The first light of morning on the JMT begins to stream over the mountains, through the tree’s canopy, and into your tent. These mornings were welcome, as seeing the sun’s morning glory while still bundled up warmly inside your tent was actually a rarity on the JMT. More often than now, however, you’re confronted with the unenviable task of rising to the dark, cold blanket that lies heavily on your campsite before the sun’s rays have the chance to lift it off.
Chilly mornings thicken the blood and slow down all bodily processes. Everything happens a little more slowly first thing in the morning. Naturally, it takes time to work out the kinks from the previous day before mustering up the courage to throw your pack on again and step out confidently to meet the day ahead.
After a warm helping of oatmeal, a much-needed shot of instant coffee, and a glance at your planned mileage for the day, you break camp and continue down the same comfortable path you were so eager to leave the night before.
Completing the JMT only requires the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. I suppose the challenge really lies in the sheer number of times one must be willing to endure this simple act if they wish to complete the entire trail. Trust me, there are days when simply putting the next foot forward is much more challenging than you’ve possibly imagined.
Every hiker that’s been out for weeks will tell you that you’re simply bound to have “off” days, much like even the greatest athletes in human history. There are days when your feet seem detached from the body. You feel clumsy. Your feet can’t seem to pick out the right spots. You struggle to find the path of least resistance. Then, there are other days when the ground simply flows beneath your feet effortlessly, and you’re left to take in the beautiful surroundings with your head up and your eyes alert.
But let’s get back to today: After three hours of hard hiking, it’s time to take your first major break. Depending on the number of miles you’re going for on a given day, you might choose to break for an early lunch or you might choose to push into the early afternoon before making your first pit stop.
The morning is undoubtedly the best time to hike once you’ve given yourself over to Nature’s schedule. The air is crisper and lighter, and lower temperatures make pushing hard miles much easier on the body in the early part of the day.
Lunch is always a welcome reprieve on the JMT. It typically signals the onset of that, “It’s all downhill from here,” mentality for the remainder of the day. While this is almost always figuratively true, it’s quite often accurate in a more literal sense as well.
Because you’ve already put so much time into planning, you’ve probably thought about NOT lining yourself up for a stormy pass or backbreaking climb in the afternoon. While everyone has their unique style, most hikers prefer to knock out the toughest mileage before noon so that they can literally cruise “downhill” in the afternoons.
Lunch on the JMT typically consists of whatever “ready-made” foods you’ve compiled leading up to the trip. Not many use their mid-day break as an opportunity to bust out the camping stove and burn up precious fuel.
The knowledge that your lunch will be ready as soon as you fetch it from your pack, however, often motivates you to push those few extra miles before giving into a well-deserved rest. Mid-day on the JMT, on sunny days, was the best time to throw the pack off your shoulders and hurl yourself down on the grass. When it comes to moments of sheer satisfaction on the JMT, stopping for lunch was on par with finally settling on a consensus-approved campsite at the conclusion of each day.
Hiking in the afternoon was always the most physically taxing, as the heat and the accumulation of morning mileage begin to take their toll. Short rests are much more frequently interspersed throughout afternoon hiking, and that funny energy I can only describe as a mild mania is much more likely to settle upon the group after lunch. Afternoons were the playground for random outbursts of song, prolonged attempts to communicate with nearby wildlife, and any other general shenanigans that could be mustered.
The boundary line where physical exhaustion meets mental stubbornness can be a wonderful place to forget your fears and lose your mind for a few moments, and the warm rays of the afternoon sun presented the comforting atmosphere necessary for many of these moments to be fully embraced by the group, without worries or trepidations of any kind. Afternoons on the JMT: the place where your body is pushed so far that your mind begins to break. But is it a breakdown, or should it be viewed, more positively, as a breakthrough?
But I digress, and whilst you’ve allowed my intense period of reminiscing to run its’ course, you’re undoubtedly still waiting for more about the actual, physical experience of hiking through the Sierras. Well, just for fun, let’s jump to a splendid section of trail with a river on our left and towering rock piles with clever nicknames rising thousands of feet to our right. We come to a hanging suspension bridge. Yes, you heard that right: A hanging suspension bridge built over a river way out in the middle of the woods, expressly for the purpose of transporting backpackers and hikers from one side to the other.
