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Hiking The JMT

By the time you read this I should be somewhere on the John Muir Trail, most likely in Yosemite National Park. This will all be part of a two week backpacking trip/adventure with my long time outdoor buddy Steven Steelrod. We will have other friends and family members along for parts of the treks, which essentially break down into three separate backpack excursions within a fifteen day permit period. Yes, these days you must acquire a permit through the National Park Service to hike even a relatively small portion of the John Muir Trail. The entire JMT is approximately 225 miles long, from the Mt. Whitney area north to Yosemite Valley. The direction you are hiking is also crucial to receiving a permit. Though south to north was once the traditional hiking direction on the John Muir Trail, the Yosemite area, including Tuolumne Meadows, has become a favorite starting point for the uninitiated. Hence north to south travel along the JMT has gotten so overpopulated that parts of it require human waste disposal bags. At Whitney Portal there is a disposal bin for the so called “wag bags.”

The popularity of Cheryl Strayed's book Wild and the subsequent Oscar nominated film of the same name, starring Reese Witherspoon, is one factor in a tremendous increase in use of the John Muir Trail over the last five years. Bill Bryson's 1990s A Walk in the Woods, though it was about backpacking the east coast Appalachian Trail and included lengthy passages about mauling death by bears and unsolved murders along the trail, only served to whet the appetite of western hikers for the JMT and the much longer Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). By the way, a film version of Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte in the two major roles, is due out in movie theaters this fall.

Any extended backpack trip is a matter of logistics, balancing enough food, clothing, and shelter needs against the total weight of your pack. Add in factors like elevation gain and foul weather and you don't have to be hiking off trail, cross country to experience bad days. That's just for a three or four day trek. Make it two weeks (or more) and several other folks involved, then the whole outdoor adventure becomes a matter not to dissimilar to battlefield logistics. You need generals and sergeants and privates who aren't going to desert. In a long backpacking trip logistics can involve mailing yourself “care” packages at crucial pickup points. With a half dozen people involved in our trip, one of the primary concerns is how many vehicles will be driven to the general area and just where to park them. As it turns out our usually uber eco-friendly group will be driving three different air pollution mobiles to the greater Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite region.

One car will be left within short shuttle riding distance of the Mammoth area (Agnew Meadows) trailhead. Sounds sensible enough, but it means that driver must carry 4-5 other backpackers to Mammoth Lakes after they've dropped off the other two cars inside Yosemite National Park, most likely at Tuolumne Meadows and White Wolf Lodge.

Keep in mind that simply entering Yosemite National Park requires at least a $30 one week car pass. Since we are on a two week outing, one of those Yosemite vehicles will be mine, primarily because I already possess a year long National Park access card (cost: $80). Throw in the price of a shuttle ride from Mammoth Lakes to the Agnew Meadows trailhead (cost: $7 per person), not to mention lodging for the night before and such a trip into the wilderness to enjoy the great outdoors of swarming mosquitoes by your favorite lakes and streams is not for the feint of heart, nor for the light of pocketbook.

Stay tuned for a late August AVA piece to see if we survived the JMT and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.

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