Hiking the John Muir Trail in 14 Days
Updated: Jun 14, 2022
A comprehensive breakdown of the good, the bad, and the unexpected on my 14 day JMT thru-hike.
"Day 12: Lots of chatter about how not to get kicked off the trail at Thousand Island Lakes"
Like all challenging things that people do outdoors, hiking the John Muir Trail did not go exactly as we planned. That’s part of the adventure though. This fifth and final installment of the John Muir Trail Series is the story of our trip is what really happened while we were out there, sometimes despite all the planning, and my advice on how to get the most out of your own JMT experience.
Part 1: Previous Experience and Physical Training
Part 2: Setting your Itinerary, Permitting, and Logistics
Part 3: Meal Planning
Part 4: Gear List Deep Dive
Part 5: Hiking the JMT in 14 Days (you are here)
Setting a Routine
Establishing a routine was of huge benefit to us, and it came to us somewhat naturally. If you’ve never been backpacking before, one of the first things to accept is that getting out of camp will take longer than you think. Between rolling your sleeping bag, figuring out your layers and food for the day, tearing down your tent and packing your bag for hiking, it’s fair to expect two hours until you’re ready to start covering ground. The same is true in the evening, meaning it’s usually better to stop with extra daylight than with too little. Besides, on the JMT, once the sun goes down it’s going to get chilly.
There were two things that helped our daily routine a lot: the first was that there were two of us. Divide and conquer went a long way for us and probably cut at least 30 minutes from our morning teardown. Besides, aren’t the best experiences one we share with our friends?
The second help to us was previous backpacking experience. We both had a good sense already of how to tear down our tent, how much water to filter, and especially how to pack your backpack for hiking. If these are new things to you and you’re worried about your camping efficiency, practice these skills on a weekend backpacking trip or at home ahead of time.
With that in mind, this is what the typical day looked like for Shae and I on the JMT:
Wake up 6:00am
Socks on. Roll sleeping bag, pack items inside tent
Emerge. Always cold. Retrieve bear cans.
Start boiling water for coffee.
Sort bear can for coffee, breakfast, day of snacks to have easily accessible without taking pack off
Eat breakfast, stir in instant coffee.
Shae emerges. Drink coffee, take coffee review video (more on this under Keeping it Fun).
Filter water (volume based on distance to next stop)
NOTE: water is one of the heaviest things you can carry. Don’t shortchange yourself but also avoid carrying excess when you have reliable water stopping points
Pack tent. Pack backpack.
Apply sunscreen, change clothes to lighter layers for hiking
Check campsite, start watch, Start hiking. On average, this was about 8:00 am.
Steady progress to first major landmark, typically only stopping for a few seconds to a minute to catch our breath. Consult Guthook for nearest water sources when necessary.
Take a more significant break on passes or at lakesides. Rest; snack, photos. Check map for next steps. These breaks were typically 30 minutes or less due to constraints of daylight and remaining mileage to camp.
Repeat cycle through to evening camp destination*
*No formal lunch break. Snacks consumed based on hunger throughout the day
Get familiar with area. Available campsites, bear box/can storage locations, locate water source, and ideally a good cooking rock. Best to aim for camping location in the sun as it sets to stay warmer when you’re not walking
Filter water for dinner to full capacity for overnight water supply. Shae sets up tent simultaneously. Unpacks sleeping bags, puts all clothes, maps, lights, etc. inside tent.
Shoes off, socks out to dry. Wear open-toed shoes and unwrap and foot bandages
Pull dinner items from bear can. Boil water for dinner. Boiling water is all that’s required for every dinner prep.
Finish making dinner. Sometimes make more water for hot chocolate. Eat A LOT of food.
Pack trash items and PocketRocket in bear can.
Stash bear can in rocks at least 30 feet from tent, away from water. Rocks to prevent a bear from rolling it away.
Get in tent. Put on additional layers for warmth during the night before getting in sleeping bag. This was typically about +/- 15 mins on sunset ~7:30ish
Maps, phones, guidebooks. Shae sends inReach messages updating our contacts of our location and status. Greg starts considering the upcoming terrain to determine an intended end point and mileage for the coming day. Guthook App, John Muir Trail Map Pack by John Harrison. Terrain profile photos on phone from John Muir Trail data Book by Elizabeth Wenk. Discussion of points of interest along the way, water refill availability.
Journal notes from the day.
Sleep. Typically by 8:30pm.
“DAY NINE: Today was the best day ever. Just kidding, it was garbage”
Keeping it Fun and Documenting the Journey
Backpacking a long trail is obviously a huge and exciting adventure, but it’s not going to feel that way in every moment. In fact, you’re bound to have more than a few moments on a long backpacking trail where the predominate feelings are boredom, exhaustion, hunger, pain, dehydration, heat, and many more unpleasantries. Again, all part of the adventure, and just adding to the sense of accomplishment when you’ve reached your goal!
It’s in your best interest to plan for these, and to have answers when you’re doubting yourself. Set yourself up for success by coming up with ways to entertain and distract yourselves in the low moments. What’s something that you can look forward to in the near-term and be working toward when you hit that low moment? What’s something that will cheer you up when things aren’t going swimmingly? Below are a few of our tactics. We welcome you to try these too, or share your own tactics with us when you get back from your own successful thru hike!
