Working on the Bucket List — John Muir Trail 2016

Over the last several years, as Liz and I have gotten older, we have been working on our Bucket List items.

  • Jim retires by 50 years of age — check
  • Jim and Liz bird Newfoundland seabird colonies — check
  • Jim and Liz visit Missouri Botanical Gardens — check
  • Jim and Liz bird the Alaska Marine Ferry to at least Juneau — check
  • Jim and Liz hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back — check
  • Jim finishes the John Muir Trail (JMT)

We are getting close to the end of the list. Sure, some items have been forgotten and others will be added, but “Jim finishes the John Muir Trail” is next up.

The  John Muir Trail (JMT) is a popular trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California that runs through some of the most scenic terrain in the United States. The trail was named to honor John Muir, a preeminent, late 19th century conservationist who was a driving force behind establishing Yosemite National Park and other conservation areas in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, an effort that resulted in establishment the “Sierra” Club. Planning for the trail began in the 1900s, and construction began in 1915, the year after Muir’s death.

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Map of My History and 2016 Goals for the John Muir Trail

Completed in 1938, the John Muir Trail runs from the bottom of Yosemite Valley (Happy Isles; 4,100 ft elevation) north to Tuolumne Meadows (8,600 ft elevation; where John Muir first learned to love these mountains), and then south through high country (35% of the trail is over 10,000 feet elevation) to the summit of Mt. Whitney (14,505 ft elevation; highest point in the continental United States). The trail was originally 212 miles, but rerouting over the years has added a few miles, so now it seems to be 214 based on GPS tracks with careful editing using Google Earth images. In addition, the trail technically ends atop Mt. Whitney, and hikers still need to hike at least 11 miles farther to reach civilization, so as a technical matter, hikers doing the entire trail need to hike 225 miles.

The bucket-list item reads “Jim finishes the John Muir Trail” — that implies Jim tried but didn’t finish before?

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First time on the JMT (Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite, near Cathedral Peak, circa 1972)

Well, not exactly. In 1973 when I was 15, between my freshmen and sophomore years in high school, I hiked with a high school friend named Tom (last name lost to history) from Rock Creek to Yosemite Valley, a total of about 102 miles in 30 days, and about 88 miles on the JMT.

The following year, in 1974 at age 16, between my high school sophomore and junior years, I hiked with Steve Ponting (another high school friend) from Kings Canyon to Rock Creek (113 miles). I then walked back into the wilderness alone and hiked farther north to Reds Meadow (43 miles), a total of 156 miles in 32 days, and about 111 miles on the JMT.

So, in those two years, I did about 199 miles on the JMT, but there was some overlap, so I’ve only done a total of 171 JMT miles. The entire trail is 214, so I’ve not walked on 43 miles of the JMT.

Actually, it isn’t quite that simple, as I’ve hiked several times on parts of the JMT. In 2008, I hiked with Liz and my sister and her family from Mammoth to Tuolumne Meadows (about 35 miles), and during several years Liz and I hiked various routes from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley (25-35 miles each). In 2005, we did the traditional JMT route from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley. Thus, in total I’ve walked about 300 JMT miles, but those 43 un-walked miles still hang on me.

After hiking during my high-school summers of 1973 and 1974, life got busy (working in the mountains of northern Idaho; 1975 and 1976) and I drifted into other endeavors (e.g., climbing the big walls in Yosemite; 1977; hiking in northern Alaska 1978), but I’ve always planned to go back to the Sierras and finish the southern 43 miles of the JMT. I’ve thought about thru-hiking the entire trail, I’ve thought about just doing the minimal 43-mile section, and I’ve thought about doing it all again in sections.

This summer, I’m hiking the entire trail from a bit south of Mt. Whitney to Yosemite Valley (242 miles).

Hiking from south to north, the trail starts over Mt. Whitney, but it is very difficult to get permits for that section, so I’ll start at the next trailhead south where it is easy to get walk-up permits. Permits for these mountains are “entry permits,” so once a hiker enters, they can go more-or-less anywhere for as long as they want, and that is my plan.

I’ll leave during the third week of August, entering west of Lone Pine, California, at the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead. From there, I’ll head north about 20 miles to meet the JMT near Crabtree Meadows and climb Mt. Whitney (14,500 ft) from the west side as a day-hike. This will be my second ascent of our highest mountain (first in 2002), but the first from the west side.

From the summit of Mt. Whitney, I’ll turn around and hike north 43 miles to Woods Creek, the point where I joined the JMT in 1974 (starting from Kings Canyon). I’ll then continue north 86 miles to Mono Creek, the point where I joined the JMT in 1973. From there, I’ll keep hiking north to Reds Meadows, another 28 miles, to where I ended in 1974. Continuing north, I walk another 60 miles all the way to Yosemite Valley, completing the entire JMT in one run — but we’ll see how it goes

I’ll be carrying a SPOT device, which allows me use the satellite phone system to send geo-referenced pre-recorded messages from the trail. Visitors can follow my progress by opening my SPOT webpage where messages will be displayed on a map. I hope to start hiking slowly until I get my mountain lungs and legs, then pick up the pace — I’ll need to average about 10 miles per day to reach Yosemite Valley in 24 days.

I’m excited!

[Postscript: I failed to complete my quest, but be sure to read about the details.

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