30 days backpacking the John Muir Trail: A photo journal of the California wilderness
Wander here a whole summer, if you can. Thousands of God’s wild blessings will search you and soak you as if you were a sponge, and the big days will go by uncounted. If you are business-tangled, and so burdened by duty that only weeks can be got out of the heavy-laden year … give a month at least to this precious reserve. The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal.
Thank you for the advice Mr. Muir, that’s exactly what we did. We completed a month in the wilderness on the John Muir Trail! Will and myself, along with our two best friends and my dad who joined us later, all completed this journey together and for that I feel like we are huge winners!
This experience has permanently cemented my belief that spending time in the wilderness is essential to the human experience on this planet. It is transformative, humbling, expanding, balancing, restorative, and I feel wholeheartedly that everyone should make a point to truly get out there!
Your perspective on your place and connection to the universe will change in the best way. Respect and awareness for the delicate and perfect balance of the natural world will grow beyond what you thought possible. You will experience truths that cannot be found in the man-made world with the usual distractions of modern life. You might also find a sense of camaraderie and community from like-minded beings and perhaps realize the necessity of sharing, communicating, and looking out for each other and the planet as we are all one big entangled being.
At least this is what happened for me on this trail…
Our journey began in July on the seventh new moon of the year, which also happened to fall on first day of the new year in the 13 moon calendar (based on the Mayan calendar – look it up). An auspicious sign? I think so. Starting on a new moon and following its cycle along our journey was perfect.
After being rejected for a permit many, many times we finally got one after changing our starting location to Rafferty creek/Vogelsang. It was a small detour but a gorgeous way to connect with the JMT, and we had already hiked the first part of the JMT in years past.
Our first day hiking through Vogelsang to connect with the JMT was wonderful and we ended it camped near Evelyn lake admiring the sunset and the moonless sky full of stars.
The Ansel Adams Wilderness, Thousand Island lake, and Banner Peak were some of the most beautiful sections of the entire trail in my opinion. Yes it was crowded with people, but if you just keep walking further around the lake than everyone else you can still find some secluded campsites. The rain made everything more ethereal, the wildflowers were unreal, and the mountain reflections on the lake at dawn were something that stays with you forever. No wonder Ansel Adams photographed this area so much. We can’t wait to explore this wilderness area more in the future.
We decided to detour a little to check out Devil’s Postpile National Monument and Rainbow falls since were were practically hiking right by them. The hexagon formations were pretty amazing to see. Nature is geometric poetry.
The day we started our hike was also the day a huge fire in Yosemite erupted. We could see it in the distance erupting out of nowhere in what looked like a pinkish mushroom cloud of smoke. As the days progressed the smoke also flowed our way, traveling for hundreds of miles and filling valleys and lake basins in minutes with a strong gust of wind.
This smoke ended up being a real challenge for us for the first week or more, giving us bad headaches, blocking our views, and bumming us out. We resorted to hiking with bandanas on our mouths to filter the smoke in the air. So much for that clean mountain air we were looking forward to. At least it made for some interesting sunsets.
We found secret hot springs to soak in after talking with an old mountain man we met and camped next to. Sorry but I promised not to tell anyone where they are! Talking to locals and other hikers is always a great idea though, you never know what you might learn.
We were so thankful for the rains that came and finally cleared up the smoke in the air…until the rains became an almost greater challenge. We encountered almost two weeks of daily afternoon monsoons, and some very violent hail, thunder and lightning storms.
Everyone was a bit caught off guard by the violent and persistent storms which were unusual we were told by trail veterans (it was an El Niño year) and it most likely messed with many hikers plans as trail rumors spread about snow on Mt. Whitney, temporary closures and freezing cold temps turning people away.
We took a rest day and detour at the Lake of the Lone Indian for a day of solitude, because we liked the way it sounded on the map. That is the benefit of taking thirty days to hike the trail. There is room for spontaneity and rest! We were the only human beings at the lake the entire time. Sometimes going just a mile off the trail is so rewarding as most people have short schedules and never stray from the path.
Lunch is just better in the wilderness.
At this point it was the longest amount of time we had ever spent in the Wilderness. We awoke with the sun, hiked our miles at dawn, rested in the afternoon heat or rain, and went to sleep at dusk. We were re-connecting with the rhythms of the wild planet, remembering the sacred cycles, soaking in the moon’s energy, foraging for wild plants, and living simply. We were not burdened with material possessions other than what we carried and used daily. There is magic everywhere once we slow down and really see, and feel it.
We were re-wilding ourselves. A life-long pursuit for us…
Along the way we would forage for wild dandelion greens and strawberries in the shady areas under the trees. These were the most rewarding meals of all. In the process I discovered a new passion for learning about wild edibles. This trail salad was made from foraged greens, sprouts that I brought with us and grew throughout the hike, along with smoked salmon and a little vinegar and oil. It was insanely good. Who says you can’t have salad while backpacking?