We cross, one at a time, as the instructions clearly dictate, and it begins to drizzle as we stand around marveling at the fact that we’d walked nearly 200 miles only to find a perfect suspension bridge, crafted and constructed by the hands of many skilled men, waiting for us such a seemingly wild place Such surprises, and indeed many much better than this one, are commonplace on the JMT.
In this case, the slight drizzle that dissipated as began to prepare dinner in the twilight was a foreboding sign of things to come. After a hearty dinner of your JMT staple, dehydrated chicken and quinoa with a healthy variety of spices, the group chipped in for clean up and, before long, you’ve all settled into your respective tents to spend time writing or reading before finally closing your eyes for the night.
But a clap of lightning and the low, heavy rumbling of thunder shake you awake around 4 am. You can hear the incessant beating of raindrops on your tent, but you can only lay your head back down and hope the storm blows through before you’re supposed to hit the trail again. It doesn’t. It sticks around and graces you with its’ domineering presence for close to 24 hours. All you can do is sit inside your tent and read or write, leaving only to prepare food or quickly scuttle over to a companion’s tent to discuss the JMT hiker’s eternal dilemma when confronted with unfavorable weather: “Do we stay, or do we go?”
Such is life on the JMT. Mother Nature ultimately holds all the cards. She has the power to delay, suspend, or cancel your trip if she desires. All you can truly hope is that she shows you enough compassion to give you fighter’s chance at testing your mettle, and pushing your boundaries, on the JMT.
If you’re interested in exploring the wild places that are accessible via the 210-mile-long JMT, it’s best to start planning as early as possible. Each group of hikers needs to purchase a permit for the JMT, regardless of whether you’re through hiking or just completing a select section. If you’re truly interested, you should be sure to visit the National Park Service to explore the process of obtaining a wilderness permit.
Those interested in fishing while hiking the JMT should also be sure to purchase a fishing permit before setting foot on the trail. You’ll have a few options when selecting which specific permit to choose, but you should have no issue doing this either in Yosemite Valley or Whitney Portal before getting underway.
Best Time to Go
While the best time to hike the JMT will vary depending on seasonal weather, as well as your desired starting point, most hikers prefer to tackle the trail anywhere from early July to the end of September. This doesn’t mean the trail is completely inaccessible outside of those months, but the conditions might require a bit more heavy gear if you wish to be truly prepared. Check out this convenient FAQ page for more info on the best times, and the best direction, to hike the JMT.
Planning meals for a month in the wilderness and sending resupplies to the proper locations months in advance is difficult in its’ own right, but those who wish to complete the JMT successfully must also consider a number of other logistical factors, including monitoring weather conditions to be sure you include the proper gear and arranging pick-ups and drop-offs at either end of the trail. Every individual hiker on the JMT must carry a bear proof container for food storage purposes, and the details of pick-ups and drop-offs can vary greatly depending on which terminus you start from and where you’ll be traveling from to get there.
If you’re starting on the north end of the trail in Yosemite Valley, you’ll need to know which entrance will be most convenient for you. There are four gates into Yosemite Valley: Lee Vining in the east, Groveland in the North, Mariposa in the west, and Oakhurst in the South.
When starting in Yosemite Valley, it can be beneficial to arrange an overnight cabin in Curry Village to give yourself a final evening to dial in any last minute details before departing the following morning. If you’re starting in the south, things may be a bit simpler, as there is only a single access point to the southern terminus at Whitney Portal, which is located just outside Lone Pine, CA.
Maps and Books
While you’ll most likely be able to obtain the best maps of the trail at the Ranger Station where you pick up your permit, there are a number of online trail maps that will help you plan your daily mileage in advance.
The most up-to-date versions of maps for the JMT section of the PCT are available here, while a breakdown of mileage separating popular waypoints, as well as elevation gain per day, can be found here. When it comes to useful literature, Elizabeth Wenk’s, John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail, comes highly recommended.