My name is Kacie Scherler and welcome to my hiking guide on the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Mountains. I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, which instilled a love for the outdoors but also made me incredibly stir crazy.
I couldn’t wait to live in a place with a little more adventure and a little less cow manure. At 18, I moved to LA for college, where I often spent weekends hiking, camping, and surfing. The world was my oyster, and California had enough landscape diversity to feed all of the adrenaline rushes and check off many bucket list items (like skiing and surfing on the same day).
I wanted to experience everything. I even lived in a tent in the Santa Monica mountains for a semester (not recommended, mountain lions are a thing). Perhaps the biggest influence was studying abroad in Argentina, which looked less like studying and more like bussing across South America for a year.
Visiting places like Patagonia and the Amazon Rainforest stirred a craving deep in my soul to experience every piece of the world – sight, sound, smell, taste, as well as conversations with people from all walks of life.
After graduation, I went backpacking and volunteering around the world – from hitchhiking in NZ to hiking Everest Base Camp. Over 40 countries and several years later, the craving isn’t satiated – and I hope it never will be.
Inspiration to Hike the John Muir Trail
Yosemite is one of my favorite places, and I visit every chance I get. Before pursuing the John Muir Trail, I had already climbed Half Dome and Mt. Whitney, so by most accounts I had already seen the “big” stuff on the JMT.
But there was something compelling about doing the entire trail from start to finish that captivated me for years before even pursuing the trail. Plus, like any outdoor enthusiast, John Muir was an icon in his pursuit of ecological conservation and exploration.
While I didn’t initially plan on doing the trail alone, something began to sound incredibly therapeutic about a few weeks of being completely unplugged. There is nothing like being in nature by yourself, with only your thoughts for company. So I set out this summer and completed the hike.
The weather was a little unsteady. I ran into monsoon-like storms early on. On my first mountain pass, I got stuck in hail and lightning on an exposed cliff – which caused quite the fright. But for most of it, the weather was smooth sailing. Thankfully, I missed wildfires in the area by only a few days.
Completing the John Muir Trail in 17 Days
I started in Tuolumne Meadows, which is the only starting point where I was able to obtain a permit. However, I arrived at Yosemite a few days early and made up most of the 20 miles that weren’t included on my permit. I completed the trail in 17 days, which was faster than I had anticipated.
The first few days I did not see anyone going in my direction, and only passed a handful of people coming from the south. It was eerily quiet and difficult to get used to. However, the silence was also transformative.
Time stretches when we are forced to reckon with only the present moment. It feels a bit like how we were designed to live – slow and full, which is countercultural to the fast-paced, plugged-in life most of us live.
Terrain and Scenery Along the Way
The terrain changed dramatically every day. You are traveling through several different parks, each with its own unique flare. You have the cascading cliffs and waterfalls of Yosemite, and then parts of the trail through Kings Canyon that resemble Mordor from The Lord of the Rings.
The next day you find yourself in valleys with creeks full of fish. There is nothing like it! When you are going up steep elevation or over a mountain pass, you will ache for the moment you can finally start going downward.
However, when you have spent 6 miles hiking strenuously downhill, your knees and joints will look forward to going up again. You will travel up and over 6 mountain passes on the John Muir Trail, 8 if you choose to go over Kearsarge Pass and resupply at Onion Valley. Each of the passes is difficult in its own way, but each one is also incredibly unique and rewarding.
My Itinerary on the John Muir Trail
My itinerary changed significantly from my original schedule. I initially scheduled 11 to 13 miles a day, but by the second half of my trip I was doing 16 to 20 mile days. For the first week, I don’t think I camped within a mile of anyone else, at least that I could see. Hikers are encouraged to use campsites that are well worn and several feet away from water sources.
