Mapping Your Route on the JMT

Would it be completely crazy for me to say that my favorite thing about the JMT was planning out the route itself? Yes? Okay, never mind. Forget it. Moving on…

But really! There is absolutely something to be said about creating a route on your own.  Of course, the JMT already is a route, in that it has been an established trail since 1938 (literally what); however, the mechanics that come along with planning 16 night’s worth of backcountry campsites, assessing daily elevation gains and losses, and arranging drop-off and pick-up rides along Highways 395 and 120 was like a game to me.  A very strategic game in which you had to prepare for circumstances changing in the blink of an eye (and oh did they change…).

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To prepare for my trip, I used the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps.  I know that National Geographic makes a John Muir Trail Topographic Guide, but I wasn’t a huge fan of it.  It is made in booklet form, so each page was only 10ish inches by 4ish inches (a total guesstimate) (okay just looked it up and its 9.25 inches by 4 inches – damn, feeling pretty good about my guesstimate skills!), and I prefer maps that are HUGE.  The three maps that I went with were the Yosemite SE: Ansel Adams Wilderness topographic map, the Mammoth Lakes/Mono Divide topographic map, and the Sequoia Kings Canyon National Parks topographic map.  I also wanted full sizes of each of these maps because I frequent the Eastern Sierras a lot, so I knew that I would get a lot more use out of each of them than just the JMT.  The National Geographic maps are AWESOME, and I would highly recommend them! They are super easy to read, waterproof, and “tear-resistant” (not entirely convinced about that, but I haven’t had any problems with any of them so far!).  If you are in the market for a new map, National Geographic is super on top of their map game.

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Okay, as for trip planning, I’m kind of embarrassed to admit what I’m about to say.  Okay, ready, go: I really did not research this trail as much as I should have *shudders*.  My “research” basically consisted of reading daily trail blogs of recent JMTers, and that was mostly because I was so excited that I wanted to read about the emotions of the trail rather than the logistics.  I guess they were kind of helpful, in that they typically included their campsite for the night, so I knew that the “highlights” of campspots, but all in all, I probably should have done a little bit more research logistics-wise.  I mean, it totally all worked out in the end, but I can’t help but laugh when I think of how much research I DIDN’T conduct before embarking on a 17-day backpacking trip.

As for the actual trip planning, it went down a little something like this: on a cold December night, I laid all of my maps out on my floor, sat down in front of the fire, and looked for spots on the map that I was desperate to stop at, and planned my itinerary! Very well-researched and organized, right? Lolllll.

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My original schedule went like this (elevations included):

  • Day 1 – ~6.8 miles
    • Happy Isles (4095) – Somewhere past Clouds Rest Junction (8000)
  • Day 2 – 9.0 miles
    • Clouds Rest Junction (8000) – Cathedral Lakes (9200)
  • Day 3 – 10.8 miles
    • Cathedral Lakes (9200) – Tuolumne Meadows (9750) – Lyell Canyon (8500)
    • Resupply at Tuolumne Meadows
  • Day 4 – 11.6 miles
    • Lyell Canyon (8500) – Thousand Island Lake (9800)
    • Cross Donahue Pass (11500)
    • Cross Island Pass (10300)
  • Day 5 – 11.3 miles
    • Thousand Island Lake (9800) – Trinity Lakes (9450)
  • Day 6 – 5.2 miles
    • Trinity Lakes (9450) – Reds Meadow (7000)
    • Stay night in and resupply in Mammoth
  • Day 7 – 12.6 miles
    • Reds Meadow (7000) – Purple Lake (9950)
  • Day 8 – 11.3 miles
    • Purple Lake (9950) – Pocket Meadow (8950)
  • Day 9 -11.2 miles
    • Pocket Meadow (8950) – Bear Creek (9400)
    • Up Bear Ridge
  • Day 10 – 6.4 miles
    • Bear Creek (9400) – Sallie Keyes Lakes (10250)
  • Day 11 – 9.3 miles
    • Sallie Keyes Lakes (10250) – Muir Trail Ranch (7650) – Aspen Meadows (9150)
    • Resupply at Muir Trail Ranch
  • Day 12 – ~10 miles
    • Aspen Meadows (9150) – Evolution Lake (11000)
  • Day 13 – ~10 miles
    • Evolution Lake (11000) – Big Pete Meadow (10350)
    • Cross Muir Pass
  • Day 14 – 11.4 miles
    • Big Pete Meadows (10350) – Palisade Lakes (11450)
  • Day 15 – ~9.5 miles
    • Palisade Lakes (11450) – Pinchot Pass (12050)
    • From my notes: “Lots of unnamed lakes before Pinchot Pass”
    • Cross Mather Pass
  • Day 16 – 13.9 miles
    • Pinchot Pass (12050) – Dragon Lake (11400)(req. cross-country)
    • Cross Pinchot Pass
  • Day 17 – 10.3 miles
    • Dragon Lake (11400) – Golden Bear Lake (11175)(req. cross-country)
    • Cross Glen Pass
  • Day 18 – ~11 miles
    • Golden Bear Lake (11175) – Somewhere on Bighorn Plateau (11500)
    • Forester Pass
  • Day 19 – 9.2 miles
    • Bighorn Plateau (11500) – Guitar Lake (11500)
  • Day 20 – 12.8 miles
    • Guitar Lake (11500) – Mt. Whitney (14494) – Whitney Portal (8500)

