I’ve hiked the John Muir Trail solo twice. I’d do it every year if I could.
These photos are from my second trip, in 2009. I lightened my load significantly this time, save for two vices: my binoculars and John Muir Laws’ Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada. They were worth every ounce.
All photos © Brent Plater, unless otherwise noted.
Ashby BART to Richmond Amtrak to Merced YARTS Bus to Yosemite
Nine years after I first hiked the John Muir Trail, I took public transit to Yosemite Valley to hike the trail again. The transit worked well and got me there on time with no stress and opportunities to watch for birds as the train went down the valley to Merced.
I arrived in Yosemite Valley two days before my planned first day of hiking so I'd have time to pick up a wilderness permit.
Brent Plater and the guy who dresses up like John Muir
That night I watched Lee Stetson, who plays John Muir, do a show about Muir's relationship with animals, or as Muir called them, our "fellow mortals." Muir was ahead of his time, and it just so happened that Rose bought me a book of his most harrowing adventures that just so happened to be edited by Lee Stetson. He was kind enough to pose with me and the book.
First in Line
When the show ended around 9:30pm, I walked to the Wilderness Center with my sleeping gear and plopped myself first-in-line for the mornings rush on wilderness permits. No one else showed up until about 1:30am when a Romanian woman lined up in second. I had told the ranger that I'd be there at 2am earlier in the day; the ranger told her that and so she arrived at 1:30am to try and beat me! Good thing I bluffed....I finished off Stetson's book and mailed it home after getting my permit.
I began hiking the morning of August 5, the day after I got my permit, to give myself a day of rest after staying up all night getting the permit. Here I'm on my way to past Vernal Falls.
California ground squirrel,
These guys are everywhere in Yosemite Valley. Their beautiful coats can be easily overlooked.
I brought John Muir Law's Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada, and used it to identify plants for the first time in my life. Let me know if I got them right: this one is one of the more common along the trail.
Yosemite Valley from Cloud's Rest
Hiking Cloud's Rest is technically off the JMT. This added several miles to my first day's hike, and I ended up putting in about 20 miles on Day 1.
One of the birdiest spots on the trail was near the trail junction for Cloud's Rest and the trail crossing of Sunrise Creek. Many species were there: mountain chickadee and bluebird, red-breasted sapsucker, hermit warbler, and several other species. Up higher on Cloud's Rest I found this beautiful little plant.
On the backside of Cloud's Rest, I saw this Sooty Grouse with chicks.
Sunrise High Sierra Camp Alpenglow
I made it into Sunrise High Sierra Camp late, but in time to see the alpenglow on the surrounding mountains.
Night 1: Sunrise High Sierra Camp
I set-up my Hennesey Hammock, part of my lighter-weight gear, and got a good night's sleep in it. The hammock is a bit awkward for writing and rearranging yourself, but it works well for reading and keeping your feet above your heart to reduce swelling and other aches and pains associated with long hikes. Can you find it in this photo?
Hiking through Long Meadow
The next day the weather turned cold, and we had a hailstorm -- in August! That wasn't so bad, because you stay drier with hail than with rain.
Paintbrush species seemed particularly difficult for me to ID accurately to species, but I think I got this one right early in the morning of Day 2.
California Mule Deer,
Odocoileus hemionus californicus
Black tail and mule deer are the same species, but different subspecies. The narrow width of the black on the tail of this guy makes him a CA mule deer for sure.
Lupines were as difficult as the paintbrushes to ID accurately, so I typically only got them down to genus.
Night 2: Lyell Canyon near Potter Point
I hiked through Tuolumne Meadows on Day 2, where I had a resupply package waiting for me at the Post Office: one of my techniques for hiking lite was to resupply frequently. I also purchased a new gatorade bottle, because I lost the lid to my original one somewhere in the wilderness (my bad). From Tuolumne I hiked another seven miles towards Donahue Pass before setting up this camp near Potter Point in Lyell Canyon. All in all I put in about 18 miles on Day 2.
Another complicated genus, but I think I got this one right early on Day 3. Shortly after this, I saw my first Northern Goshawk of the trip: the biggest, baddest Accipiter I had ever seen!
