Finally. After over a year’s worth of planning, prep, and anticipation, we are setting out on the John Muir Trail!
Our journey started with an early flight to San Francisco, where we took in the sights before heading to Yosemite.
We spent the first night in the car so that we could be at the permit office first thing in the morning. We had to apply for walk-up permits for the first 25 miles of the trail that our original permit did not include. We were dedicated, and got to the office at 3:30am in order to be first in line (those lines start early, and get long fast)!
The early morning wait was worth it, and we got our permits. After one last breakfast in civilization with our friends Jess and Steve (joining us for the first few days of the trip), we headed to the Yosemite Valley Backpackers Campground.
Here, surrounded by views of the valley cliffs peeking through the giant redwoods, we will rest before hitting the trail in the morning. We will start by summiting Half Dome, and then head out to complete the John Muir Trail!
To track us along our journey, go to http://share.delorme.com/chasingdaylight. Your thoughts and well wishes are so appreciated, and we will post updates when possible as we set out on this journey of a lifetime!
Three weeks of hiking every day, over mountain passes with elevations as high as 13,000 feet… that requires a lot of energy!
Food is one of the most important things to consider when planning a thru-hike such as the John Muir Trail. Hikers must carefully balance weight with substance and packability, in order to provide enough calories to make these strenuous days possible, while still fitting into backcountry-required bear canisters. Most end up aiming for roughly 1.5lb of food per day, with a daily caloric intake of 3,000 calories or more.
In order to cut down on pack weight, thru-hikers plan resupplies instead of carrying the entire trip’s worth of food. Resupply locations can vary from off-trail post offices or businesses, to on-trail outposts dedicated to supporting backcountry hikers. Coordinating resupply locations – as well as the food sent ahead to each – is quite the process, but a necessary part of an enjoyable thru-hike!
In order to plan our resupplies, we first mapped out our entire JMT itinerary to know roughly when we would arrive at resupply points. The JMT passes through several resupply locations, including:
Tuolumne Meadows Post Office – Located along the first section of the JMT in Yosemite National Park. Offers a small nearby store and restaurant.
Red’s Meadow Resort – A backcountry resort located just off the JMT. Offers a store, restaurant, showers, lodging options, and a shuttle into the nearby town of Mammoth.
Vermilion Valley Resort – A backcountry resort on Lake Edison, a few miles and a boat shuttle away from the JMT. Offers a store, restaurant, showers, and lodging options.
Muir Trail Ranch – An on-trail backcountry outpost located at the halfway point of the JMT. Offers a store, restaurant, showers, natural hot springs, and lodging options.
Mount Williamson Motel – Located 7 miles off-trail via Kearsarge Pass, this hiker-focused motel provides a resupply package including a shuttle to/from the trailhead, a meal, laundry, and a hotel room for the night. The town of Independence is nearby if stores are needed. This is the only location for resupply between the halfway point at Muir Trail Ranch and the end of the trail.
Pack Mule Service – An alternative to the Mt. Williamson Motel detour; this service will meet hikers on-trail and deliver resupplies for a fee.
We decided to take advantage of most of these resupply options, in order to keep our food weight lower while hiking. We also coordinated our resupplies with nearo/zero days, where we plan to hike fewer or no miles at all (more on itinerary planning here). Knowing our itinerary ahead of time would help us know how many days of food to pack for each resupply. Once we had our itinerary set, it was time to plan our food….
You don’t realize how much food you eat until you are looking at a month’s worth of it in one place! To plan our daily intake, Jamie first set a goal of ~3000 calories each. We decided our meals would be of the dehydrated variety, due to their low weight and packability.
These meals can be easily reconstituted with boiling water (via a JetBoil or other backcountry stove), and are actually quite tasty and filling!
Once we knew how many calories these would provide, we supplemented the rest with snacks – two per day, one between each meal. We tried to keep our snacks as calorie dense and packable as possible, while maintaining some variety so we aren’t gagging on it all by the end of the trip 😉
Finally, an excuse to eat candy! When backpacking, the more calories the better. These snacks are all high-calorie, high protein, and very packable. The big bags of candy will be a nice treat for us when we pick up each resupply, before heading back out on the trail.
It took several months and many trips to both internet and physical stores, but finally, we accrued all 23 days worth of food!
Now, for fitting it into those resupply buckets…
…And they’re off!
We shipped off our first two resupplies (to the Tuolumne Meadows post office and Red’s Meadow) in mid-July, giving them plenty of time to get to their destinations before we arrive to pick them up! I don’t think we’ve ever been so excited to go to the Post Office 😉
We will ship out the second batch to Muir Trail Ranch and the Mt. Williamson Motel just before we leave.
