The bright side of hiking just under half the trail last summer is that I get to enjoy the rest of it this year. I think I would be sad if I had hiked the whole thing and I was done.
To simplify transportation, I've decided to hike a 145.6 mile chunk of the John Muir Trail this summer, from Tuolumne Meadows to Woods Creek. Then I will hike the 15 miles from Woods Creek to Road's End in Kings Canyon National Park, and hitch a ride out to grab a bus home from Bakersfield. Once I've done that, I will have hiked the whole trail.
The "must do" portion of planning this time of year is getting my permit. And to get your permit, you need to plan enough to fill out the permit form. Since I'm going SOBO (southbound) and starting in Yosemite, that means filling in the following information: start date, starting trailhead, first night's campsite, end date, and ending trailhead.
Last year, they changed the permit rules shortly after I got my permit. Now, they issue only a certain number of permits for hikers wishing to go over Donahue Pass. Since Donahue Pass is the JMT's exit point from Yosemite National Park, that's a quick way to distinguish all JMT hikers from Yosemite tourists who just want a backcountry permit for within Yosemite.
Under the new rules, a total of 45 permits will be issued for hikers exiting Yosemite via Donahue per day. Also, you can only apply for a few trailheads now, compared to a wider selection of starting trailheads JMTers applied for before. In order to exit Yosemite at Donahue, you can start in the Valley at either Happy Isles (the start of the trail) or Glacier Point and spend your first night at Little Yosemite Valley OR you can start later on the trail in Tuolumne Meadows at Sunrise Lakes or Lyell Canyon. The last option is called "Happy Isles pass-through" which I believe means you start at Happy Isles and hike past Little Yosemite Valley before camping on your first night.
There are 25 available permits starting at Lyell Canyon available daily, but only 15 can be reserved and the remaining 10 are available only as walk-ups. The remaining 20 permits are available for the other trailheads, by reservation only.
I have already done the first 20 or so miles of the trail from Happy Isles to Tuolumne Meadows, and it was my least favorite part of the trail. Therefore, I'm glad to start at Lyell Canyon. I plan to get there a day early to poke around Tuolumne Meadows with my camera. I'd love to make it to Cathedral Lakes and Tenaya Lake if I can. I'm also looking forward to having that first day at elevation to acclimate before starting my hike. Furthermore, starting at Lyell Canyon will be nice because it is a mostly flat stretch of trail - never a bad thing when you are carrying a full bear can of food.
When and How to Apply
There was some talk of the rules changing to a different application window and also switching from the current phone/fax method to an online system. Alas, it did not happen. You still apply 168 days in advance. The chart at the link has been confusing some people. You can apply beginning at midnight PST of the date in the left column. The application deadline for the lottery for permits is at 7:30am PST of the date in the right column.
To apply, you fill out this form and fax it to 209/372-0739. Many people use electronic fax services like Hello Fax to do this.
When to Start Your Hike
Planning your hike this far in advance is always a crapshoot. Well, planning any hike is a crapshoot anyway. Last year was a low snow year, and the snow melted pretty early, giving good access to the Sierra trails in June. But then it snowed in June. It snowed again when I was on the trail, on July 8 and July 9. And then in mid-August the Rough Fire made a mess of things and many people had to cut their hikes short as a result. You just can't predict.
Last year, my permit was for July 5. It was perfect. Except for, you know, when it snowed. And rained. But the Sierra snowpack had melted enough that the creeks were easy to hop over on rocks and logs, and I never even had to get my feet wet to cross them. The mosquitoes weren't bad. The flowers were blooming. And the fires hadn't started yet.
This year, we've got more snow than last year already, but it could still go either way. The central Sierras have exactly average snow levels as of now, and the southern Sierras are at 92 percent of normal. If you look at high snow years like 2010-2011, you'll see that they got a lot of their heavy snows in March. So we could have an average year, or we could have a heavy snow year. Who knows.
Either way, I knew I wanted to hike slightly later in the summer this year. But not too much later. Ideally I want easy water crossings and fewer mosquitoes, which means going later in the summer, but I also want wildflowers. And I think wildflowers show up right about the same time as the mosquitoes.
I decided my optimal date is July 18. But - picking an optimal date does not mean a whole helluva lot with the permit system as it is. For every 10 JMT permit applications submitted, 9 are denied. On average, therefore, it takes 10 tries to get one permit. Last year, before the permit rule change went into effect, I scored on the first try. This year, it took me four tries. You just can't plan for an exact date of your choosing and count on getting a permit for it.
