John Muir Trail: The History and Significance

The John Muir Trail is a long distance backpacking trail located in the Sierra Nevada mountains in central California. The trail offers an amazing get-away from the crowds in the secluded and well preserved area of the High Sierra. In this article you'll learn about the John Muir Trail's history and significance.

Hiking the John Muir Trail Photo by Mat Honan

The John Muir Trail Details

The trail was named after naturalist John Muir and runs through three national parks; Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia. In addition to the national parks, the trail passes through the John Muir Wilderness, the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Devils Postpile National Monument and passes by Half Dome.

The trail is officially 210 miles long with the north end starting as Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park and the south terminus at the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. Over 160 miles of the John Muir Trail (JMT) follow the same route as the longer Pacific Crest Trail. The trail rarely drops below 8,000 feet in elevation and climbs over 46,000 feet of elevation as it travels over seven mountain passes that are all over 11,000 feet in elevation.

Due to heavy mountain snowfall, the thru-hiking season runs from July to September. Conditions vary by year but the best conditions will exist after July but before the snow starts to fall again in late September. You can hike the trail in either direction but most people hike north to south so they can become acclimated to the elevation and avoid carrying a full pack up Mount Whitney.

A trail permit is required to hike on the trail. You can acquire your permit at the national park you plan to begin your hike in. The permit will be valid throughout your hike. Bear-proof food canisters are required on the John Muir Trail to protect backpackers from bears. There are several resupply points along the trail to aid thru-hikers. For more information check out this FAQ page from the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

John Muir Trail Photo by Rick McCharles

History of the John Muir Trail

Theodore Solomons had dreamed of a High Sierra Hiking Trail dating back to 1884. When the Sierra Club was formed in 1892, Solomons began advocating for the trail he had dreamed of. John Muir, the first president of the Sierra Club liked the idea of a long distance hiking trail through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In 1914, the Sierra Club and the State of California agreed to work together on the construction of a trail.

The California State Legislature made five separate appropriations of $10,000 each between 1915 and 1929. The final section of trail was completed in 1938. John Muir died in 1914, one year before the trail work was started so the trail was named in his honor.

Who was John Muir?

John Muir was a famous writer and naturalist. He published 12 books and over 300 articles. He dedicated much of his life to the preservation of the American West especially the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Muir was a co-founder and first president of the Sierra Club. He petitioned the U.S. Congress to pass the National Park Bill in 1890, which created Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. John Muir famously camped with President Theodore Roosevelt in Yosemite Valley in 1903, which many credit to Roosevelt's efforts to protect Yosemite National Park.

As a writer and influential voice for western forests, John Muir left a legacy and many protected areas for future generations to enjoy. Construction of the John Muir Trail began in 1915, one year after Muir's death. The trail was a major project for the Sierra Club and with Muir's long-term efforts to preserve this area, it was only fitting the trail be named in his honor.

Sierra Trading Posts Muir Miles Project

Two members of the Sierra Trading Post social media staff hiked the John Muir Trail along with other bloggers. Check out some of the posts from that trip:

Hiking the John Muir Trail: Days 1-3
John Muir Trail Photos
JMT Field Notes
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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