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.
*Click on title above to activate slideshow below.
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.
We crossed into the John Muir Wilderness on August 18th, our 17th day of walking. The following day we tackled another pass – 10,898 ft. Selden Pass. Perhaps because of the lower elevation, the approach to the pass was not nearly as stark and rocky as some of the other passes. We enjoyed the wooded trail, passing by several lakes as we slowly climbed.
“Hurry up!” I heard the shout from Steve, one of our group members. He was standing above me at the top of the pass. “Hamburgers and hot dogs!” I didn’t believe him, but I hurried to the top, just to make sure I wouldn’t miss out if, by some miracle, he was telling the truth. I couldn’t believe my eyes. What I saw sent me dashing back to the trail to yell the very same thing down to Reg…”Reg, hurry up! Hamburgers and hot dogs!”
Like a mirage, our trail angels appeared as we summitted. Fully prepared with a gas grill, they had hiked up to Selden Pass with 50 pounds of frozen burgers and buns, hot dogs and buns, ketchup, mustard, a cooler of Sierra Nevada beer and banana bread for dessert! The four had flown from across the country with a plan to surprise the father (who was walking the trail) of two of the young men, but all who passed by that day shared in the surprise of a lifetime.
*Click on the title above to activate the slideshows below
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!
It was pitch black when Reg shook me awake and said, “Honey, I’m leaving.” Up until that point, I don’t think Reg had definitely decided to make the climb. It was 4:00 am and having made the decision to take a rest day, catch up on chores and better adjust to the altitude, I grunted and rolled over.
While I puttered around the campsite with three others who chose to remain behind, Reg and seven hikers from our group, along with Lane, one of our packers, journeyed to the top of the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. There is no easy way to the top, and from what Reg said, much of it was a group effort of encouragement.
The afternoon brought good news from all seven hikers. Everyone had made it to the top, the weather was perfect and Reg managed to correct his wrong turn on the way down…before ending up at the wrong trailhead.
Pictured above is Lane, our walking packer who often brought up the rear of our daily hikes – checking on our progress and making sure we had what we needed. According to Reg, he was full of encouragement in the early morning hours of the Whitney climb. The photo on the right shows Guitar Lake, shaped like, you guessed it, a guitar. What a surprise!
What other surprises will John Muir’s Trail hold for us?
*Click on title above to activate slide show below
We entered Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks area, covering 20 miles in 2 days to reach Guitar Lake where we spent 2 nights. The trail eventually led us along Rock Creek where our second campsite was located. The next morning we had just over 3,000 feet of elevation gain before finally reaching (dragging ourselves) up to our Guitar Lake camp.
Guitar Lake, elevation 11,400 feet, is a popular starting point for the iconic Mt. Whitney climb. Due to the quickly changing weather conditions at the top of Whitney, morning is considered the best time to start the 3,100 foot climb…and the earlier, the better. Our group of climbing hopefuls was scheduled for a 4:00 am breakfast call. Who would attempt the climb? Who would make it to the top?