Hiking the John Muir Trail

Muir Trail Southbound
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Map of the John Muir Trail


In the trail description that follows, you will often find a pair of numbers in parentheses. The first number is the elevation at that point; the second number is the mileage since the last such point.

From Happy Isles (4035 - 0.0) in Yosemite Valley, the John Muir Trail begins as an asphalt ribbon that climbs the wall of the spectacular Merced River canyon. It has been asphalted because it is so heavily used. Perhaps 50% of the people who can say,"I walked on the John Muir Trail" did all their walking within 2 miles of Happy Isles, out of a total of 210 miles. After dipping to cross the Merced River on a wooden bridge, the trail climbs via many switchbacks to viewpoints overlooking Vernal and Nevada Falls and the great granite domes above them. Just before the lip of roaring Nevada Fall (6100 - 4.6) the tough climb ends, and you enter forested Little Yosemite Valley, where camping is fine as long as you bearproof your food.


After a stroll near the river you reach a junction (6120 - 1.2) where you turn left away from the stream and begin the long ascent to Tuolumne Meadows. Rising through mixed conifers, you reach the trail to the Half Dome (7015 - 1.5)about four miles round trip, and an incredible hike that shouldn't be missed. Soon we pass the trail to Clouds Rest and jump a little stream. Then, ascending near gurgling Sunrise Creek, we pass first the High Trail to Merced Lake and almost immediately the Forsyth Trail (8000-2.8) to Tenaya Lake. The gentle climbing near Sunrise Creek reaches a boulder ford of the stream, and then you must climb stiffly northeast before you descend to the lower end of Long Meadow and pass below Sunrise High Sierra Camp (93405.0). There are backpacker campsites just south of this tent-top concession.

Beyond the Echo Creek Trail branching right, the John Muir Trail reaches the upper lobe of Long Meadow, then turns northeast and ascends the slopes below digital Columbia Finger. At the highest trail point between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows is a viewpoint with excellent panoramas of the southeast part of the Park. Then the trail descends gently to the flower-filled swale at the south side of Cathedral Pass (9730 - 3.5). From the excellent views at this pass, dominated by steepled Cathedral Peak, you descend past the southeast shore of shallow Upper Cathedral Lake (no camping) and then walk a rocky trail to the junction of a spur path to Lower Cathedral Lake (9460 - 1. 1) (camping allowed).


From the junction a long, gentle ascent on sandy underfooting levels off on the west slope of dominating Cathedral Peak. Then our trail drops down a shady north slope through several delightful, small meadows rimmed with mountain hemlocks. Finally, a dusty, eroded section of trail leads rather steeply down to a junction (8570- 2.7) near Highway 120 in Tuolumne Meadows.

Most hikers will continue to the highway and then walk east beside it or will catch a ride to the small bit of civilization 1 1/4 miles east of the trailhead on Highway 120, and then resume hiking on the Muir Trail east of the public campground or the Tuolumne Lodge. But purists who are doing the whole Muir Trail will turn right at the last-mentioned junction and follow the level trail that leads through the forest south of the highway for 3/4 mile to another junction. After turning left here, you cross the highway in 300 yards and then stroll across open meadows 1/2 mile to a bridge over the Tuolumne River. Across the bridge is an old parking loop, and we take the dirt road that goes east from it. Soon this road passes through a gate and then reaches Highway 120 (8595 - 2.3) just east of the highway bridge.

You cross the highway and continue on a wide trail that soon becomes a closed-off dirt road. Then you pass, on the left, a backpackers' parking lot which contains a kiosk where wilderness permits are issued. Now the Muir Trail leads east just south of a blacktop road that ends at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. Just 0.8 mile from the highway, and just before reaching a second backpackers' parking lot, you veer southeast away from the road to parallel the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River 0.3 miles to a log bridge over it near the lodge. Beyond this crossing you turn south, rise over a slight crest and descend to a bridge over the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. Not far beyond the stream, the Muir Trail meets a trail (8650- 1.7) that hikers re-beginning from the main campground would be coming up.

Altogether now, we amble eastward past the Rafferty Creek Trail, cross Rafferty Creek (may be difficult in early season), and then bend southward as we enter the marvelous canyon of the Lyell Fork. Easy strolling with expansive views leads past a second route to Vogelsang Camp (8800 - 5.1), across Ireland Creek, and on up the canyon to the Lyell Fork base camp (9000 -2.8), at the head of the nearly level wide portion of Lyell Canyon. From these well-used campsites you climb steeply up the canyon, crossing the stream on a bridge halfway to upper Lyell base camp 10,220 - 3.6).

At the camp you ford the river and start climbing again. Soon you have excellent views of Mt. Lyell, highest peak in Yosemite, and the large glacier that clings to its north slope. The trail swings northeast, then southeast as it ascends rockily to Donohue Pass, on Yosemite's border (11,056- 1.8). Now on the east slope of the Sierra for the first and last time, the John Muir Trail descends into timber and reaches Rush Creek Forks, a popular camping area around the junction of a trail east to Silver Lake on the June Lake loop. Soon reaching Island Pass, you re-enter the Sierra's western slope and traverse down to the outlet of 1000 Island Lake (9834 - 7.1), where the permanent Pacific Crest Trail heads east bound for Agnew Meadows but you take the John Muir route southeast over a bare granite ridge, past Ruby Lake to Garnet Lake (9680 - 2.0), where dark, metamorphic Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak loom mightily above the lake's west end.

From this lake the Muir Trail switchbacks up a ridge and then drops to the banks of rollicking Shadow Creek, which it parallels down to overused Shadow Lake (8750- 3.5). Twenty switchbacks are then needed to surmount the cool, north-facing slope east of Shadow Lake to round Rosalie Lake. Beyond, the trail passes hemlock-fringed little Gladys Lake and a number of strung-out ponds and lakelets of the Trinity Lakes group. Now a well-forested descent leads to boggy Johnston Meadow, from which it's a short stroll to refreshing Minaret Creek. Past the log ford of this stream (may be difficult to cross in early season), our trail plunges down through deep, dusty pumice to intersect a recently built segment of the Pacific Crest Trail, and we turn right onto it. Our trail climbs for a long quarter mile, with frequent views down onto the large meadow along the Middle Fork and, eventually, monumental Devils Postpile. Past the right-branching King Creek Trail our dusty trail winds down a steep hillside to a new wooden bridge over the Middle Fork. Just beyond an unmapped trail, our trail continues eastward under moderate forest cover. In 1/2 mile we reach another junction, where the left branch leads to a parking lot near Reds Meadow Resort and the right one leads to Rainbow Falls. Continuing eastward, the Pacific Crest Trail in 100 yards crosses yet another trail that leads south from the resort area. If you want to visit the resort, this is the best trail to turn left onto. The resort has a modest selection of supplies, a cafe, showers and a few cabins. Nearby you can shower in the naturally heated water of Reds Meadow Hot Springs.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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