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By Frances Freyberg
Special to The Almanac
Yosemite National Park is a hiker's paradise, with countless trails crisscrossing the stunning granite landscape from the top of Mt. Lyell to the foothills near El Portal. But while Yosemite's day hikes are world-class, the truly stunning vistas and solitude of California's high country wilderness await those who strap on a backpack and set out on a multi-day expedition.
What lies beyond the borders of California's most visited national park? Stretching along the High Sierra, from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney, the 212-mile John Muir Trail (JMT) is one of the country's most famous long-distance hikes. It passes through beautiful and diverse scenery: sun-dappled lodgepole pine and aspen forests, stark granite peaks, secluded alpine lakes, and peaceful meadows with meandering streams.
The grandeur of the landscape is matched only by the challenge of traversing it. Backpackers ascend and descend more than 10 passes through the Sierra Nevada range, hiking at altitudes of 9,000 to 12,000 feet for most of the trip. The high point of the trail, literally and metaphorically, is 14,497-foot Mt. Whitney — the highest peak in the continental United States.
Ups and downs on the trail
I hiked a slightly shortened version of the JMT with my friends Ashley Holt (who grew up in Atherton) and Erin Conlisk, traveling from north to south in the late summer of 2008. We started just east of Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite at the Mono/Parker Pass trailhead and joined the JMT (which actually starts in Yosemite Valley) at Garnet Lake on the second day of our 16-day journey. We calculated our total distance at just on 200 miles.
The JMT is certainly not for the faint of heart or weak of sole. Blisters are just the beginning of a hiker's woes on the trail. Sore muscles, bruised hips, bloody noses and altitude headaches are part of the daily JMT experience. Fitfully sleeping on a 1-inch pad, eating powdered soups and power bars every meal, washing yourself and your few dirty clothes in cold mountain streams, and digging a hole for your toilet each morning probably won't appeal to the 5-star hotel crowd. And that's ignoring the daily 12.5-mile hike, carrying a 40-50 pound pack.
On Day One, the novelty of the experience made it fun, and, of course, I still had clean clothes. On Day Two, I wondered why we hadn't chosen a nice beach holiday instead. On Day Three, having lost the trail several times and exposed my embarrassingly inadequate training, I was just about ready to call it quits.
But by Day Four, I finally started to understand why people hike the JMT over and over again. It's not until you get far enough from paved access roads that you really get to experience the vast beauty and solitude of the High Sierra. Once we passed Devil's Postpile National Monument (the last easy car access to the northern part of the trail), we usually met only 10 to 20 hikers each day. Most of the time, it felt as if we had the entire mountain range to ourselves.
Sleeping on a bed of granite admittedly isn't comfortable, but it's the thick blanket of stars overhead that makes it worthwhile. Few experiences compare to watching the sun rise over a glassy alpine lake, the surrounding mountains touched by the morning light, and the air so still that you can hear the fish jumping.
More than just a pretty view
While the scenery alone is easily worth the trip, it's the friendships, the self-confidence and the funny stories that remain long after the hike is over. Hikers will cheer one another up grueling mountain climbs, swap route and campsite recommendations, and even share their equipment and coveted snacks when needed. On the trail, acquaintances quickly become friends, and friends become family.
Finally, there's something about pushing your body and mind to the limit — relying only on your strength and your friends to see you over the next mountain pass — that's uniquely humbling and confidence-building at the same time.
For most people, hiking the JMT is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But whether you hike it once or every summer, in full or in part, take the time to explore the Sierra on foot. It's the best way to experience California's beautiful high country wilderness.
John Muir Trail by the numbers
● 212 miles (200 for our modified route)
● 16 days on the trail
● 10 mountain passes
● 3 good friends
● Countless memories
● "John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America's most famous trail" by Elizabeth Wenk and Kathy Morey
● Go to this site for a day-by-day account of our hike, with photos.
About the author: Frances Freyberg is a Menlo Park resident and photographer specializing in vibrant color portraits of people, wildlife, nature and architecture from her travels to more than 50 countries. Her photographs can be found in the Portola Art Gallery at the historic Allied Arts Guild in Menlo Park, in private collections, and online at francesfreyberg.com.