Tracing the footsteps of a legend on the John Muir Trail
“I can’t go on any longer,” I said to my husband, Michael. “I have to sit down.”
It was our third day on the John Muir Trail, and although we were only on our sixth mile of the morning, I felt like we had already done 20. On the trail, distance is relative—something my father, who had hiked this same northern portion from Mammoth to Yosemite just a few years before, had warned me about.
“Miles up there are different,” he had said. “You have a heavy pack on your back, you’re at least 8,000 feet in elevation, and constantly going up and down mountains.” It was my dad who gave me the idea of hiking the trail in the first place, when he called to say he was home safe after spending a week in the wild. “You should hike it too,” he told me, casually noting that I did graduate from UC San Diego’s John Muir College—named after the legendary conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club.
Back then it seemed crazy to me that anyone would spend days in the wild with nothing but a backpack. But my outlook changed during a vacation to Yosemite last summer, as my husband and I watched hikers finish their treks with an unparalleled air of accomplishment. I was struck by the purity of hiking the trail, going out there with no car, no cell phone, no to-do list, just you and the trees and your two legs to take you through. I knew I wanted to feel that same sense of adventure, to test myself like they did, along with my dad and—as he pointed out—my college namesake.
I first learned about John Muir around age seven on one of many family trips to Yosemite, the site Muir worked to protect for a considerable amount of his life. When I eventually transferred to UC San Diego and enrolled in John Muir College, I felt at home. The dorms and buildings were named after landmarks of the Sierra Nevada, which are steeped in childhood memories for me. And I found the college’s educational philosophy of “celebrating the independent spirit” best suited me, as it seemed the most flexible in allowing me—a history major—to explore other disciplines of my own choosing, something I think John Muir’s spirit would have appreciated as well.
The John Muir Trail is 211 miles long and runs from California’s Mt. Whitney to the Yosemite Valley, mostly in conjunction with the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT. Construction on the trail, which winds through the Sierra Nevada and never goes below 8,000 ft., began in 1915—a year after Muir’s death. He famously wrote how he loved this section of California and as the “father” of our national parks system, he fought hard throughout his life to preserve it. His writings ultimately convinced the U.S. government to protect such wildlands like Yosemite, Sequoia, the Grand Canyon and Mt. Rainier.
Ten years after graduating from UC San Diego, I set out to hike the northern part of the trail of my college’s namesake. My husband and I would be through-hiking from Mammoth to Yosemite, more than 50 miles, and spending an estimated six nights in the wild. Though I had zero through-hiking experience before stepping foot on the trail, I had the utmost of inspiration.
Day 1: 14 miles
Duck Pass (10,797 ft.) to Deer Creek (9,115 ft.)
Just hours into our start at Duck Pass, my pack felt heavier than I ever could have imagined. With just 20 lbs. on my back I carried half as much as my husband, yet with each step I felt like I was being crushed. I resolved to repack my load as we huffed our way up the switchbacks to the top of the pass, still covered in snow in late July, but yielding a view of Duck Lake that seemed endless, shimmering with pristine blue water.
It was fitting, I thought, that this section of wilderness is named after Muir, who had an insatiable appetite for natural beauty. Though he grew up loving the outdoors, his passion for nature grew even stronger after he was nearly blinded in his right eye in a factory accident at age 29. He worried his eye would never again look upon “a single flower, nor more lovely beauty.” Muir had a full recovery of his sight, and soon after, he abandoned all worldly pursuits and went on a walking tour through the American South, vowing to see as much natural beauty as he could while on this earth.
Later that day, my husband and I were walking on the crest of Mammoth Mountain with lodge-pole trees on our right hiding deer and a few chipmunks under their cover. Now 14 miles in, we succumbed to our shaky legs and set up camp by a small creek. My first night’s sleep in the wild proved to be challenging as I still had an irrational fear of bears, something that each day’s exhaustion would soon overcome.
Day 2: 11 miles
Reds Meadows (7,480 ft.) to Trinity Lakes (9,340 ft.)
Today we agreed to try to make it to Gladys Lake by evening, which meant we would have to do 10 miles on our second day with a stop at Red Meadows for lunch, where a café would be our only luxury on the trail. Along with a hot meal, I bought a proper pair of hiking socks at the general store—the best $12 I ever spent. My blisters were thanking me.
Before rejoining the trail, we opted to take a minor detour to see the Devil’s Post Pile National Monument. A geological wonder, these rows of what appear to be perfectly crafted linear pillars were created about 100,000 years ago when a cooling lava flow cracked into multi-sided columns. The unusual rock creation would have captivated Muir, who was fascinated by the earth’s natural formations. Though not a trained geologist, Muir was the first to theorize that glaciers had sculpted many of the features of the Yosemite Valley—a striking break to the accepted theory of the time that the formation of the valley was caused by a catastrophic earthquake.
