It’s hard to imagine while you’re tirelessly making your way up Mather Pass, but hiking the John Muir Trail was actually the easiest part of our journey. In the year that’s followed our final ascent up Mount Whitney, we’ve worked countless hours crafting and promoting our feature film, MILE… MILE & A HALF. And prior to taking our first steps in Yosemite Valley, we had nearly six months of preparation for our journey. There’s a great Napoleon quote that is reminiscent of our prep for the JMT: “The amateurs discuss tactics; the professionals discuss logistics.” A lot goes into planning a trip like this. Not only do you have to know what you’re going to be eating weeks or months ahead of time, but you also have to figure out how to get your food and other supplies at various points along the way in the wilderness.
It is really difficult to get permits to hike the JMT, especially from Happy Isles, the traditional trailhead. Request permits as soon as they’re available for best results.
They do keep a certain percentage of the permits available for walk-ups. If you don’t have time constraints or a group larger than three, this might work for you. Just be prepared to get up early and stand in line the day before you plan on hitting the trail.
There are many different options when it comes to food on a thru-hike, but one common ingredient is “freeze dried.” Since we had a group of five, we decided early on that it made more sense to prep group dinners. It allowed for less packaging and required only one giant pot to be cleaned each night. (Plus a smaller pot to handle hot beverages and the Ramen appetizer.) Our saving grace was the large JetBoil.
Jen [Serena] spent a few weeks researching recipes and building a nightly menu spreadsheet with ingredients. Once all the ingredients were purchased in bulk, we scheduled a food prep day to pre-mix recipes into large one-gallon Ziploc bags, and distributed meals into the designated boxes for each food drop. Everyone was responsible for breakfasts, lunches & snacks, which also went into boxes for drops.
For us it involved a lot of driving. Luckily, we live in Los Angeles, which isn’t a short drive, but if you’re willing to put in a long day or two, you can take care of most of your caches over a weekend.
We started by driving up to Edison Lake on the West Side of the Sierras. It’s a pretty rough narrow road out there. We dropped off three of our five-gallon plastic drums at the Lake Edison Store, where for a fee they ferry the supplies across the lake and then mule them in to Muir Trail Ranch, which is only a couple of miles off the trail just north of Kings Canyon National Park. If you aren’t able to do this in person, you can also mail the drums to them.
From Edison Lake, we hightailed it up to Tuolumne Meadows on the East Side of Yosemite off Highway 120. The Trail meets up with the highway here two to four days from the trailhead at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley. We stashed two large bags of supplies in the bear boxes right where the highway meets the trail. There is also a small general store there, where if you don’t have the time to drop a cache, you can buy food and supplies.
The year we did the trail happened to be the snowiest year in two decades, which made not only the journey exciting, but also the preparations. We had planned on dropping off our next cache at Red’s Meadow in Devil’s Postpile National Monument. The only problem was even though it was the last weekend in June the road out there was still closed. (Of course, it opened three days after we needed to get out there.) Lucky for us, we had already planned on having friends meet us there, so it was just a matter of giving them our supplies to bring along. There is also a general store at Red’s Meadow in the monument where you can mail supplies and they’ll hold them for a fee. Or again here you can buy food, but this is the last spot along the trail where there is a reasonably stocked store.
Once you’ve left Postpile, you don’t come in contact with a road again until you have finished the JMT at Whitney Portal, so it becomes more interesting from here on out. Of course as already mentioned, you can use Muir Trail Ranch’s services. There’s also Vermillion Resort (which isn’t far from Edison Lake) where you can mail or drop off your supplies. It’s further north so you’ll get that cache a couple of days earlier. One disadvantage to Vermilion is that it’s on the west side of the lake, so you have to take a ferry to get there and stay for the night. (But we heard that you could get a beer, which makes it much more tempting.) We skipped this and just waited the extra three days to get to Muir Trail Ranch, which worked out great for us. We stayed the night there, and it was a wonderful break from the trail.
Once you’ve left the ranch, you enter into some of the most spectacular and also remote wilderness in the country. There is no easy way to resupply for the rest of the trip. Our initial plan was to hike over Kearsage Pass the weekend before and leave a cache at Charlotte Lake. Heavy snow and a really severe case of altitude sickness on the way up forced us to scrap our plans. We ended up hiring a packer to meet us on the trail. This wasn’t the cheapest of options, but it certainly beat us having to hike an extra day off the trail and back over a pass to get supplies at Onion Valley. You can also hike in from Cedar Grove on the west side of the Sierras if you have the time. High Sierra Haulers met us right on time at the junction of the Kearsage Pass Trail and the JMT to deliver our final cache.
The last big task was creating a contact list to include family and friends requesting updates on safety and our adventure, those joining us for certain stretches of the trail, and also for our “trail crew” who would be meeting us along the trail with laptops to offload our media, bring more supplies and retrieve us at the end of the trail. We found it easier to just lump everyone into one email thread, so they all had the option to contact each other for future communication.
Every person has different expectations on the trail and different camping gear that they prefer. But when going in as a group, it’s definitely advantageous to coordinate gear to prevent doubling up on items (and weight) that can be shared.
Again, it’s a lot of work, and we wouldn’t recommend putting it off until the last minute. There are several great guidebooks and some really helpful websites to help you along the way. Also, one of our favorite resources is the Yahoo JMT Group. It’s a pretty big collective of wonderful, knowledgeable and helpful people. If you have questions you can post to the message board, and you will always get answers promptly.
Check out The Muir Project for more information on the trip and for details about when you can see the amazing movie they have been working on.
OTHER GREAT LINKS WHEN PREPARING FOR JMT
- Permit: http://www.
- Devil’s Postpile: http://www.nps.gov/depo/
- John Muir Trail - http://johnmuirtrail.org/
- Yahoo Groups - http://dir.groups.yahoo.com/
group/johnmuirtrail/?v=1&t= directory&ch=web&pub=groups& sec=dir&slk=1
- In case people want to hike northbound - http://www.recreation.gov/
permits/Mt_Whitney/r/ wildernessAreaDetails.do?page= detail&contractCode=NRSO& parkId=72201