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It is literally CRAZY to me that this was our itinerary going into the hike.  SO MANY things changed, and it seems like we actually camped at like three of the campsites that I had pre-planned! Lesson #1 for the JMT: things are going to change. You HAVE to roll with it or you aren’t going to make it.

Our trip itinerary was screwed before we even began the trail.  In a stroke of blessing-in-disguise luck, my hiking partner got a dream job interview in Los Angeles two days before we were going to take off.  Short version of the story: we had met up in Mammoth Lakes three days before our take-off, he received an email from said job THAT NIGHT that they wanted to meet up with him the next day, we drove back down to Los Angeles for then interview and then back up the next day, had one day in Mammoth Lakes to get our permit and finalize our plans, and then started the trail the next day. To add to the chaos, the office wanted a second interview in five days, so we had to break up our trip up to travel back down to Los Angeles for the second interview.  It was seriously chaotic, but it ended up working out really well.  He got the job, and they let him start in two weeks so that we could finish the trail! Thank you, office!

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The permit gods did not look kindly upon us, so we didn’t get a permit in advance.  After spending a few hours at the Tuolumne Meadows permit office, we received our permit to head out the next day, but had to start from Tuolumne Meadows.  It was a (slight) bummer not to be able to start from the valley floor, but with the chaos that ensued from the job interview, it actually worked out perfectly, because it shaved off two days of our trip and allowed us to finish at Mt. Whitney three weeks later!

The chaos did not stop there.  On July 4, 2015, the Sierras received a MASSIVE amount of rain, and it pushed us back to a 11am start time.  On July 8, 2015, the Sierras got 5 inches of snow.  It pushed us back a day, and we ended up camping in the same spot that night that we had camped in the night before.  The list goes on and on… Like I said, things are going to change. It’ll suck, but you can make up time. If you can’t roll with the punches, you are going to have some serious problems.

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Our schedule ended up going a little something like this (notes for the day included):