And just like that, we are ready to set out on our adventure!
As we have been excitedly preparing for our John Muir Trail adventure, one of our main focal points has been assembling our gear.
Backpacking gear is a topic of huge discussion among thru hikers, with many varying preferences, opinions, and choices to be made. Some hikers go “ultra-light” and carry only the bare essentials, while others focus more on creature comforts at the price of a couple extra pounds. We chose to fall somewhere in the middle – striving to keep our packs as light as possible, without sacrificing comfort or necessity.
The Big Three
Often considered the three most important choices when selecting gear, the “Big Three” includes one’s tent, backpack and sleeping bag.
This tent is worth its weight in gold (although that wouldn’t actually equal out to much!). This ultralight tent weighs in at just under 3lb, and comfortably fits the two of us with some wiggle room to spare. Durable, breathable, and easy to assemble, this tent has already stood up to some serious tests on our prior adventures. We swapped in some lightweight ground stakes to complete the package.
Yep, we have matching backpacks 😉 but as soon as we both tried these on, we were sold! Osprey’s new anti-gravity (AG) suspension positions the pack weight so effortlessly across your shoulders, back, and hips that the bag truly feels lighter as a result. While not considered an “ultralight” pack, this is an area where we chose comfort/stability over weight. Jamie had dabbled in the ultralight pack method before, and found that the lack of support actually made the pack harder to carry, and caused more muscle fatigue. These bags, while weighing more, carry our pack weight much better, leading to a more comfortable hiking experience.
Okay, we match again… almost. Western Mountaineering is a California-based company known for its lightweight, high quality products – but in keeping with the above gear triangle, their gear does come at a cost. We splurged on these items, but hey, we’ll be sleeping in them for almost a month straight! Jamie opted for the slightly lighter, 20-degree rated UltraLite, while Brenda sacrificed a couple ounces to ensure a warm night’s sleep in her 15-degree rated Apache. These down bags are both super light (weighing in at less than 2lb each), compress down into a small stuff sack, and offer many features such as water resistant fabric, a zipper guard, and *bonus* – they can zip together to create a double-sized bag! Sleeping in them is like floating on a cloud 🙂
Jamie will be manning the GoPro, while Brenda carries her DSLR (with a EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens for you camera junkies). Documenting our adventures is one of our main passions, so the added weight of the cameras will be well worth it to us. The GoPro will give us on-the-go action shots, while the DSLR will help us capture the landscapes and nightscapes of the JMT, along with everything else in between.
Jamie will be carrying the Garmin, while Brenda carries the DeLorme. The Garmin Rino GPS features a two-way radio, NOAA weather information, and a full array of downloadable topographic maps. The DeLorme inReach combines an emergency beacon with route tracking and two-way satellite texting capabilities, so we can keep in touch and broadcast our position while we are on the trail. While not everyone carries items such as these, we would rather be safe than sorry; plus, our family and friends will be able to track our position from home, and we will all benefit from the additional peace of mind!
In order to keep our electronics charged on the trail, we will connect a lightweight solar panel to an external battery rated at 16,000 mA. Attaching the panel to our backpack during the day will provide a constant source of power we can use later on at camp to charge all of our batteries. This system is only 2lbs combined and will supply us with more than enough power to document the trail the way we would like.
Our water filtration needs are being met by a DIY gravity-fed system we stumbled upon while trying to find solutions for the slow rate of filtering when using a squeeze pouch. We bought 2 platypus reservoirs (one as a dirty water bag and one as a clean bag), cut the hose supplied with the bags, and put the Sawyer in between. Hanging the dirty bag 4 feet above the ground allows the 2L clean bag to fill up in about 2 minutes.
The Big Picture
We could talk gear for days (and believe us, we have been for the past several months)… but thankfully, LighterPack.com lays it all out nicely for anyone interested in taking a closer look:
In the end, Jamie will be carrying a base weight (without food/water) of roughly 22lb, while Brenda’s is roughly 20. Not bad! Our pack weights were slightly affected by our camera gear and other electronics, but that is weight we are willing to carry in order to ensure a more safe and fulfilling trail experience.
Our gear lists are sure to change as our start date draws closer – every day we check and recheck our bags, trying to tweak this and adjust that, so we are optimally prepared come August. But one thing’s for sure: the butterflies are starting, and the clock is ticking! Two months and counting!!!
We should really start thinking about buying some PowerBall tickets… After being in the 3% of applicants who were granted Yosemite JMT permits, we now join only 30% of applicants who were awarded Half Dome permits in the preseason lottery!
