John Muir Trail - Happy Isles To Kearsarge In 9 Days

  • Updated: September 22, 2013
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

September 14th to the 22nd, 2013
Happy Isles to Kearsarge Pass

The  John Muir Trail is 220 miles of some of the more spectacular scenery the Sierra has to offer.  The trail runs from Yosemite Valley in the north to Mount Whitney (the highpoint of the continental US) in the south and its a popular goal to hike it from end to end resupplying along the way.

I've eyed doing the John Muir Trail for the last few years but always stopped well short of making serious plans due to not having 2+ weeks away from work.

Then came this year where the eternally "it's really bound to end sometime" Boise project was in a convenient place and a combination of events in my personal life left me with more flexibility than I figured I was likely to see again anytime soon.

And so I went for it.
My initial plan ended up with me figuring I could do the trail in 8 days if everything went just right but clearing enough time so I had about 10.5 before a hit a hard have-to-be-back-in-Boise deadline.  (Because as usual either side of the trip would be bookended by a flight to or from Boise.)

Summer 2013 was a mad exhausting and all around awesome sequence of Sierra trip after Sierra trip.  A combination of *slight* exhaustion, some last minute struggled with a ongoing knee injury, and road closure issues related to the big Yosemite fire had the trip as tentative until about 4 days until I was supposed to start hiking.

But in the end despite the relatively short notice I decided it was a go and off I went.

Day 0:  Tioga Is Still Closed

The fact I had to finish the hike and be able to get back to Boise in short order meant the only thing that made sense was to drop my jeep at Whitney and get shuttled up to Yosemite and hike back.

I was trying to rely on friends rather than a paid shuttle service.  Normally the drive from Whitney Portal to Yosemite isn't too bad but then came the 2013 Yosemite Rim Fire which caused Tioga Pass (the access point to Yosemite from the east) to close past Touloume.

I really didn't want to start at Toulome.  It cuts about 30 miles off and just seemed like cheating.  If I was going to do the JMT I wanted to do all of it.

Jen Blackie stepped in last minute and was willing to ferry me out via the horrible drive north past Mammoth and across Sonora Pass so we could get into Yosemite from the west.

Due to worse than usual traffic the drive from OC to Whitney Portal took until 9 pm.  From Whitney Portal across Sonora and to Glacier Point Road (a convenient bivy spot near Yosemite Valley) took until 5:30 am.

It was a long night.

Day 1:  This was not a good day

We arrived in the valley and quickly found a spot along Glacier Point Road where we could sleep for a few hours.  Two hours later Jen and I staggered out of our sleeping bags, quickly got my gear sorted, and stumbled off towards the valley.

Before I could get hiking I had to pick up my permit from the Ranger station.  It also meant leaving behind anything I wouldn't be carrying with me for the next 8-10 days and several hundred miles.  I only cried a little.

Permits in Yosemite are a bit different than elsewhere in the Sierra as if you don't make late pickup arrangements they expire at 10 am the day of pickup (elsewhere it's usually whatever time the ranger station closes)

Due to various mishaps, sleep deprivation, and phone reception difficulties I came very close to loosing the permit.  Only a last minute call that made it through to the ranger station at 10:05 saved it.

The good news was once we arrived the ranger was ready to swap my original permit starting from Glacier Point for one starting at the traditional Happy Isles trailhead down in the valley.  Considering I was hoping to start from Happy Isles anyway and hike up to Glacier Point along the way if necessary this was a good thing.

(Glacier Point starts a little higher and spares you the initial climb out of the valley but again, felt like cheating)

I bought Jen breakfast at a little deli beside the post office figuring it was the very least I could do.  One greasy egg, cheese, and sausage croissant later we were headed for the trailhead.  For reasons that will become abundantly clear shortly I'm not going to recommend this particular dining establishment.

The shuttle ride back to Happy Isles was uneventful and Jen decided to join me for the initial jaunt up to Vernal and Nevada Falls.  This is the first part of the extremely popular Half Dome hike (among other options) so we were passing people left and right.