Hiking South Towards Donahue Pass
The stretch of hiking from Sunrise High Sierra Camp through Lyell Canyon wasn't much to write home about this time of year. The scenery isn't the best on the trail, and the wildlife and wildflowers aren't going gangbusters in August. But Donahue Pass changes everything.
View North from Donahue Pass Over Lyell Canyon
I saw a Prairie Falcon while I was enjoying the view from Donahue Pass, which is the boundary between Yosemite National Park and Ansel Adams Wilderness. The south side of Donahue Pass through Island Pass is a magical, colorful place.
I want to say Catilleja miniata, but I'm not certain. It was in a boggy area.
View of the Minaret Range from Island Pass
This area is so amazing to behold: the mountains, the colors, the crazy shapes and sizes of the trees and wildflowers, incredible birds....I need to get here more often.
High Above Garnet Lake
I cooked dinner at Ruby Lake and then kept hiking until dusk, when I found a campsite away from water but with a picture perfect view of Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter.
Night 3: High Above Garnet Lake
I decided to only set up my tarp for the night, as the sky was clear and the ground flat enough to sleep comfortably. And I did, after hiking another 15 miles.
At this point in the trip I started to pass people I met at the backpacker's camp in Yosemite Valley who started a day or two in front of me. I tried to point out the cool plants I was learning to them when I could, like this disturbance adapted plant.
Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak reflected in Garnet Lake
After leaving Garnet Lake behind, the trail heads into some wet and some dry forests, which were surprisingly dull and lifeless. Hardly any birds or animals active in them this time of year.
Eventually I made it to Devil's Postpile and another resupply at Red's Meadow. But I didn't stay here as planned: I kept on hiking towards the Red Cones to try and get a few extra miles in.
Rainbow Fire, Outside Red's Meadow
Before that, I hiked through the Rainbow Fire areas outside of Red's Meadow just before dusk, which was a major bird haven. I got green-tailed towhee, Townsend's solitaire, varied thrush, and a dozen other species while trying to rush to my camping area before dark.
On the way to Purple Lake
The camping near Upper Crater Meadow was a bit buggy and uninspiring, a let down after a 19 mile day. But the scenery turned spectacular again the next day after a few more miles of quiet forests, as I approached Purple Lake.
Lake Virginia is another magical place, with frogs and beautiful scenary worth exploring.
Relaxing before dinner at Squaw Lake
I kept on to Squaw Lake for dinner, where I traded some sausage and cheese for moleskin: I was getting blisters by this time and needed the medical kit more than the calories. After dinner I hiked up and over Silver Pass, camping near Silver Pass Lake, one of the most beautiful areas in the High Sierras. Total mileage for Day 4: 19.5 miles.
A constant companion on the trail.
After leaving Silver Pass, I bumped into a couple women who really knew their plants. They helped me out a bit, although they were leaning towards ID'ing this guy as the Gay Penstemon, which I don't think is correct.
Gay Penstemon, Penstemon laetus
See the difference?
Not the best photo or specimen, but beautiful nonetheless.
The columbines got me hooked on botany. You just don't get beauty, structure, and whimsy like this in domestic flowers!
After Silver Pass, the next big climb is Bear Ridge. It isn't that bad: the trail was obviously constructed by an engineer, and has a steady grade with even switchbacks. Plus, the flowers were going off on Bear Ridge, so I could stop whenever I liked and explore something new and beautiful.
Leichtlin's Mariposa Lily,
While hiking up Bear Ridge I bumped into the Romanian woman and the two Germans. They were all geeked on flowers and birds too, so we hiked together and camped at Marie Lakes for the night.
Dinner at Marie Lakes
From Bear Ridge to about a mile or so before Marie Lakes, the terrain gets a bit tiresome again, but the view at the lakes is so stunning it's worth the effort. It was another 18 mile day.
Selden Pass north towards Marie Lakes
The next morning I left camp early for the short hike to Selden Pass and points south.
Selden Pass South
This was another botany wonderland for me, just a few miles before my next resupply stop at Muir Trail Ranch.
Always tucked into some corner or rock face that you wouldn't expect life to exist on.
Jeffrey Shooting Star,
There are several shooting star species, but I think this is the correct ID on this one.
The jellyfish of the botany world. How can you not have your imagination stoked by this little flower?
I just wasn't good enough to nail this larkspur into the right species.