  • Day 1 -10.3 miles
    • Tuolumne Meadows – Bottom of Donahue Pass
    • Great campsites after you pass *the bridge* – Don’t know how else to describe “the bridge,” but it is the only bridge in the area. Keep hiking until you find it. After you cross the bridge, explore the area to the left. HUGE campsites relatively near the river.
  • Day 2 – ~9.8 miles
    • Bottom of Donahue Pass – Thousand Island Lake
    • We crossed both Donahue Pass and Island Pass on this day. Both passes in a day are totally doable – Island Pass didn’t really even feel like a “pass” to me.
  • Day 3 – 9.3 miles
    • Thousand Island Lake – Mammoth Lakes
    • We ended up taking the Shadow Lake trail out to Mammoth and bypassed Trinity Lakes because of aforementioned job interview.  The call of showers and bleu-cheese burgers were too good to pass up…  This was also the last day of hiking before taking three days off to haul ass down to LA, so the shortened day was pretty nice!
  • Day 4 – 5 miles
    • Mammoth Lakes (Coldwater Campground) – Outlet of Duck Lake
    • Back on the trail after three days off! This was the day that we were rained out until 11am. But there were some AMAZING campsites at the outlet.  The National Forest Service actually uses that area for their backcountry trail crew camps.  If that doesn’t say something…
  • Day 5 – 11.6 miles
    • Outlet of Duck Lake – Silver Pass Lake
    • Insane elevation change today! Keep this in mind!
    • This was HANDS DOWN my favorite campsite of them all. Would highly recommend trying to camp at Silver Pass Lake. If it doesn’t match up, try to stay at the lakes (Chief, Warrior, etc.) before the pass and take on the pass in the morning.
  • Day 6 – 10.7
    • Silver Pass Lake – Bear Creek
    • Today sucks. There is no way around it. I have a great habit of building things up in my head, so that when they actually happen, they aren’t nearly as bad as I expected.  I built Bear Ridge up, I really did.  NOTHING CAN PREPARE YOU FOR BEAR RIDGE. The ONLY thing that got me through was knowing that there was cell service at the top so that I could hear my parents’ voices. It helped… kind of.
    • This was also our worst campsite of the trip. Our schedule and mileage did not add up well, so we couldn’t avoid camping at Bear Creek, but I would try avoiding it if I could. MILLIONS of mosquitoes and MILLIONS of dead trees.  We found our first and only tick on us in Bear Creek.  Lastly, I also lost my filter cap in the creek nearby.  It was a lovely “f*ck you” to the end of Bear Creek.
  • Day 7 – 13.1 miles
    • Bear Creek – Muir Trail Ranch
    • Needing to make up time, we hauled ass today. When you get close to Muir Trail Ranch, look for the shortcut down the hill. When we passed it, there was “MTR” spelled out in sticks on the ground.  The National Geographic map shows it as an unmaintained trail – it’ll save you about 2 miles.
    • As for MTR, if you can swing it, pick up your resupply the next day. It’ll save you space for one meal in your bear canister (although, it makes for a later day).  Also, there are awesome hot springs across the river!
  • Day 8 -11.3 miles
    • Muir Trail Ranch – McClure Meadow
    • You are going to run into a gate that looks like a fence.  Go through the fence.  We thought it was private property and dicked around for like 20 minutes trying to find a way to go around the gate.  Just go through the gate.
  • Day 9 – 8 miles
    • McClure Meadow – McClure Meadow (heh)
    • Today was the day that it snowed.  We made it up to Evolution Lake, trampled through 3 inches of snow (and accumulating) before deciding it probably wasn’t the best conditions to cross the pass in.  It was today that we were officially behind schedule, and with a scheduled pick-up for us at Whitney, the rest of our days became longer than expected.
  • Day 10 – 14.5 miles
    • McClure Meadow – Big Pete Meadow
    • Muir Pass
  • Day 11 – 13.4 miles
    • Big Pete Meadow – Upper Palisade Lake
    • Golden Staircase today. People that we talked to hated it, but it comes right after a long burn zone so we were both thankful to get out of it! Try to go to Upper Palisade Lake. Lower Palisade Lake is easy to camp at because everyone is tired after the Golden Staircase, but Upper Palisade is infinitely less crowded. The trail is pretty high above the lake, but we just got off the trail and went downhill and found thousands of great campsites with no one in sight. Plus, you are in a much better location for Mather Pass!
  • Day 12 – 11.3 miles
    • Upper Palisade Lake – Unnamed Lake before Lake Marjorie
    • Mather Pass
    • Not many great campsites up here.  There is a creek a few miles prior to our campsite that had some nice spots, but this unnamed lake was in a much better position for Pinchot Pass
  • Day 13 -14.7 miles
    • Unnamed Lake before Lake Marjorie – Lake Arrowhead
    • Pinchot Pass
    • Pinchot Pass is not bad at all, but the trail goes from 12k+ down to 8k, and that was really tough for me.  I really feel like the only person in the world that hates downhill, but I’ll be loud and proud about it – I HATE DOWNHILL.  Give me and my knees an ascent any day! At the bottom of the descent is a nice creek that a lot of people stayed at.  They then were planning on a short day up to Rae Lakes the next day.  If you have time, I would highly recommend that.  Rae Lakes is absolutely GORGEOUS and gives you a much better position for when you tackle Glen Pass.
  • Day 14 – 11.9 miles
    • Lake Arrowhead – Bubbs Creek
    • Glen Pass
    • We both agreed that Glen Pass was the worst pass, but we also weren’t in a great place for it – Rae Lakes would have given you a better start.
  • Day 15 – 13.3 miles
    • Bubbs Creek – Wallace Creek
    • You will tell yourself that you can make it all the way to Guitar Lake and climb Whitney a day early. Don’t. We played around with the idea but are SO GLAD we didn’t do it. We needed all the energy we could get for Whitney, and a short day the next day was welcomed.
  • Day 16 – 6.9 miles
    • Wallace Creek – Guitar Lake
    • Get up early to get a good spot. All of the sites will smell like pee, but only a few have a little bit of shelter (in the form of boulders) from the elements. I was a little nervous this night. We luckily didn’t have weather, but it could real sketchy real fast. Also they will have wag bags for you at Crabtree Meadows! We brought our own just in case, but they had thousands (at least in 2015 they did).
  • Day 17 – ~16 miles
    • Get up early.  We woke up at 3:45am to summit and were so glad that we did.  Sunrise at the summit is incredible.  Get a burger at the portal. Congrats – you did it!

Well, there you go! My official schedule for the JMT.  One more tip I have for you – look at the elevation change in between your stops.  I focused on the elevation of the start and end, and any posted passes in between.  I did NOT look at the elevation for the day ahead, and I wish I would have.  I don’t think I would have changed my campsites, but it would have been nice to realize beforehand that the JMT is NEVER flat.

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If you have any questions whatsoever about the mapping your route for the MT, please comment here or email me at meghikes1@gmail.com! I had quite a few questions that I wish I could have asked somebody, so please don’t be a stranger!

Happy Trails!

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