Jen turned back at Vernal Falls and I was finally off on my own with a mere 200+ miles ahead of me.

I hiked through Little Yosemite Valley chatting periodically with folks coming back down the Half Dome Trail many of which complemented me on my rugged and manly Man Skirt (aka my Sport Kilt).  Also a good number of people particularly those of a younger variety refused to make eye contact the hustled by me as quickly as possible.

Finally I passed the junction to Half Dome and things finally started feeling like an actual wilderness hike.

I filled up my water at Sunset chatting with another guy who was filtering and planning on strolling up Clouds Rest.  I was happy and content with nothing in front of me but days and days of strolling through some of the prettiest terrain around.

Oddly enough I hadn't really been eating after that breakfast abomination which wasn't very big.  I chocked it up to excitement of finally being on my way.  Of being out in the wilderness with nothing to worry about but walking.

The sky was beautiful, the weather was perfect, I was tired but felt like I could hike all night if need be.

And then all hell broke loose.

My stomach suddenly rebelled.  Very suddenly.  Almost not enough time to make it off the trail into a bush without a sanitation emergency suddenly.

I lost at least on hour between frenzied runs into the brush and a brief period where I couldn't manage much more than lying on my side groaning.  And it was getting later in the day.

I'd been planning on making Cathedral Lake which is a little more than 20 miles in.

I managed to get through the worse of it and started staggering up the trail again at a fair pace when I had to make another water stop at a creek I passed.  Stepping back around to my pack the entire creekside collapsed dumping me into the water.  I was soaked and muddy up to the waist.  This wasn't my day.

And I still had mileage I had to make.  Stopping early would quite possible screw me out of being able to finish the very last bit a week from now.

I washed off the mud, wrung out my socks, and stumbled on determined to make Cathedral.

I hadn't really intended to hike much after dark so I had my smaller then usual headlamp along.

Right around dark I was passing through a meadow by the Sunrise High Sierra Camp.  I could hear sounds of a large group coming from the cabin.  They had company, fire, and food.  I was alone, still somewhat wet, exhausted, and really not having a good day.

I staggered in to Cathedral Lake around 10:30 pm.  I filled water directly out of the lake, made a hurried dinner, and passed out as soon as I could get into my bivy.

Day 2:  Cathedral Lake To Rush Creek

I didn't get up until after the sun had hit me.  I was feeling better and only a little tired from the day before.

Cathedral Lake is a beautiful spot and I'd love to come back when there was time to relax and swim.  There's a huge granite slab that runs gradually into the water which means the water was much warmer than some of the recently trips where we've swam in deep lakes.

I generally wouldn't drink unfiltered from a lake in a popular area like that but I was beyond caring.

All my stuff unpacked
All my stuff packed
Day 1 started a habit I made of hiking until after dark but not getting started particularly early.

Back on the trail I dropped down to Tuolome making a pit stop at one of the campground to use their facilities (since any toilet paper used had to be carried from this point out) before swinging south into Lyell Fork.  The original JMT permit I'd been able to get had be starting at this point and honestly in hindsight it probably would have been a better plan.  It would have saved me that bad drive across Sonora and you're just hoping from populated area to populated area.

Oh, and it turned out Tioga Pass had opened about an hour after I got on the trail.  *sigh*

Lyell Canon has a good trail and I made decent time.  Climbing up and over Donohue Pass things started to drag a little.

I crossed the pass and spent the last few hours of daylight descending down towards Rush Creek.  Near the Rush Creek trail junction I found a number of other campers but continued down another mile or so before making camp right around sunset near the junction to Waugh Lake.

This was a spooky camp for some reason.  I was on a rise between two stream forks and had a number of deer around on all sides.  I did my best to camp away from the trail but seemingly whenever I found something it was right next to another trail with restoration markers.

Home sweet home
And yes that's a Kindle.  I carried it to keep me sane and it turned out to be a really good call.

