20170904-18: Mt. Whitney to Half Dome on the John Muir Trail

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
-John Muir

Contents: Highlights, my itinerary, general trip report and photos, and Half Dome Permit Info for JMTers

Thank you Fanny and Larry for organizing this incredible trip; due to personal schedule I ended up solo’ing it after Day 1. My recent back surgery meant I wanted to  take my time… Happily, this body of mine did quite well though there were times when I felt I’m getting too old for this. It’s been a while since I’ve done a solo backpack and it was the absolutely right choice this time around.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

-John Muir, Our National Parks (1901)



  • How do you say rewarding? Starting off with a summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous US, and ending with a summit of Half Dome, the ubiquitous and enduring symbol of Yosemite. After this, don’t be suprised if you feel the most strong and capable you have ever felt.
  • How do you say mountain scenery and wildlife? A 220+ mile journey through protected natural spaces: Inyo National Forest, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, John Muir Wilderness, Devils Postpile National Monument, Ansel Adams Wilderness, and perhaps the most hallowed of them all, Yosemite National Park.
  • How do you say tough? 11 mountain passes through the Eastern Sierra, most of them at over 11,000ft above sea level. You’ll bond with other backpackers over afternoon storm anxieties.
  • How do you say rewarding? How do you say achievement? All of the above. Go do it. And if you have done it already, Congratulations On Your Accomplishment.


“Looking eastward from the summit of Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine… And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city…

Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light.”

-John Muir, The Yosemite (1912)



A general trace of the route shows JMT stats at 353km (219 miles) and 13,240m of elevation gain not including Lembert Dome summit, Half Dome summit, or Fin Dome attempt. This is in line with the signposts markers. As for elevation, the trail looks deceptively flat in the elevation charts –  don’t worry; it’s a challenge.

Capture JMT 1
First “half” from Whitney Portal to Vermilion Resort/ Lake Thomas Edison
Capture JMT 2
Second “half” from Vermilion Resort/ Lake Thomas Edison to Yosemite Village



In total I did around 249 miles in 15 days.

The first week I hiked around 9 to 11 hours per day, 16 to 21 miles per day. Do plan for inclement weather. The last thing you want, while on vacation, is to feel rushed or unsafe heading up those high passes in lightning and hail. I camped mostly above 11,000ft. with winter gear rated to -12C and was fine. Side trips: Mount Whitney Summit (3 hrs round trip from the JMT Trail Crest pass), Tawny Point Summit (1 hr round trip from the JMT Bighorn Plateau), Fin Dome attempt (2+hrs round trip from the JMT Glen Pass/Rae Lakes area). I picked up my only food resupply at Vermilion Resort and took the ferry ($13) back out to the trail.

The second week I took a whole 6 days to do 55 miles at tourist pace, 6.5 to 8hrs a day, 13 to 16 miles per day. The northern end is much easier, terrain-wise and elevation-wise, than the southern end. There is also a lot more tourist infrastructure, if you want cold drinks, fresh food, showers, laundry, and the camaraderie of established campsites. In the last half I wore trail shoes instead of boots. Side trips: Devils Postpile National Monument (alt route from JMT), Lembert Dome summit (Tuolomne Meadows area, Yosemite NP, a under 2 hrs trail run-hike), Half Dome summit (Yosemite Valley area, 2 hours round trip fast walk from the JMT Cloud’s Rest junction).

I took an extra day at the end of the JMT to explore Yosemite NP as it’s been a while since I’ve been there. Backpackers do not need a reservation at the Backpackers Walk-in campsite in Yosemite Village (access from North Pines campground, $6 self-registration), but are only allowed to stay a single night pre- and post-hike. I took the YARTS bus ($13, no reservation needed, 4 times a day) to the city of Merced, where one can then easily board the Amtrak to San Jose, San Francisco, or another major city for onward travel.



