The John Muir Trail passes through what many backpackers say is the finest mountain scenery in the United States. The trail includes 13,000-foot and 14,000-foot peaks, thousands of lakes, majestic canyons and granite cliffs. What’s more, the Trail is blessed with the mildest, sunniest climate of any major mountain range in the world.
211 miles long the trail runs from Yosemite Valley to Mt Whitney, in California. Winding through the famed Sierra Nevada, the JMT visits some of the crown jewels of America’s park system: Yosemite, John Muir and Ansel Adams Wildernesses, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. The John Muir Trail section of the Pacific Crest Trail will be with you forever once you’ve completed it.
This is why we sponsored two girls Erica and Justyna to walk it. Their adventures were eye opening, exciting and difficult times as they faced new challenges and begun a new chapter of their lives.
Follow their journey below.
Ready, steady, walk.
We left Los Angeles at 5 in the morning on Wednesday the 16th – riding along the freeways and interstates off and away into the desert - immediately we felt a wave of relief flood over us. The planning was over. No more groceries we could buy, no more spreadsheets to mull over – it was time to hit the trail. We arrived in Lone Pine with the mountain range we would call home for the next 3 weeks looming to the West. Relief was quickly replaced by nervousness as we begun to wonder “Can we do this?! Are we crazy?! Is this nuts?”
We weighed our packs at the base of Whitney Portal and rearranged our bags to balance the weight between the two of us. When loaded up with water we came out weighing a whopping 45 pounds (20.4 kilograms)!
And then there was nothing left to do but walk. And walk. And walk.
I was nervous before we left LA. I wasn’t sure what shape I was in and I was still bit jet lagged and emotional about the trip, overwhelmed by my dream coming true. My partner sent me this lovely message in the morning and it has stuck in my head and heart ever since.
He wrote: “Day by day. Step by step. And always remember, this is what you love most.” And, as if by magic I felt so comfortable and relaxed. He knows me well. Months earlier he told me that he knows that I might be the less prepared person for the challenge, but also the one that he has no doubt that would just do it.
Our first week on the trail.
August 16 • Day 1
As soon as we were nestled in the mountains, we were giddy, full of excitement for 21 days ahead of wildflowers, mountain creeks, waterfalls, boulder fields, and flowing rivers. No longer was the trip about lines in guidebooks or theoretical happenings. It was real. It was here.
That evening we hiked to Trail Camp, a 6.3 mi (10.1km) jaunt from the trail head, and 12,000 ft (3,700 m) high. We didn’t yet have a routine – how to organize ourselves, where to put the tent, how to place the bear canisters, how much food to make – so we were a bit disoriented. With so few belongings though, the task was made much easier. We went to bed exhausted and content.
August 17 • Day 2
We slept through the night calmly and deeply, waking up to one of the most spectacular sunrises either of us had seen. We packed up and then it was time to face the tallest peak of the trip – Mt. Whitney. This is often a hikers’ last summit, as the traditional route on the JMT is from the North to the South, but we are hiking South to North. We had a challenge ahead of us – a 14,505 ft. (4,421 m) peak, the tallest peak in the 48 Continental United States loaded up with 45 pound packs, and we were only just beginning!
We felt cared for, loved, and never for one second were we discouraged. There were 99 switchbacks to Trail Crest. These felt endless as the wind whipped our faces as the air got thinner. Upon reaching the trail crest, there were many other hikers welcoming us to this point. We could ditch our packs to complete the final 2 miles to the summit reaching the summit in relief. The view was spectacular and we felt an overwhelming sense of achievement. We realized we could do this.
August 18 • Day 3
We felt alive as we trekked through meadows and boulder fields, up on plateaus, beside creeks, and into woods. We saw Mt. Whitney from afar and couldn’t believe we had just been on its peak the day before. As we wandered through Sandy Meadow, a fellow hiker passed us going the other direction and we asked, “how’s it going?” He looked into each of our eyes, and said with earnestness, kindness and a smile, “No complaints.” This became our mantra as we journeyed to Tyndall Creek.