Day 3:  Rush Creek To 5 Miles Past Reds Meadow

I got moving again after sun up and a few miles down the trail I ran into a nice pair of ladies and spent an hour or so strolling along and chatting.  The lack of people to talk to was turning out to be a bigger and bigger issue for me combined with the long days causing me to really need distraction.

Blisters were also starting to become a bigger and bigger deal despite my best attempts at management.  I don't normally get blisters in my hiking boots but the back to back 20+ mile days were taking their toll.

After leaving those two I passed a number of spectacular lakes which are now on my list to head back to next year for peakbagging.

The JMT and the PCT actually diverge in this section with the PCT following the easier route by far down into Agnew Meadow while the JMT stays west and has some significant ups and downs.

I had to make Reds Meadow in time to resupply and issues on Day 1 had left me with some sanitary issues I really wanted to deal with so I pushed myself hard.

I ran into a rather nice packer up near Rosalie Lake who gave me some fresh fruit and officially became my favorite person that day.

I staggered in to Reds Meadow around 5 pm.

I was slightly tired as I'd been pushing all day and might have been slightly frazzled .

I'd made the mistake of sticking to the JMT past Devil's Postpile figuring since Reds was such a major resupply point they'd surely have a sign.  Turns out that's an incorrect assumption.

Part of the issue is the cleanup from the blowdown event back in November of 2011.  Wind whipped through the area fast enough to knocked down trees all over the place.

Several other hikers I chatted with had ended up stumbling around the network of trails or had even ended up stumbling around cross country.  I stayed until I did find the sign with happened to be all the way down by Rainbow Falls.  This required a backtrack.  And it was uphill.

Needless to say I stumbled in to Reds slightly worse for the wear and must have been a disturbing site to the guy running the store.

Two frenzied hours later (they shut down at 7 am) I'd eaten, done laundry, hosed off, and done my best to resupply.

Technically what I'd been told about being able to buy whatever I needed was correct.  What I hadn't realized what the store was letting stock run low due to the end of the season.  They had a single backpacker meal.

I went about scraping together what I could making some rice and mash potato concoctions.

The other hikers were all intending to stay at Reds for the night looking forward to breakfast in the morning.  But again, I had miles to make.  With great reluctance I strapped on my headlamp, shouldered my pack, and set off into the dark.

I had a bit of trouble finding the trail initially but once I had it it went smoothly.  After an hour or so I was ready to stop but I was still in a burn / blowdown debris area and my options were non existent.

Oh and there were eyes watching me all over in the dark.

I made Crater Meadow before deciding to call it a night.  It was noticeably colder here but I was nice and warm once I was in my bag.  Again I cooked from inside my bivy and settled down for a few hours of sleep.

Day 4:  A new low

Day 4 was probably the low point of the trip.

After a decent night I had someone pass me while I was getting ready.  This was unusual as I'd mostly been passing others.  Turns out he was trying to do the trail in 5 days.  And this was his second attempt since the year before all his food had been eaten by a bear.  And his pack was rather small looking so I'm guessing he was just chancing another encounter.

I got moving quickly to help me warm up and followed the trail along a long traverse across the top of Fish Creek.

My feet hurt.  They really hurt.  Every step was general pain with spikes coming from a few blisters I was having to manage.

And to make matters worse word on the trail was Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) was out of food and telling people who called not to bother showing up if they hadn't sent food ahead.

I actually managed to buy a Lasagna Mountain House off a guy headed north to Reds.  I figured worst case if MTR was out of food I'd be able to make it over to the Eastern Sierra so my bailout ride could pick me up without having to drive most of the day.

As an added bonus the Purple Lake Ranger Teri said there might be a little weather coming in the following weekend.  And the temperature was going to drop.

On the plus side I did have company for a while.  Chris was a PCT hiker who I came across earlier in the day.  We were running at roughly the same speed and ended up hopscotching each other until somewhere around Silver Pass where he must have stopped early for the night.

Making it over Silver Pass that night was a real struggle and I started seriously looking for a place to camp below Pocket Meadow but lack of anything suitable kept me moving until I reached my original goal of the Vermilion turnoff.

