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John Muir Trail: Tuolumne to Reds Meadow

"Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue." - John Muir

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Difficulty: Difficult
Length: 34 miles / 55 km
Duration: Multiple days
 
Overview: So, you started off on the John Muir Trail in Yosemite Valley a few days ago and have spent some time replenishing your calories at the Tuolumne Grill, your supplies via the Store and your resupply box, and have made some friends (NOT the bears) at the Tuolumne Meadows backpacker camp. Now it's time to drag yourself away from civilization once again and hit the trail.

This stretch of the John Muir Trail includes the first major pass (Donohue) and takes you out of Yosemite and into the neighboring Ansel Adams Wilderness (boundary is also at Donohue Pass).

This is an excellent stretch to do as a standalone hike - the YARTS shuttle offers a great way to connect between the beginning and ending trailheads. There are various exit points along the second half of this stretch that will allow you to catch the shuttle bus into Mammoth. Note that if you are doing this by itself and not as part of the JMT, you will need to obtain the appropriate permit for Lyell Canyon trailhead in Yosemite National Park.

You will likely begin this stretch fully supplied from the Tuolumne Meadows store and post office (if you mailed yourself a supply box). The next opportunity for resupply is at Red's Meadow at the end of this stretch.


Tips: Bear canisters are required on the trail and bears are known to be very active throughout this stretch, especially in Lyell Canyon and at Thousand Island Lake. Knowing how to keep a clean camp and smellables stored will go miles towards keeping you and your food safe.

There is good fishing all along this stretch of trail - if you enjoy fishing make sure to take some time to throw in a few casts along the way!

Campfire rules change when crossing from Yosemite to Ansel Adams wilderness. It is your responsibility to know and follow the regulations. The regulations change throughout the year depending on conditions. Inquire when picking up your permit.

Points of Interest

Campground
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Tuolumne Meadows Backpacker Camp

This waypoint is for the Backpacker Camp in the middle of the Tuolumne Meadows Campgroup. You can camp here for one night with your valid John Muir Trail permit. The camp area is shared with other backpackers and is surrounded by lots of people in RVs - not a place for solitude, but a good place to meet other through hikers and develop some trail friendships.

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.
Parking
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Wilderness Permit Ranger Station

If you are skipping the first stretch and starting off on the John Muir from Tuolumne (not uncommon), this is where you will pick up your permit. It is also a valid location to leave a vehicle for the long-term. Make sure it is empty of all 'smellables' - I've seen broken windows from bears looking for a treat!

There are connector trails to the JMT from the Wilderness Permit station with plenty of signs to point the way.
Junction
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Evelyn Lake Junction

After a few miles of hiking through the refreshingly flat Lyell Canyon you will reach this junction. It informally marks the area where camping is now allowed. You cannot camp within four miles of the trailhead and this junction approximately marks this distance.

Some claim that there are legal campsites before this junction, and if you carefully measure them out on a map you will see they are correct. There are some landmarks people use to mark the legal distance - namely, the avalanche zone you can see across the canyon on the slopes of Kuna Crest. However, for simplicity this is the target junction to look for if you are searching for a legal spot. There are several campsites around this junction.

Shortly before this junction is a wonderful place to stop and soak the feet - look for the flat granite slabs with the creek flowing over them next to the trail. If the water is low, cross the creek to some nice campsites on the far side.
Water
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Footbridge

This is where the trail crosses the Lyell Fork. There is a sturdy bridge, shade, and plenty of room to camp.

At this point, you've climbed about 1/3 of the elevation gain towards Donohue Pass from the end of Lyell Canyon.
Viewpoint
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Donohue Pass

Congratulations! At 11,056 you're at the first big pass of the John Muir Trail. During most of the year there is a tarn here with water - but later in the season or in a dry year don't necessarily count on it.

This waypoint also marks the border between Yosemite National Park and Ansel Adams Wilderness. Enjoy the view towards the Ritter Range and into the headwaters of Rush Creek.

Snow can linger on the slopes of Donohue Pass quite late into the season. Fortunately the terrain is open and clear and routefinding is pretty straightforward even if you lose the trail. If you miss the pass proper, the terrain on the far side will naturally guide you down into the meadows where you will be able to pick up the trail once again.
Viewpoint
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Island Pass

Island Pass is a gradual pass, and far less impressive than Donohue though still beautiful. Climbing from Rush Creek, the pass is never in sight and there is no dramatic break in the granite or sign to indicate that you have made it.

There are a couple of beautiful small lakes and an excellent view towards Banner and Ritter, the two prominent peaks that have been and will be the main view over the coming miles.

If you are looking to camp, there are some nice sites scattered throughout this area, or you can continue on and cross-country hike to the next POI and camp on Thousand Island Lake.
Campground
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Campsites

Thousand Island Lake is a very popular destination and you will likely see a lot of people here. Fortunately it also has an enormous shoreline so the crowd spreads out and you can experience you own 'private' piece of the lake.

Because of its heavy use there are camping restrictions at this lake. If you were to continue on the JMT from Island Pass, you'd see signs near where the trail crosses the outlet informing you that there is no camping within 1/2 mile of the outlet. If you want to camp at this lake, it is the easiest to leave the JMT just pass Island Pass and head straight down the hill to the area where camping is legal.

This POI does not label a specific campsite, rather it labels the general area where camping is legal and several sites are scattered around.

