John Muir Trail: Route Planning

When I first hiked the JMT in 1984, I met a guy at Red’s Meadow who apparently made it on camera at the LA Olympics flashing a “Official Hitchhiker of the Olympics” sign, poking fun at the overwhelming number of “official” products being sold that year.  He was travelling light, and planning to finish the trail in 10 days, leaving me to wonder how premeditated his plans were. Perhaps he was channeling John Muir himself, who famously encouraged people to “walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer.”

I wasn’t comfortable with “seat-of-the-pants” planning the first time, and even with years’ more experience now, I’ve spent hours reviewing and updating the trip details. There were several variables to consider that impacted the final plan…


This year is turning out to be a 200%+ snow year, similar to that experienced in the documentary “Mile…Mile and a Half“.  Those folks left Yosemite Valley on July 13th, and walked 14 of 25 days in snow.  I began tracking depths at Bishop Pass, Mammoth, and Tuolumne Meadows using modelled data located at NOHRSC.  My initial route plan set days ending at the lowest possible elevations to camp below snowline. By late March we decided to reapply for a later entry date.

Daily Mileage

Having finalized a permit for 9/22 leaving from Lyell Canyon, we decided on a “day zero” training hike from Tuolumne Meadows to Happy Isles a couple weekends earlier.  That effectively gave us an extra day on the permit, without using another vacation day.  The planned average mileage therefore dropped from 20 miles a day, to about 18 per day.  That doesn’t seem like much, but that extra 2 miles is huge, especially given the shorter period of daylight in late September. Of course, our physical ability to hit that mileage every day for 11 days straight is a concern, which I seem to have tested well enough in early training.  I’m able to do it, but it hurts.

Campsite Location

The best resource for planning a JMT hike is the Elizabeth Wenk book, “John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide“.  She’s also posted data resources HERE, that I used in Excel to document daily mileage with camps, stream crossings, trail junctions, passes, and bailout options.  Elizabeth has numbered the sites with great descriptions, and provided a GPX waypoint file to navigate with GPS.

Food Resupply

Carrying food for the duration of the hike isn’t really an option, and there are a few good resupply points, mostly in the northern half of the trail.  From north to south; Tuolomne Meadows Post Office, Red’s Meadow Resort, Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR), and Muir Trail Ranch (MTR).  Although the route plan doesn’t require that we stop and spend the night at the resupply stops, it’s worth considering given the ability to ship in heavier, quality food for the one dinner and breakfast before heading back out again.

JMT Profile

All That’s Left Is The Walking

After all the tweaks and updates, the plan is in place with resupplies shipped to Red’s and MTR, and a friend hiking in over Kearsarge Pass to Bullfrog Lake. Training can begin in earnest, prepping us for the daily demands of walking 18 miles with an average of about 6,000 feet elevation change (up and down) per day.  It all begins with one first step!


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