We went for a cold swim in Lake Marie during a storm and then walked around the entire lake. The storm was circling around us about to erupt into a downpour, which it eventually did. Now that is what it feels like to be alive!
Although most nights we were in bed long before the stars came out, we made ourselves stay up on the night of the full moon rise. It was a supermoon and we watched as the glow over Mt. Spencer turned into a light was that so bright it lit up all the mountains surrounding us and reflected in Evolution lake. We almost needed our sunglasses.
We stayed out and basked in the moonlight until our toes were frozen down to the bones. We wanted to sleep out there under the stars but the storms had been so unpredictable and it was very cold. A violent thunder and lightning storm woke us at around four in the morning and rained all morning while we slept in.
We decided to take a full rest day at Evolution lake, our favorite place on the trail so far. We slept in and made a big brunch. Will washed our clothes in our emptied out bear canister. I climbed up high and did a watercolor painting of the beautiful landscape. Then we decided to go on a day hike to explore Sapphire Lake and bag a peak. So much for resting, but we didn’t have our backpacks on so it felt like a leisurely stroll. Luckily there was no rain all day, only some threatening but beautiful clouds.
We found this huge piece of quartz perched just perfectly on top of a granite boulder, and soaked up some of its energy. As we climbed higher the views down below became more grand. We reached the summit of Mt. Spencer, and on the other side of the Mountain we discovered a little un-named tarn with the deepest and most captivating blue color we had ever seen. It looked like it had never been touched by man.
Well rested and rejuvenated from our wonderful day hike and rest day, we continued on higher towards Muir pass. The landscape was sparse and harsh, and the storms were brewing above our heads. On the way we walked past Wanda and Helen lakes named after John Muir’s daughters.
The Muir hut was a beautiful structure and it felt like we had really reached a milestone by arriving there. We sat inside for a while and pondered the history of the trail and what it meant to walk the entire thing. John Muir is truly one of my heroes and in my opinion one of the most important human beings ever to walk the face of the earth. I have so much gratitude for all that he did in his life. For us to have protected wilderness areas like this where we can spend extended time to have these transformational experiences is such a priceless gift. Can you imagine if they had continued to graze and mine these areas and built roads and hotels through them all? I shudder at the thought. Thanks again John Muir!
The further we went on the trail the more rugged the terrain became. These jagged and colorful crags we came upon on the other side of Muir Pass captivated us.
In the distance we could see dark, ominous storm clouds building so we decided to set up camp a little earlier than normal. The thunderstorm of doom was heading our way. We could hear thunder and see flashes of lightning in the distance. It was moving fast and coming towards us at an incredible speed. We crawled in our tent as the rain started. Louder and louder the thunder sounded until it was like a freight train right on top of our tent, booming and flashing lightning with no time in between the flashes and the booms, one after the other like nothing we had ever heard.
The hail came next and it was pummeling our tent so loudly and forcefully, I thought for sure this would be the end of our ultralight single walled tent. All we could do was sit and wait for it to pass. We tried to play cards but we could not focus on anything else. It was thrilling and frightening. The storm finally passed over us and went higher up the mountain and our tent survived with no holes. Phew! We heard campers all around hollering “…is everyone ok?” and laughing in disbelief. It looked like it had snowed in the middle of summer! The hail was the size of chickpeas!
The unpredictable weather just reinforces the fact that you prepare for anything during extended trips in the wilderness. Even being fairly experienced backpackers we felt ill-equipped for such downpours and wished we had more rain gear at times. We encountered a few people who had their tents flooded and all of their sleeping gear soaked from drainage and hail melt. We got caught on some switchbacks with no shelter during another violent thunder and hail storm with pea sized hail pummeling us. Ouch!
Thunderstorms and weather in the mountains is different, everything is more extreme and rugged. This was a humbling experience for sure but looking back on it I am grateful for all of it. There was a lot of time spent in the tent playing cribbage and reading books during these days, when the thunder and lightning wasn’t making me cower like a little puppy in fear. Exciting stuff!
We hiked through Le Conte canyon, past deer meadow and up the Golden staircase in a very long and grueling day. When we got to the top near lower Palisade lake we took off our packs and just collapsed on the ground with our limbs stretched out letting the granite rock cool our hot, sweaty backs. This was a doozy, but the Golden staircase really was beautiful. We found a perfectly secluded spot to camp near Lower Palisade Lake overlooking the valley below. We watched the last of the storm clouds dance across the sky as we drank hot tea and soaked in all that we had accomplished so far. It was a perfect evening.
The rain and storms finally passed and it was smooth sailing from then on out with cloudless skies and bright, sunny days. We were relieved and could relax a little more without anymore thunder storms of doom to worry about. Now we just had to make sure we didn’t sweat out all of our salts and get dehydrated in the hot sun, which almost happened one day!
