May 1, 2018
Summertime is fast approaching, and I’ve been saving those vacation hours for another adventure on the John Muir Trail! Around this time every year, I fax in my permit application and then sit and wait. It never fails to be a nail-biter because I know the success rate of acquiring the permit is lower than 2%! You are more likely to run into Sasquatch on the trail than nabbing that permit!
Backpacking through the “Range of Light” can be a life-changing experience – only if you are lucky enough to secure that permit, which, essentially, comes down to the luck of the draw. Try again next year. Well, if you are still dead set on backpacking through the Sierra here are 6 alternatives that can be just as life-changing, or, at the very least, they can still indulge your wanderlust appetite through another year.
Note: Most of these still require a permit, but it is much easier to obtain through early reservation or walk-up.
(Technically not an alternative)
Coming down from Forester Pass on the JMT NoBo
Even though my SouthBound (SoBo) application was denied, this year I will still be going back to the JMT for the 5th time. Before you get mad at me for stealing your permit, let me explain! Out of the 5 times, I will have hiked through the JMT, only once(!) has it been SoBo, this year I will be going NoBo (NorthBound). The NoBo application process goes through the Inyo National Forest and is much easier to apply for. If there is a spot available for your start date, you can claim and pay for it in real time, rather than waiting for an email from the NPS, which is the case for a SoBo application. Also, there are several entry points that you can take, which increases the likelihood of nabbing a spot. While it is true that you can also go SoBo through other entry points, most of these will skip the section out of Yosemite Valley – a highlight, that, in my opinion, should not be missed.
Make sure to remember that going NoBo through one of the various entry points actually adds to the hike, rather than taking away from it, so factor in a couple of more days to your itinerary. If you manage to grab a permit entering at Cottonwood pass or lakes, you are also able to summit Mt. Whitney, and Half Dome, without having to apply for those separately *wink*. Although going SoBo on the JMT is suggested as the traditional way of hiking it, take it from me, going NoBo is just as amazing, and to be honest, my preferred orientation of hiking it. Going NoBo, however, is more difficult – you start at a much higher elevation and go over the bigger passes earlier on. This, among others, is the reason SoBo is recommended.
Tahoe Rim Trail
Echo Lakes on the Tahoe Rim Trail
Just a few dozen miles shorter than the JMT, the TRT is a worthy alternative. It is a loop around Lake Tahoe, the biggest alpine lake in the country. It may not be the “High Sierra” but it is still quintessential Sierra terrain. It offers stunning vistas, beautiful sections of alpine hiking, pristine lakes, granite peaks, and some challenging passes. Start at Kingsbury Grade, and begin hiking clockwise. Logistically, planning for the TRT is easier – re-supplies are plentiful and you can leave your car at the trailhead since you’ll be returning at the end of your loop. Around midway, the trail comes within a few minutes-walk of Tahoe City, a perfect resupply location. Some highlights include Desolation Wilderness, Dicks Peak, Star Lake, and of course Lake Tahoe. After your hike, you can relax by the lake and reminisce on the 170 miles of pristine beauty you just experienced!
Sierra High Route
Roads End – the start of the SHR
If you think the JMT is the only trail/route that traverses the High Sierra, think again. There are several routes you can take. The SHR runs parallel to the JMT but instead of going over a pass and dropping into the adjacent valleys like the JMT, it stays above the treeline for most of the hike. Having excellent cross-country navigation skills is essential to tackle this route, but the experience and majesty you will experience are worth the extra planning and skills. At 195 miles, it is almost the same length as the JMT, but the comparisons stop there. Often described as the hardest hike in America, it was first proposed as a route by the famed Yosemite climber Steve Roper, who wanted to avoid the crowded places of the Sierra. It goes over a whopping 33 passes and only makes its way down to a trail when it is forced to. If you’re looking for a challenge, this is it!
Theodore Solomons Trail
Top of Elizabeth Pass
Not yet established as an official trail, but it’s gained momentum in the past few years as an excellent alternative to the JMT during heavy snow years. The TST also runs parallel to the JMT, starting in Yosemite Valley and ending at Horseshoe Meadows. It has a much lower average altitude but still offers the challenges. Albeit, somewhat different ones, than the JMT does. Since this trail isn’t fully established (it combines existing trails), it requires a bit more navigation and know-how so that you don’t accidentally take a wrong turn onto another trail. Some of the highlights of this trail include going through Tehipite Valley (which boasts the largest dome in the Sierra), Mineral King, and crossing over Elizabeth Pass. There are plenty of resources to figure out the logistics for this trail, but the best place to start is the Facebook group under the name “Theodore Solomons Trail.” If you enjoy planning and also want to experience a bit more solitude than the JMT can offer, this is your trail!
Emigrant Wilderness near Sonora Pass
Right where the JMT ends, another trail starts. The TYT starts in Tuolumne Meadows and ends in Lake Tahoe, taking you through Northern Yosemite, Emigrant Wilderness, and the surreal Mokelumne Wilderness. As you make your way North, the ground beneath you begins to change. As you draw closer to the end of the Sierra you see hints of the Southern Cascades and its volcanic features. Logistically, it is also easy to plan – permits are easy to acquire, re-supplies are plentiful, and once you arrive at the end of your hike in South Lake Tahoe, you can take a bus, or even a plane, back home.
Section hike the PCT
PCT near Mt. Shasta
There’s a pretty famous trail that runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington. You might have heard of it – the Pacific Crest Trail. You can chop it up any way your heart desires and do as many miles/nights as you want. The JMT itself is a section of the PCT! Because it traverses the entire country, you have the option of choosing from a variety of terrains. Want to backpack in the desert? No problem, head to the SoCal section. Want to take a walk in the woods? Head to Northern California. You can explore other sections of the Sierra as well, that don’t get as much love as the JMT. If you want to head out of state, the sections in Oregon and Washington offer just as much beauty and rugged wilderness as the High Sierra.
Wonderland Trail – Washington. This trail loops around Mt. Rainier.
Colorado Trail – Crosses most of the state of Colorado, South-North, or vice-versa.
High Sierra Trail – starts in Sequoia National Park and traverses the Sierra West to East ending at the summit of Mt. Whitney. Note: might also be difficult to obtain permits for this trail.