Day 5:  Pain

That morning the blister on my heel was painful enough I was almost in tears as I took off.

The initial climb after the Lake Thomas Edison junction was high up enough I pulled out my cell phone (AT&T) and was able to get reception for the first time since Reds Meadow (that I noticed anyway.)  I sent out a few check in messages before my battery bottomed out from the cold.

Jumping over Bear Ridge I rejoined the trail we'd taken for the all around relaxed and awesome Seven Gables & Gemini trip a few weeks ago.  Except this time I was in rather bad pain and only ran into one other group.

Again I pushed hard to get over Seldon Pass and try to get down the far side to Muir Trail Ranch before they closed for the night.

I didn't make it but I ran into a nice couple on the way down that told me where the nice campspots were and even tried to describe a hotspring nearby.

I looked as well as I could but after a long day I soon decided hotsprings were less desirable than not having to walk for a while and set up camp by the river a bit down from MTR.

My GPS showed some hotsprings across the river but I wasn't about to go that far.  Instead I washed up a bit and settled in for a really pleasant camp.

Day 6:  Muir Trail Ranch

I know MTR opened at 8 and I was up and waiting at the gate a few minutes before that.

And I wasn't the only one.  A few days before I'd heard from someone else on the trail about a set of blonde twins in skirts heading the same way I was.  When I'd never passed them I eventually marked it down to someone trying to motivate me to keep moving but guess who showed up?

They were on a slightly more relaxed schedule but it was nice to have someone to talk to while dealing with food since the lady who let us in at the Ranch wasn't overly friendly.  Maybe we smelled that badly?

MTR is the major resupply point along the trail being less than a mile diversion and being located roughly half way.  Most people send food to themselves there which entails sending it in a bucket along with a check and they mule pack it the 7 miles in from the nearest road.

Obviously a large number of folks end up not making it that far and their food gets thrown into the communal buckets.

They're roughly categorized and there's a note asking anyone leaving food to please include cooking directions since much of it was repackaged.

I'd spent the last few days a) hoping they had any food and b) dreaming of having a fresh set of Mountain House backpacker meals.  That wasn't going to happen.  Also a good chunk of the food were items that would be difficult to cook with my little alcohol stove.

They also take your trash out for free.  Again there are categorized buckets but they basically boil down to things that can be burned and things that have to be mule packed out.

Sadly (yet understandably) there was nothing for toilet paper.  I'd neglected to offload mine at Reds Meadow figuring I could manage something here.  And as a result I ended up carrying all of my tp for the entire 9 days.

So while the food provisions weren't quite what I'd hoped I had plenty to finish the last half of the trail.  For the first time in days I felt like I had an actual shot at finishing the entire trail and I set off enthusiastically along the San Joaquin.

Most of the day was miles and miles of gradual meadow climbs eventually bringing me to Muir Pass.

In one of the truly beautiful moments of the trip I was up around 12,00 ft all alone and feeling completely independent and free watching the sun set.

I crossed Muir Pass right after dark and found two other JMT folks spending the night inside.  Starved for conversation I chatted for a while before continuing on.

The trail down from Muir to Helen wasn't the easiest going with lots of loose rock so I really slowed down and lost the trail once or twice.

I eventually settled above Middle Lake (the lake right below Helen)  I found a small alcove that had obviously been used before and set up camp in the gloriously full moon light.  It was enough to light up the peaks and the canyon below almost like daylight.

Day 7: Home Turf

The temperature had dropped noticeably at this point so I got moving a bit quicker than usual.  When I stopped to wash my socks along the way and hung them on the back of my pack they promptly iced up.

Passing the Le Conte ranger station I dropped by to ask about the weather.  The ranger there seemed to be shutting down the cabin for the season but he claimed the weather was going to pass north and I should have clear sailing though it was going to get a little colder.

