For my dear friend’s sixth birthday, she wanted to hike the 281 miles of the Maine section of the Appalachian Trail (AT). She wanted to begin in late August and hike into September. We both live in Vermont and have hiked the Long Trail that runs the length of Vermont as well as numerous day hikes in the Adirondacks, New Hampshire and Vermont. Hiking in the east means looking down at your feet a lot of the day. There are roots, and bugs, and long climbs without the aides of switchbacks. Often after such a climb, you reach an opening in the trees or get to the summit, only to find it socked in by clouds or rain. I wanted to steer her towards a different game plan.
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Like many folks, I had read the book “Wild” and seen the movie “Mile, Mile and a Half.” In “Wild” she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which only intersects the John Muir Trail (JMT) in a few places. However, folks associated the book with the JMT. The success of the movie “Mile, Mile and a Half” tuned folks into the magnificent beauty of the trail, as it was a group of photographers and videographers whose soul purpose was to highlight its grandeur. Whereas the PCT is 2600 miles, the JMT is only 210 miles. The PCT takes a four to six months to hike. The JMT takes three to four weeks to hike. Folks can wrangled a month from their busy schedules to hike, thus, the popularity of the JMT.
Because of the increased attention given to the JMT, the park service has instituted newer (2015) and stricter guidelines, restricting the number of people allowed on the trail per day. From 2011 to 2015 the trail saw a 100% increase in traffic. To get a permit, you must apply 168 days to the day ahead of your scheduled hike date. If you are interested in hiking the JMT start your planning at least six months ahead; a year is even better. Here is a link to the Wilderness Permit website: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/jmtfaq.htm. If you are lucky enough to get a permit (95% are denied), you will not be disappointed. The High Sierras deserve all of the superlatives heaped upon her. As one hiker said, “It is the crown jewel of hiking.”
To that end, we prepared a strategy to try to ensure our success. The first struggle we had was understanding how to plan our distances and knowing when to ship our resupplies. With eastern hiking, you hike to lean-to’s that are strategically placed near water sources. Therefore, you know that you will be hiking seven, twelve, fifteen miles depending on a lean-to’s location. On the JMT, the camping is more free form, which was hard for us to grasp, so I scoured the internet for information and came across this great chart from BearFoot Theory.
On her website, Bearfoot Theory offers great information about the trail, resupplies and transportation to and from Yosemite. So, instead of repeating some of her information here, for this article, I will only include areas where we differed or diverged from her information. In fact, we used her first week itinerary almost verbatim, including her suggestion to get our permits for the Sunrise/Tenaya Lake Trailhead. Using her chart, we decided that we would aim for hiking ten miles a day, with some days averaging more, some less. We were in no hurry to rush through such magnificent scenery. Hopefully, you will not have to rush either.
By hiking north to south, and starting at Sunrise/Tenaya Lake Trailhead, we had a great way to acclimate to the trail. When you start hiking from the north, you are hiking at a relatively lower elevation (7500+ feet) and gaining elevation as you head south. By starting at the Sunrise/Tenaya Lake Trailhead, we hoped to accomplish two things. One, we hoped to increase our chances of getting a permit, by starting 13 miles south of Happy Isles, the JMT’s start in Yosemite. Two, we also liked the idea of starting out hiking with only three days of food, setting up a resupply at Tuolumne Meadows and then only having three more days of food before our next resupply at Red Meadows resort. This proved a great strategy on both accounts- allowing us to get our permit and start out with lighter packs. However, to complete the unfinished part of the trail, we had to apply for a second permit for the Happy Isle to Sunrise/Tenaya Lake Trail head. But first things first, what strategy did we use for getting both permits? And, then, secondly, how did we set up our resupply at Tuolumne Meadows.
Our strategy for getting a permit:
We decided to begin our hike in mid-to-late August and then hike into September. The reasons we chose this time frame were:
- No snow in the higher elevations
- No bugs down low
- Fewer people, as students would be heading back to school
- Better daytime temperatures
- Few to no high water crossing
These reasons all proved true for us. So, with this time frame in mind, we set up a seventeen day window that we would work with. We would begin our faxes so that our first hiking day would begin August 15 and then we would set up seventeen more days worth of faxes. I, for one, did not want to be hiking late into September in case there was snow. I also wanted to avoid frigid night time temperatures in the high peaks. As there was two of us hiking, we set up a fax for each of us as the “team leader”. This gave us a total of 34 faxes prepared ahead of time. You have to submit your permit 168 days (at 7:30 A.M. PST) before your intended hike . On the Wilderness Permit Website, they also provide a table that helps you plan your time frame. Here is a link to that time table: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermitdates.htm
For us, we were lucky and got our permit for this section of the trail on the fourth day, but we did hear stories on the trail of people faxing daily for two or three weeks before finally getting their permits. We did run across several solo hikers that were able to get their permits from Happy Isles. I wondered if it was because they were hiking solo. I don’t know.
