You know all those things you’ve always want to do in your life? Do them.
Years of week-long backpacking trips kindled a desire for a longer outing. I wanted to live outside for an extended period of time, walk more miles, be at the mercy of nature, and be dependent only on my own two feet, physical endurance, and mental strength.
That wish came true this summer when my daughter, Jennie, age 26, and I, 56, embarked on an adventure that included thru-hiking the John Muir Trail.
Since almost half of this iconic trail traverses Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, it is in the backyard of Three Rivers residents. As such, I was attuned to issues in the backcountry about which Commonwealth readers should be informed.
Also in future installments, I will describe the trail in segments so that potential section-hikers and thru-hikers receive an overview of what’s required (and why such an excursion should be on everybody’s to-do list).
The modern world is so hurried and always in a rush. But there are remote, wild lands so close to home where things aren’t always convenient. These places ease my mind and provide perspective.
The mountains calm me. They reinvigorate. Rejuvenate. Heal.
The Sierra landscape is cathedral in feel; it is both church and sanctuary.
But the trip wasn’t all enlightenment and redemption. Irreverence, too, occurred with regularity.
There are ravaged muscles and throbbing bones to deal with, insects that want to eat you, ill-mannered trail users, precarious water-crossings, lightning wrapped in a thunderbolt, cold rain, colder wind, and camp chores to be done when all you want to do is sleep. These nuisances are intermittent and fleeting, but the accompanying trash talking provides significant therapy.
There was an overabundance of laughter and nominal bickering. There was breathlessness; there was euphoria.
And there were days on the trail when, as we were looking over the mountain ranges from where we came, and the others in front over which we would still roam, I wanted to keep walking, forever and ever, to see where my feet could take me.
Home in a pack
We carried everything we would need for a month on our backs. Jennie’s pack was about 38 pounds at its heaviest; mine came in at about 10 pounds more when fully loaded.
Ideally, less weight would have been appreciated, but we had no superfluous items; everything in our packs we used (except for first-aid kit items and a couple camera accessories).
We aren’t obsessed with every ounce like the new breed of ultralight hiker. We so appreciated our tent, rain fly, and ground cloth during a four-hour rainstorm.
To reduce base weight in a backpack, it’s important to evaluate (and reevaluate) the big three: pack, shelter, sleep system. I will be doing this as I could definitely knock off some pack pounds.
An older cook stove continues to serve us well, so I didn’t upgrade, which could have reduced some weight. We brought books and a deck of cards, but we never regretted those items. Instead we looked forward to that time at the end of each day when we could relax, read, and play.
We arranged for three resupplies of food. The first at Tuolumne Meadows (so we could travel our first three days up the trail while acclimating and getting used to the daily grind with less weight), the second at Muir Trail Ranch (the halfway point of the JMT), and the third at Woods Creek (with seven days of the trip remaining).
Food is a stressful part of the pre-planning process. Carry too much and you’ve got dead weight. Carry too little and you’re hungry… really hungry.
For the most part, the menu-planning was optimal. We picked up each resupply with almost empty bear canisters, meaning the new load would fit, but we also had enough to eat. Almost.
Breakfasts and lunches had to be rationed some as we got close to resupply. Halfway through the month, in total synchronization, our stomachs rebelled as the food became monotonous. (Jennie wouldn’t even consider yet another pasta dinner. I’ll never eat peanut butter again.)
On our last day, we could have each used a thousand additional calories. We were down to gels and bars for this 16-mile day that included the highest pass on the JMT and a summit of the highest mountain in the Lower 48.
But it was our last day. And we had our own personal trail angels who served us up an incredible feast of fresh (non-dehydrated), wholesome food (and beer!) in the Whitney Portal parking lot, so all’s well that ends well.
Our trail diet was completely plant-based; no meat, dairy, or eggs. “Wow, you two are so strong,” said one person when learning of our diet. “I always pictured vegans as frail…”
History of the John Muir Trail
That there is a trail that parallels the crest of the Sierra from Yosemite Valley in the north to Mount Whitney in the south is because of a 14-year-old boy from Kingsburg. In 1884, Theodore Solomons was looking at the distant mountains and had the vision of such a trail.
By the time he was in his mid 20s, Solomons was roaming the Sierra to make his dream of a long-distance trail come true. He mapped a route from Yosemite Valley south to Evolution Basin (now part of Kings Canyon National Park).
It was the mighty Kings River and its many forks and mountain divides that caused a near-impenetrable barrier for many years. It is rugged country but, as I discovered, the absolute gem of the entire trail. A more beautiful landscape is difficult to imagine.
Many years later, with Solomons’s navigation and that of many others, this trail, with a goal of being passable by stock, came to fruition and is today known as the John Muir Trail. It is, of course, named for the man who was one of the first, and certainly the most effective and prominent, to venture deep into this backcountry, more often than not, alone.
Along the JMT today, there are a dozen passes, two over 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) in elevation, that must be ascended and descended. Each one has a story.
Exploring Kings Canyon
There are granite spires, precipitous gorges, and jagged massifs so tall into the sky that they cast their long, sharp shadows across the trail by midday. Around every corner, there are rocky basins filled with sparkling blue water and connected by creeks and pools and waterfalls that spill into the next bowl.
Flowers grow to altitudes as high as the mountains themselves. Friendly, furry pikas send their welcoming screeches while portly marmots sun themselves among the boulders, rodents being the most plentiful mammals in this high, remote region.
There are sections of trail no more than a foot wide that were created by blasting solid rock where before there was only a cliff and a rushing river below. There are switchbacks, seemingly never-ending, constructed through unceasing talus fields. The trail traverses avalanche chutes with cracked and broken granitic stones the size of refrigerators and cars and houses.
There are plateaus and canyons and peaks and passes and meadows and forests and glens and riverbanks and lakeshores and cliffs and sandbars and boulder fields. The JMT through Kings Canyon National Park wanders along them all and never ventures below 8,000 feet elevation.
The JMT is officially 210.4 miles in length. For all except about 50 miles of it, the Pacific Crest Trail shares the same route.
An additional 10.7 miles is required beyond the JMT’s terminus on Mount Whitney for those exiting, as we did, at Whitney Portal. As I mentioned in previous articles, we skipped the first 25 miles (and busiest part) of the trail from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows, opting instead to front load about 10 miles by traversing the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, meeting up with the JMT on our fourth day at Tuolumne Meadows.
The JMT extends across the following federal lands: Yosemite National Park, Inyo National Forest, Sierra National Forest (including the Ansel Adams Wilderness and John Muir Wilderness), Devils Postpile National Monument, Kings Canyon National Park, and Sequoia National Park. The trail completely bisects Kings Canyon National Park, entering in its northwest corner and exiting via the southeast section.
What’s incredible about our 240-mile trip is that we never saw a bear. There were two scat piles, a hundred or so miles apart, one paw print in mud, but not a living, breathing bear.
We had warnings from trail rangers about bears. We heard stories about marauding bears. But no bear.
Granted, we’ve never had an interaction with a bear while backpacking. I’ve always wondered if it’s because we don’t travel with meat as we’ve never had so much as a piece of jerky on our backcountry overnighters.
But what I’m really hoping this lack of bear sightings is attributed to is that today’s backcountry users are better educated on how to properly store food. Bear canisters are now required equipment in the local national parks and strongly recommended in the national forests.
To be continued…