It was hard to anticipate just what hiking the John Muir Trail would mean to each of us. It’s been equally difficult to put into words a complete description of our day in/day out journey along the John Muir Trail. We struggled, we learned, we laughed and we celebrated. Each day was a combination of emotions that left us both exhausted and exhilarated as we climbed into our tent each night.
It was our 26th day of walking when I began tracking the barefoot prints leading down the switchbacks to Garnet Lake. I wondered if someone was walking in those barefoot shoes, the ones with individual slots for each of your toes. But the prints were so perfect, as if each step had been carefully placed to create the most precise impression.
Playing the part of a JMT detective, I tracked the footprints downhill. They all looked pretty fresh, so I figured sooner or later Reg and I were bound to catch up with the owner. Up ahead, carefully choosing each step along a rockier part of the trail was Ken, the barefoot hiker. We exchanged a few pleasantries. If my memory is correct, at that point he had walked 148 miles without shoes. An unusual approach to hiking the John Muir Trail, but as our friend Lori is fond of saying, ”You’ve got to hike your own hike.” We played leapfrog along the trail throughout the morning before losing sight of him. When we told the story around our dinner circle that night, Emma, the packer who led our mule train, laughed and explained that when she came up behind him on the trail and saw his shorts and black leggings, she assumed it was Reg and (ready to give a lecture on safety) shouted down at him, ”Where are your shoes?”
That was the only day we saw Ken and we wondered what had become of him. While scrolling through Facebook the other day, I stumbled upon a post which led me to Ken’s blog post and my questions were answered. I’ve included a link for you below.
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While walking the John Muir Trail is a major accomplishment for even the most experienced of hikers, the creation and ongoing maintenance of the path are the true achievements. It is certainly no stroll through the park! Every day presented unexpected challenges for us along rough and rocky trails, testing our feet, ankles and knees. How do hikers do it without trekking poles?
Water crossings can present a huge problem for early season John Muir backpackers. Having watched countless YouTube videos showing some rather frightening river levels, we were wary of what might flow through the trail in our path. Unfortunately, (but lucky for us) California is experiencing a drought along with what was a low 2020/2021 snowfall year. Even Evolution Creek, which often presents a fast running, thigh-high obstacle, was only ankle deep. That was the only place we chose to take our shoes off due to the lack of large stepping stones.
Reg and I got pretty good at navigating rocks across waterways, but we were happy to see a number of bridges scattered along the trail. A few of them were much appreciated, even after the dry winter season.
While the water levels weren’t as high as we expected, the countless meadows remained surprisingly green and, in some cases, quite lush. We found them to be a relaxing contrast to the sharp angles of steep granite passes and rocky pathways.
We were surprised by the sheer number of lakes, ponds and watering holes scattered along the John Muir Trail. Most were so crystal clear that we could count the fish swimming about. Our group was lucky enough to camp at a few of them and Reg and I enjoyed lunch along the shore of others. In between, I snapped photos left and right, hoping I’d be able to remember which was which.
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Reg and I are not the type of hikers who study the trail map in great detail every morning. As long as we are confident we can get from point A to point B, we look forward the surprises the trail offers, so we were quite pleased when the morning began with a pleasant walk along a fairly flat dirt trail.
But on our 6th day of walking we were aware there would be no escaping the tough climb ahead. Those of us who chose to sit out Mt. Whitney had no choice but to conquer 13,200 foot Forester Pass. The day wore on and the trail became steeper and rockier as we continued the 2,300 foot climb to the top of Forester Pass. We soon found ourselves on a series of long switchbacks, struggling over chunky granite cobblestones and clambering over boulders that stretched our legs to the limit.
And then the mules caught up with us. Normally they were roped together in 3 groups led by Emma, Wyatt and Tate on horseback. Before starting up the pass, the mules were untied for safety. They are pretty sure-footed animals, but if one slipped on the narrow, steep switchbacks while tied together, they would fall like dominoes, scattering rocks and boulders on hikers below.
I’m afraid my photos don’t do the scene justice, nor do they show just how treacherous and how tight the final switchbacks to the summit are.
I’m looking pretty relaxed after what was easily the climb of my life, but at this point our day was only half over. What more could John Muir confront us with?
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In choosing to walk the John Muir Trail with the support of a mule team and packers, we realized far more benefits were more than we could have hoped for. While we still walked every knee-busting mile of the trail, our backpacks were reduced to a manageable 25+/- lbs. “Cheater” I was called once by a fellow hiker carrying an oversized pack. Well, that depends on one’s perspective doesn’t it? The fact is, Reg and I wanted to walk this iconic trail for ourselves and carrying a 40+ lb. pack was out of the question. We still worked hard. Every night Reg and I tidied ourselves up in a stream or lake, filtered water for the next day, washed a shirt or pair of socks or more, set up our tent, blew up our air mattresses, unfurled our sleeping bags and tried to organize ourselves prior to our 5:00 a.m. alarm…when the whole process reversed itself. Let me tell you, it was really cold at 5:00 in the morning on the John Muir Trail!
We also had a few rules to follow. No breakfast or coffee until all our mule-packed belongings were ready to go and placed on the packer tarps. It took all eleven of us (hikers) about an hour to pack up each morning. Because the horses and mules were let loose to graze overnight, we were not allowed to leave camp to start our daily hike until all stock had been accounted for. Without stock, our baggage could not be transported to the next camp and we would be without overnight supplies. Not often, but sometimes they wandered off under the cover of dark and the guys had to hunt for them in the early hours. One morning as I held my coffee cup out to Emma to fill, she warned me that the guys had been out searching for the horses and mules since 4:30 a.m. It wasn’t too long after breakfast that they all finally returned and we started our day. It seemed our four-legged friends had wandered miles back along the trail to enjoy greener pastures.
Theres no doubt that having our meals prepared for us each day was an incredible treat. Emma was amazing. She was up at 4:30 every morning making us all sandwiches or wraps to pack as part of our lunch. Breakfast could be any combination of eggs, pancakes, toast, sausage, bacon, oatmeal, cream of wheat and sometimes fresh fruit. Dinners were equally and unexpectedly good. Spaghetti and meatballs, chicken tacos, steak, hamburgers, basil pasta, shepherd’s pie and pork chops. Often we even had dessert – brownies or cake.
With all this support, we might just make it to the end of the trail!
If you remember our last post, you’ll recall that over a month ago we were getting ready for the trip of a lifetime; a 243-mile, mule assisted trek along the John Muir Trail. I don’t know about Reg, but I certainly had plenty of misgivings right up to the moment we first set foot on the trail. We would be surrounded by wilderness with very few escape routes. A number of concerning “what ifs” had kept me up at night.
Regardless, our journey began on schedule August 2 at Horseshoe Meadow in California’s Inyo National Forest. We arrived to a bustling corral that looked straight out of a Hollywood western. Our final group count equaled eleven hikers, four packers with four horses and eight or ten mules…for some reason, Reg and I could never agree on the mule count.
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Our 4.5 mile route for Day 1 took us up over 11,160′ Cottonwood Pass, then on to Chicken Spring Lake (11,242′) for the night. Total elevation gain: 1,400 feet. Was it really just 4.5 miles?
And so, after a dusty first day, we put up our tent, blew up our air mattresses, unrolled our sleeping bags, filtered our water for the next day and found just enough time for a short rest before dinner. What would the next 29 days reveal?