However, with this strategy of putting in at Sunrise/Tenaya Lakes, we still had thirteen miles of the northern section of the trail into Yosemite that we had not done. Being from Vermont, and knowing that we might never get a second opportunity to finish this section, we applied for a second permit. We reasoned that being mid- September, by this point, we would have a reasonably good chance of getting the second permit, and the Half Dome permit as well. This worked for us, mainly, because our spouses agreed to fly into Las Vegas and meet us at Mt. Whitney/Lone Pine and give us a ride back up north. For this northern section, we applied for permits for all four of us. We put in at Sunrise/Tenaya Lake again and headed north from there. This allowed us to show them Cloud’s Rest, which we had done the first time, and for all of us to hike Half Dome together.
So to summarize:
- We got our permits starting at the Sunrise/Tenaya Lake Trailhead
- We set up numerous faxes ahead of time. One for each of us as the “trip leader.”
- This allowed us to carry only three days of food in the beginning, getting a resupply at Tuolumne Meadows
- We applied for a second permit to do the upper northern section of the trail and Half Dome
Getting our first resupply at Tuolumne Meadows:
After finally getting to Yosemite, we took a late shuttle down to Tuolumne Meadows to begin our hike. Though getting to Yosemite was another long day, the connections from the Amtrak station were straight forward. We took at taxi to the bus station in San Francisco for a 6:00 A.M. departure. Two hours later, we connected to the Amtrak train. After two hours on the Amtrak train, we had another two hour bus ride to get us to the Yosemite Visitors center. We arrived at 2:00 P.M. and had three hours before we caught our last bus of the day to Tuolumne Meadows. We took the time to go see the movies at the Visitors Center and get some dinner. The bus to Tuolumne leaves at 5:00 P.M and arrives at Tuolumne around 6:45 P.M. We got in our tents around 9:00 P.M. A really long day.
The next day, we took a “zero” day to recover from the long plane flight from Vermont and bus/train rides to Yosemite. We walked up to the Wilderness Permit station to get our hiking permit and it was there that we were told that we could leave our resupply in the bear boxes lining the parking lot. We didn’t think it was permitted, but they assured us the food would be fine. Because of the prohibitive cost of shipping our other resupplies (more on that later), we actually carried this resupply on the plane with us.
To get to our starting point, we tried to catch a bus from the Tuolumne Store, but the buses seemed to run sporadically. We just hitchhiked to the trail, which proved faster and easier.
- If you start your hike at Sunrise/Tenaya Lake, leave a resupply in the bear boxes at the Wilderness Permit center.
- If necessary, just hitchhike to the trail head and don’t wait for the buses, which never seem to come in the direction you need.
- If possible, just carry your resupply on the plane and save yourself the shipping/holding charges at the Tuolumne Post Office.
- By leaving a resupply at Tuolumne Meadows, you only have to carry another three days of food, if you resupply again at Red Meadows.
Why we chose our resupplies locations that we did:
Unlike many younger hikers, we wanted to minimize our weight as much as we could. We did this through gear selection and by adding resupply locations. Many folks do the whole trail with just one resupply at either Muir Trail Ranch or Vermilion Lake resort. This means they are carrying ten days of food for the first and second half of the trail. Though this does save on costly resupplies, we did not want to burden ourselves with that kind of weight. We also had concerns about fitting that much food into the required bear canisters. As I said, our first resupply was a pickup at Tuolumne Meadows, which we carried on the plane. Our second resupply was at Red Meadows Resort, six days into our hike. We also took a “zero” day at Red Meadows, which proved to be a good choice, as we needed to replace our brand new sleeping bags (see the equipment we used here). On the “zero” night, we rented a backpackers cabin, which was a wonderful luxury. The cabin not only gave us a comfortable bed, but a place to spread out and reorganize our resupplies and laundry. The restaurant gave us a chance to restore our body fuel with hamburgers and beer and the folks at Red Meadows were extremely nice and accommodating (Unlike Tuolumne Meadows, where the staff seemed curt and sullen). If you have the luxury of taking a zero day here, do it. It feels great to regroup and, perhaps, take a trip down in Mammoth Lakes for lunch or supplies.
In the spirit of keeping our loads light, we set up resupplies, beyond Red Meadows, at Muir Trail Ranch (MTR), and Mt. Williamson motel, which is up and over Kearsarge Pass.
Muir Trail Ranch resupply-
MTR is the most remote resupply on the whole JMT. They use mules to pack in your supplies and you pay a premium for this service. Each 5 gallon bucket cost $75.00 for MTR to pick it up and hold it for you. This does not include your shipping cost. For us, we shipped 2- 5 gallon buckets ($150.00) and it cost $120.00 to ship them from Vermont. This one resupply came to a total of $270.00! And this did not include the cost of food in the bucket, either.
