply drops). When you have to carry everything on your back, you truly discover how little you need!

Everything we needed fit in this backpack

We slept every night in the most beautiful places imaginable

Occasionally we rinsed our clothes and ourselves but it was not very high on our priority. We all smelled equally bad so no one cared about trivial things like personal hygiene :)

This was the tent Ankur and I shared

Leave no Trace (LNT)

It is an honor system but almost every hiker follows the LNT guidelines. Some of these guidelines are easy to follow but others note quite so:
  • Travel only on designated trails. This is obvious.
  • Camp at least 100 ft away from water sources unless there are pre-established campsites. Do not set up camp on vegetation or grass.
  • Carry all your trash with you.
  • Store all food and toiletries (anything that smells) in a bear proof container. This is not just for our own safety but also for the safety of the wildlife. If bears can get to your food, they will learn that behavior and become more aggressive. Mama bears may teach that to their cubs and multiple generations of bears may have to be put down to correct the behavior. 
  • Bury your poop (with the exception of the Mount Whitney area where you have to carry your poop). We were required to dig a deep cathole away from water sources for pooping and then cover it back with dirt. If you use toilet paper, you have to pack it up and carry it with you. We decided to use a portable bidet system rather than carrying used toilet papers. This whole process felt a bit gross until we got to the Whitney zone. Here you have to poop in a wagbag and carry the poop down with you! Suddenly the cathole system looked very attractive! Grossness aside, the squatting position works really well.


We had to pack up all food, toiletries and anything else that may smell like food in our bear canisters and keep them away from our tents at night. These canisters are specially designed to be bear resistant

Take a moment to read this. The 'problem hikers' are not diligent about storing their food correctly. They only lose their food but the bears have to be put down


Cathole for pooping. We had to dig a hole everyday with our trowel. We quickly got used to it

Daily Routine

We had to cover an average of 11+ miles every day but also had to account for altitude effects, climbs, descents and finding appropriate campsites. While we had planned out an itinerary in advance, once we started our trek we realized that it would need to be changed. There was a significant difference in the walking speeds which changed depending on the terrain:
  • Ashutosh, Arun and I were fast climbers. Followed by Anu and then followed by Samir, Ankur and Meenal. Arun had to leave due to a family situation after six days so that left Ashutosh and I in the front.
  • Ankur, Anu and I were fast descenders. Descending was often equally or more difficult due to the steep and rocky terrain. It was really hard on our knees and ankles.
This difference in speed created a gap of between 1-4 hours in the finishing time for the day. Being in a group, the first priority was to make sure that everyone can finish the trek successfully. Therefore we adopted the following routine:
  • Wake up between 4:00-4:30am, go through the morning routine, make breakfast/lunch, pack up the tent etc. and get on the trail by 6-6:30am. The early start allowed the slower group to reduce their time in the afternoon hours which tended to be hot. However, 4am was also the coldest hour of the night. Waking up in freezing temperatures and going through the morning routine was very hard. For me, this was harder than the walking part that followed :) Towards the end we realized that we can do a staggered start instead. Ashutosh and I started an hour later. There were only three days left but I enjoyed the late start :)
  • Most of the mountain passes we crossed required 3,000+ ft of climbing, some required 4,000+ ft of climbing. Not everyone in the group could climb that much at one stretch. Therefore we decided to break up the climbs and found campsites midway through the ascents.
  • Ashutosh and I were always the first ones to reach the final destination. We scouted the area for the best campsites and reserved them for our group
Once we finished our hike for the day, we usually did some stretching, soaked our feet in cold water, cooked and ate lunch and then set up our tents. We would also set up gravity water filter bags from trees which acted like faucets. Dinner happened between 6-7pm. Depending on when the rest of the group arrived, sometimes we had time to play some games and sing songs. We also dipped into the frigid but refreshing alpine lakes and occasionally rinsed our dirty clothes.

The last ritual before going to bed was to dig a cathole for the morning and put some markings around it to find it easily in the dark. 

We went to bed between 7-8pm.

