This post was most recently updated on June 26th, 2019
Happy Isles to Mammoth
This is the first of 3 sections that we did over the course of 3 years to complete the entire John Muir trail. We did each section in 6 – 7 days putting in anywhere from 8 – 18 miles daily but averaging around 11 miles daily.
We started out with the incredibly good fortune to receive permits to hike starting at the traditional JMT starting point of Happy Isles and also secure permits to summit Half dome and spend the first night at Little Yosemite Valley.
Because we were doing a one way hike we had some travel plans to make. With a destination of Mammoth it made it a bit easier to manage because of the shuttle that runs daily. The day before our scheduled permit date, we left our cars in the backpacker area just below the main lodge of the Mammoth Mountain ski area and then jumped the YARTS shuttle to get to Yosemite valley. Once there we secured our permits and settled into our shelter in Curry village (now known as Half Dome Village).
Side note about curry village and Yosemite valley in general…We started our adventure at the end of August, pretty much peak season for Yosemite. For those that haven’t been to Yosemite valley in the summer, and granted this was our one and only time there thus far so our experience should be taken with a grain of salt, it is about as calm and peaceful as a circus. This does change about half a mile down any trail but that’s not where Curry Village is. On top of the sheer amount of people that are milling around many of them have different agendas. This ordinarily wouldn’t be an issue however the tents in the village are incredibly close together. This can cause a sleepless night because you have the weekend warriors and families that are visiting and talking all night. Then you have the Half dome hikers and rock climbers that are getting up at 1 – 3am to get an early start on the hike and/ or climb. Then there’s groups like ours who don’t necessarily need to start up the trail so early because there’s no return trip back from Half Dome, but still need to make an early start of it to beat the heat. I wouldn’t say that anyone was disrespectfully loud, its just that with the proximity of the lodgings its just not possible to avoid it (basically bring earplugs)
Ok, now that rant is over on with the hike.
DAY 1 – Yosemite village to Half-dome and back to Little Yosemite Valley
We started out from the Happy Isles trailhead well before dawn. The temperature was still well into the 70’s shorts and short sleeves were the order for the morning. We took the official John Muir route which adds a bit of length to Half Dome but was well worth it for the view from the top of the falls. Soon we rejoined the crowd headed to and from Half Dome and made it to our first camp destination of Little Yosemite Valley. There we dropped our packs, set up our camp and stowed the food (aka bear bait) in the metal storage boxes. We chatted with the ranger on duty who mentioned that there was a bear that came around the last few nights visiting.
After camp was set, we set out for Half Dome, the heavily used trail was well defined and easily followed. We had feared the worst with our “later” start to the summit, as we had seen the YouTube videos and photos of the trail of ants going up the cables but were very pleasantly surprised to find it relatively empty. After spending some time on the summit we looked out and noticed some ominous looking clouds out to the east. We descended the cables just as the first rolls of thunder came rolling from out in the distance.
We worked our way back to camp, passing hikers still planning to ascend the summit despite the coming thunderstorm. The night proved uneventful with no bear visits and only a smattering of rain. We arose early and broke camp with the intention of arriving at sunrise high sierra camp for our next destination.
DAY 2 – Sunrise High Sierra Camp (not the outfitter camp but just next to it)
During the day’s hike we encountered several grouse, deer and other wildlife as well as our first pack mule train of the trip. Our group of 7 broke into 3 groups as we hiked at different paces. 1 group of 3 and 2 groups of two. The trail past Half Dome was noticeably less used, however was still easy to follow with little danger of getting lost (lost meaning getting off trail lost) There were a couple of different use/ game trails that could be taken about .5 miles after the half dome cut off but we took two different ones and both came back to the same main trail so there was no issue there. The terrain wasn’t terribly difficult with relatively minimal gains however the heat made it a challenge to stay properly hydrated. Eventually though 5 of us made it to sunrise camp and got set up. After an hour or so we began to wonder where the other 2 members of our party were. A couple of our group backtracked down the trail about a mile to see if they needed any assistance or just to see where they were, but they talked to a few parties coming toward them and were told that they did not encounter anyone matching their descriptions. We began to get worried about where they were as it was beginning to get late in the day and once again the thunderstorms were beginning to roll in. We could see the storm this time coming in across the beautiful open meadow in front of the camp and it looked like it was going to be a pretty good sized one.
