My John Muir Trail Experience

For my 50th birthday, I decided a while ago to do something epic: backpack the John Muir Trail (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Muir_Trail).  For those not familiar, the JMT is a premier “long trail” (although not nearly as long as the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail), distancing 210 miles from Yosemite National Park to the summit of Mt. Whitney (the tallest mountain in the lower 48) through some of the most picturesque scenery in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  With additional hiking to destinations off the trail and getting off the trail, I ended up hiking 233 miles over 18 days.  It was awesome.

Yes, I slept in a tent for 18 straight nights.  Yes, I typically carried 45 pounds on my back while climbing as much as 3,200’, as high as 13,100’ elevation and as long as 17 miles in a day.  Yes, I pooped in the woods/nature almost every one of those days.  Yes, I was filthy all the time.  Yes, I ate dehydrated dinners every night except two. Yes, I loved almost every minute of it.

The views, experience and people I met were worth every minute of planning and step I took on the trail.  Logistically, this was one of the most comprehensive “projects” I have been associated, on par with planning a remodel of a basement that included electrical and plumbing or building a 500 sq ft. multi-level deck.  I had to navigate equipment decisions (barely passed), travel arrangements to and from remote locations (passed with flying colors) and planning food supplies and shipping up to four weeks prior to using, all while fitting into a 700 cu in bear canister (passed).  Physically, while being difficult, the hiking wasn’t daunting.  Mentally, I didn’t find it too taxing, probably given that you are constantly distracted with the thoughts of selecting a campsite, dealing with minor issues, keeping on schedule, and strategy for attacking the next pass.

There was almost a constant stream of majesty to overcome any nuisance that was experienced.  I had my share of issues, but fortunately nothing that was a major deterrent from my goal of completing or enjoying the experience.  I had some blisters (resolved by Day 9), my fingers were a wreck (cracking and cuts), extreme chaffing (controlled after five days), issues with my main water filter system (ended up breaking before the end) and experienced more difficulty on the inclines, especially at higher elevation, than I expected.  The biggest nit that gnawed at me constantly was the disappointment of some of my gear decisions that resulted in a much heavier pack than I should have had.  A lot of lessons learned.  One thing that helped is that more than 90% of people I met on the JMT are happy and very willing to help.  I received (and distributed) my share of “trail magic”.

On Day 4 I stated that I experienced the single best day of hiking in my life (which includes Cirque of the Towers, Grand Canyon, RMNP, Glacier, Acadia, Big Bend,…).  I eclipsed that “personal record day” at least six more times during the trip.  There were too many times to count where I would stop, look around, and just say to myself “Can you believe I am experiencing this beauty?”.  It seemed that at least twice a day you would turn a corner and see a new majestic mountain range, lake, canyon, cascading creek or forest.  The weather was perfect, with the norm being beautiful blue skies and dry weather.  In the 18 days, there was only one six-hour period that was affected by overcast clouds, with the one minute of minor sleet being the only precipitation.  But even this was followed by the most spectacular evening light show on the retreating clouds and mountains.

For the most part, I followed my plans.  I did end up taking an unplanned, near-“zero day” at Vermillion Valley Resort (cool, hiker-friendly place just off the trail) as my body told me I needed a rest.  This extended my 17-day trip to 18 days, but I was typically 3-5 miles ahead of the plan from there on out.  I averaged 13.5 miles a day, which was also about my median day.  The longest day was 17 miles, the shortest 10.  I mostly hiked alone, but there were several periods where I spent a few hours hiking with one or two of the dozen-or so people I got to know on the trail at various points.  I typically camped alone, but most of the time within site of others.  The only wildlife I saw were deer, pika and marmots.  No bears or rattlesnakes.  I didn’t eat nearly as much as I thought I would (or should).  I lost 13 pounds on the trip, as well as ending up being the most toned as I have ever been in my life.

I do want to document the trip in more detail for those interested on this blog, but that will take some time.  For the time being, you can view a comprehensive set of pictures from the trip (with descriptions) at

I also felt like videos provided a much better representation of the awesomeness, so loaded a ton of them up on YouTube and will integrate them into the daily journal:

Of course, recognition and appreciation has to be given to Ann for her support and patience through my obsessive planning, as well as having to put up with being home without me for three weeks.  It didn’t help that contact was extremely limited during the second half of the trip, and we couldn’t communicate for eight days at one point (10 days by phone).  Matthew was great help, thankfully being able to be at home during the first week.  Fortunately, the house and animals survived, but Ann is glad she doesn’t have to handle everything herself anymore.

A truly fantastic experience I would highly recommend to anyone who is interested, capable and tolerant enough to endure.  I am so glad to have undertaken the experience.  People have mentioned doing something like this can be a “life changing” experience.  For me, I wouldn’t classify it as that.  I would say it was “life moving”.

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One thought on “My John Muir Trail Experience

  1. Mark R

    Mark, it was a highlight of my trip meeting and getting to know you, especially at our unplanned VVR side trip. I look forward to reading more about your adventures.

    Like

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