Half Dome is an iconic mountain in Yosemite Valley. Its unique shape and challenging route have earned it a place on many hiker’s bucket lists – ours included.
John Muir Trail hopefuls can apply for Half Dome permits on their thru-hike permit application. We did this, but were denied on our initial try. After we secured our JMT permits, we looked for alternate ways to hike Half Dome, and discovered the Preseason lottery.
The Lottery Process
Just like the John Muir Trail itself, Half Dome’s popularity has threatened the natural resources surrounding it. As a result, Yosemite National Park has implemented a permit system to limit the amount of hikers per day on Half Dome.
Day use permits are granted through a Preseason lottery system on Recreation.gov. The lottery is open through the month of March, and awarded applicants are announced in April. Roughly 225 day hike permits are granted per day.
In addition to the Preseason lottery, a daily In-Season lottery allows for up to 50 additional day use permits, based on cancellations. More detail on the lottery process can be found here.
We submitted Preseason applications for our group in March, and crossed our fingers until April, when we received email notification that applicants had been drawn. We signed into our recreation.gov account to find THIS!
Woohoo! We will summit Half Dome on August 3rd, three days before our official JMT start at Lyell Canyon. We are hopeful that we will be able to link this day hike with a backpacking permit (available on a walk-up basis) connecting Yosemite Valley to Lyell Canyon. This will allow us to complete the first 20 miles of the classic JMT route that we would otherwise miss when starting downtrail at Lyell Canyon.
The hike to the top of Half Dome is not for the faint of heart. The 14 mile round trip from Yosemite Valley gains 4,800 feet of elevation, the last 400 of which are on an exposed granite face. The full round trip can take up to 12 hours, but can be shortened if you have an overnight backpacking permit, which allows you to camp at the nearby Little Yosemite Valley Backpacker’s Campground.
The first part of the hike climbs out of Yosemite Valley and past famous landmarks such as Vernal and Nevada Falls and Liberty Cap.
Once you ascend out of the valley and onto the Sub Dome, this is where the fun really begins (and permits are checked)!. From here, hikers ascend the last 400 feet on a 45 degree sheer rock face, a route deemed impossible until metal cables were installed as handholds. Wooden boards are spaced every 15 feet along the cable route as additional footholds. Hikers must climb hand-over-hand between the cables until they reach the summit.
Once you reach the top, you will be granted with a view of the entire Yosemite Valley!
Though this hike is undeniably strenuous, there are no limitations on who can obtain permits. People of all ages and abilities attempt this hike every year! As for any hike, preparation is key – we plan to purchase climbing gloves to wear while ascending the cables, as they provide better grip and protection.
Making this side trip even better will be the company of our good friends Jess and Steve, who will be joining us for the Yosemite portion of our JMT adventure. We can’t wait to share this with them, and have them see us off as we continue along the John Muir Trail!
Planning our JMT itinerary has been one of the biggest things we’ve done to make this trip finally feel real! After many hours poring over maps, books, and websites, here is our planned itinerary:To strategically plan our our itinerary, we focused on our desired average daily miles, suitable camping areas, resupply opportunities, and elevation profile. We prefer to camp near bodies of water, hence the reason for so many lake end points. We also prefer to summit high passes in the morning, so when possible, we planned to camp at the base of a high climb the night before.
There are several things to consider when planning an itinerary like this:
JMT hikers can take as few as two weeks to hike the trail, or as long as a month. We have decided to keep a moderate pace, averaging about 10 miles/day and completing the trail in just over 3 weeks. We chose this pace for several reasons:
Time constraints – This is not a concern for us! We are fortunate that our jobs have given us plenty of time off, and that we have earned the PTO to take it. As a result, we do not feel rushed to complete this trip.
Ability – Though we are in good shape and prepared for the rigors of this trail, this will be the longest backpacking trip we have taken, by far! In order to avoid injury and keep it fun, we have chosen a pace that is reasonable for us. We expect that, as we continue on the trail, our “trail legs” will get stronger and allow us to do bigger miles, but we will stay mostly on pace due to the next reason…
Preference – We want to enjoy this adventure! Keeping ourselves at a moderate pace will allow us to enjoy our surroundings without stressing to get to camp by nightfall. We will be able to stop for lunch, go swimming, take plenty of photos, and relax at camp in the evening.
On a hike this length, resupplies are a must. At a resupply, backpackers mail ahead packages of food, fuel, and other necessities to restock along the trail. There are several resupply options within the first half of the JMT, but no on-trail options along the second 100 miles. We chose to take advantage of the many options in the first 100 miles, to keep our pack weight down as much as we can!