So reassured I continued on increasingly feeling like I was going to make my schedule.  The climb up and over Mather Pass was long and I froze my butt off coming down the south side.  I ended up throwing on every layer I had with me to stand the hard cold winds.

I made camp well after dark below the drainage leading to Cardinal Lake.  It was the closest I camped to the train the entire trip (maybe 50 ft) but it was flat and had water and I really needed to stop.

Day 8

Day 8 seemed to be off to a good start.  Pinochot Pass is a relatively gentle one and I'd been through a lot of this terrain before.  I was tired but moving and I could could down how many days I had left.

It was a cold morning with the sun only eventually getting rid of the layer of frost on everything but it  warmed up eventually.

The far side of Pichot involved a long descent then a climb back up to Rae Lakes.  I had an eye on the clock (as usual) and was determined to make it over Glenn Pass that night, Forester the next, and then have a relatively reasonable 15 miles or so final day crossing Whitney.  Relaxation!

Despite the assurances rangers gave me the weather sure didn't look like it was passing north.

I was booking past Rae Lakes and while I was tired I easily had it in me to make it over Glen Pass and camp somewhere on the far side.

I ran into a few people stumbling off the pass looking somewhat shell shocked.  The wind on the pass was apparently brutal.

I had every intention of continuing over but at the junction with the 60 lakes basin trail I reassesed.

Most minor storms in the Sierra seem to hit in the afternoon and clear right before dark.  Here I was right before sunset and by all appearance things were still building.

I decided pushing over the pass with the limited gear I had wasn't the best idea.  I found a reasonably protected spot and went about making my somewhat sad mash potatoes and sunflower seed dinner (which I had 3 nights of.  Limited options from MTR)

Due to the high winds I had to weight the alcohol stove down with rocks but I managed to boil my water and gulp down my largely re hydrated dinner.

That's not a Mountain House dinner.  That's the bag from a Mountain House I'd eaten 4 or so days ago which I was reusing each night to eat the previously mentioned slightly less than appealing combination of mashed potatoes, garlic, and sunflower seeds.

Sure enough things kept getting worse.  I hurriedly finished dinner and dove into the bivy as a few initial flurries became a significant amount of snow.

I was kept awake for a good chunk of the night as snow built up around the bivy and I kept getting hammered by high winds.

The snow stopped sometime after 1 am.

Day 9

I woke up and waited until the sun had hit to get out of the bivy.  It was cold and even after the winds there were drifts of 6 inches or so which were slightly inconvenient with my light boots.

Even better the initial snow has melted and then refrozen once the storm continued so underneath the snow was a fun layer of ice.

It took a  it longer to get moving since I didn't have anywhere dry to fold things up.  I managed to get my sleeping bag mostly dry but the bivy was hopelessly wet when I had to pack it up.

I'd spent the night coming to peace with the fact this was going to mess up my schedule.  I was just glad there wasn't enough snow to keep me trapped at Rae Lakes.

I followed footprints up over Glen Pass and soon ran into someone climbing back over who was similarly relieved the snow hadn't been worse.

Snow varied but the drifts were up to mid thigh.

It was going to melt.  Unfortunately the melt wasn't going to finish up that day and with nighttime temperatures in the 20s all the melt was going to freeze.  The fact I was going to have to cross Forester Pass after dark wasn't promising.

So, conditions plus the fact if I had to bail on day 10 it would be over Shepherds (which I'd been down enough this year) plus the fact I would have to disrupt Steph's day (she was my emergency pickup if I couldn't finish) made the choice obvious and I exited over Kearsarge.

So in the end I'd been 9 days and 190 miles.