SPECIAL NOTE ABOUT CAMPFIRES:
Although regulations can change depending on conditions, in general, the campfire level in Ansel Adams wilderness is 10,000 ft. This means that campfires have been legal at Thousand Island Lake since it sits just below this limit. However, I have received second hand information from a reliable source that they have lowered 10,000 foot campfire restriction elevation to that of below these timberline lake basins (Thousand Island and Garnet Lakes). Campfire rings still likely exist here since campfires were legal as recently as last season (2009). This is a good reminder that just because you see something (campfire ring, someone fishing, someone camping, etc), it doesn't necessarily mean it's legal - it's up to you to know the regulations at the time of your permit.
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Garnet Lake

Like Thousand Island Lake, Garnet Lake has camping and fire restrictions that are signed at the outlet. this waypoint marks where legal campsites can be found. Review the information for POI 7 - is is nearly identical for Garnet Lake.

About half way down from the minor pass above Ruby Lake, look for a well-used side trail. It will lead you down the slope to legal camping along Garnet Lake.
Campground
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Camp at Red's Meadow

Congratulations, you've reached the next outpost of civilization and a chance to resupply! Red's Meadow is a friendly Pack Station with a campground, cafe, general store, and hot spring showers (free!)

A couple of campsites are reserved for through hikers. It is a tight fit with the large number of people that come through here, and the RV generator noise from nearby campers are annoying, but I've enjoyed my time here. It's a great place to get to know some of the other hikers you've been sharing the trail with.

You've likely mailed yourself a resupply box (see links), so head to the store (about 1/4 mile walk from the campground) and pick it up. The store has plenty of supplies itself, including cold soda, beer, and ice cream. Mmmmm that tastes so good after a long hot day on the trail!

Across from the general store, the Cafe serves up some great food, including burgers and breakfast.

Back at the campsite, head over to the hot spring showers. Very basic stalls, they feel great to rinse off that trail dust at the end of this stretch of trail.

Hint: Include some hotel-sized soap and shampoo in your resupply boxes to use with the showers. This way you don't have to carry these heavy and smelly items when you're on the actual trail.
Junction
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Shadow Lake Junction

Shadow Lake is beautiful but due to years of overuse by backpackers and horsepackers it is now closed to camping. The JMT continues around the southern shore of the lake. If you are leaving the trail you can also continue on the north side of the lake to take a trail into Agnew Meadows.
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Stream crossing

At this point you've emerged from the trees and you're enjoying the views of the high alpine meadows and Mt Lyell and Maclure towering far above.

This is one of the two biggest stream crossings between Lyell Canyon and Donohue Pass. Later in the season it is a simple rock hop, but earlier in the season the water can be high, cold, and dangerous.

There are some campsites on the eastern side of the small lake. There is also some good fishing in this lake - I have caught several brook trout here.
Junction
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Thousand Island Lake Outlet

There is a lot of information in this area. Signs indicate legal camping (see POI 7) and fire restrictions. There is a trail junction and be careful to pay attention - this is a short section where the PCT and JMT diverge. The PCT heads east from here, but the JMT continues south past Emerald and Ruby lake. Make sure to stay on the JMT.
Junction
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Junction of Trail to Wilderness Permit Station

This is where you will join the 'official' John Muir Trail if coming from the parking lots or Wilderness Permit Station.

Soon you will reach a beautiful set of bridges across the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. Say hi to the Happy Rock!
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Rainbow Falls Junction

Yet another nice side trip - Rainbow Falls. This is also about where you will join up with the JMT again if you followed the 'official' stock trail signage and passed through the Post Pile.
Junction
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Marie Lakes Trail Junction

If you have time to explore, Marie Lakes is a worthy destination!
Junction
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Lake Ediza junction

There is no camping along Shadow Creek or Shadow Lake along the JMT, so some people take this trail up towards Lake Ediza for legal camping.
Junction
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Johnston Meadow

Between Shadow Lake and Johnston Meadow, the trail wanders through beautiful thick lodgepole forest. There are camping opportunities at the lakes along the way.

From Johnston Meadow you will start descending into Devil's Post Pile, passing Minaret Creek (and plenty of other hikers) along the way. There are some areas to camp along the trail here, but Johnston Meadow is rather boggy and likely mosquito-infested. You are close to Red's Meadow here - just keep going.
Junction
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Devils Post Pile Junction 1

As you descend into Devil's Post Pile there are a lot of junctions. Pay close attention, and don't take the 'Stock' route for the JMT or you will miss the impressive Post Pile and walk a couple of miles out of the way!

This is also the point where the PCT joins the JMT again.
Junction
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Devils Postpile Junction 2

There is a network of trails through here, but they all eventually join back up. I recommend going through the interesting Post Pile on the way to Red's Meadow. To see the Devil's Post Pile, follow the alternate trail across the bridge and through the park.
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And up we go!

The previous ~8 miles have lulled you into a state of comfort and overconfidence. You've likely been flying along the flat and open canyon. You're confidently convinced you are acclimated and you proudly begin to climb up the stone staircase you suddenly find in front of you.

And two minutes later you are wheezing. That's okay - it happens to everyone. This waypoint marks the start of the climb to Donohue Pass, the first major pass on the John Muir Trail. There are plenty of campsites between here and the pass to help split up the ~2400 foot climb.

Take your time and whatever you do, DON'T forget to turn around an enjoy the view down Lyell Canyon. It is beautiful!

Note that there are a couple of decent campsites along the trail just before this climb starts. Note Kuna Creek to the east - there is often a nice waterfall tumbling down the Crest into Lyell Canyon.
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Second stream crossing

After ascending from the lower lake you will cross the outlet of the higher lake. Again, there are campsites through here as well as amazing views!

On the climb up from the lower lake the trail is often running with water and fresh snow melt. It is cold but beautiful - just watch your step and enjoy!

From here, you only have about 500 feet left of climbing to Donohue Pass.
Pictures in this guide taken by: calipidder, masayoshi

John Muir Trail: Tuolumne to Reds Meadow Trail Map


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About the Author

calipidder
calipidder
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I work and play in California and I'm happiest with a pack on my back and many miles under my feet in...

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