A Wander Down the John Muir Trail
Plan & Prep
At some point last month I got the idea that I should hike some or all of the John Muir Trail. Life circumstances were allowing me to take a week, it had been a while since I had gone backpacking, and the mountains were calling my name. I usually prefer to go off-trail, do some scrambling, bag some peaks, but in the interest of ease of planning and safety, I decided to fastpack down the JMT solo.
From a planning perspective, this is about as easy a trip as you can do — the route is so popular and so well-marked that it’s impossible to get lost. There are water sources every few miles, lots of great camping spots, and plenty of bailout routes should things go wrong. And yet, I somehow spent way too much time figuring out how many miles I should hike each day, what gear and food to bring, etc. I’ve done plenty of backpacking, so this should’ve been easy, but this was my first time going alone and trying to move fast. My usual trips have been with a 70-liter pack loaded to the brim, with a group of friends, doing 10–15 miles/day. If I were going to cover any meaningful chunk of the JMT in a week, I knew I’d need to change my habits a bit.
After buying some new gear, and making some tough choices about what to bring, my total weight, with food and water, came to just above 30lbs. Not ultralight by any means, but a weight that I felt wouldn’t slow me down.
Nutrition is something I don’t have fully dialed in in my running, and haven’t even thought about for hiking. Took me a long time to decide on the approach, but in the end I decided to bring about 4k kcal/day, running a significant calorie deficit, and to vulture from the hiker bins at Muir Trail Ranch to adjust as needed.
Planning for the permits was another big headache, as JMT has become extremely popular, with only 3% of permit applications being successful. In years past, 40% of permits were reserved for walk-ins, and you could easily get those if you showed up reasonably early, but there are no more walk-in permits from Happy Isles, and with introduction of Donahue exit quota, there are a total of 10 permits/day from anywhere in Yosemite to start the JMT. In the end, I found a small trick that my fast pace allowed. Getting permits from Devil’s Postpile was easy (got one online), and Tuolumne Meadows to Devil’s Postpile can be done as a day hike, and thus doesn’t require a permit. Win! I’ll be missing the first 20 miles of the JMT from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne, but I’ve already seen most of that trail, and can always come back and run it if I wanted to.
So I had the permit, the gear, and the food… but I really didn’t know how much distance I’d be able to cover in a day. I looked a bit on Strava, blogs, etc to find people comparable to me who’ve done the JMT, and in the end decided that my aggressive goal would be 6 days, but I could stretch it to 8. With total distance being just over 200 miles with ~43k ft of climbing, 25 miles/day seemed easily doable, while 34/day seemed hard but feasible. I figured I’d adjust the plan after seeing how the first day goes.
A few days before I left, a friend, Zhenya, volunteered to drive me to the trailhead, hike the first day with me, and pick me up a week later. This made logistics a lot easier, plus it’s great to have company, if only for a first day.
We drove out from SF on Sunday, got a campsite at Red’s Meadow, and on Monday morning drove into Mammoth to grab breakfast (McDonald’s burritos!) and catch the 6:20am bus to Tuolumne.
Day 1 Tuolumne Meadows to Red’s Meadow (no pack)
The first 15 miles or so going up Lyell Canyon to Donahue Pass were cheerful, fast and uneventful. Stopped a few times early on to tend to Zhenya’s blisters, but generally moved well, and made good time even without running. The remaining twenty miles went quite a bit slower as fatigue and altitude-related discomfort set in, and we finished the full distance in just under 14 hours, too late for burgers at Red’s, but early enough to get a full night’s sleep.
Now, I have to say, Zhenya far exceeded my expectations for this hike. We’ve known each other for decades, so I knew he’s a tough and responsible guy, but I was a little surprised when he said he wanted to join me, and I did caution him about the difficulty level. He’s always active and in decent shape, but while I’ve been running consistently for a few years including lots of miles on trails, his weekly mileage is around 10, with longest run in the last few years being 5 miles. Plus he’s just coming off a second ACL replacement surgery. So for him to sign up for a 36 mile day hike with 5400ft of climbing, on a first day at altitude, and finish in a decent time without a single complaint, even after the sun set, the mosquitoes were eating us alive, and he was having a hard time shuffling his feet due to exhaustion and blisters, is really damn impressive! Kudos, Zhenya, kudos! Give him some Strava kudos here: https://www.strava.com/activities/630873643
I felt OK during the first day, though knees and back ached quite a bit towards the end. Zhenya’s company helped a lot mentally, and in that if I were solo I would’ve been really tempted to run big parts of this, and would’ve suffered for it later in the week.
Day 2 Red’s Meadow to Bear Ridge
Woke up at Red’s Meadow feeling surprisingly good — all the achiness from the day before was gone, and not a sign of muscle soreness! Decided to get a late start to get breakfast at Red’s when it opened at 7am, but planned to stick with the aggressive 6-day plan, which called for this day to cover 37 miles and over 8k ft of climbing (biggest day of the trip).