I designated 4pm as "chai-o-clock" and enjoyed my tea at that time
Filtering water for the entire group was a huge task. Some days we didn't find any trees to hang our gravity filter. Here I have carefully engineered a solution by using rocks for counterbalance

I had carried a very thin foam pad but it provided just enough cushion for daily stretching. Everyone in the group used it


Dinner time

Some days we found time to play games. Here Anu is acting out a movie for dumb charades

Occasionally we also found time to enjoy a game of cards. Usually it was too windy outside and we had play inside our tent

The Journey

"Life is about enjoying the journey and not waiting for the destination". This could not be more true for JMT. In fact it was only about the journey and never the destination. We stopped frequently during the hike to soak in the beauty, often spending as much as half an hour at a spot to enjoy a waterfall or eat a snack by the side of a lake. We took time to talk to fellow hikers and learned about their stories. It was often a humbling experience. We met hikers who have trekked the entire PCT (2,600 miles), have done JMT multiple times, young women going solo and kids as young as 10 year old! We also met a black lady who was doing a 6,000 mile hike to encourage more people of color to take up hiking!

I carried an electronic copy of Elizabeth Wenk's seminal book on JMT and read it every night to understand the terrain and landscape we were going to cover the following day. Being able to identify the landmarks, peaks and some of the flowers and trees make the journey that much more enjoyable. I thanked Lizzy via Facebook after the trek and she was gracious enough to respond to me.


Fun Moments

The trek was really hard but that doesn't mean that we couldn't have fun. Here are some fun pictures from the trek

That's me hanging on to the underside of the bridge!

Triple the fun!

On top of Half Dome

Ashutosh and I spent way too much time with each other - this had to happen at some point

YOU SHALL NOT PASS (LOTR/Gandalf reference)

Dance moves

More dance moves

Plank with backpack on my back

Funny incident - one of my sandals got swept away in the lake. This gentleman swam in the frigid water and retrieved it

Feeling like top of the world

Guys bonding over a pee session before retiring for the evening

Help!!!

Top of Forester Pass

Anu photobombing my perfect pose
Life is about gaining new experiences. We are all busy in our daily lives and work. I would encourage everyone to find time to go outside and disconnect from the world. It will reconnect you with the world in a whole different way!

20 comments

  1. Congratulations! Excited to see what you do next.

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  2. Wonderful. Seems fulfilling and enriching at the same time

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  3. Jai - always amazing to read your travel stories with so many different perspectives and check out all the amazing pics. And like you say, it's about the journey and not the destination, your quest for new experiences and these journeys are truly inspirational. Keep it up!

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  4. Well done guys!! Keep making the journey more exciting and have fun in life.

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  5. Wow congratulations! This is truly inspiring.

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  6. simply wow!!! I couldn’t stop reading and enjoy like I am the part of this trek!

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  7. I can only imagine the hard part but I can certainly see the pretty. Lovely pics and beautiful write-up, Jai.

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  8. Wow!! Congratulations ! One more feather in your cap 😀 and more importantly a great experience.

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  9. Congratulations! What a amazing trekking experience! Liked the write up, very informative for all of us.

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  10. Very Very well composed Jai. Congratulations to the entire team on successful completion. Tempted to do something similar in the Himalyas

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  11. Great trip, Jai.
    The hike, the learnings, and your take-aways are all very valuable for the rest of us.
    Very well written blog, and spectacular photos as well.

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  12. Jai San,

    Anu sent me your blog. Breath taking. I am speechless. Gripping narrative, splendid pictures and your signature Shavasan. Plank with 20kg made me feel silly about the plank I do. Awesome. Wish I cud be there. Even if I were, cudnt have clocked 11-12mes day after day towards 230 miles. Incidentally, Dandi March was about the same distance. Keep it up.

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  13. Congratulation Jai !! Very well written blog post with great pictures !!

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  14. Congratulations!

    "We also met a black lady who was doing a 6,000 mile hike to encourage more people of color to take up hiking!"

    I don't think it reads as you intend it to, consider changing it :).

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    1. This is what she told us. She wants to encourage more people in the black community to be on the trails. Not sure why this is misleading.

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  15. Congratulations!
    It was great to meet you and I really enjoyed reading this trip report and seeing the pictures! Good luck on your next adventure and hopefully we will cross paths in the Sierras again.

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  16. Amazing! Glad that you were able to accomplish this. Will have to get some lessons from you :)

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  17. Congratulations Jai. Incredible Hike and an excellent summary. I recently relocated to Reno this summer and got a chance to visit some of these places. hiking this in 20 days is an incredible adventure. I will add it to my bucket list.

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    Replies
    1. You will probably run the whole distance in 5 days :)

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