After completing Mather pass we were feeling strong and wonderful in the sunny days. We decided to take another little detour off the trail to Bench lake so we could have some solitude, because honestly there were a lot of people hiking the trail this year! We were able to have the entire two lakes to ourselves. We skinny-dipped, washed, and watched the sun set and rise over the mirror-like lake surface. It was very clear that California’s massive drought was having an effect around here. The water level was incredibly low and the earth around the lakes felt parched.
After Pinchot pass we finally got below the fire line and outside of the drought induced fire ban and had one of the few luxurious campfires of our trip.
We were heading to Rae lakes next which was one of the most beautiful places on the trail. We found a shady spot to kick back and read our books and rested our tired bodies. I did another watercolor painting of the Painted Lady mountain reflecting off of Rae lake. Will went exploring off trail to the secluded Dragon Lake because he liked the sound of it on the map. He met a large group of skinny dippers that were very surprised to see him! Ha!
For our last food drop we hiked off of the trail eight miles each way, to the beautiful Onion Valley which was a major detour but it was all worth it because we were meeting up with my amazing 63-year-old Dad who joined us for the final week of our trip. He was the hiking hero of the trail for me. Coming off of a month-long journey traveling in London, his grandson’s one year old birthday party, jet lagged and road weary, he drove from Arizona into the mountains to meet us and we headed back out into the wild.
He kept up with us even though we were so much more acclimated and conditioned by this point. It is amazing what can be accomplished if you really put your mind to something. The energy of the Sierra’s fills up your tank like fuel if you open up to it and let it energize you.
The group’s first glimpse of Mt. Whitney was a moment to remember. We had been through so much, covered so many miles, and here we were on the final stretch. We were happy, excited, sad for it to almost be over, but tired and dreaming of food and our comfy beds at the same time. A bittersweet moment.
We camped at Crabtree Meadow instead of rushing to Guitar Lake like most people do, to make our last few nights really stretch, and it was the best decision. We were all alone in this magical meadow with mama and baby deer, birds and marmots frolicking in the fields all around us. In the morning the sun rose over the sparkling, frosty meadow while we drank our coffee and marveled at this second to last night of magic.
A shout out to the most inspiring hiker on the trail aside from my Dad. We met this amazing woman many times as our paths kept crossing along the trail. As we got to talking we learned that she is a seventy-year-old solo hiker carrying almost a third her body weight and she was completing the trail around the same day as us with a shorter schedule than we had! Her sense of adventure and love of mountains and life was truly inspirational. She is a kindred spirit and I found my new role model in her. I hope to repeat this JMT trip in forty years when I am in my seventies and follow in her footsteps.
Guitar lake is where we camped before our ascent to Mt. Whitney. It was really not as bad as some people led us to believe. Yes it was crowded, but it was filled with other excited mountain lovers so it was really not a big deal. No one sleeps much the night before climbing Mt. Whitney anyway. There was a fair amount of trash littered around though, and I know everyone can do better!
Can you see the guitar shape?
We woke up around three in the morning, feeling like kids the night before going to Disneyland. This was it, our final day of the journey. We hiked the first few hours with our headlamps in the dark and then the light slowly started illuminating the sky, then the lakes and mountains. The beautiful Range of Light was beaming at us in all it’s glory and I truly understood what John Muir meant when he nicknamed this amazing place.
The light was like nothing else we had ever seen. Guitar lake turned an incredible bright orange for a few fleeting minutes as the sun rose. The colors in the sky reflected off of the shiny granite and it felt like the entire place was glowing, and buzzing with a magical energy. We were buzzing as well, and going off of pure adrenaline while our entire bodies felt like frozen popsicles as we climbed higher than we had ever been before in our lives. The wind hitting us at the top felt like a razor slicing through us, and with all of our layers on it was still absolutely frigid. A ranger told us that the day before there was no wind at all and you could light a match at the top. You never know what you are going to get!
Hiking the JMT was the most physically challenging, inspiring, and humbling thing I have ever done. It was very difficult and many people quit along the way. I lost so much weight I was astonished to see myself in the mirror when we got home. It is hard on the body but so good for the soul.
If this experience could be summed up in a few words it would be growth without limits. I didn’t realize that I was able to hike sixteen miles in a day while carrying over thirty pounds on my back, but now I know I can. What else can I accomplish? Anything I put my mind to! It took some deep determination to keep going forward while dealing with little sleep, hunger, aches and pains, bad weather, extreme cold and heat, and sometimes hiking many more miles per day than planned. I learned that the only limits I have are self-imposed and did my best to do away with them.
Spending thirty days in the wilderness is a gift and I am so grateful for the opportunity to experience the wonder and beauty of the planet on such intimate terms, and with people who I love. We all left this journey stronger than ever and the range of light left a permanent light inside us. We will all be connected to this place forever more. As John Muir said, “Going to the mountains is going home,” and it really does feel like another home for me. If anyone is compelled to experience the JMT I would not hesitate to go for it. Thank you John Muir and Mother Earth!
If you would like to see more of our photos from this trip check out our album on flickr.