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John Muir Trail follows John Muir's footsteps

Inga’s Gear List

Backpack (50 L capacity)

Sleeping bag, 3 season

Sleeping pad

Tent, 3 season

Trekking poles

Trowel

Synthetic quick-dry short sleeve shirt

Synthetic quick-dry long sleeve shirt

Synthetic quick-dry hiking pants

Synthetic quick-dry hiking shorts

Ultralight down jacket

Raincoat

Rain pants

Thin liner gloves

Socks

Underwear

Fleece beanie

Sun hat

Bandana

Camp towel

Hiking boots

Camp shoes

Camp stove

Mug

Spoons

Bowls

Multitool, knife

Bear canister

Hydration bladder

Water bottle

SteriPen water purifier

First aid kit

Compass

Map

GPS app on phone

Solar charger & battery

Headlamp

Base weight (without consumables), 18 pounds

Maximum loaded weight with 10 days of food, 35 pounds


The Sierra’s granite peaks soar high above the thick pine forests that tower above lush meadows. Multi-hued wildflowers in a riot of color find purchase in every nook and cranny in early summer. Azure lakes dot the succession of wide basins stretching south. Dawn in the high Sierra is an especially magical time as the first rays of golden light dance across rock faces tinted with brilliant yellow, rust orange and deep russet.

You can get a glimpse of all this on a day hike, but it doesn’t have to be so fleeting. The John Muir Trail offers the chance to spend weeks opening up to the wonders of the wilderness. With a little planning, just about anyone can hike it if they are very fit and motivated, even a few hardy souls in their 70s and 80s.

Fueled in part by books and films such as “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods,” more and more people are looking to the backcountry to get away from it all. Their reasons are varied. Some are looking for solitude while others seek dramatic scenery. Still others are running away from something or seeking to understand themselves better. Many describe the peace they find in the simplicity of trail life, stripping away the conventions of society and the burden of being constantly connected.

I was introduced to backpacking at 45, with weekend trips around Tahoe leading to week-long trips. A chance visit with a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker on one of those treks piqued my interest in long trails. The thought of spending six months on the trail repelled and fascinated me at the same time, but when I learned that the John Muir Trail could be completed in mere weeks, I thought maybe, just maybe, I could do it.

The John Muir Trail traces a 210.4-mile path along the jagged spine of the Sierra, one of the premier long-distance hiking trails in the U.S. Lacing along the crest of the High Sierra, the trail begins among throngs of excitable tourists at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley. It ends with a spectacular flourish at the top of Mt. Whitney, at 14,505 feet the highest peak in the contiguous U.S.

Named after John Muir, the intrepid rambler, prolific nature writer and founder of the Sierra Club, the trail was actually the brainchild of Theodore Solomons. As a teenager who herded his uncle’s sheep amid the towering granite spires, Solomons wondered whether a trail could be constructed through the rugged terrain. That was 1884, and 50 years later his vision became a reality.

The trail meanders through an impressive patchwork of jurisdictions that include national parks, national forests and wilderness areas, but thankfully only one entrance permit is required. Ten high passes ranging from 9,700 to more than 13,000 feet must be surmounted, and with most of the trail higher than 8,000 feet, acclimatizing to altitude is an important consideration.

After months of training hikes, navigating the archaic permitting process, packing and mailing resupply boxes to remote backcountry camps and investing in lighter gear, Steve and I stepped onto the trail with lingering doubts. Was this a crazy idea? I kept going, one foot in front of the other for 23 days.

We went through smoky skies from raging fires, steady rain, lightning that nipped at our heels and endured the fatiguing effects of high altitude. We climbed ever higher, each hard-earned gain immediately followed by a huge descent over the other side as we passed through vast, boulder-strewn bowls, each separated by another high pass. The dramatic scenery unfolded as we moved south, coniferous forests giving way to lofty spires of granite reaching for the heavens.

Inga’s Gear List

Backpack (50 L capacity)

Sleeping bag, 3 season

Sleeping pad

Tent, 3 season

Trekking poles

Trowel

Synthetic quick-dry short sleeve shirt

Synthetic quick-dry long sleeve shirt

Synthetic quick-dry hiking pants

Synthetic quick-dry hiking shorts

Ultralight down jacket

Raincoat

Rain pants

Thin liner gloves

Socks

Underwear

Fleece beanie

Sun hat

Bandana

Camp towel

Hiking boots

Camp shoes

Camp stove

Mug

Spoons

Bowls

Multitool, knife

Bear canister

Hydration bladder

Water bottle

SteriPen water purifier

First aid kit

Compass

Map

GPS app on phone

Solar charger & battery

Headlamp

Base weight (without consumables), 18 pounds

Maximum loaded weight with 10 days of food, 35 pounds

I expected to find such stunning scenery but was surprised months later to find that what I remembered most were the people I met. The ties that bind a trail community together in any given year are tenuous at best, held together by brief encounters, a few exchanged words and longer visits on the tops of passes or at resupply points. And yet, I remember every conversation vividly. Every photograph brings me right back to that moment on the trail.

