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JMT thru-hike...which direction?
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Dane Burke
(Dane) - F

Locale: Western Washington
JMT thru-hike...which direction? on 12/18/2006 23:55:32 MST Print View

I am tentatively planning a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail, and through guide books and websites I've learned that most people hike it north to south, starting in Yosemite and ending at Mt. Whitney. Going in this direction the overall trend is a gain in elevation, meaning most of the hike is uphill. Unfortunately I have not been able to find out why this is the preferred direction...all I've heard is that it allows you to start the hike earlier, as beginning at Whitney means waiting for the snow to get out of the highest of the high country on the route. Another reason might be that it is more aesthetic to start in the lower elevations and work your way upwards, ending the hike on the highest mountain in the 48 states.

But in the reverse direction, south to north, you are heading downhill more often. This lends itself to less fatigue and longer mileage days, and would allow me to spend less time and money on the trip (or more time taking it slow, exploring lakes and meadows, taking side trips, etc). This is very appealing to me, and having never visited Yosemite but marvelling at it's beauty through photos for years ending in Yosemite would likely be even more climactic than ending on the highest point in the 48 states.

So am I missing something? Is the main reason for the north to south direction being preferred that you don't have to wait for all the snow to be gone? That doesn't really seem like that big of a deal...does that complicate the logistics in some way I am not seeing?

Any other considerations for determining the best direction for me?

More general JMT and thru-hiking advice is also very welcome.



Edited by Dane on 12/18/2006 23:56:51 MST.

Bob Bankhead
(wandering_bob) - MLife

Locale: Oregon, USA
JMT thru-hike...which direction? on 12/19/2006 07:35:27 MST Print View

To quote directly from the 3rd edition of "Guide to the John Muir Trail" by Winnett and Morey, page 2-3:

"Gaining elevation, especially when you start at high altitude, is more difficult than travelling mere miles, and the faster you gain elevation, the tougher it is. That's why, although the classic trip is south to north - Whitney Portal to Happy Isles - a majority of today's hikers prefer to hike north to south.'

'To begin at Whitney Portal is to start with the most brutal, continuous elevation gain of the trip - 5239 feet spread over 8.2 miles, up the east face of Mt. Whitney, from 8361-foot Whitney Portal to 13,600-foot Trail Crest - when you are least acclimated, least conditioned, and probably carrying the trip's heaviest load. This leg is typically spread over 2-3 days. Also, permits for Whitney Portal are extremely hard to get."

I'd suggest you get a copy of this book ( $13.95 at and read it. It also includes detailed route descriptions going both directions, and more information on alternate starting points both ways.

Wandering Bob

Edited by wandering_bob on 12/19/2006 07:38:34 MST.

Sarah Kirkconnell
(sarbar) - F

Locale: In the shadow of Mt. Rainier
Re: JMT thru-hike...which direction? on 12/19/2006 08:20:17 MST Print View

I'll have to pick up that book, Bob. A good friend of mine is talking about us doing it in 2008. Could be brutal fun!

John Kays
(johnk) - M

Locale: SoCal
Re: JMT thru-hike...which direction? on 12/19/2006 10:40:57 MST Print View

Another benefit to hiking south to north is that the sun will be on your back. Coming south from the north will put the sun directly in your eyes all day long. It would seem that you would want to be able to see with comfort the most beautiful mountain scenery you might possibly ever hike through rather than peering at that scenery through the glaring sun for 200 miles as you would if you started in Yosemite.

Benjamin Tomsky
(btomsky) - F

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: JMT thru-hike...which direction? on 12/19/2006 11:14:18 MST Print View

The real question is... Do you want to hike with or against the flow of (northbound) PCT thruhikers? I found it quite entertaining to chat them up when southbound hiking the TYT and JMT ("how's it goin? how's the next pass?"). That is, assuming they were willing to stop for a minute. I saw as many as 25 some days, so there were usually a few that wanted to chat.

Hiking the JMT northbound, with the flow, would mean u could use em as pace setters...