To apply for your permit, the last thing you need is an end date and an exit trailhead. That basically means you have to plan out your whole itinerary. You can obviously change your plans a bit after you get on the trail, so long as you finish up on the right date and at the right trailhead. But it's a good idea to plan your itinerary out beforehand so that you can pick the best exit date and trailhead for your needs.
My plans this year involve three friends: two who will join me for the first leg of the trip only, and a third who I met on the trail last year. I will hike my entire trip with her this year, and then she will continue on after I leave, finishing at Horseshoe Meadows.
- Day -1: Drive up with friends from San Diego. Stash a car in Mammoth with my resupply box in it. Maybe have pie in Lee Vining too? Spend the night at Tuolumne Meadows.
- Day 0: Hang out in Tuolumne Meadows and acclimate. Eat at the Lodge. Mmm.
- Day 1: Hike from Lyell Canyon (JMT mile 22.8, 8590 ft) to Lyell Forks Bridge (JMT mile 33.5, 9650 ft). 10.7 mi, 810 ft elevation gain.
- Day 2: Lyell Forks Bridge over Donahue and Island Passes to Thousand Island Lake (JMT mile 43.0, 9830 ft). 9.5 mi, 2790 ft elevation gain, most of which is the climb over Donahue.
- Day 3: Thousand Island Lake to Gladys Lake (JMT mile 51.3, 9580 ft). 8.2 mi, 1270 ft elevation gain.
- Day 4: Gladys Lake to Red's Meadow (JMT mile 59.2, 7640 ft). 7.9 mi excluding the side-trip I plan to take to Devil's Postpile, 210 ft elevation gain.
- Day 5: Zero day. Poke around Agnew Meadows (home of spectacular wildflowers) and eat and drink at the brewery in Mammoth. Pick up resupply from my friend's car. Deal with any gear problems.
- Day 6: Red's Meadow to Duck Creek (JMT mile 70.1, 9980 ft). Boring day covering ground I've already hiked, and not a part of the trail I like very much. But the 10.9 mi and 2450 feet of elevation gain of this day will get me to a part of the trail I did last summer and enjoyed a lot.
- Day 7: Duck Creek to Squaw Lake (passing Purple Lake and Lake Virginia, which is extraordinarily beautiful, and Tully Hole, which is full of mosquitoes). 9.9 mi, 1730 feet elevation gain. Ending at JMT mile 80.0 and 10,290 feet elevation.
- Day 8: Squaw Lake over Silver Pass to VVR (JMT mile 88). 9.5 mi including the 1.5 mi to the ferry, and 2180 feet elevation gain. Last year I went over Goodale Pass instead of Silver and hiked the whole way to VVR instead of taking the ferry. This year I want to do Silver so I can say I've done the whole JMT at last.
- Day 9: VVR to Marie Lake (JMT mile 100.7, 10,550 ft). 14.2 miles including the 1.5 from the ferry, 3620 feet elevation gain. It's a long day but rumor has it the mosquitoes are terrible in between VVR and Marie Lake. Or at least they were last year. Yuck.
- Day 10: Marie Lake to MTR (JMT mile 107.9, 7675 ft). 7.2 mi, 1420 ft elevation gain. Pick up resupply.
- Day 11: Zero at MTR. Hot springs. Ahhh.
- Day 12: MTR to the eastern end of McClure Meadow OR Evolution Lake. The former is 9.6 mi and 2005 ft elevation gain. The only downside is that it will mean hiking over Muir Pass late in the day the next day. The latter means a 14 mile day, but it's much better planning to get over Muir Pass earlier the following day.
- Day 13: Wherever to some lake at 10,840 ft with beautiful views (JMT mile 132). 12.7 mi and 2330 ft elevation gain, or less if we bust ass to Evolution Lake the day before.
- Day 14: To base of Golden Staircase (JMT mile 144.4, 8960 ft). 12.5 mi, 940 ft elevation gain.
- Day 15: Golden Staircase and Mather Pass to JMT mile 156.7 near river (10,050 ft). 12.2 mi, 3140 ft elevation gain. Ouch.
- Day 16: Over Pinchot Pass to Woods Creek junction (JMT mile 168.4, 8510 ft). Big campsite just before the bridge where many people camp. 11.7 mi, 2120 ft elevation gain.
- Day 17: Woods Creek to Road's End. 15 mi, all down hill.