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Getting to the John Muir Trail

What makes the Sierra so special is its wildness–no roads, no cars, no problems, right? Wait–but getting to the trail is kind of a problem in a place so wild.

I spent an insane amount of time trying to figure out permit regulations for the JMT and how those corresponded to ease in getting to a trailhead.

I decided that for people attempting to get a JMT walk-in permit (without a reservation), starting in Yosemite Valley/Happy Isles is the easiest way to go.

Getting to Happy Isles

Amtrak runs a train and then bus to the Valley from S.F. and Sacramento (both nearby airports). The buses only run once a day in either direction which means if you don’t get the permit you want, you also likely won’t get a campsite in the park, which means you have no where to legally stay that night and no way out of the park to a legal campsite.  Essentially, you are in big trouble with no way out. Ouch. Sometimes you can get around that situation by getting a different permit. Really, because the American outdoors is not designed for public transit, the best way to get to the trailhead is with a car. Big frownie face.

Leaving from Whitney Portal

After a triumphant summit of Whitney, you can hike 11 miles down to Whitney portal where there is a store with giant pancakes and a giant parking lot. Expect no public transit here. Your best bet is to hitch hike from the parking lot a few feet down, or better yet–talk to some people and explain how you just finished the JMT. I’ve had best luck with climbers. Whitney Portal attracts a lot of dayhikers or people who just want to drive to the parking lot–sometimes, these people won’t help you out. Everyone leaving Whitney Portal *has* to go through Lone Pine to get pretty much anywhere, so every car is going to your destination.

In Lone Pine, the bus station is at Stratam Hall by the fire station on the corner of Bush St and Jackson St (turn east from Hwy 395 on Bush when you see the Lone Pine drug store). The Eastern Sierra Transit Authority will take you from Lone Pine to the Reno Greyhound station. You can catch a plane from Reno.

If you need to go back to Happy Isles to get a car, the Eastern Sierra Transit Authority runs a bus to Mammoth Lakes where you catch another bus, the Yosemite Area Regional Transit, to Yosemite Valley. I hear you can get to your car from Lone Pine to the Valley in a day now.

If none of this works out for you, the Eastern Sierra is a pretty good place to hitch hike. Lots of hikers and climbers respect what you’re doing and everyone is headed north or south on 395 for long hauls. But don’t hold me responsible if it doesn’t work out. Hitchhiking is dangerous and risky and that’s why I put together this page to figure out how to do it without.

Dealing with Bears

A few years back, I worked at a research station outside of Yosemite by myself, with the nearest person being 30 minutes away. One night, I woke to see a bear outside my window, opening my car door, inside my car, biting a giant chunk off my head rest, and otherwise, being the scariest thing ever. I wouldn’t want this happening to my backpack. Thus, Reason #1 to carry a bear canister.

Rangers in Yosemite and along the JMT will ticket you and fine you for not carrying a bear canister. On the PCT, there was a rumor that the fine was $5,000 and an escort off the trail. Luckily, a ranger corrected me and said it was more like $500. Reason #2 to carry a bear can.

Yosemite the puppet blackbear will scout out your food! Real bears don’t need red-eyed binoculars to find your edibles–their noses can smell tasty stuff for up to 2 miles.
Yosemite the puppet blackbear will scout out your food! Real bears don’t need red-eyed binoculars to find your edibles–their noses can smell tasty stuff for up to 2 miles.

Here is a list of approved bear canisters for Yosemite. At the permit office in 2012, the rangers were renting bear canisters out for $5 a week—a total bargain–just to encourage people to use them. Now you don’t need to buy them or even hassle with putting one of those suckers on a plane. Hurray!

Food is safe from bears and rangers’ tickets as long as:

  • It is in a bear canister
  • It is in a bear locker (also called a bear box)
  • It is within your sight and you are awake (like when you are hiking with food on your back)

Here are some tactics ultralighters trying to avoid carrying the weight of a bear canister can try:

  • Send your bear canister to Tuolumne Meadows and dayhike from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne. The goal here is avoiding carrying a bear canister for the first big climb out of the Valley. Just get to the Post Office by 4 pm, and you can have your canister for the night. Lately, the really nice postmaster at TM has been staying open later if you call to say you are a thru-hiker needing to get a package.  You can also pick up your bear canister at the Post office the next day at 10 am when they open—there is plenty of food for dinner and breakfast available at the Tuolumne Meadows store–you don’t need your canister that night if you use the bear lockers in the campground.
  • Dayhike from Happy Isles to Tuolumne Meadows, eating dinner at the Tuolumne Meadows store. Buy snacks for the next day and store them in a bear locker. Dayhike to Reds Meadow and pick up your bear canister (which you’ve mailed to yourself) at their Resort Store. Two days without the bear canister! Hurray!
  • Get a map of all the bear lockers in Inyo National Forest. By using bear lockers and doing big miles, it may be possible to go without a bear can legally. I really haven’t looked into it, but I think it may be possible
  • The lightest bear canister on the market is the Bare Boxer 101–which has a very small food capacity but awesome locking system. There are also carbon fiber ones on the market.

For more on real bear regulations, check out Bear Information from Y0semite’s website.