1. Recording with Garmin
The minute we left the trailhead at Whitney Portal I hit Start on my Garmin watch. I had visions of recording our entire 14 days of hike, all 220 miles, as one activity. Ahh, that sense of satisfaction it’d give me when it uploaded to Strava. How interesting it would be to see how many total hours we spent actively hiking. This was a small one, but it was still a fun little goal that I thought about every morning as I unpaused my watch. (I’d hook it up to our portable battery charger about once every four days to top off the battery).
2. JMT Lake Reviews
Shae affectionately refers to me as a “Lake Snob”. Well, I assume it’s affectionately…
Having grown up in Central New York near the Finger Lakes, Shae would argue, I have always had somewhat of a keen eye for what qualities a lake should possess. As it happens, the John Muir Trail has lakes abound! And so it was that Shae decided we would log our adventure through the JMT Lake Review Series, which she would save as short videos on her phone. At every lake, she’d stop me and ask for a 1-10 score for the quality of the lake before us. It was a fun ritual that could break us out of a mental rut if the timing was right.
3. Instant Coffee Critics
Shae and I are coffee fanatics– the kind of people with a Chemex and five other brewing methods in our kitchen. We use terms like light roast, single origin, and talk about the flavor notes in our morning cup. With that in mind, Shae foresaw the opportunity we had on the JMT: put the best instant coffees on the market to the ultimate test. She ordered 5 or 6 varieties and we split them up across our daily food supplies. Each morning, we would make a new kind and video tape our not-so-professional opinions of them. The verdict was to take Swift Cup coffee along on any long trip. Top notch instant java.
4. Documenting our endeavor as it unfolded
It’s just nice to always have that concrete record of how you were feeling and what you were thinking in the moment, because just reading it can take you back to that moment in time. It’s also a great feedback source if you ever decide to go on another long trail hike and, who knows? You might even refer back to that log as you spend multiple months recounting your experience on the trail so that others can learn from your experience.
Backpacking is an all-consuming activity. It’s your whole life for days to months at a time. I won’t be able to capture everything worth mentioning in this limited space, but here are some of my other takeaways from the experience, and reflections on how our plans worked out in reality.
“Day 6: It is a huge disappointment to even consider being forced to exit. Fingers crossed we somehow make it through.”
On Day 6 of our John Muir Trail hike we crossed paths with a pair of Southbounders. We exchanged hellos and as we separated one of them asked “Did you hear? They’re closing the forest.” He pointed back north down the trail. “There’s a ranger just down there telling people. But we’ve got 10 days of food on our back and we’re headed to Whitney.”
A half hour later, as we approached our campsite in the evening sun, we met a friendly ranger walking the trail. She informed us that the following morning, the National Forest was closing to all visitors ahead of the Labor Day weekend as fire mitigation. There were two forest fires burning in California in the general area of the JMT, since before our August 25th start date. Neither was threatening the safety of hikers or the trail, the ranger said. The concern was with firefighting resources already tied up by these fires. If another fire were to start it would spell disaster for the area. Containing it would be difficult, and the fire danger was already high in the late, dry California summer. The ranger was open that she did not know what the closure meant for hikers currently on the trail and said to continue over Muir Pass to McClure Meadows Ranger Station. By the time we arrived, she said, the ranger there would know what the closure meant for us.
McClure was still two nights of camping away from us. Shae and I discussed what we thought it might mean, and passed countless hikers spreading their own theories for what would be done with us. On night six, when Shae penned the quote above, we thought chances were good we’d be forced to exit. The following night, we were almost certain we’d need to exit at Muir Trail Ranch.
On our 8th morning, we woke up only a mile from the McClure Station. We walked the 20 minutes from our campsite to the station, where we stood in awe, reading a small handwritten sign that read “Those with a hiking permit dated before 8/30 are allowed to complete their itinerary”.
That’s it! We’re cleared for travel! It was a moment of great excitement, followed by the quick realization that it meant we still had over 120 miles to hike.
We walked for days with no issue, but watching the crowds thin as less and less hikers were out in the forest. In the last 10 miles as we approached Red’s Meadow on our 11th day, we started to hear rumors of a ranger forcing hikers off the trail, despite the message we read at McClure Station. At Red’s Meadow there was a cohort of roughly 10 northbounders, and a story was emerging that a ranger was posted up at the Thousand Island lake junction, which was only about two miles in from a highway hikers were being forced out to. A couple southbounders had also supposedly gotten through after a long conversation with the ranger. Thousand Island junction was 17 miles out from where we sat at Red’s, and only about 8 miles south from the boundary of Yosemite National Park, which was still fully open to the public.
We felt we had the green light to continue to Happy Isles, where our car was parked. We even had a picture of the sign we’d seen, approving our passage, saved on our phones.
Shae and I still decided we didn’t want to take any chances. We staged ourselves just south of TI junction and passed through in the pre-dawn hours, crossing into Yosemite NP at the Donahue Pass summit around 8am. It was another moment of relief, knowing that our path to Happy Isles was undeniably open. Safe inside the YNP boundaries at Donahue, we brewed our morning Instant coffee in celebration, chatting with our friend Jeremy who arrived shortly after us, and who had employed the same early bird tactic.
