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Best Section Hikes on the John Muir Trail – Bearfoot Theory

Taking 3 weeks off to hike the John Muir Trail isn’t always feasible. Not to mention you also have to score a JMT permit with a date that works for you, which is becoming more competitive every year. If you aren’t able to hike the entire JMT, why not section hike a portion of the trail? One of the biggest advantages of doing a section hike on the John Muir Trail vs. a thru-hike is that you also don’t need to worry about the infamous JMT resupply hassles. In this post, we’ve put together a list of our favorite John Muir Trail section hikes to get you out the door and exploring. These incredible backpacking trips are also great options for visiting Pacific Crest Trail or JMT thru-hiking friends during their trek.

Here are 5 John Muir Trail section hikes that offer up the best views and terrain of the High Sierra.

As it goes in all of the destinations we share, please practice good trail etiquette and remember to Leave No Trace. This means packing out all of your garbage (including toilet paper), being respectful to others on busy trails, and following the established rules. 

Preparing for you John Muir Trail Section Hike

Before heading out on your section hike, there are a few important planning details to consider:

Transportation Options Between Trailheads

You’ll need to plan for transportation before hiking any of the John Muir Trail section hikes. Where public transit is available, we list those options below. Otherwise, you’ll need to plan on having two cars or hitchhiking to and from trailheads. There are also numerous private shuttle companies that offer one-way and roundtrip transportation to trailheads all over the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. Depending on your start and endpoint, you might find some applicable info in our JMT Transportation Planning Guide.

Don’t Forget Your Bear Canister

A bear canister is required for the entire length of the JMT, even if you’re just doing a section hike. You can rent one at the Yosemite Wilderness permit office for $5.00/week (no reservation needed) or purchase one. You can check out our favorite bear canisters here.

Get the Necessary Permits

You will need a permit for all section hikes on the John Muir Trail. Not a full-blown JMT thru-hiking permit, but still – a permit. For the 2021 season, all permits are being issued by phone or email. No walk-up permits are available. More information on wilderness permits for overnight trips in Inyo National Forest and the John Muir Wilderness areas can be found on the Recreation.gov website.

On all National Forest sections of the JMT, campfire permits are also required for campfires, stoves, and lanterns. You can quickly and easily get a California campfire permit online. Note that campfires are restricted in some areas.

Here are the best section hikes on the John Muir Trail that require less than a week to complete.

5 Best John Muir Trail Section Hikes

Ranging from 28 miles to 65 miles, these 5 section hikes will give you a taste of all you can experience on the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra of California. Most JMT hikers start in Yosemite Valley and head south, ending at Mt. Whitney, so we have listed all of these hikes in a similar fashion. Keep in mind any of these hikes can be reversed as well.

1. Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows (~20 miles)

Cathedral Lake // Start planning your John Muir Trail section hike with this detailed guide. Learn about permits, trailheads, transportation options, and more!
  • Starting Point: Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley
  • Ending Point: Cathedral Lake Trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park
  • JMT Miles: Mile 0 to Mile 20.8

An iconic section hike through Yosemite National Park, this route generally takes 2-3 nights depending on your pace. Cathedral Lakes is a must-see in Yosemite and offered one of my favorite campsites in all of the JMT. This section also passes by some of Yosemite’s most iconic waterfalls as long as it’s early enough in the season that water is still running.

Yosemite generally offers a shuttle system between the two trailheads making planning with just one car and a one-way route a cinch – although at the time of this update (June 2021) the shuttles are not running. Be sure to check the official Yosemite National Park website for updated information as you start planning. You can also summit Half Dome from this route (an additional permit is required for Half Dome).

Transportation Options Between Trailheads

Between June 15th and October 15th, you can take the YARTS bus shuttle to and from your start location which makes completing this section hike on the John Muir Trail easy with just one car. We recommend parking your car at the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center and taking the shuttle to Yosemite Valley. This way, you don’t have to deal with shuttles at the end of your hike and you can just have your car waiting for you.