The commemorative patch my friend Jen made me

Gear, Arrangements, Ect

What I brought

  • Osprey Ather pack
  • Jack's R Better Sierra Sniveller Quilt
  • Bearikade Weekender Bear Can
  • Long sleeve fireball orange running shirt
  • Sports Kilt Hiking Kilt
  • Button up long sleeve 
  • GoLite Roan Down Hooded Jacket
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 1 pack lemur
  • 1 Kindle Paperwhite (camp reading)
  • Small first aid kit (basically bandaids, gauze, and ibuprofen)
  • Climbing tape
  • Neo Air 4 Season Air Mattress
  • Outdoor Research Alpine 4 Season Bivy
  • Awesomely colored long john bottoms
  • Montbell insulated camp pants (one of the best things I own)
  • Rain poncho
  • Fleece beanie
  • Sun hat
  • Fingerless fleece gloves
  • Hiking poles
  • Merrell Moab Ventilator boots
  • Croc clogs (camp shoes, wouldn't give them up for anything)
  • 2 buffs
  • 1 alcohol stove + bottle of fuel

What Worked

Taking the heavier backpack

I bought a lightweight Gossamer Gear pack a few years back and hadn't used it after an initial backpack showed it wasn't overly suited for the type of peakbagging trips.

I threw in my usual Osprey Ather at the last minute and swapped things out right before leaving.

I probably could have saved 2 pounds by using the lighter pack but with as much as I had to carry especially after MTR it would have been pain and misery the entire trip.  Instead the biggest annoyance was my pack picked up a squeak that seems to be related to the fact I wore through the suspension with all the trips this summer.  Oops.


The kilt was a bit of an odd looking choice but it's damn freeing.

I had a pair of light running shorts to wear under it to help with the chaffing (something I'd had real struggles with particularly on the Memorial Day Massacre) and long johns I could wear if it grew too cold.  In addition I had a pair of synthetic insulating down-like pants that were more for in camp.

Up top I had the long sleeve running shirt, the long sleeve button up, then a down jacket.  My rain jackets are all heavy so I elected to go with a poncho that I never had to use but would have been a lifesaver if the weather had hit earlier.

The Kindle

I brought along the Kindle Paperwhite that usually lives in my work bag.  The battery lasts weeks at a time, it's self lighted, and surprisingly rugged.

I didn't think I'd have that much time to read but kind of figured for the weight having something in camp to take my mind off things wouldn't be a bad idea.

And it was even though I probably only read 30 minutes a night and maybe a few minutes during breakfast in the morning it was a nice distraction from various aches and pains.

What Didn't

Not mailing food ahead

I choose to buy things on the trail for a variety of reasons.

First off I really struggle with food I can actually choke down while hiking since I've managed to burn out on so many different things with all the trips lately.

Second it meant less cost / planning and since the trip wasn't 100% a go until the week that was appealing.  But it kind of burned me.

I'd been told by others who had done the JMT before that I could get all the food I needed from Reds Meadow and The Muir Train Ranch.  Combined with my pace I figured I could do 2.5 days of food to make Reds Meadow, 3 days to MTR, and then carry 4.5 days of food to finish the last 100 miles.

As I mentioned before I got to Reds Meadow to find one backpacker dinner and a whole hell of a lot of breakfast meals.

So while I managed scrape things together with a box of ziplocks and a mix of repackaged food it wasn't quite as appealing at I would have preferred.  And it was worse at MTR.

Main item throughout the day were either somewhat questionable trail mix, peanut butter packets, or a combination of fig newtons, nutter butters, and peanuts M&Ms.  Dinners were worse.  After long buttkicker days I'd crawl into the bivy, boil water, and settle down to mashed potatoes and sunflower seeds.

Just having half decent Mountain House meals would have made life much more pleasant.

Hiking Solo / Pace

I was averaging 25 miles a day or so except for the first day and the MTR day due to other restrictions.

I met a few northbound hikers but they were drying up since it was the end of the season and MTR actually closed.  Southbound there were more people but I passed pretty much everyone and never saw them again.

A few people took the easier way right before Reds and I saw twice and one guy was doing 40 miles a day running and passed me but everyone else I blew by and never saw again.

Other than that I had to keep myself distracted which was increasingly difficult with my feet killing me.  It does help to have someone to chat with as you stroll up the passes.  Granted if I'd done 15 or 20 mile days I would have been in camp an hour or two before dark each night which would have also made things significantly easier.

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