Once at our campsite, we were halfway to our first resupply station, and we knew we had WAY too much food – our bear canisters still needed lots of compacting to close and our packs were heavy. Our knees were feeling the pressure on the joints and our shoulders and hips were bruised and aching. But, we took the attitude of our friendly trail companion who we met earlier in the day, and thought, “No complaints.” Onward.
August 19 • Day 4
We woke knowing that we had another big challenge ahead of us, the second tallest peak of our journey, Forester Pass sitting at 13,153 ft (4,009 m). We began the ascent upwards and the terrain was otherworldly. It was hard on our bones, and we both, with a touch of remorse, took painkillers to ease the discomfort.
Once at the top, looking back on Sequoia National Park from where we came, and looking out onto Kings Canyon where we were headed, all discomfort faded. We hiked down through snowfields, red from mineral content while mountains towered around us. There 360 degrees of peaks, a creek, and a handful of the most jaw dropping crystal lakes. We stopped at a mountain lake for a swim, a lunch, and a few restful moments of writing and relaxing. We intended to hike another 5 miles to Vidette Meadows, but quickly saw a storm brewing. We took shelter with some fellow campers who were happy to have some of our extra bars, dehydrated beans and they certainly didn’t turn away our mezcal!
August 20 • Day 5
We rose at Bubb’s Creek to the bubbling water gently washing over the stones and moss. We enjoyed coffee together on a fallen log, spent a little time meditating, and then lifted our packs back onto our backs – significantly lighter after a few days of eating and giving away our food – and set out for Kearsarge Pass, the only way off the JMT to our first resupply, where we could send pictures and words to our friends, family and sponsors.
We again met hikers who were impressed with our efforts – and we felt proud that not only are we hiking the more difficult direction, but we’re also tackling an extra pass (sitting at 11,709 feet (3,569 m) – twice, to get off and on the trail.
We made it just shy of the Onion Valley Campground where we would be picked up the next morning, and stayed by a small lake, on a hillside from where we could watch the Total Solar Eclipse the next morning – a very big and rare occasion. We were alone at our campsite, and realized that we were well prepared – physically and mentally, and also that we have all the necessary gear and clothes that meet our needs.
August 21 • Day 6
We spent a lazy morning drinking coffee and watching the moon eclipsing the light of the sun in such a way that it felt like night had come early. Even the birds stopped chirping seeming to think that night had descended. Everything felt still as we looked through special glasses at the sun as it disappeared behind the moon.
We meandered down the trail to meet our motel host who drove us to Independence, California, where we could top up our resupply bucket and send these words to you. It felt strange leaving the mountains behind descending into a town rather than a grove of trees. We feel that for now we don’t quite belong to this world of roads and shops. Nevertheless, a hot shower, hair masks, and laundry service were more than appreciated!
Tomorrow morning we head back over Kearsarge Pass to reconnect to the John Muir Trail. We won’t have service or contact with the world for another 7 days. We’ll keep you posted on our adventure.
Once we got on the trail, I felt moved, happy and alive. I was in my element. Mountains and their vastness make me feel humble and strong at the same time.
Strength was going to be verified in the next days when I was dealing with some serious stomach problems and pains. It was hard sometimes, but also kept me motivated. I knew that if I could do it, that I could easily do the rest.
I loved hearing people encouraging us and saying that it was going to be our lifetime adventure. It was encouraging and needed. But in my head I was thinking: “Oh no, I am just warming up.”
I am sure it’s going to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life. But, since the beginning of this plan I haven’t wanted it to be the best I could do, but rather just the opening for something more and a doorway to something new in my life.
Keep following the girls’ journey in our next blog piece.
@2girlsandtheirpacks @takeoffthelenscap (Justyna) @ericamortonmagill (Erica)