Observations From the John Muir Trail

In July of 2018 my son and I hiked the John Muir Trail. This was my second time and his first. The trail covers 211 miles from Yosemite National Park to the summit of Mount Whitney. It includes over 84,000 feet of elevation change and some of the most stunning scenery in the Sierras. We hiked it in 17 days. What follows is a collection of thoughts and observations. In one sense they are simple and obvious. In another, they may be profound insights and life advice (even if it only applies to me).

  • Sketchy sections of trail that made you nervous on your previous solo hike will terrify you when you’re hiking them with your child. Even if he is 18.
  • Every hike is different, even on the same trail. Last time there was heavy smoke to contend with. This time, mosquitos and thunderstorms were the biggest complicating factors.
  • The hardest days are the first two and the last two. One of those was by choice.
  • Drink more water.
  • You have to hike your hike and let others hike theirs.
  • After four or five days in the wilderness, the simple amenities of civilization (e.g, showers, coffee) become miracles. Gratitude is easy in these circumstances.
  • You can tolerate a repetitive sameness in your breakfast that you cannot tolerate in your lunch or dinner. Which is another way of saying - find better lunch options for backpacking.
  • Simplicity matters. When that air mattress fails on the next to last day, the lack of failure modes in a simple foam pad will seem very attractive.
  • Sometimes it isn’t the weight, it’s how you carry the load.
  • Stop and appreciate the view. Because it’s beautiful and there is more to the path than grinding out the miles.
  • My son is probably the only person on earth that I can backpack 17 days with. He might also be the only one that would make the attempt.
  • Always eat the food you want most for dinner. Except the Snickers bars, try to make those last.
  • After 2-3 months on the trail, PCT hikers are a study in essentialism, fitness, and self-assured trail wisdom. Many are also broke.
  • You will be maddened by the loss of elevation after having to climb for hours to reach a high pass. Eventually you learn to accept that this is the shape of the landscape and not a personal insult the universe is trying to deliver.
  • Storms can be raced. Be prepared to lose.
  • Your memory of the ease or difficulty of a particular section is mostly a function of how close you camped to it and how early in the day you made the climb.
  • The human body is a miracle of adaptation. Given a few days it will reconfigure itself to the stresses you submit it to. But maybe next time figure out a way to avoid losing six pounds of muscle.
  • There are some things you carry that should have been left behind. And some things you left behind that you should have brought with you. Unfortunately, you won’t know what is in each category until you walk the trail.
  • Be prepared to improvise.
  • Enjoy the journey. Even the hard parts. Especially the hard parts.

A photo album of the pictures from this hike can be found here.