After a couple more hours we went down to the Sunrise High sierra camp and to inquire there if any mention had been made on their radio of lost hikers and also to ask everyone there to keep an eye out for them. Our main concern was that we didn’t know if they were together or not as they had not known each other prior to meeting the day before. Additionally only one of them had any significant backpacking experience while the other was completely green.
We finally got a report from a hiker coming down the sunrise trail from Clouds rest that the two were together, and while extremely tired from the extra climbing they were both safe and had all the gear that they needed to spend the night where they were. It turns out that they had seen the sunrise trail and taken that route instead of staying on the John Muir Trail. After this experience we had daily meetings to deeply discuss the travel route for the day and ensured that each group had a map to help them navigate (nether of the missing two had a map).
It turns out they were summarily punished for their miscue as the thunderstorm settled right on top of them that night and nearly shook the fillings from their teeth.
Day 3 – Tuolumne Meadows
After a thunder, lightning and rain filled night. we packed up in the morning and waited patiently for our altitude loving friends to make their way down the hill. Once they arrived many sighs of relief and hugs all around were had, as well as a spirited recounting of all of the nights events. We then began the climb up over the hill to get down to Tuolumne Meadows. The climb wasn’t that fun, but with our still heavy packs the steep down hill into the Tuolumne Meadows area was very tough on the knees. There was a bit of emotional relief for us as while we were breaking our knees going downhill, those going uphill looked like they were definitely having a worse time than we were.
Back in the hustle and bustle of Tuolomne meadows we found ourselves in the backpackers camp. We had the obligatory burger and ice cream from the store and then headed back to camp to hunker down for another rain and thunderstorm session. The thunder and lightning was not as prolific as the evening before but the rain was a good soaking nonetheless.
Day 4 – Just short of Donohue Pass
We arose in the morning to still soaked tents and overcast skies. The forecast called for rain in the morning but clearing later on. We did catch the rain for a bit but then it cleared up as we were nearing lunch time and afforded us the luxury of spreading out our gear and attempting to dry it out. Despite the extended lunch due to the easy nature of the hiking along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne river we made great time and decided to bypass our original campsite location and camp nearer to the summit of the pass.
Fortunately for us the weather cooperated as we were relatively exposed being just at the treeline and enduring a 4th night of thunderstorms likely would have upset some of our delicate mental balances. No thunderstorms meant that we were able to get a good nights sleep and woke refreshed the next morning ready to tackle the pass.
Day 5 – 1 mile from Shadow lake
This was supposed to be a tough day no matter what. We had planned to tackle two passes, Donohue and Island. Since we were most of the way up Donohue pass already it wasn’t that bad of a challenge. The view from the top was incredible and was one of the first major vistas I remember.
On the way down we found some marmots that were more interested in sunning themselves than anything that we were doing.
Island pass however was a much different story. It seemed that there were 150+ false summits, but it was more likely closer to 4, my tired legs just were rebelling against going uphill any longer. We finally made it though and the view was nothing like that of Donohue.
We nearly had another disturbing event at Garnet lake. Walking down the trail we took a spur trail to the left which began descending down into a ravine. As the trail became less and less defined we decided to check the map, which clearly showed that we should have curled around the end of the lake instead of making the left and going down into the canyon. fortunately we only lost a bit over a quarter mile in this misadventure and didn’t lose much time. NOTE: Continuing on this trail would have taken us down to the Pacific Crest Trail and ultimately the same destination, just a different route
Pressing on to our original destination of the night, which was to be Ruby lake, a member of our crew wanted to press on to see how far we could go. Since the hiking was relatively downhill at that point we grudgingly conceded and pressed on.
About 5pm after 11 hours of hiking the rest of us finally had a revolution and decided that the next campsite/ water we saw we were stopping and that was all there was to it. This means we ended up about a mile before Shadow Lake. Quite a bit further than we had intended to go that day. We set up our camp, dragged our sore legs over to get some water and called it a night.
Day 6 – Reds Meadow
We woke somewhat on time at our campsite, sore and busted from the night before, but also with a renewed spirit because this was the final day and there was the promise of hot food showers and most importantly for some of us…ICE CREAM!
Then the hike out of shadow lake hit and we were reminded how much extra we had done the day before. We struggled to the top of that hill and then cruised back down the long easy downhill into Devil’s Postpile and Red’s Meadow. Of course we went to the Cafe in Red’s and were taken aback by the prices, but I supposed it should be taken for granted given the location.
There weren’t any incoming hikers to buy a one way shuttle ticket from so we just bout the two way and boarded the bus to take us back to civilization. Thus concludes Section 1 of our John Muir Trail hike.