The doctors still laugh with us at the memory of Steve falling into a mud pot at Blaney Hot Springs, where we soaked our sore muscles for hours at the half-way point. Sipping whiskey one afternoon with the Texans while delving into water rights issues in drought-stricken states showed us how much we had in common. The teens, the pair of 16-year-old friends doing the trail by themselves was a lesson in maturity, self-sufficiency and poise that many adults could learn from. Grandma, an 81-year-old Japanese-American woman hiking the entire trail solo gave new meaning to retirement possibilities. And we’ll never forget 2-year-old Sage, singing to her parents from her baby carrier as they climbed Glen Pass.

I lived through the lightning scare and many other obstacles, gaining confidence and strength with every step. What I learned on the trail is that hiking long distances takes mental grit and perseverance more than any physical skill. The ability to focus on small sections at a time and not get overwhelmed with the enormity of the undertaking was key. As long as there was forward progress, no matter how slow it was on the hard days, the miles melted away. Breathtaking scenery around every hard-earned corner was one reward; making lasting friendships was another. But the best feeling of all was the sense of accomplishment.

Planning

We had a lot to learn about planning for a long-distance hike, especially the permitting process, logistics and meal planning. Here’s a summary of what we learned. For more than a year, I followed the “John Muir Trail” Facebook group to pick up tips, but started planning in earnest about six months before we set foot on the trail.

Permit

The popular Yosemite National Park permits can be challenging to obtain. Most hikers walk north-to-south as the elevation rises gradually. The earliest a permit can be requested is 168 days prior to the start date Park and 6 months for Inyo National Forest. Permit applications can be obtained from the Yosemite National Park website, tinyurl.com/zp78wzr, and are faxed in, an archaic system that persists beyond reason. The fee is $5.

You can skip Yosemite or travel south-to-north by obtaining an online permit from Inyo National Forest through Recreation.gov for $5 per person plus a $6 transaction fee. The best time to hike the trail is June through September after the snow has melted.

Resupply

Since most people can’t carry enough food for a multiweek trip due to the weight, mail drops to replenish food supplies are arranged. Resupply options are limited to four locations, but, unfortunately, they are not spaced equally along the trail.

Tuolumne Meadows is the first, a two-day walk. Red’s Meadow Resort, near Mammoth Lakes, is roughly a quarter of the way from the northern end. At the approximate halfway point are Vermilion Valley Resort and Muir Trail Ranch, two backcountry stations. In the rugged second half of the trail, there are no nearby ranches, resorts or towns.

Carrying a heavy load, hiking out to resupply or contracting with a backcountry packer are the only options. We chose to mail our supplies to Red’s Meadow and Muir Trail Ranch. At Muir Trail Ranch we loaded enough food for 10 days into packs that weighed 35 pounds (mine) and 40 pounds (Steve’s).

Altitude acclimatization

The best way to adjust to the altitude is to spend two or three days at an intermediate altitude of around 8,000 feet, although it’s not a guarantee that altitude sickness will not develop. Moderate, but not strenuous, activity is recommended during the first couple of days of acclimatization, and even the first few days on the trail.

Staying well hydrated also is important. Mileage planning should take these factors into account when plotting how many days will be required to complete the trail.

Food

Food preparation can take on a life of its own. Spreadsheets often sprout to calculate calorie needs and track purchases to assure that enough food is available to provide energy. Decisions have to be made: go with commercially prepared freeze-dried meals or dehydrate your own.

We decided to do a blend of commercial foods and home-dehydrated foods for dinners. Breakfasts were freeze-dried fruit and instant oatmeal with added nuts, flax and chia seeds. Lunches were dried mixes from Oliver’s Market that included black bean mix, tabbouleh and a corn soup mix. Each was rehydrated with water, then wrapped in a tortilla with string cheese and salami.

We aimed for about 2,500 calories and 60 grams of protein per day. Our best homemade dinner was Moroccan lamb and orzo that I dehydrated, while our favorite Mountain House dinner was lasagna that I supplemented with extra freeze-dried sausage and cheese. Our least favorite lunch was an ill-conceived blend of corn soup mixed with instant mashed potatoes.

Backpacking gear

Standard backpacking gear is all that is required, but we took advantage of the ultralight movement to learn as much as we could about lightening our loads. We didn’t achieve ultralight status, which is a base weight (without consumables) of less than 10 pounds, but we were firmly in the light category. My base weight was about 18 pounds, weighing 25-35 pounds fully loaded. Having a light pack makes a big difference in endurance and stamina, especially for those of us in middle age and beyond.

Training

The best way to train for a hike is to hike. I did most of my training on the steep trails of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, where I volunteer. A large daypack weighed down with sacks of rice benefited my training. Steve and I squeezed in two shake-down backpacking trips of two nights each in Tahoe that helped us refine our equipment.

Inga Aksamit is the Kenwood-based author of “Highs and Lows on the John Muir Trail” (Pacific Adventures Press, $12.99). She is currently working on a backcountry meal planning book, “The Hungry Spork,” to be published in early 2017. She teaches backpacking classes and guides overnight trips at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. More information about current trips, publications and backpacking resources can be found at IngasAdventures.com/backpacking-class.