Resupply #1: Tuolumne Meadows Post Office (mile 0)- Since we plan to arrive in Yosemite several days before our JMT start date, we are mailing ourselves a resupply to our official start point, instead of carrying all of that weight our first few days!
Resupply #2: Red’s Meadow Resort (mile 60)- We will arrive here on day 4 after a short day of hiking. We will stay at the resort that night and continue on the next day with full packs.
Resupply #3: Muir Trail Ranch (mile 108)- The last on-trail resupply option for the remainder of the trail. This will be our largest (and heaviest!) resupply, as we gear up for the next 8 days on trail without a resupply.
Resupply #4: Mt. Williamson Motel & Base Camp (mile ~175)- This will require a 13 mile off-trail detour over Kearsarge pass to Onion Valley, where we will be picked up and brought into town for our resupply and night at the Motel. We coordinated this with a zero day (more below).
Many hikers plan “zero days” into their itinerary, where they can spend a day of rest without hiking any miles. We have worked two of these days into our plans, at roughly the ends of each week:
Vermilion Valley Resort (day 8) – This is a beautiful backcountry resort located on Edison Lake, just 1 mile off trail from the JMT. It offers a restaurant, grocery store, showers, and various lodging options. We reserved a tent cabin on the lake for our time here. Bonus – we get to take a ferry ride from the trail across the lake to get to the resort (woohoo!).
Onion Valley/Mt. Williamson Motel & Base Camp (day 18) – We are coordinating this zero day with a resupply. The second half of the JMT has no on-trail resupply options, so many take a 13 mile off-trail detour to Onion Valley, where the Mt. Williamson Motel has a JMT/PCT hiker resupply package. We will arrive at the Onion Valley campground the night before, and on our zero day will be picked up by the Motel staff. That night we will enjoy a free beer, hotel room, opportunity to pick up our resupply and do laundry, and free breakfast the next morning before being brought back to the trailhead.
This year saw some of the highest rejection rates in history. 2016 was the first year that Yosemite National Park enforced a new limitation of 45 permits per day for JMT hikers. That, combined with the growing popularity of the trail, led to a permit application rejection rate of up to 97%! (Click here for more information on the JMT permit quota.)
Needless to say, the application process was stressful! In a previous post, we broke down the application process and our initial plan in detail. To summarize, we started applying only for the three most popular trailheads – the two Happy Isles options (representing the “classic” JMT starting point), as well as Glacier Point, which meets up with the JMT only 3 miles down the trail from Happy Isles.
We submitted three applications a day, one with each of us listed as Group Leader, with a different trailhead as our #1 choice. We applied this way for two weeks with no good news. Brenda used her position as a night shift nurse to the group’s benefit, and faxed each application at 1 am mountain time/midnight pacific time, the earliest time possible to apply daily. Every afternoon, we would eagerly check our emails for yesterdays’ application results, only to have our hopes crushed yet again.
Part of our strategy was to shoot for the popular trailheads first, and then expand to other alternatives if we didn’t have luck with our first round of applications. After two weeks of rejections, we modified our applications to include the Sunrise Lakes and Lyell Canyon trailheads. These two trailheads start slightly further down the trail (12 and 20 miles, respectively), making them slightly less popular – but in a twist, also have more permits available per day, making them easier to obtain.
We sent our new applications in at 12:01 am as usual… but this time, Eric woke up to a different email!
We did it!!! After two weeks, almost 40 applications, and on our first try with the new trailheads, we secured our permits for the JMT!
Our permit’s entry trailhead is Lyell Canyon, located in the beautiful Tuolumne Meadows section of Yosemite National Park. This trailhead meets up with the JMT about 20 miles downtrail from the traditional Happy Isles starting point. From here, it is only roughly 12 miles to Donahue Pass, the exit point from Yosemite into the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Starting here would give us an easy first day of hiking, since it is all fairly level until the pass. However, we still don’t want to miss out on the first 20 miles of the JMT through Yosemite Valley, past major landmarks such as Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, Half Dome, and Cathedral Lakes…
So! Our new plan is to try and obtain a walk-up overnight hiking permit from Happy Isles to Lyell Canyon, and spend two days hiking the first section of the JMT on this permit before picking up our JMT permit at Tuolumne Meadows. If we can’t get an overnight permit for within the park, we will spend a couple of days day hiking around the park, to get as much of a full experience as we can.
No matter how we end up exploring Yosemite prior to starting our JMT hike at Lyell Canyon, we know that we have a magnificent adventure in store for us! Though the application process was crazy and stressful, we would do it all again for the chance to be part of the lucky 3% (can you believe that?!) of applicants who secure a permit to hike this incredible trail. Now the clock is finally ticking… August 6th, here we come!!!