We started the JMT at Whitney Portal. The wilderness pass is issued by Inyo National Forest in Lone Pine CA. It includes permission to summit Mt. Whitney but not Half Dome. If you were not successful in the spring Half Dome lottery and would still like to summit Half Dome as a JMT side trip, you must:

A) Replace your existing Inyo wilderness permit with a Yosemite wilderness permit. While in Tuolumne Meadows, go in person to the wilderness office and stand in the first-come-first-served line and hope that cancellations have freed up spots. Permits are issued starting at 11AM so get there early. Note that you cannot do this in Yosemite Valley; permits are issued only at the Tuolomne Meadows wilderness office. Your (new) Yosemite permit is valid starting the next day – use your Inyo permit to camp that night. The Yosemite permit allows you to summit Half Dome any day within the valid timeframe of your permit.


B) Apply online or by phone for a day-use permit for Half Dome per the official website. Parks considers this a last-ditch effort. It is a very competitive process.

I was not successful in the Half Dome day-use lottery, but secured a Yosemite wilderness permit in person.



The beauty of the route for me was in the changing scenery day by day – the granite was still granite, but seemed to round out and soften as the days went by and as I hiked into different areas of the Sierra. Scrub turned to trees, rocky paths became sandy. There’s a tremendous amount of trail maintenance that must happen on the JMT. I’m grateful to those who work on the paths.

Here are some moments I captured to share with you. I’ll share Yosemite and Half Dome in a separate post.

Headed to Whitney Portal, our start trailhead. Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous US, in the background.
Trail Crest, where we dropped our big backpacks and did the out and back 3.8 miles return trip to Mt. Whitney summit.
Night 1 I camped at Guitar Lake, just visible on the left.


Morning on Forester Pass, 13,200ft elevation. The boundary between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
Looking back at Forester Pass
Glen Pass. People had been telling me excitedly that there are icebergs in one of the lakes! It started hailing on me so interest in taking photos ceased until it cleared. Yep there’s lingering snow up here.
There was lots of water all around on the south end, compared to the north end which was considerably drier.
I came off the pass into Rae Lakes camp area in the morning. A beautiful area, lots of people laying about enjoying the sun and in no hurry to get on with the hiking day.
Rae Lakes from Sixty Lakes Basin trail, a detour attempt of Fin Dome, which looked scary up close. I wasn’t too motivated to try to find a way up. Lots of sheep.
I mostly camped up high, above 11,000ft, rather than in the valleys like most hikers.


Muir Pass and its attendant stone hut built in honor of John Muir (who else?). This was a big morning for me – I started by headlamp to get here before the afternoon storms – and I took a good hour and a half lunch on the other side of the pass to celebrate. 
An example of the trail signage.


After picking up my food resupply at Vermilion Resort VVR, and gorging on Moon Cheese, the next morning I took the hikers ferry back out to the JMT. I felt a bit ambivalent about being “in civilization” at VVR. Actually the last thing I wanted was to chat with other people and be social, although the owners were super nice, and feel corralled in a backpackers campsite.
Some of the mules balked at the snow on the higher passes
Entering Devil’s Postpile National Monument. The trees are all cut off by some past trauma. The plants are spiky. It’s blazing hot.
What all the fuss at Devil’s Postpile is all about. It’s these basalt columns. Very neat. Lots of tourists. When you’re on the trail and you pass other backpackers most people say hi in recognition of a shared effort or experience. Around tourist areas full of day hikers, one feels very anonymous.
Garnet Lake
Thousand Island Lake
A good stretch of days opened with frost mornings. The flowers would be frosted over, as would be my tent, and the bear canister made of cold plastic would be very difficult to open. Most mornings I didn’t even try – I’d skip breakfast in favor of a later snack when the day warmed up a bit… If there was time, before the afternoon thunderclouds…
Another misty morning. Most of the lakes were quite windy and although aesthetic and convenient for water, not my preferred camp sites.
I was looking forward to this day for a while. Last major pass, and into Yosemite!
FINISH LINE IN YOSEMITE VALLEY. A trail runner came up behind me and said with a smile, ha I bet you didn’t think you’d be finishing your multi-day hike in a conga line! Tons of tourists, which I didn’t mind, and I’m a tourist myself anyway… Also: there is no way I would ever want to do JMT north to south. Ever.

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