The John Muir Trail is a 211 mile stretch between Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley and Mt. Whitney in the California desert. While hardcore backpackers will hike the entire length in as little as 15 days, the Yosemite National Park portion of the John Muir Trail makes for a beautiful escape for backpackers with less time (or a lack of desire to go the distance).
Where to Start and End a Yosemite National Park John Muir Trail Backpacking Trip
Yosemite National Park is certainly not one of the least crowded national parks to visit, but the masses can be avoided by hiking the back country. Backpackers hiking the John Muir trail traditionally start at the base of Vernal Fall in Yosemite National Park, and climb upward past Vernal and Nevada falls, Half Dome, and Little Yosemite Valley campground while making their way toward Tuolumne Meadows. For our July 2012 20-mile John Muir Tail trip with young kids, we decided to tackle the John Muir Trail in reverse, which allowed for more downhill sections of trail and fewer crowds until the end of our journey.
Day 1 (3 miles):
In order to start our Yosemite backpacking trip in Tuolumne Meadows, we began at the Sunrise Trail Head at Tenaya Lake on Tioga Road. We followed the Sunrise Trail up steep switchbacks to connect with the Forsyth Trail near beautiful Sunrise Lake (a great first night camping option).
Day 2 (8 miles):
From Sunrise Lake, we continued to follow the Forsyth Trail to intersect with the Clouds Rest junction, leading 2 miles to arguably the best viewpoint in Yosemite National Park. From Clouds Rest, hikers can see the entire Yosemite Valley, including an unique view of Half Dome. Note: the pinnacle of Clouds Rest is fully exposed, with steep drop offs on each side. This is not a place for young children or anyone with vertigo or a fear of heights. Since I fall into that category (hiking with a small child), we viewed the Yosemite landscape from just .2 mile below the top, which also offers wonderful vistas.
Hikers can continue past Clouds Rest to intersect with the John Muir Trail several miles later, but as this section of trail is still exposed and at great heights, we opted to return the 2 miles back to the Forsyth Trail and join the John Muir Trail much earlier. This first section of John Muir winds through old growth forest alongside Sunrise Creek, and affords several nice camp sites adjacent to this water source. This section of the John Muir Trail is less traveled, but we were still surprised to find we didn’t encounter a single hiker all evening, night, or morning.
Day 3 (5 miles):
Day 3 took us along the John Muir Trail from Sunrise Creek into Little Yosemite Valley. This backpackers’ haven offers numerous campsites along the Merced River (perfect for swimming in after a long day hiking!). Though lively, Little Yosemite is a fun oasis for hikers, offering conversation and companionship around the communal fire pit after days of relative isolation.
En route to Little Yosemite Valley, the John Muir Trail offers views of Half Dome, and the steady accent of hikers navigating its cable system to the top. Should you wish to ascend Half Dome yourself, the trail intersects with the final 2 miles of the Half Dome Trail mid-way through your hike down to Little Yosemite. Note: this is another steep, exposed trail. Though children can ascend it, be advised that very small kids may not be able to reach the cables, essential to a safe ascent. Our 13 and 11-year-olds could make the trek, but not our seven-year-old. For those not challenging Half Dome, it’s fun stop on John Muir Trail or Little Yosemite Valley and use binoculars to watch the climbers.
Day 4 (4.5 miles):
Our final day on the John Muir Trail led us down from Little Yosemite Valley to spectacular Nevada Fall, where the trail splits into the John Muir or the popular Mist Trail. We opted for the Mist Trail in order to glimpse the best views of nearby Vernal Fall, but the steps descending both falls are steep and can be slippery when wet. Be advised that the Mist Trail gets crowded with day hikers, and can be hard to navigate with overnight backpacks. The option of continuing on the John Muir Trail has its own set of disadvantages: it’s a longer route to the valley floor, and more exposed, providing little shade.
Either route you take will lead you eventually to Happy Isles on the Yosemite valley floor, where camping, lodging, shuttle transportation, and a good meal await.
How to Prepare to Hike the John Muir Trail
Anyone planning to hike any portion of the John Muir Trail must obtain a Yosemite wilderness permit. Permits can be secured up to 168 days prior to the date desired, and for summer backpacking in Yosemite, reserving a permit the full 168 days out is recommended since the trails do fill up.
Inside Yosemite National Park, all backpackers are also required to carry bear canisters to store and secure all food (tree hanging is not permitted). Bear canisters can be rented (for only the price of a deposit) from Yosemite National Park Wilderness Centers (where you’ll also pick up your permit) or hikers can bring their own. In addition to food, any item with a scent must be stored in a canister, including toothpaste, lotion, bug spray, and even chapstick, so plan accordingly.
If you plan to hike Half Dome, Half Dome permits are required, and they are separate from backcountry permits (though you can obtain both simultaneously). Be sure to carry your permits with you at all times; you will be asked to show them.
If you plan to stay a night before or after your backpacking trek in Yosemite National Park (recommended), be sure to secure lodging early, as this is one of the most crowded national parks in America. Backpackers can also make use of free backpacker campgrounds the day before and after their backpacking trip.
Hazards to be Aware of on the John Muir Trail
In addition to dizzying heights, bears, and crowds near the valley floor, backpackers need to be aware of the significant elevation gains to be experienced on the Yosemite section of the John Muir Trail. Elevations reach over 9,000 feet, necessitating plenty of water intake to prevent headaches and nausea. Other wildlife can pose a threat if hikers are not alert, including rattlesnakes — we encountered the biggest we’ve ever seen at Little Yosemite Valley.
Getting to and from Your Car
Whether you hike the John Muir Trail from the valley floor up or from Tuolumne Meadows down, as we did, you’ll need transportation back to your car at the end of your trip. Yosemite National Park offers free shuttle service throughout the valley, but to travel to Tuolumne or vice versa, you’ll need to take Yarts, a paid shuttle service with stops in Yosemite Village and points throughout Tuolumne. Hikers cannot make reservations in advance for Yarts, and though we were told busses never fill up, that was not the case. Be sure to be at the stop before the allotted time and have cash in hand. One-way tickets were $8 at the time of our visit.
Have you hiked the John Muir Trail? What section is your preference and what advice would you offer?