I loved camping near creeks because they provided a nice ambient noise, which was a welcome alternative to complete silence where you can hear bears and other critters wandering around. However, nothing beats waking up to a sunrise over gorgeous mountain lakes. My itinerary was as follows:
- Day 1 – Yosemite Backpackers Camp
- Day 2 – 8 miles past Tuolumne Meadows
- Day 3 – Just before Donohue Pass
- Day 4 – Garnet Lake
- Day 5 – Red’s Meadows (resupply)
- Day 6 – Lake Virginia
- Day 7 – Mono Creek
- Day 8 – Marie Lake
- Day 9 – Piute Creek
- Day 10 – Evolution Lake
- Day 11 – Deer Meadow Creek
- Day 12 – Just before Pinchot Pass
- Day 13 – Rae Lakes
- Day 14 – Onion Valley (resupply)
- Day 15 – Just before Forester Pass
- Day 16 – Guitar Lake
- Day 17 – Whitney Summit (sunrise!)
How Challenging is the John Muir Trail?
I’m a fairly experienced backpacker, and the John Muir Trail was much more challenging than I had anticipated. It’s also some pretty rough terrain at times. However, the beauty of it is that folks can take it at their own pace. The complexity lies in carrying enough food necessary to sustain you.
Thankfully there are some solid resupply options along the way, but the last 100 miles offer no resupply options between Onion Valley and Mt. Whitney (unless you want to pay $500+ for a donkey delivery, which isn’t ideal)!
So your pack becomes heavy on this leg, and it’s about the max amount of food you can fit in one bear can – which doesn’t leave you much margin for error. All to say, this trip is doable for people across a variety of fitness levels but does require training as well as some very strategic planning.
Receiving a Trail Name: “Goldilocks”
Receiving a trail name along the John Muir Trail was definitely a highlight of the trip. It was a particularly rough day where I had fallen and broken both of my hiking poles. My feet were blistered beyond recognition, and I was starting to feel discouraged. I ended up meeting two Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hikers who had been hiking the trail every few years since the 1970s.
They bestowed me with a trail name, “Goldilocks”, and it lifted my spirits at just the right time. The people you meet on the trail come from all walks of life but have one thing in common – being awesome. As one guy put it, “bad people just don’t do hikes like this.” From my experience, he was right.
Responsible Hiking and Eco Tips
I run a zero waste and am getting a PhD in environmental sustainability, so ‘leave no trace’ principles are incredibly important to me. Backpacking is a notoriously wasteful hobby, especially because of all the food and snack packaging that comes with it. I would highly recommend making as many of your meals as possible at home if you have access to a dehydrator.
You can also buy nuts in bulk to pack your own snacks. That way, you can consolidate meals/snacks into one ziploc bag, or a Stasher bag, versus having each item packaged individually. Be sure to carry out everything.
Don’t be that guy who buries his toilet paper – because of its buoyancy, it quickly floats back to the surface. I highly suggest getting something like a Kula cloth and/or a bidet to help mitigate bathroom waste.
Need to Know Before you Go
Check permit availability often. If you aren’t able to get a permit when they first become available, many people drop their permits everyday. The Yosemite Wilderness reservations page updates their site daily with these openings. Be persistent if you keep getting denied. An alternative is to hike the trail from south to north, which is said to be easier to obtain a permit.
Send your resupply boxes early. The pandemic is affecting postal services, and I saw folks whose boxes had not arrived at the station. Thankfully, most resupply stations have an assortment of donated boxes full of food, but I wouldn’t bank on it for providing days worth of food on the trail.
Keep an open mind when you take on this hike. Plan what you can, but go in with little expectations. The best things in life never come easy, and doing a trail like the JMT is one of those things. Add the word “goodhard” to your vocabulary too. Good and hard things often go hand in hand!
If you are going alone, don’t be nervous and let yourself feel all of the feelings. There will be lonely times, but they will subside as you get more in tune with nature – and also as you meet amazing people on the trail.
Be sure to soak up the stars. After a long day, it’s tempting to crawl into your tent and knock out before the sun even sets, but make sure to appreciate the stars. The night skies on the JMT are unparalleled.
Also, I highly recommend hiking Mt. Whitney for sunrise. I left camp at Guitar Lake at 1:30am to make it to the summit by 5:30am. The sunrise is jaw dropping and worth a hike up in a mountain in the dead of night (just make sure your headlamp has sufficient batteries and wear lots of layers).