Thankfully, that was the last time we had to worry about forest closures on our JMT thru hike.
The JMT is in an area that is regularly subject to rapidly changing weather conditions, and unexpected closures for wildfires have become more common. Even when fires don’t lead to closures, they can yield smoke that significantly impacts the hiking experience. Expect the unexpected in the High Sierra.
“Day 9: At 3pm, the whole afternoon was ahead of them, for Greg to eat as much as possible. He was barely functioning, with his body telling him to sleep + a headache + freezing cold, midday in the California sun.”
We confirmed that our food strategy was aggressive. For the most part, our low-calorie strategy worked well with a couple of low moments, particularly for me. The first major bonk came on Pinchot Pass, and I came a little bit undone on our 8th day on the trail. I was tired and mentally foggy, and could not stay warm even in the sun with many layers on. Shae actually required a little less food than she budgeted and graciously handed over some of her leftover snacks which got me mostly back on track. This could have been an issue again but Red’s Meadow came at the right time, and I was able to make up more calories there. Long story short, I wouldn’t change my JMT food strategy if I were to do it again, but it wouldn’t have been sustainable for a trip longer than about two weeks. Shae and I figured we lost between 5 and 7 lbs. a piece in our two weeks on the trail.
“DAY 10: Our biggest day yet. Today, Greg + Shae were badasses. The baddest asses in the forest. They hiked 18 miles! Woo.”
Shae and I moved fast. We were already planning to move fast, but even still we cut our planned 16 days on trail (most hikers will take at least 21 days) down to 14 days, with one of those being only half a day of hiking to Trail Camp on Day 1. This was kind of a mutual push and pull between us, with Shae wanting us to go farther some days and me pushing for us to cover more ground other days. We did not force it; we simply took advantage of the daylight hours we had and kept moving forward. Two factors really influenced us to go farther than planned some days:
The harder mountain passes in the first week and the easier ones in the second. The trail is much more challenging between the Whitney summit and Muir Pass than between Selden Pass and Yosemite. We were able to meet our mileage goals in the first half, and then exceed them with similar efforts on the easier terrain in the second half.
A desire to camp below treeline. While our itinerary had a few camp spots scheduled above treeline, we learned on our first night at 12,000-feet in Trail Camp that we wanted to avoid this when we could. Above treeline, it was bitterly cold in the night, and we were exposed to the wind. We found ourselves adding a mile here and a couple miles there at the end of the day to camp somewhere that sounded really nice with trees and water. We never regretted this strategy for a second.
“Day 3: We went 1 mile further than expected today to Bubb’s Creek and discovered Shae had acquired 10 blisters. Hokas are shit. Not ideal.”
In Part 4 of this article series, I went in depth on every major gear choice we made for the trail and also reflect on how that piece of gear worked out. If you’re interested in the deep dive, check it out here.
From a more big-picture look at our gear for the trail, I believe it to have been a pretty concrete success. We used almost everything at least a few times (save Shae’s GoalZero solar panel for charging things…) The MVPs of this trip were really the ease of cooking on an MSR PocketRocket, reaching the outside world when our future on the trail was uncertain with our Garmin inReach Mini, and sleeping well in my Patagonia Nano Puff. The loser was undeniably Shae’s Hoka Anacapa shoes, which chewed her feet up and spit them out. Get your shoe fit right.
There are no words I can say that will express the adventure, memories, and accomplishment from a physical endeavor like backpacking a long trail. I’ll just say that if there is any part of you that wants to, go do it. You will never forget it.
Stage car@ Happy Isles
Day 1) Whitney Portal to Trail Camp (6.1 miles)
Day 2) Trail Camp -> Whitney Summit -> High Sierra Trail Jct (16 miles)
Day 3) High Sierra Trail Jct ->Forester Pass -> Bubbs Creek/ Vidette Meadows (16.3 miles)
Day 4) Vidette Meadows ->Glen Pass -> Suspension Bridge (Woods Creek, 14 miles)
Day 5) Suspension Bridge -> Pinchot Pass-> small single-tent site with small creek (13 miles)
Day 6) small site -> Mather Pass ->Le Conte Canyon Ranger Station (17.7 miles)
Day 7) Le Conte Canyon ->Muir Pass -> Mcclure Meadows (17.7 miles)
Day 8) Mcclure Meadows (allowed to continue!) ->MTR-> Senger Creek (frigid)(14.3 miles)
Day 9) Antarctica-> Selden Pass-> Bear Creek Jct? (10.5 miles)
Day 10) Bear Creek Jct -> Silver Pass-> Fish Creek campsites (18 miles)
Day 11) Fish Creek sites-> Red’s Meadow (18.5 miles)
Day 12) Red’s -> Garnett Lake (14 miles)
Day13) Garnet Lake -> Island Pass -> Donahue Pass-> Tuolumne Meadows (22.5 miles)
Day 14) Tuolumne-> Cathedral Pass-> Happy Isles (23 miles)
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