We made our way back to the trail, huffing again up another mountain, this one swarming with mosquitos due to the increased snow melt of an El Niño winter. With fatigue setting in, we examined the map again to find a good camp before the sun set and the mosquitos came out in full force. After a series of “lakes” proved to be just mucky wetlands, we made it to Gladys Lake around dusk, still plagued by those relentless bloodsuckers. “I’m too tired to eat,” Michael declared once we were in the tent. “Me too,” I said, managing to eat one dark chocolate peanut butter cup before drifting into sleep.
Day 3: 8 miles
Shadow Lake (8,737 ft.) to Ruby Lake (9,700 ft.)
“No coffee this morning, just water.” I chugged as much filtered lake water as I could, quenching a thirst that caught up with me from not drinking enough for the first two days.
The third day was the prettiest on the trail so far. We passed several lakes but few were as striking as Garnet Lake, which was surrounded by vibrant wildflowers, green tree tops and grass contrasting the pale granite rocks and snow, all set against a sky bluer than any I had ever seen. The lake looked so inviting I had to jump in its cold, clear waters—hugely revitalizing.
Soon after our break a hiker who appeared to be in his late 60s zoomed past us. This happened more than once on the trail. Muir, who often ventured out into the wilderness with nothing more than bread, tea and a blanket—even while in his 60s—must have been in incredible shape, I thought.
We made our way to Ruby Lake, which was equally breathtaking. The glacially sculpted rock walls surrounding the lake have a red hue, which is how the lake earned its name. The water was clear and blue and its lack of mosquitos made the location all the more perfect. We set up camp above the lake around 4 p.m., giving us the break we needed as we soaked in the remarkable view before bed.
Day 4: 10.5 miles
Thousand Island Lake (9,833 ft.) to Donahue Pass (11,056 ft.)
Today we faced our most difficult day on the trail. We had hiked so slowly the day before, I was nervous we wouldn’t make it over our biggest climb at Donahue pass, which was necessary to keep from going hungry. Crossing the pass in one day meant we could reach Yosemite by the following afternoon.
We hit the trail that morning feeling stronger and determined, and held a faster pace as we approached Donahue Pass. Though I knew its steep terrain and 1,500-ft. gain in elevation would be taxing, I didn’t expect this portion to look so idyllic. We were surrounded by waterfalls, meandering streams and wildflowers like arctic willows flanking the mountainside. “It looks like this was planned,” my husband said.
At more than 11,000 ft. high, the top of the pass was covered in snow. Our trekking poles helped prevent us from slipping as we reached the top, and with each ascending step, I made sure to look behind me to see the view of the Sierra Nevada, the same view that marked Muir. He wrote, “It seemed to me the Sierra should be called not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light … the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen.” I had to agree with him as I looked out upon this very same landscape, the jewel that is my home state and became John Muir’s one true home: California.
After descending through more snow on the north side, we officially entered Yosemite Wilderness. We passed a crystal-clear lake of fresh glacial melt and trekked over wide river-crossings before making camp near a river by evening. I took a closer examination of my legs in the tent, which had felt itchy. I thought my arms and legs would be fine in long sleeves and pants, but both were covered with welts, which meant the mosquitos must have been biting through my clothes. “I was mistaken about mosquitos,” I told Michael with a groan. “They like me, they really, really like me.”
Day 5: 8.5 miles
Lyell Canyon (8,900 ft.) to Tuolumne Meadows (8,619 ft.)
We had about eight mostly flat miles to go before reaching Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, where cold drinks and fresh, hot food awaited. We giddily hiked and descended more than 1,000 ft. into Lyell Canyon and across miles of meadows blanketing the same park that Muir and then-president Theodore Roosevelt visited in 1903, when Muir was in his mid-60s. Muir’s three-night camping trip with Roosevelt could be considered the most significant event in conservation history. It was here in Yosemite that they laid the foundation for Roosevelt’s innovative and notable conservation programs.
Trail runners began to pass us, which meant we were getting close. After five more hours of hiking, we made it to the Tuolumne Meadows, exhausted and famished. We ordered a hot meal and discussed hiking an additional twenty miles into the valley. Yet when I removed the bandage covering a blister on my right foot, I inadvertently removed all the skin on my little toe with it. “I don’t know if I can hike with this,” I told Michael. “I don’t think you can either,” he said.
Our trip was over and we would drive home the next day. I was covered in mosquito bites, my blisters hurt and I was desperate for a shower, but I was honestly sad to leave. The fifty miles we walked across were the most beautiful I have ever seen. I am so thankful for the chance to see this land with my own eyes and, in part, through those of John Muir.
Muir has taught generations of people across the world, like me, the importance of experiencing nature, and why it’s so critical to preserve it. Though hiking the trail was one of the hardest things I’ve done, it was incredibly exhilarating. I learned many things: people are not made of glass; we are stronger than we think. Exploring the wild doesn’t mean certain death, but something far from it. I have never felt so alive as I did during those five days. And, above all, I learned nature is our most precious commodity. When you are surviving off water from streams and surrounded by breathtaking scenery with each step, you truly realize that we need to protect our home.
On the drive back, Michael and I were already planning our next outdoor adventure. Why? I think Muir said it best: “Keep close to Nature’s heart … and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”