Entering Kings Canyon
One of the few impacts the altitude had on me this time was that I got a bloody nose that wouldn't go away this day. It stuck with me through the John Muir Trail resupply and into Kings Canyon National Park.
I hiked past Evolution Meadow and closer to McClure Meadow for a camp within the Evolution Valley, a 16 mile day.
I met the ranger at McClure Meadow and he told me how to prepare Swamp Onion, which I took as official permission to pick one and eat it. Delicious! Unfortunately I lost my Leatherman minitool while talking to him....
Mountain Yellow-legged Frog,
Hiking towards Muir Pass you walk past Evolution Lake and a few other high sierra lakes that are teeming with Mountain Yellow-legged frogs: for now. Trout, fungus, and pesticides are harming the species. Down with Tom Stienstra!!
Hiking into LeConte Canyon
From Muir Pass you drop into Beautiful LeConte Canyon. The ranger stationed there was getting married in the park the day I was passing through, and the area was quite festive!
Rosa Woodsii var. ultramontana
Night 8: Big Pete Meadow
I camped near Big Pete Meadow, where I took a good bath (not in the water folks, I carried some 100 feet away from the water source for the sake of the frogs) and got some rest. About 16 miles this day.
Sierra Fence Lizard,
Sceloporus occidentalis taylori
Another incredibly gorgeous day brought me past the Palisade Lakes as I hiked towards Mather Pass.
My blisters weren't getting any better, so a woman told me to slice open the pinky toe area on my shoes. The theory was that my feet were swelling during the hike, and were outgrowing my shoe. She was right, and now I plan on making sure all the world's shoes have a similar slice for the good of all mankind the world over. REI ended up taking these shoes back because the proprietary shoelace system broke three times in two weeks. I was surprised!
I felt very good thanks to the shoe modification on this climb.
And then I saw my first pika at the top of Mather Pass! I'd been hearing their "kek-kek" calls for some time, but this was the first pass where I actually got a good look at this cute little critter. I probably saw another dozen before the trip was over.
Upper Basin Lakes
After Mather Pass I spent a cold night near the Upper Basin Lakes, filled with desolate beauty. Another 17 miles completed that day.
Hiking Down Pinchot Pass
When I hiked the trail in 2000, I had some storms that prevented me from seeing most of the scenary from Mather Pass beyond Pinchot Pass. What a shame, because both passes are spectacular, and the scenary between is outstanding.
Stealth Dinner at Dollar Lake
I camped in the Rae Lakes region after a 22 mile day. A cold, beautiful night with wonderful views all around. Rae Lakes is spectacular.
The next day I hiked a short 8 miles to meet up with Rose for my last resupply. She brought our friend Jay with her, and we camped at Charlotte Lake, just a mile off the trail.
Solitare for Two
We gave Jay the hammock for the night and Rose and I slept in my old Eureka Solitaire, which is built for one. It was warm and cozy!
Saying Goodbye for Now
Rose and Jay left me with my food and I started hiking onward. I felt pretty good so I thought I might be able to finish the hike a day early.
When I got to the top of Forester Pass in good shape, I knew I could make it. I decided to hike through the night and look for owls (no luck) and make it out to Whitney Portal the next day.
Erysimum capitatum ssp. perenne
My favorite plant: fragrant, beautiful, incredible structure.
Little Elephant's Head,
You can't think this stuff up!
The Foxtail Pine has got to be among the most beautiful trees in the world, although it has great context to contemplate its looks. I camped underneath some after the night hike, putting in 23 miles.
Another penstemon I just couldn't quite get.
Hitchcock Lakes from Mt. Whitney
The 2.5 mile hike up Mt. Whitney from the JMT seemed like 6 miles, but the hike down was easy.
Smells like church incense!
The End. Almost.
In 2000 I got caught in a storm on top of Mt. Whitney, with electricity crackling in my ears, hairs standing on end, and icicles forming on my nose. I had perfect weather this time.
I wonder if this is the first gray-crowned rosy-finch to actually stand on top of the highest point of the highest mountain in the lower 48 states?
Down to Whitney Portal
Nineteen miles later I was down at Whitney Portal. The two germans were there, and we hitchiked together to Bishop, shared a hotel room there, and then took a bus to Lee Vining for $11. From there we hitchhiked to Yosemite Valley where they had a car, and they drove me home. The end!