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
JMT thru hiking on 12/19/2006 18:40:19 MST Print View

I've already set the time aside to do it this coming summer and have been debating the same question. I'm not certain yet, but I want to do it relatively fast- probably starting at Whitney, heading from the portal to Guitar Lake (or further) on day one. Sure, it'll be one long day climbing/adjusting at elevation, etc., but one long day up there is better than any good one at work, right?
My personal pro/con list of a Northbound journey:

1. I did a quickie from Kearsarge Pass to Whitney last summer- I'd like to finish somewhere different/not repeat the last ~30 miles.
2. After Whitney it's downhill.
3. Probably easier to hitch a ride/catch a bus home out of Yosemite (more traffic/YARTS) than at the Whitney Portal.
4. Cold beer is easily found in the valley.
5. Perhaps a bit more celebrity finishing in the valley- busloads of tourists snapping pictures and asking questions of a "real backpacker" and whatnot.

1. Hard/long first day (But is it really that bad? A one day, UL packing, fair-weather hiking ascent of Whitney hardly puts one amongst the ranks of mountain hardmen.)
2. I'm assuming it might be harder to get a permit to enter through the circus that is the Whitney Zone in the summer (If I remember right, permits can't be requested until Jan/Feb '07 and are still on lottery?).
3. I'll be finishing in the circus that is Yosemite in the summer.
4. There's cold beer at Whitney Portal too.

If anyone has any better rational for going one way or the other, please share. I think it really comes down to aesthetics/personal issues.
If I'd never been to the top of Whitney, however, I think finishing there would probably be cool.

Aaron Sorensen
(awsorensen) - MLife

Locale: South of Forester Pass
Re: JMT thru-hike...which direction? on 01/01/2007 16:08:40 MST Print View

I would like to believe that more people would actually hike the JMT S. to N. if it wasn't nearly impossible to start at Whitney.

About the only way to do it simply either way would be to not stay a night on the Whitney trail.
You would have to go from Guitar Lake to the Portal or the other way to Guitar in one day. There is a separate and higher daily quota for hikers doing this.
On the down side, you can not reserve this type of day pass until the lottery is over.

You can however get a pass any where else that ends at the portal 6 months in advance that takes away from the earlier day pass quota. It seems confusing, because by doing this, you can almost guarantee a Whitney finish.

There must be a catch to this, but after reading everything about it, it only ends up contradicting the day pass and making it easier to stay over night.
If any one could shed some light on this, (not a link, I've read everything), I would like to know.

When I hike the JMT in 2007, according to the rules of passage on Whitney, I can start at Bubbs Creek at the end of Hwy 180, (I’ll reserve my pass 6 months in advance). I can then spend as much time as I want acclimatizing on Whitney as I want to , (doing most of it at Meyson Lake), and can then switch my pack out and start the JMT.
Because I am not finishing at Whiney, according to the rules, I can include Whitney in my trip, and it says nothing about the length of stay, (only that Whitney is included).

This big mess about Whitney is just another reason people go N. to S.
Reserved Whitney passes this year also have to be picked up by 12:00 pm the day before you start.

Randy Brissey
(rbrissey) - M

Locale: Redondo Beach, CA
JMT Through Hike Alternate View on 01/01/2007 16:50:33 MST Print View

The crazy part about the JMT is that it starts/ends at the TOP of Mount Whitney. There might be another option in doing a south to north backpack. I would think that that the better the shape a person is in (make that acclimatized) I would do the south to north direction.
I have done the north to south direction and want to do the south to north at least once............

I propose to start at Cottonwood Trailhead and hike over Cottonwood Pass (with a heavier pack and continue to Crabtree Meadows. You could get acclimatized gradually and do a day hike up to the top of Mt. Whitney and back. THIS part may alleviate the problem of permits on the east side. (I will have to take a closer look).

One nice thing that I like about hiking north to south is that when approaching passes in the morning any snow is firm and you can walk on the crust. Once over the passes there is less snow on the south facing slopes.

Just judging from the weather we have had in california this winter we may end up with an opposite problem of last season, too little snow.