Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Athlete's Corner: John Muir Trail

Solo fast-pack adventure – by Erin Donnelly


About the trail

The John Muir Trail (JMT) goes 338.6 km in California. It is almost entirely at, or above, 8,000 feet with thirty five per cent of the trail above 10,000 feet making it the highest trail in the USA. It begins in Yosemite Valley, crosses over six mountain passes and ends at the summit of Mount Whitney at 14,505 feet. Yosemite and Whitney portal are packed full of tourists so after spending your days socializing with chipmunks and hearing leaves blow in the wind it’s a bit of a sensory overload when you find yourself back in the Disney world of hiking.

The majority of people do the JMT from North (Yosemite) to South (Mount Whitney). This helps acclimatize to the altitude as you go. I didn’t really have any noticeable problems with altitude. Although, this didn’t stop me from using my sea level origin as an excuse to defend my desperate gasps for air when I was climbing with a Coloradoan. Fastest Known Times (FKT) are typically attempted in the opposite direction, because of the elevation loss. The Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) hikers are also heading North on their way to Oregon and beyond.

A permit is required for the JMT. These golden permits are in HIGH demand, especially to start from Happy Isles in Yosemite. Sixty per cent of the permits are available 168 days in advance and they fill up the day they are available. If you miss the boat on getting a permit in advance, the other forty per cent are on a first come first serve basis, and involve waiting in line at the permit office very, very early in the morning. A permit to start at Mount Whitney is a lottery (paid out in steep switchbacks not money).

Erin at start of Donahue Pass, Lone Pine, CA

The plan

I was unable to obtain the permit granting access to begin at the official JMT start point in Happy Isles. Instead, I had to start at an alternate trailhead and therefore miss out on about 13 km from the 338.6km distance. I was mildly disappointed, but I got over it.

The trail is usually hiked from July to September. Some hearty people, including the PCT hikers, hit the mountain passes in May or June when there is still snow. September would have been my top choice to avoid the bugs and to have less people on the trails. However, I went in late July since I have other races lined-up in August and September.

Getting to and from

Getting to and from the trailhead is more arduous than one would think. The best way to get to the JMT from Vancouver BC is to fly to Reno Nevada, take the Eastern Sierra Transit Bus to Mammoth Lakes California, then take the YARTS bus to Yosemite Park.

For the return home, the JMT finishes at Whitney Portal. From there hitchhiking to Lone Pine is the way to go … and if you’re lucky like me, a nice lady will pick you up and tell you all about the recent graduation of her grandson so you can just sit back and nod with a weary smile. The Dow Villa Motel in Lone Pine is a great choice. This is the hub of the Badwater Ultra, so be prepared to be blasted by ridiculous heat as you hobble around in search of victory ice cream.

Side bar

The JMT ends at the top of Mount Whitney. You still have 18 km of relentless switchbacks dropping over 6000 ft. I started blissfully blinded by my success. By the thousandth switchback, I was leaning on my poles and begging for signs of mercy. At the bottom is a café that features obnoxiously large pancakes, give yourself some time if attempting to eat these and be on guard for cute husky little thieving birds.


I mailed myself one resupply in advance to Muir Trail Ranch located close to the JMT, roughly at the halfway point. I carried five days’ worth of food, since I estimated approximately nine days to complete the trail. There are options for a resupply during the first half of the trail if you want a lighter load. The second half is more expensive and time consuming for additional resupplies.  I ate about 15 ProBars and tones of wraps with almond butter. I likely will not be eating foil packages of tuna or macadamia nuts ever again.


I started enthusiastically with 26lbs of gear, food and two 1L bottles of water. Water is plentiful on the JMT, which I filtered using pills. The ‘favourite gear award’ goes to my hiking poles, especially for saving my knees on the relentless descents. A bear canister is mandatory in Yosemite. These plastic tubs are heavy and big, but keep brazen bears away from your precious calories. My Go Lite Jam 50L pack fit the bear canister nicely. My tent could have been lighter, but I was happy having a freestanding tent (Big Agnes Fly Creek UL) in the thunderstorms. All the little things add up, so try to keep your pack as light as possible.


In addition to the standard safety precautions for any multi day trip, lightning is something to be mindful of on the JMT. Some of the passes are wide open and risky terrain in a thunderstorm. As I got higher it looked as though every tree had been struck at least once. The storms can roll in fast, so I was happy I spent the extra 10 minutes beforehand Googling what to do in case of a lightning storm.  

At first, I was telling people where I’d planned to camp for the night, since this is common trail convo. After a few days I realized that telling the man dressed in army clothes who seemed extremely intrigued by my solo status, that I was alone and where I would be, was not a good idea. I did feel perfectly safe as a solo woman on the trail though.

Mather Pass

Big Horn Plateau

Highlights and noteworthy

Each mountain pass revealed a new world of even greater beauty. I will never forget coming over Muir Pass. The landscape suddenly became rough surrounding me with craggy peaks. I camped up at surreal-looking Helen Lake and watched the sunset from there.

The scenery exceeded my expectations, with the terrain changing along the way from smooth and sandy, to rocky and rugged and back again. Crystal clear water, wildflower meadows, forested switchbacks, marmots everywhere. I was constantly excited to see what lay beyond every pass after the next.

I bumped into two women from Colorado who were aiming to fast-pack the trail in 7.5 days, and also the Hardrock 100 Ultra female victor who was exploring the trail over five days. We all shared the common Hoka bond that didn’t go unnoticed, as we parted in opposite directions.

I hadn’t anticipated for the weather to be such a factor. On days eight, nine, and ten there were thunderstorms, which forced me to do the passes very early in the morning to beat the bad weather. Sometimes it was unavoidable, for example I got hailed on going over Pinchot Pass. Day eight was sort of a low point. It poured most of the day and I didn’t want to stop to set-up my tent in the rain. I eventually had to give up and set-up in the dark wet night. On day ten I was stuck at Guitar Lake, from 11am onwards for seven hours, just four miles from the Whitney summit. It was raining hard and lightning all around. I thought it unwise to attempt the last summit in those conditions. About 20 other hikers ended up at Guitar Lake, stuck as I was, so that day actually got pretty fun.

My very favourite moment happened on the final day. I woke up at 2am and summited Mount Whitney to catch the sunrise. I hiked it under a beautiful star-filled sky alongside a couple from Aspen I’d met earlier on the trail. The energy was amazing and a great way to conclude my trip.


Helen Lake

Mount Whitney summit

Final thoughts

I enjoyed going solo, on my own schedule. It wasn’t lonely since the trail sees a lot of chatty friendly hikers. When planning out the mileage, take the weight-over-time into consideration and difficulty of running with a pack. My trip took a total of 11 days, 8-12 hours ranging from 14-28 miles per day. I rarely ran. I would feel it in my knees instantly. Instead, I kept it at a fast-hiking pace. Solo means that all the necessary gear is on your back.

I learned that good sleep does heal most of the minor physical, and all of the mental struggles, so being drained at the end of each day was okay. My main advice would be to take advantage of swim spots, take a dip and wash away fatigue and trail grime. Oh, and most definitely take time to stop and take photos.


  1. nothing short of awesome doing it solo...I still get scared going in the basement at night

    1. haha thanks Randy...I was too tired to be scared

  2. LOVE THIS! WAY TO GO ERIN, you have inspired me and who knows maybe in a year I'll be soloing this one!

  3. You are incredible Erin, absolutely loved reading this post. Congratulations on your adventure and for being a motivator for so many.