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John Muir Trail: Happy Isles to Tuolumne Meadows

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

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Difficulty: Difficult
Length: 21 miles / 34 km
Duration: Multiple days
Overview: Welcome to the beginning of what is bound to be an epic adventure! The John Muir Trail begins in what could be called the Disneyland of National Parks - Yosemite Valley. If you are hiking this at the most popular time of year, you'll be starting off in the Valley with what might feel like each and every one of the park's 3.7 million annual visitors.

While the crowds may be a bit overwhelming and discouraging, don't be deterred - regrettably, a large majority of those visitors will never even leave pavement. Once you are a few miles into the trail the crowds will drop off, and soon you'll find yourself among like-minded backpackers and backcountry enthusiasts.

The trail begins at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley in a rather developed way - you'll be starting off on pavement. The pavement quickly gives way to traditional Sierra-style trail as you ascend.

In the first few miles, the John Muir Trail passes by some of the most impressive waterfalls you will see on the entire trail, Vernal and Nevada Falls.

The trail eventually parallels Sunrise Creek (where you'll have the option of taking the side trail to Half Dome), passes the Sunrise High Sierra Camp, and then weaves between the sharp ridges of Tresidder and Cathedral peaks.

Dropping from Cathedral Lakes, the trail reaches highway 120 (Tioga Pass Road) where you will once again encounter civilization in the form of a Visitor's Center, store, post office, grill, and campground at Tuolumne Meadows. This is the first opportunity for a resupply point on the John Muir Trail.

A short note: Thanks for all of the photo contributors to Everytrail that are included in this guide. It has been several years since I hiked this stretch and my journal notes are better than my photos!

Tips: You must have a valid permit for entering at this trailhead - these are available via the Yosemite website far in advance. Be aware that these book up very quickly, though a portion are saved for walk-ups. Availability will depend on when you start, the number of people in your party, and how flexible you are with starting dates. Research your options far in advance!

Bear canisters are required on the trail and bears are known to be very active throughout this stretch. Knowing how to keep a clean camp and smellables stored will go miles towards keeping you and your food safe.

If you are inclined, the side trip up Half Dome can't be missed. Time it for an early morning summit from a nearby campsite and you'll avoid the crowds!

Points of Interest


Happy Isles

Welcome to the official start of the John Muir Trail! Leave your car (if you have one) at one of the long term backpacker parking lots in the valley and either walk or take the free Valley shuttle bus to the Happy Isles stop #16.

You'll be here with many other people - this is a popular dayhike trail for the park's visitors. Ahead are some impressive waterfalls as well as Half Dome.

Don't miss the photo opportunity with the trail sign showing the mileage to Mt Whitney via the John Muir Trail (211 miles according to the sign)!

Nevada Falls Junction

Nevada Falls is often cited as the tallest waterfall on the John Muir Trail. I have no reason to argue with this point, except to say that there are a *LOT* of waterfalls along the JMT! Even more during a high precipitation year where spontaneous waterfalls will tumble over canyon walls, fed by the rapidly melting snow.

As you descend to Nevada Falls, enjoy the view of liberty cap across the way. Above the falls you will cross the river on a footbridge.

If you took the alternate trail along the north side of the River from Vernal Falls, this is where you will join up with the JMT again.

There is a restroom available at this junction.

Little Yosemite Valley Junction 1

Little Yosemite Valley is a popular first night camping area along the John Muir Trail, as well as with Half Dome hikers. When you reserve a permit for Happy Isles trailhead you must choose between spending your first night here or selecting a pass-through to continue up the trail. If you are staying in Little Yosemite Valley, take the side trail from this waypoint.

In LYV, you'll find campsites, bear boxes, a pit toilet, rangers, and plenty of other backpackers.

Half Dome Junction

The large majority of people you have encountered on the trail thus far have been Half Dome hikers. This is where their path will divert from yours. To the left, the trail continues up the ~1600 feet to the summit of Half Dome. This is an optional side trip, not officially part of the John Muir Trail.

Sunrise Lakes High Sierra Camp

Sunrise Lakes HSC is a small outpost of relative civilization along the John Muir Trail. These High Sierra Camps allow people to pay a lot of money to sleep in tent cabins and have food prepared for them by a cook. If only they knew what we were doing for free!

Just next to the tent cabins is a backpacker's campground with very basic amenities. You will be camping here with a lot of people if you choose to stay. If you prefer solitude, select one of the sites before reaching the HSC, or continue up towards the Echo Creek Junction.

Tuolumne Meadows Backpacker Camp

Tuolumne Meadows, a welcome outpost of civilization! This waypoint is for the Backpacker Camp in the middle of the Tuolumne Meadows Campgroup. People are permitted to stay here for one night with a valid backcountry permit, so at least you'll be sharing with plenty of like-minded backpackers.

Scattered through this area you will find a visitor's center, a gas station, a small outdoors shop, a post office (for mailing yourself a resupply), a general store, and best of all, a grill with burgers and ice cream. Settle in an enjoy a break before heading off on the next big stretch!

Cathedral Pass

This is not a major pass - in fact, you will likely not reach the first major pass of the JMT for another couple of days. However, it is labeled on some maps and deserves a mention since the views of the surrounding peaks are terrific along the trail to the pass. Don't forget to stop and enjoy your surroundings!

Panorama Trail

This waypoint marks the junction with the Panorama Trail. If you're coming from Happy Isles this is not important, but many people start the John Muir Trail from Glacier Point due to limited permit availability. If you end up starting at Glacier Point instead of Happy Isles, this is where you will join with the John Muir Trail.

Mist Trail Junction

Starting out, you already have the opportunity to divert from the 'official' John Muir Trail. The John Muir trail switchbacks up the slope while the Mist Trail continues along the river.

The Mist Trail is fun - you will likely get wet from spray while enjoying the incredible views. There will be a lot of people as well. If you are nervous about heights or narrow trail, stick to the John Muir Trail. The JMT is also shadier so on a hot day you have a choice: get wet or stay in the shade. They will meet back up after Vernal Falls.

Merced Lake Junction

This trail leads off to Merced Lake. Of course, you are not interested in this because you are continuing straight ahead on the John Muir Trail! This junction is simply noted to mark a stretch of good camping along the creek. (see the Cloud's Rest Junction notes)

From here, the trail begins the ascent to Sunrise Lakes High Sierra Camp. Except during the steepest part of the climb, there are several campsites scattered along this stretch, including some with incredible views.

Little Yosemite Valley Junction 2

When you leave Little Yosemite Valley, you'll join the John Muir Trail again at this point.

Clouds Rest Junction

It is unlikely that a JMT hiker will be joining or leaving the trail at this trail junction, but it is a good one to notice since there are several worthy campsites in the area just beyond the junction. In fact, between this and the next waypoint (Junction to Merced Lake), there are no fewer than ten worthy campsites. Some are obvious and some are a bit hidden, but rest assured they are there!

Vernal Falls and Emerald Pool

If you took the alternate route up the Mist Trail, you'll find yourself at Vernal Falls.

Vernal Falls is a popular day hike destination so you will be here with a lot of people. If you've come up the Mist Trail, take a few moments to grab a spot on the granite slabs and enjoy the falls. As tempting as it may be, heed the warning signs about swimming in the Emerald Pool - every year people die here.

If you visit the top of Vernal Falls, you can either connect to the JMT by climbing back up the trail to the south, or cross the bridge and take the connector trail on the north side of the river where it will meet back up with the JMT near Nevada Falls.

John Muir Trail: Happy Isles to Tuolumne Meadows Trail Map

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