First half of the day went fast — I stayed ahead of the 3mph pace, was moving well uphill, and cruising the downhills, 30lb pack not giving me any trouble. Second half of the day was when the wheels started to come off a bit. I developed some blisters that got worse from water crossings, knee and back aches came back, I was feeling the heat, but most importantly, I was mentally dreading the remaining miles and hours, and wasn’t really enjoying the last 5 hours of the day. What really killed me was Bear Ridge — it’s not a named pass, so I didn’t realize it was a 2k ft climb until I got there, and at mile 30, it turned out to be the biggest mental challenge of the trip. I never had any doubts that I’d make it, but I just really didn’t want to be there. In the end, I was a couple miles short of my goal for the day, but nothing I couldn’t catch up on later if I wanted to.
Day 3 Bear Ridge to Evolution Lake, detour to Muir Trail Ranch
Day 3 started out just like Day 2 — woke up feeling fresh, no sign of aches or soreness, and I quickly packed up camp and was off before PCTers camping next to me even woke up. By the time I got to Muir Trail Ranch (15 miles in), it became clear that the end of the day would go same as the day before — miserable — I was dreading the long days ahead, and felt like I’d miss out on spending time at the lakes and vistas. Fortunately, MTR offered to use their glacial-speed satellite internet for $10/15min (what a ripoff!), so I made a decision to shorten my days and come out on Sunday instead of Saturday, and sent off an email to Zhenya to let him know. This was by far the best decision of the trip — I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders now that I didn’t have to push the pace, and the rest of the trip I was much happier mentally, and had time to stop at my favorite spots, not feeling like I had to rush off to make the miles for the day. Finished the day at Evolution Lake, one of the most scenic spots in the Sierra Nevada, ending with a swim, a nice meal, and having tea while watching the alpenglow as the sun set behind the lake. Life was good!
Day 4 Evolution Lake to Upper Basin
In what became a pattern, I had a climb in the morning (Muir Pass), and a climb in the afternoon (Mather Pass) — the morning ones all felt easy, and the afternoon ones hard, mostly due to my lack of heat tolerance. The whole area around Muir Pass is spectacular, and I had to stop a lot for photos and just to enjoy the beauty. Strangely, unlike all the other passes, Muir had lots of snow on the South side, and almost none on the North side, but nothing that would require traction devices. This was also the last day my feet got wet — no wet creek crossings after Evolution Creek (Day 3), and just a bit of snow getting into my shoes at Muir Pass.
Day 5 Upper Basin to Bubbs Creek
Pinchot Pass in the morning, and Glen Pass in the evening with a few fun stops along the way. I’ve been on top of Glen Pass before, but seeing Rae Lakes up close blew me away — simply gorgeous, and on par with Evolution Lake. Definitely want to come back and spend more time there. I stopped at the big Rae Lake for a swim, and some sunbathing while eating lunch and listening to waterfalls and birds — an amazing spot, and so glad I took the time to stop and enjoy it.
Around Vidette Meadow I ran into the famous John Ladd, who apparently had a crown fall off his front tooth and was planning on supergluing it back on. He jumped out from the bushes asking me for medical advice, and after I disappointed him with my lack of dental knowledge, he quickly switched topics to his hiker survey, which I promised to fill out (I did!).
A bit later on, I saw a runner moving fast the other way. After stopping and chatting, turned out this was Karl from Belgium, attempting a supported NoBo PCT FKT, averaging 50 miles/day. He looked very fresh, but I unfortunately can’t find anything on him online to track his progress. I guess we’ll see in August if he gets the FKT!
Day 6 Upper Basin to Guitar Lake
Because of my decision to slow down and come out on Sunday, every day of the trip was easier than the previous, but today was the easiest. I went over Forester Pass early in the morning, and knew the rest of the hike was relatively flat, so I took time for lunch, and stopped and talked with all the hikers I met.
On the second to last climb before Guitar Lake, I encountered three mountain bros moving fast the other way. All decked out in Salomon gear, trucker hats and very ironic mustaches, the first thing the lead bro said to me was “out of the way, slowpoke!”. So I stopped to chat with them, and after finding out that they were doing the High Sierra Trail in 2 days, I had to give them crap for going twice as slow as FKT pace (at least I was only 50% slower than JMT FKT).
I got to Guitar Lake with a few hours of sunlight to spare, giving me time to swim, socialize with other hikers and get ready for the summit the next day. For a brief moment before setting up camp I actually thought about just going all the way to Whitney Portal, as I would’ve likely made it there before dark, but quickly dismissed this idea as I knew it wouldn’t be any fun.
