Hiking the John Muir Trail: Days 1-3

I committed to hiking over 200 miles on the John Muir Trail last January. After months of preparing gear, studying maps and training, the trip finally arrived. I'll describe some of the adventure and give you some tips on preparing your own John Muir Trail Adventure in this series of posts. I hope you enjoy reading about this adventure. Please comment below if you have any questions about hiking the John Muir Trail.

Day 1: Tuolumne Meadows to Lyle Canyon

Hiking Lyell Canyon Chris and Paul Backpacking into Lyell Canyon on Day 1

Chris and I arrived at Tuolumne Meadows by bus. (We had trouble getting permits from Yosemite Valley so we Chose to hike Tuolumne Meadows to Whitney instead. This allowed us to squeeze the hike into our allotted 2 week time frame.) We met Paul and Adam for the first time at the Tuolumne Meadows Campground. It was at this time that Adam let us know that he was not going to make the trip. He had arrived two days early to try and get acclimated but coming from Kansas, he was not able to hike at the higher elevation and chose to leave the trail before we got into the more isolated sections.

Chris, Paul and I walked to the ranger station where we waited for John. A little after noon we received a text message from John saying he couldn't make it so the three of us set out to begin our hike.

The first part of the hike from Tuolomne Meadows headed south through Lyle Canyon is relatively flat and easy to hike. The first 5 miles only gains about 300 feet of elevation. Following the Lyell Fork River, the flat dirt trail meanders up the canyon. We stopped to refill our water bottles from the river and enjoyed watching a mother deer and its baby frolic in the meadow. A short time later we spotted a buck flaunting his full set of antlers. The tall grass waved with the breeze and the wildflowers added color to the beautiful canvas.

Lyell Fork River The Lyell Fork River near Tuolumne Meadows

At about eight miles in we were approaching the inevitable switchbacks of Donahue Pass. Our stomachs were ready for their first real trail meal so we stopped and cooked a quick dinner before pushing on an additional mile to our first night's campsite. We selected a spot right at the base of Donahue pass at an elevation just below 10,000 feet in elevation.

After setting up camp we enjoyed our only campfire of the entire trip. Around the fire we chatted and continued to get to know each other then retired for an early bed time.

Day 2: Donahue Pass to Garnet Lake

Paul woke Chris and I up about 6 am. We didn't jump out of our tents right away, instead, I slowly moaned, groaned and rolled around in my sleeping bag. I knew the easy nine mile day was behind us and today would include our first climb of a mountain pass. We cooked some hot oatmeal, packed up our sleeping bags and finally hit the trail about 7:30am.

Donahue Pass Views from the top of Donahue Pass

Camping at the base of a pass is nice because you can get your climbing in with a fresh set of legs, however it also means you have to start your day with some hard work. We immediately started our climb of Donahue Pass with beautiful stream crossings and a few rocky switchbacks. After gaining about 1100 feet of elevation we had reached the top of the pass where we were rewarded with panoramic views of Lyell Canyon to the north and many lakes to the south.

Muir Trail Beautiful shot from an unnamed lake on Donahue Pass

From Donahue Pass we descended over 2000 feet in just 3.5 miles just to start climbing again to reach Island Pass. Exhaustion was beginning to set in when we arrived at Thousand Island Lake. Thousand Island Lake is a huge body of water with many islands and a mountain backdrop. The lake was gorgeous but is very popular. We had heard from people earlier in the day that this was their planned camping spot and there appeared to be some day-hikers who had accessed the area from Agnew Pass so we pushed on a little further to stay away from the crowds.

Thousand Island Lake Thousand Island Lake

The miles and elevation were beginning to get to us. My feet were beginning to become very sore so we enjoyed a few minutes of rest while refueling our water supply at Ruby Lake. 2.6 miles past Thousand Island Lake we arrived at Garnet Lake. The lake was beautiful and our sore feet helped us make an easy decision to set up camp and enjoy a beautiful evening on the banks of this crystal clear mountain lake.

Garnet Lake Garnet Lake from our campsite

With 14.0 miles on the GPS we were happy to call it a day. We were happy with our progress although we were a few miles behind the original plan.

Day 3 Garnet Lake to Crater Meadow:

From Garnet Lake we headed up over a small rocky bump then enjoyed a long downhill slope through dense forest. The easy downhill walk in the woods was exactly what I needed after a tough day of climbing the day before. By 10:30 we had covered 6.5 miles and all three of us felt good. We were averaging 2.9 miles an hour, a pace I doubted we'd keep up for long. But we pushed on. As we dropped in elevation the trail became dry and hot. By noon we were burning up.

Day 3 on the John Muir Trail

We crossed into the Devils Post Pile National Monument. The mountains were extremely beautiful and we enjoyed seeing some interesting geology within the park. But the heat at 7500 feet in elevation was more than we could stand. We were becoming very tired but had to get past Reds Meadow, where there is a resort and many day hikers. We wanted to get back to the isolated wilderness we had come to enjoy.

Devils Postpile No shade in sight near the Devil's Postpile National Monument

*Note- Reds Meadow Resort could be a great place to resupply. We didn't stop but we heard you can grab a cheeseburger and a beer at the restaurant as well as other hiking necessities. It's only about a half mile off the trail.

About a half mile past Reds Meadow there is a huge fire burn area. With dead and burnt tress everywhere, we couldn't find any shade. After a bit we came to a small grove of Aspen trees. We ditched our now burdensome backpacks and collapsed on the ground. After 10 minutes we quit complaining and started joking around again. We were almost out of water and everything was so dry.

We had already covered 14 miles, an impressive feat but we had to go further to get water and to find a nice campsite. Despite the heat and fatigue, we pushed on. By the time we found a creek with a perfect campsite, we had covered 18.8 miles. We also climbed just over 5000 feet in elevation.. It was a tough day, a very tough day.

Wildflowers Wildflowers near the trail

We climbed a few switchbacks up out of the hot valley as the sun was beginning to settle down into a beautiful peak-filled sunset. Finally we reached a creek with a nice flat campsite. I pulled out my sleeping pad and laid on it while I rubbed my feet. It was already getting dark so we cooked our dinner down by the creek, rinsed some clothes in the water and shared stories until we were ready to go to bed.

What's next? Check out:

JMT Day 4-6
John Muir Trail Day 7-9
John Muir Trail Day 10-12
John Muir Trail Day 13-14

Also check out these posts on the #JMT2013 project:

John Muir Trail Photos
#JMT Field Notes
The JMT2013 Project
John Muir Trail: History and Significance
Muir Miles: A 200 Mile Journey
Andy Hawbaker
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Andy Hawbaker
Andy is a hiker, backpacker, snowboarder and outdoor fanatic. When he isn't exploring the Rocky Mountains, burning marshmallows or scratching his dog behind the ear, he shares his experiences here on the Sierra Trading Post Blog.
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