Total Miles: 14.4
There was no way around it. This was gonna hurt.
For a trail that runs 211 miles, ending on the summit of the highest point in the Continental U.S., you don’t expect the first day to be the one with the longest and largest climb. And yet, that’s exactly how the John Muir Trail introduces you to the scenery of the High Sierra: by exacting a pound of flesh.
Every hike begins with a purification of sorts, which is really a more polite way of saying it aids the molting of your city softness in favor of the trail toughness that lies beneath by giving your ass the kicking it needs. And kick, it does.
Beginning from the eastern end of Yosemite Valley, past the icons that are Yosemite Falls and El Capitan, and beneath the shadow of Half Dome, the John Muir Trail wastes no time. Climbing nearly 6,000 feet straight out of the gate, we paused after the 6 hours of effort it took to ascend, trying to remember what it was like to have feeling in our legs.
But the punishment the trail initially metes out isn’t without reward. You’ll only need to look up from staring at your feet to notice what you’re surrounded by...
Rising all around you is one of nature’s greatest cathedrals. Like waves on a granite sea, monoliths of rock take on all manner of shapes. Sloping domes stand like sculptures, while ridges resemble the blade of an axe or the dorsal fin of a giant fish. Still others threaten to puncture the very sky that hangs above them, shattering the mosaic of blue sky and clouds into an infinite number of pieces.
Seven years ago, Ace and I labored up this very same magnificent stretch of trail on what was not only our first thru-hike of the John Muir Trail, but our first long distance hike together. To say that it left a positive impression would be only a teeny tiny understatement.
Between the storybook scenery, cascades of pristine water, and the interplay of light and shadow that made the Sierra the favored canvas of photographer Ansel Adams, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I could happily hike the JMT every year and never grow tired of it.
Oh, and the trail itself? Built with modern practices to limit erosion and a maximum gradient to allow for stock animals to safely travel its length, it’s about as pleasant as long distance hiking gets. Well, as pleasant as climbing 47,000 feet gets, anyway.
Sprinkle in pops of color courtesy of western azalea and wildflowers like the Blushing Monkeyflower, and the JMT is a trail that is best summarized like this: if you don’t enjoy it, you can sleep well at night with the confidence that long distance hiking just isn’t for you.
When the first 12 miles of relentless climbing finally did, in fact, relent and our legs got to remember what it feels like to be a friend of gravity rather than its foe, we’d landed in a bright green alpine meadow with yet more peaks soaring in the distance. Only then was it clear. We hadn’t climbed out of the cathedral—we’d ventured more deeply into it.