Day 7 Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit and Whitney Portal
Extending the trip by a night allowed me to camp close to the summit, and see the sunrise from Whitney, something I’ve heard others rave about. I got up at 2:30am, packed up and hit the trail by 3am, and was on the summit by 5:25am. The hike in the dark was uneventful until hitting the trail junction, when the winds picked up and it got super cold. Sitting on the summit in 20 degrees and 40mph winds was kinda rough, but the sunrise show was worth it. Unfortunately the cold killed my battery, so not many good pictures. Descent was quick, and was the only time I actually ran on this trip, as I had to warm up after shivering uncontrollably on the summit.
After a 9am celebratory beer (Stone Delicious IPA) and an enormous pancake at the Portal Store, Zhenya showed up to drive me home. Quick stops at hot springs in Mammoth, and at the new Mammoth Brewing brewpub, and we were home in San Francisco by dinner time.
The whole trip 6d0h45m, 202 miles, ~43k ft of gain, and about equal loss.
This was a big wildcard for me. I generally eat a lot when I run long, and bonk very hard if I don’t eat enough. Still, I was hoping that since my effort on this hike would be so low compared to running, it’d be almost 100% aerobic, and I could burn mostly body fat for calories. Turns out, this mostly worked.
First day, I had a big breakfast and snacked quite a bit throughout the day, but certainly had a few thousand calorie deficit. Days 2–5 were small breakfast, big dinner, and very small snacks, probably doing about 5000kcal/day deficit, but feeling great, presumably burning body fat. Day 6 was a bit odd — either because I was so relaxed mentally, or because the body fat stores hit some low thresholds, I was feeling very hungry, so I basically ate everything I had left, including 1500kcal of salo and crackers, 1500kcal of Mountain House meals and olive oil, plus a bunch of nuts and seeds.
In the end, I ended up losing about 8 pounds (163 to 155), and going from 9% to 5% body fat, according to my home scale (which I think is good at showing relative changes in body fat %, but not that accurate in absolute terms).
Pace and duration thoughts
In the end, my original plan was close to spot-on. For my abilities, skills, and fitness, doing this in under 6 days would’ve been feasible but unpleasant. If my goal was to go as fast as possible, I probably could’ve done sub-5 days, but would’ve been extremely miserable and have no intention of trying it. I’ll leave the suffering for trail and road races, and will budget time in all future backpacking trips to really enjoy them. From enjoyment perspective, 8–10 days would’ve been ideal, to have 1–2 zero-days for fishing or side trips, and to have time for at least one swim per day and more time to explore areas around the trail.
Generally, I think fastpacking isn’t my top approach to wilderness travel — I’d rather either do a hard day hike/run, or a very relaxed multi-night trip with a group of friends/family.
Thoughts on gear
The good: Bearikade, leukotape, duct tape, Patagonia running shorts, Injiji socks, REI sun hat, Oakley sunglasses, DirtyGirl gaiters, Stance underpants.
- Suunto Ambit 3 Peak — I’ve had this watch for over a year, and love it. However, on this trip, I discovered that it only has enough memory to store about 3 days worth of tracks before it overwrites the old ones. WTF?? How does a $500 watch only have few MB of storage?? WTF #2 is that the watch can’t synch activities to phone except when phone has an internet connection. Really dumb design, and I’m quite annoyed with Suunto for this.
- Jetboil — the piezo doesn’t work at altitude. All hikers with this stove whom I met on the trail had the same problem. Kind of useless to have a piezo lighter that only works at sea level, especially on such an expensive product. Good thing I carried matches as backup.
- BrightMedic Firefly headlamp — advertised as 30hrs on one battery, lasted about 2hrs. Granted, it was cold (from mid 30s to high teens), but I’d expect any headlamp marketed for outdoor use to do better than this. Left me in the dark at Trail Crest, but fortunately the night was clear and sun came up soon.
- Aquamira tablets — I assume they work fine as water treatment (I didn’t get sick), and the taste is OK, but the packaging is awful. Nearly impossible to open without scissors. I said a lot of horrible things about the designer of said packaging. Do not recommend.
- Big Agnes Fly Creek Platinum UL 1 — amazingly light, but too narrow at the foot. Even when fully guyed out, the tent walls touch the sleeping bag and get it wet from condensation. A few more inches of width and an extra aluminum pole would make this a great tent.
- Osprey Talon 44 size M/L— great backpack, except the belt only goes down to about size 30, which was too big for me after a couple days on the trail. Lost enough weight that I couldn’t tighten it anymore.
- Hoka Stinson ATR 3 — this was my 6th pair of Hokas, and I had the original Stinsons. Apparently Stinson 3s got narrower, because they really beat up my little toes. Also got horrible blisters on sides of my heels, which I never had before in Hokas. Otherwise they were great, loved the light weight and extra cushion.
The OK: everything else.