One potential, though perhaps risky tip, is to see what MTR has in its donation buckets- food that other hikers have left behind, because they realize they have packed too much food and do not want to carry it.
When we arrived in late August, the buckets were all overflowing with Powerbars, Luna Bars, Hot chocolate, Tang, Noodles, Tuna. You name it, it was there. When I commented on this to one of the staff (again not that friendly or helpful), she noted that when the PCT hikers come through the barrels get cleaned out. It does seem that most hikers overestimate the amount of food they will eat, so this might be a strategy for money conscious folks. Just be aware, the next resupply location, only a day or two away, is Vermilion Lake Resort. Perhaps, too soon to realize if you have misjudged and are going to be low on food. The next resupply is the town of Independence, up and over Kearsarge Pass. But for us, in late August, it seemed that the PCTer’s had been through this section long ago. Hence the abundance of food.
Mt. Williamson Motel in Independence-
We debated long and hard about this resupply, as it meant 15 miles of round trip hiking that was extra and not part of the JMT, and it was up and over Kearsarge Pass. In the end, we decided we would do it, because we did not want to carry 10 days of food in our bear canisters.
Since we had left Red Meadows and resupplied at MTR, we had been 11 days eating just hiking food. No hamburgers, no beer, no treats. Our food, though diverse, was not looking as appetizing any more. We decided to stay at Mt. Williamson motel.
Mt. Williamson motel is run by “Strider” (aka: Chris Chater). It is an eight bedroom motel catering to PCT and JMT hikers. People often wonder how the motel can be full and there are no cars in the parking area. Strider bought the motel in 2011 and turned it into a backpackers haven. Her reputation on the trail is well deserved. She picks you at the trail head, some seven miles up a pass from town. When you arrive she hands you a cold beer or iced tea. They take your laundry, wash it, and hand it back to you folded. She also has a bin of clothes that you can wear while your clothes are being washed. She keeps your resupply buckets for you. She delivers you back to the trail head. The rooms are clean and simple, but the beds are excellent and the towels and bed sheets are luxurious.
An interesting fact about Strider is that she has hiked the JMT 22 times, sometimes doing what she calls a “yo-yo”, meaning she gets to the end and then turns around and heads back. To keep in shape she hikes Kearsarge Pass four to five times a week, usually while waiting for hikers to pick up and escort down the valley. One year, she got in a two day blizzard up on Glenn Pass, and had to wait it out. She usually starts her hike in late fall, after the motel slows for the hiking season.
Because of the hike back and forth over Kearsarge Pass, we decided to treat ourselves to our second “zero” day on the trail. This was an excellent decision. That zero day gave us time to repack, eat great tacos, catch up on emails and send postcards. It really helped our mental attitude when we had to hike back up Kearsarge pass to rejoin the JMT.
In the town of Independence, there is little in the way of stores, just a gas station with some snack food. However, there is an excellent Taco truck just down from the motel and a Subway further down, that offers a really good chopped salad, which we had lunch for lunch. Avoid, however, the “Still Life Cafe” at all cost. Though billed as French, it is not, other than the owners are French. We waited three hours to get rubbery, overdone food. Two other hikers joined us there, and all agreed, the food was not very good, and we each had different dishes. I think I paid $30.00 for a hamburger and beer. Really! Other than that, I would highly recommend meeting Strider and enjoying your stay at Mt. Williamson
Recap of resupply points and days between each section:
- First resupply- Tuolumne Meadows- (Sunrise Lake- Tuolumne – 3 days of hiking)
- Second resupply- Red Meadows- (Tuolumne Meadows to Red Meadows- 3 more days of hiking –6 total hiking days)
- Third resupply- Muir Trail Ranch- (Red Meadows to Muir Trail Ranch- 5 days of hiking –11 total hiking days)
- Fourth resupply- Mt. Williamson Motel- Muir Trail Ranch to Mt. Williamson motel- 7 days of hiking –18 total hiking days)
- Lone Pine, after Mt. Whitney- Mt. Williamson Motel to Mt. Whitney- 5 days of hiking –23 total hiking days)
The Second Permit-
To complete the whole trail, we had to apply for a second permit, with an additional permit for hiking Half Dome. So, we had to follow the same procedure as we did for the first permit. We had to figure out when we would come out at Mt. Whitney and then we planned some sight seeing on our way back up north to Yosemite. Once we knew these dates, we buffered our chances of getting a permit, by submitting permits for three days in a row. We wanted to make sure that we could hike Half Dome, which can not, rightly, be hiked if there is any chance of rain in the area.
So, once again, we had to look at the chart and plan to send this new permit in 168 days ahead of our time frame.
It takes a lot of work and planning to hike the JMT, but truly it is all worth it.