Getting To The JMT

by Malcolm Macdonald, July 27, 2016

By the time readers peruse this issue of the AVA, yours truly should be embarked on a 75-mile section of the John Muir Trail (JMT). Getting to a JMT trailhead is easy if you're starting at Yosemite Valley. Of course you should never begin your JMT journey there.

Why? Here's why. You do nothing but trudge up, up, up with a full pack on your back for the first eight miles out of Yosemite Valley. We're talking four thousand feet in elevation gain, another thousand or more before you reach real respite at Sunrise Camp. Do not do this. Hike this section from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley.

For some reason the north to south route, beginning at Yosemite Valley, has become the popular direction of backpackers in the 21st Century. Even the finest modern guide book to the JMT (by Elizabeth Wenk) describes the trail in north to south terms. That's fine for the rest of the journey, but I'm speaking to you out of experience, complete this section from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley then take the shuttle bus back to Tuolumne Meadows and walk the rest of your trek north to south if you like.

If you are savvy enough to start at Tuolumne Meadows you'll encounter one moderate uphill section to the Cathedral Lakes area then more or less flat hiking to Sunrise Camp. Beyond Sunrise there's a brief climb then downhill to Yosemite Valley.

Been there, done that. This year our band of intrepid backpackers will be employing the section hiking method for the JMT. Unless you are in Yosemite or at Whitney Portal, getting to your chunk of the JMT is a production in and of itself. Our group is traversing about seventy-five miles of the John Muir Trail, from Le Conte Canyon in the Kings Canyon Wilderness northward to Red's Meadow, just outside the town of Mammoth Lakes. In the summer season backpackers have to take a shuttle bus (cost was $7 a year ago) from Red's Meadow on the JMT to the huge parking lot at Mammoth Mountain Resort.

To get to Le Conte Canyon we will drive about twenty-two miles southwest from our last motel respite in the town of Bishop to the trailhead at South Lake. From there it is about a six mile hike to Bishop Pass (elevation: just under 12,000 feet). The first rest break may come beneath Chocolate Peak. After a few days and nights on the trail, cravings for things like chocolate sundaes often occupy a backpacker's mind more than the finest Sierra scenery.

By the way there's approximately a two thousand foot elevation gain in that first six miles from South Lake to Bishop Pass, compared to the four thousand if one ascends out of Yosemite Valley. Beyond Bishop Pass lies a view of Dusy Basin and the descending contours leading down into the Kings River Canyon.

Late starting hikers who've dawdled while gawking at the Inconsolable Range to the east may want to camp in the Dusy Basin area. Early risers will likely push on a full twelve miles during their first day to the campsites near the Le Conte Canyon ranger station, where the Bishop Pass Trail finally gets you to an intersection with the John Muir Trail.

From this point it's only three or four more days of backpacking to the Muir Trail Ranch and a chance for re-supplying. This is performed by mailing yourself a bucket (not a box) of supplies. Interested backpackers should see the Elizabeth Wenk book on the JMT for specific information about resupply post offices like the Muir Trail Ranch and Vermilion Valley Resort, alongside Lake Thomas Edison, a few days hike to the north.

Arriving at the Muir Trail Ranch area as quickly as possible is a goal for most hikers, whether traveling north or south. The reason: Blayney Meadow Hot Springs. The springs, just hot enough for humans to luxuriate in them, are about a mile above the meadow itself. The unfortunate if in getting there is that the springs are on the other side of the south fork of the San Joaquin River from the John Muir Trail. If the river is too high or swift... well, we shall see in the very last days of July.

(Other uncertainties spring up at the author's website: malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.) 

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