Permit Information

Yosemite wilderness permits are required for all overnight trips in Yosemite. Check the NPS website for more information and for permit applications. If you want to add summiting Half Dome to your route you’ll need to get a Half Dome permit as well.

2. Tuolumne Meadows to Devils Postpile (~34 miles)

Start planning your John Muir Trail section hike with this detailed guide. Learn about permits, trailheads, transportation options, and more!
  • Starting Point: Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center in Yosemite National Park
  • Ending Point: Devils Postpile in Mammoth Lakes, CA
  • JMT Miles: Mile 21 to 56.6

You can beat the crowds of Yosemite Valley by starting your John Muir Trail section hike in Yosemite’s quieter Tuolumne Meadows. You’ll conquer Donahue Pass and Island Pass while also walking alongside several stunning alpine lakes including Garnet Lake, Gladys Lake, Rosalie Lake, and Thousand Island Lake. Thousand Island Lake was a prominent subject of some of Ansel Adam’s most famous work.

Pro tip: If both of the above routes sound great, keep in mind you could easily connect them for a 60-mile trip!

Transportation Options Between Trailheads

You can’t park a car during the high season summer months at Devils Postpile, so you’ll have to take the $8 shuttle that leaves and returns from Mammoth Ski Resort. Tickets can be purchased at the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center. I took this shuttle when I was dropping off my resupply, and found it to be very simple. To get from Mammoth Lakes to the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center, you can take YARTS.

Permit Information

Yosemite wilderness permits are required for any overnight trips in Yosemite. Permits are available through an advanced lottery system 169 days prior to your start date. Check the NPS website for more information and for permit applications. There is a quota for Donahue Pass that limits the number of hikers exiting Yosemite Valley to 45 per day.

3. Purple Lake to Big Pete’s Meadow (~84 miles)

McClure Meadow // Start planning your John Muir Trail section hike with this detailed guide. Learn about permits, trailheads, transportation options, and more!
  • Starting Point: Duck Pass Trailhead in Mammoth Lakes, CA
  • Ending Point: Bishop Pass Trailhead at South Lake in Bishop, CA
  • JMT Miles: 70.5  to 134.5

This is one of the longer John Muir Trail section hikes and hikers are rewarded with non-stop scenery. You’ll climb through Evolution Basin up the infamous Muir Pass and get to visit Muir Hut, all named in memory of the naturalist John Muir. You also get to climb Silver and Seldon Passes and enjoy some incredible campsite opportunities at the gorgeous Purple Lake, Lake Virginia, Bear Creek, McClure Meadow, and Big Pete’s Meadow.

The hike up out Le Conte Canyon and out over Bishop Pass is a big one. I’d suggest planning for a night in Dusy Basin on the way out. If this section is too long, you can reduce the section to 57 miles by starting at the North Lake Piute Trailhead.

Transportation Options Between Trailheads

From Mammoth Lakes, CA you can take the free Orange Bus Line (Lakes Basin Trolley) to stop 100 which is right along the shore of Lake Mary. From there it’s a short hike uphill through the Coldwater Creek Campground to the parking area where you’ll find the Duck Pass Trailhead in the uppermost corner of the parking lot. For transportation between Mammoth Lakes and Bishop, Eastern Sierra Transit offers shuttles Monday-Friday.

Permit Information

Permits need to be secured through Inyo National Forest either online or over the phone. More information can be found here.