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” -John Muir
It’s permit time!
But wow, applying is no simple task. In fact, sorting out this whole permit process feels a lot like trying to find your way through John Muir’s famous wilderness itself. As the John Muir Trail has gained in popularity, obtaining permits has become much harder (click here for an explanation on how the NPS is handling this issue), resulting in an application rejection rate of up to 90% during the peak season. Talk about nerve-wracking!
The Application Process:
To hike into and through the many national parks, forests, and wilderness areas of the John Muir Trail, every person must carry a permit. Which permit you need, and where to apply for it, depends on the route you choose to take.
Northbound(NOBO) hikers must apply to enter the Inyo National Forest via a Whitney Portal permit. Applications are accepted online on at http://www.recreation.gov from Feb 1 – March 15 and are granted by a lottery system. Any spaces not filled by the lottery will then be opened to the public on April 1st, and can be obtained through the Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permit Office. From Whitney Portal, an 11-mile hike will take hikers to the summit of Mount Whitney, the official southern terminus of the John Muir Trail.
The traditional, and more popular, Southbound (SOBO) route – the one we plan on taking – requires a Yosemite wilderness permit, which can be applied for via fax, phone, or mail. Only 45 JMT permits are issued per day. Since fax is the preferred method, and also the most specific, we will try to break it down a bit!
When filling out the application, the top three trailhead choices must be listed, along with 1st night’s camp location. The 45 permits per day are divided among the several trailhead options.
JMT Permits must exit Yosemite National Park via Donahue Pass.
Applicants must fax their application no more than 168 days in advance – before we all hurt our brains with mental math, the NPS site provides a chart displaying the right date to fax, based on the desired start date. Applications are entered into a daily random lottery, and accepted applications will be notified via email in 1-2 business days. Time to cross your fingers and toes and hope for the best!
Choosing A Trailhead
The 45 Southbound permits issued per day are divided among five trailhead options. We had to consider our trailhead choices carefully, as this impacts our first night’s camp location, as well as our probability of getting a permit.
Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley
This is the “classic” JMT option, and therefore the most popular. This trailhead starts at the famous mileage sign ending at Mount Whitney. Hikers must camp their first night at the Little Yosemite Valley backpacker’s campground, a hike of only 4.5 miles. This is a great option for those wishing to hike Half Dome, a 7 mile side trip from LYV (permits for this are included on the wilderness permit application).
Happy Isles “pass through” to Sunrise/Merced Lake
This permit starts at the same Happy Isles trailhead, but hikers must “pass through” Little Yosemite Valley and camp in the areas beyond. Depending on how much mileage you want to put in on your first day, campsites begin at the 6 mile point, and continue to Sunrise High Sierra Camp at the 13 mile point. Half Dome is still an option with this permit, as this route passes right by the trailhead junction.
This trailhead has a different start point than the traditional Happy Isles, but links hikers up to the JMT only 3 miles beyond the Happy Isles trailhead, via the Panorama trail. Hikers must camp at the Little Yosemite Valley backpacker’s campground their first night with this permit, a roughly 6 mile day. Again, Half Dome is still an option with this permit.
The Sunrise/Tenaya Lakes trailhead is located in Tuolumne Meadows, an area of Yosemite National Park just east of Yosemite Valley. This trailhead meets up with the JMT roughly 13 miles downtrail from Happy Isles. Some people prefer this permit as it bypasses the hard climb out of Yosemite Valley. However, Half Dome no longer becomes an option, since the trailhead is behind this starting point. Since this trailhead is different from the classic start point, permits are somewhat easier to obtain.
Lyell Canyon also joins the JMT in Tuolumne Meadows, about 20 miles downtrail from Happy Isles, and is similar to Sunrise Lakes in permit strategy.
Since we have some flexibility with our start date and can afford to be rejected a couple of times, we are going for the classic Happy Isles routes. We would also be happy with a Glacier Point permit, since it is so close to the traditional start point. We chose these three trailheads in order to fully experience Yosemite Valley, and hopefully be able to climb Half Dome along the way!
In reference to strategy, all three of us will submit an application daily with our name as Trip Leader, and a different trailhead as our #1 choice (betwen HI-LYV, HI Pass Through, and Glacier Point). We are applying for Half Dome permits, but will allow our JMT application to be processed regardless of whether or not those are granted. We will start applying for a July 25 start date, with an ideal start of August 1 (Jamie’s birthday!). We will continue to apply into mid-August if we still haven’t received a permit, and will consider the other, easier to obtain trailheads if we reach that point.