When I decided to hike 230 miles of the John Muir Trial through the California Sierra Nevada with my boyfriend, there was nothing to warn me how hard it might be.
I joined the John Muir Trail Facebook group, with thousands of members, all of them posting beautiful pictures of alpine lakes, craggy mountains, nests of evergreen trees in valleys far below. They wrote quotes from John Muir, said how much they missed the mountains, what a life-changing experience the hike was. But nowhere was there commentary about the daily grind, the bodily torture, the difficulty in motivating oneself to keep going day after day after day.
It took months of preparation to hike the trail, which is notoriously hard to get a permit for. While the traditional way to hike the John Muir Trail is from north to south, Yosemite to Mt. Whitney, my boyfriend Tom and I decided to do it the other way around. Not only that, we got a permit that began three days, or about 30 miles, south of the main starting point of the John Muir Trail. It was the only way we could get a permit in a saturated market of hikers.
The first day of hiking dawned clear and brisk as we got going at 6:30am out of Cottonwood Meadows, down a dry packed path through manzanitas and pine trees. Our backpacks were laden with 12 days of food, and not all of it fit in our bear canisters. We knew we’d have to hike far enough to find bear lockers to store our excess food.
As I hiked down the trail that day, I realized I’d packed the wrong food. My backpack was way too heavy, beyond the scope of my Osprey 65. The straps cut into my shoulders and waist. I’d later realize the pack was between 50 and 60 pounds, about half of my weight! And that first mountain pass, New Army Pass, was huge.
We’d started at 10,000 feet and the pass scaled 11,000. That first day, my body unacclimated to the altitude, my pack super heavy, was one of the hardest. I panted up that hill in the blistering midday heat, stopping every few steps to catch my breath. Then, I got a bloody nose and had to jam part of a tampon up one nostril as I continued to hike, trying to breathe out of my mouth as dust rose around me. At the top, I could barely walk and ate some dried mango as I enjoyed the vista of glistening alpine lakes far below. But we had to keep going, down to a valley, many more miles.
That night we stopped and camped at Soldier Lake, and my body felt like it had run a marathon. Everything hurt, and my lungs were wheezy due to the thinness of the air. On Day 1, the John Muir Trial was already kicking my butt.
It continued like this for days. There was no break. Every day, we rose with the sun, broke down camp, hiked through amazingly beautiful vistas, then set up our tent, bathed in whatever freezing creek was nearby, and went to bed. Some days, after tramping down miles of loose rocks, my feet hurt so badly I felt like they’d fall off. Where were these stories about the John Muir Trail online? Why was nobody talking about how difficult it actually was?
On Day 4, we summited Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States at around 14,500’. We’d left most of our gear at basecamp, Crabtree Meadows, bringing up only the necessities. We started out at 5:30am, motivated for the 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss and 15 miles we’d have to do for the day.
The scenery was breath-taking, with a deep blue lake shaped like a Guitar and views for dozens, if not hundreds, of miles. Wildflowers bobbed among bright green grass. Crystal creeks burbled and curved through meadows. It was some of the most beautiful scenery I’d ever seen.
But when we reached the top of Whitney there was an ominous sight. Thunderclouds at eye level, building up over the valley and the distant mountains. We saw a sign at the summit, If you hear thunder, descent immediately.
We heard thunder.
We immediately started going down, down, down as fast as possible, stopping once to put on our rain jacket and rain pants. It was the fastest descent ever down 4,000 feet, and I felt my breath become ragged, my skin clammy inside my raincoat. The thunder boomed and reverberated off granite as we ran down switch-back after switch-back.
At the bottom, I felt sick. Nausea swept through me, and I threw up near Guitar Lake. I felt dizzy and spent, the altitude and exertion finally catching up with me. I slowly tried to make my way the last three miles to camp, but had to stop several times to throw up. Tom began to get worried, and encouraged me on. It would be dangerous if I couldn’t make it back to camp. He’d have to go alone, then lug gear back to me. I willed myself to keep walking, and collapsed in the tent at 6pm and fell into a deep and exhausted sleep, skipping dinner.
I woke up at 6am feeling refreshed, and started hiking again. And hiking. And hiking. For 22 days we hiked without stopping, up mountain passes, down into valleys, past crystalline lakes and streams. We hiked through rocky cliffs that looked like they belonged on another planet, and through the lush forests of Le Conte Canyon. Taking a dip in a stream at the end of a dirty, sweaty day never felt so good. Hamburgers and beer at Vermillion Valley Resort and Red’s Meadow never tasted so divine. I felt like on this hike, my senses were elevated, with my body experiencing and feeling everything at a primitive, deep level.
The John Muir Trail is an extraordinary hike, one that will take both your breath and your strength away. You’ll feel like you want to quit, but you’ll keep going just to see the beautiful view around the next bend. We even ran into a Pacific Crest Trail hiker who’d been going for two months already, who said the Sierra Nevada slowed her way down due to the difficulty. I knew we weren’t alone in our struggles.
So, you want to hike the John Muir Trail? Just be prepared for how hard it really is. Be prepared for your body to take a beating, and to struggle physically and mentally over each hurdle. But also be ready to be in pure awe and bliss at the scenery around you, to cry when climbing a mountain pass because you can’t believe the beauty. And be prepared to stop and just look, soaking it all in, because those tears are taking your breath away.
Having read about the John Muir Trail, also check out Kristin’s article on hiking the Hoh Rainforest.