4. Big Pete’s Meadow to Kearsarge Pass (~65 miles)

Glenn Pass // Start planning your John Muir Trail section hike with this detailed guide. Learn about permits, trailheads, transportation options, and more!
  • Starting Point: Bishop Pass Trailhead at South Lake in Bishop, CA
  • Ending Point: Onion Valley Trailhead in Independence, CA
  • JMT Miles: Mile 134.5 to Mile 177.9

This is an epic section hike of the JMT and you should plan for at least 5 days to complete this route. You’ll cross over three 12,000 foot passes, Glen Pass, Pinchot Pass, and Mather Pass, as well as travel through the stunning Kings Canyon National Park. You’ll also tramp through LeConte Canyon, Grouse Meadows, and conquer the Golden Staircase. Make sure to camp at Middle Rae Lake for a night. While it’s a slightly busier site, the morning reflections of the Painted Lady make it worth it. The exit over Kearsarge Pass isn’t too bad and there are some nice lakeside campsites on the east side of the pass. I suggest Flower Lake for your final night of camp. You also get to experience two awesome trail towns, Lone Pine and Bishop!

Transportation Options Between Trailheads

Hitchhiking from Onion Valley trailhead is fairly simple since this is a commonly trafficked area and there is a large campground at the bottom of the road as well. You might have to hitch into town (Independence or Bishop) and then hitch to the other trailhead. The best option would be to take two cars and drop one at the Onion Valley trailhead then drive to Bishop Pass trailhead to park. It is about an hour’s drive between the two trailheads. East Side Sierra Shuttle also offers transportation between the two for $260 for the first 2 passengers and $50 for each additional passenger. Eastern Sierra Transit also runs busses between Independence and Bishop Monday-Friday and twice-daily shuttles from Bishop to South Lake, where the Bishop Pass Trailhead is located.

Permit Information

Since you’ll be hiking through Inyo National Forest & Kings Canyon National Park you’ll need a permit. The great news is that since the trail starts in the Inyo National Forest and NOT in Kings Canyon National Park, your Inyo Wilderness permit is good for the entire itinerary of your hike.

For more info check out my detailed JMT highlights from Section 3 and Section 4

5. Kearsarge to Whitney Portal (~49 miles)

Mount Whitney // Start planning your John Muir Trail section hike with this detailed guide. Learn about permits, trailheads, transportation options, and more!
  • Starting Point: Onion Valley Trailhead in Independence, CA
  • Ending Point: Whitney Portal out of Lone Pine, CA
  • JMT Miles: Mile 177.9 to Mile 222.4 (the southern terminus of the JMT)

If summiting Mt. Whitney is important to you then this is the John Muir Trail section hike for you! You’ll also have the opportunity to climb Forester Pass, the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail, as well as visit Crabtree Meadows at the base of Mt. Whitney. Allow at least 5 days for this route. This southernmost route along the end of the JMT takes you from Onion Valley over Kearsarge Pass to the highest point in the continental United States. Another highlight of this section is that you get to climb Whitney from the back and exit out the portal from the front. Day hikers on Whitney typically only climb up and back down the portal route.

Transportation Options Between Trailheads

There are frequent shuttle services that will transport you from Whitney Portal to the Onion Valley campground. Hitchhiking this distance is also very common.

Permit Information

Permits are required for this section since you’re starting at the Onion Valley trailhead and hiking through the Inyo Forest on an overnight trip. Permits can be reserved online up to 6 months in advance. You’ll need to use the Inyo National Forest- Wilderness Permits at recreation.gov website and search for a permit that starts at “Kearsarge Pass” and “Exits Mt. Whitney” via Mt. Whitney (Traill Crest Exit). You’ll need to know your start date and your exit date to obtain permits. Planning is key for this section.

For more info check out my detailed trail report of Kearsarge Pass to Mt. Whitney.

Have you hiked one of these John Muir Trail section hikes? Which one is your favorite and why? Leave a comment below!

Here are the best section hikes on the John Muir Trail that require less than a week to complete.

Written by
Kristen Bor

Hey there! My name is Kristen, and this is my outdoor blog. I discovered the power of the outdoors in my 20s, at the time I needed it most. Now 15 years later, prioritizing that critical connection with nature continues to improve my life. My goal at Bearfoot Theory is to empower you with the tools and advice you need to responsibly get outside.

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