Hiking the John Muir Trail: The Range of Light

A beautifully written recount of hiking the John Muir Trail by Marylène Coutret


I woke up to the cheerful babbling of the stream. The cold bit my cheeks and nose, contrasting with the warmth of my sleeping bag. As I stretched and took a deep breath, I caught a whiff of the fresh coniferous fragrance emanating from the tall pine trees around. In the background, the massive granite peaks stood majestically, crowned with gold by the light of the rising sun.

The John Muir Trail, named in honour of the famous naturalist, is considered by many as the most beautiful Trail in the USA. Waking up that morning at Piute Creek, I couldn't agree more:  The John Muir Trail is a real gem through the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range of California.

Starting from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley and ending at the summit of Mt Whitney, the John Muir Trail coincides with a section of the 4240Km long Pacific Crest Trail.

For permit reasons, my friend and I started from Lyell Canyon (Tuolumne Meadows.) Permits are indeed required to hike the JMT and are in high demand. It is recommended to plan well ahead as wilderness permits are under a quota system limiting the number of hikers on the trail (to 45 people per day exiting Yosemite via Donahue Pass) and thus preserving the environment.

The optimal time to hike the JMT is from July to September. We started on the 30th of August and reached Mt Whitney the 16th of September.

The first nine days of our hike were blessed with perfect conditions. We could take our time enjoying the sweeping view from the rocky top of high passes such as Silver Pass or Seldon Pass. The predominant grey colour of the granite, scattered with dark green thicket of trees and bejewelled by glistening lakes stood out from a vivid blue sky.  

However, on the second half of our through-hike, thunderstorms developed pretty much every day.  We had to be "storm smart", starting at sunrise, and reaching our intended camp spot by early afternoon before the storm hit. The most impressive thunderstorm occurred while we camped by Elevation Lake at 3300m of altitude. Our little emergency tarp was barely big enough to hold the two of us. The rain was pounding hard against its thin walls. Numerous bolts of lightning struck the nearby peaks and the thunder resonated as much in our stomachs as in the valleys around. It was awesome, in the original sense of the word.

From then on we always experienced a bit of rain, hail, sleet or snow at night. At Rae Lakes, we woke up to a thick layer of ice covering the lower sides of our tarp.  

With a mixed feeling of disappointment and relief from my part, we saw no bears, but we did witness shreds of evidence of their presence in the woods. The JMT is particularly rich in wildlife, especially deer. A doe with her two fawns walked trustfully towards our camp in the Lecomte Valley, glancing curiously at us with no sign of alarm.We encountered as well many friendly marmots, majestic red-tail hawks or perky chipmunks.

The John Muir Trail counts 11 high passes. By the time we reached Sylvester Pass, I had developed legs of steel and a strong mental. It felt like a very special place, being the last and highest pass on the Trail and my first time over 4000m above sea level. But I was about to experience something more memorable and significant: ascending Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 States at 4421m of altitude.

We climbed the long switchbacks on the western side of the mountain, then at Trail Crest caught up with a crowd of exhausted day hikers tackling an insane 35Km round trip with an elevation gain of 1860m from Whitney Portal. From there the Trail gradually gained elevation following a well-built trail through a rough terrain of large, angular slabs of granite, passing the "Whitney Windows"- areas where the face of the mountain breaks, offering vertiginous views.

Finally, we reached the summit and signed our names in the log-book at the Smithsonian Institution Shelter. I was thrilled by the moment, the place and its signification. But above all, it was the sheer beauty of the scenery that left me speechless.

The John Muir Trail gave me the strongest, most intimate relationship I have ever had with the wilderness. I fully understand John Muir's fascination for the Sierra Nevada, and would give a lot to spend one more night under the stars in his "the Range of Light." 


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