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15 Best John Muir Trail Campsites

A thru-hike on the John Muir Trail means 20+ nights of epic camping. Here are the 10 best campsites on the John Muir Trail that you won’t want to miss.

Camping tips for beginner car camping, including a packing list, what to wear, and recipes to cook up at your camp kitchen

Most people take about three weeks to hike the John Muir Trail, which means you’ll get to enjoy 20+ nights of epic alpine camping. Most of the JMT is above the tree line and you’ll have nightly opportunities to set yourself up for incredible sunsets, moonrises, Milky Ways, and sunrises. Water for cooking and drinking is everywhere and flat, established campsites are plentiful, especially if you’re willing to hike a half mile or more off the main corridor.

Don’t worry about mapping out where you are going to camp each night, because your pace will change throughout your hike, but there are a few memorable places you’ll want to aim for if your legs are willing and daylight is on your side. Here’s a list of some of the best John Muir Trail campsites that you’ll want to have on your radar as you plan your route.

This blog post was originally written by BFT Founder, Kristen, who hiked the John Muir Trail Southbound in 2014. It was updated in 2022 by Mary Caperton Morton of The Blonde Coyote who hiked the John Muir Trail Northbound in 2020. It includes the most recently available information.


1) Lower Cathedral Lake (SOBO Mile 17)

This Yosemite lake is fantastic for a few reasons. First, get quintessential views of needle-sharp Cathedral Peak which on a calm day forms a perfect reflection in the lake. Then, if you walk out to the West end of the lake, you can watch the sunset over Tenaya Lake in the Valley below.

*Note: Lower Cathedral Lake is located about 1/2 mile off of the John Muir Trail and requires a short side trail.

Cathedral Lakes Campsite on the John Muir Trail

2) Thousand Island Lake (SOBO Mile 43)

There aren’t quite 1,000 islands in Thousand Island Lake but there are enough islands to make this lake one of the most picture-perfect postcard-worthy scenes of the JMT. The best views and campsites are along the north side of the lake, where you’ll have uninterrupted views across the water toward 12,936-foot Banner Peak.  Be aware that a few older, unofficial sites are within 200 feet of the lake, too close to the lake for today’s Leave No Trace standards. They are flat and look inviting, but please pitch your tent at a site above the shoreline (like the campsite below).

A person sips out of mug looking out at 1000 Islands Lakes on the John Muir Trail from their campsite
Photo credit: Mary Caperton Morton

3) Garnet Lake (SOBO Mile 45)

There is a reason this lake was one of Ansel Adam’s favorite places to photograph. Banner and Ritter Peaks rising in the distance, amazing swimming, and dozens of tree-covered islands dotting the lake make it one of the more recognizable lakes in the Sierras.

Garnet Lake on the John Muir Trail

4) Lake Ediza Junction (SOBO Mile 47)

Once you’re out there you’ll start to see that the afternoon sun is a critical component of an awesome campsite and a few sites around the Lake Ediza junction offer just that. Beyond Lake Ediza, you descend down to Shadow Lake, which is gorgeous, but shady as the name implies. So stop here and bask in those rays until the sun sets behind the jagged ridge to the west. While the creek will likely be too shallow to swim in, photographers will love the morning reflection of the mountains in the creek.

Lake Ediza Junction camping on the John Muir Trail

5) Minarets Lake Loop (SOBO Mile 47) 

For an incredibly scenic bonus JMT side mission that begins at the Lake Ediza Junction, consider hiking the Ediza and Minaret Lakes Loop, which makes a semi-circle off the JMT between the Ediza Junction and Johnston Meadow. We enjoyed one of the best John Muir Trail campsites between Cecile and Minaret Lakes. This 8.5-mile loop doesn’t add any significant mileage to a JMT hike (you’ll be skipping an 8.1-mile section between Shadow Creek and Johnston Lake) and the views of the iconic and spiky Minarets across the high lakes basin are definitely worth the detour.

A man makes food next to his tent on the Minarets Lake Loop on the John Muir Trail
Photo credit: Mary Caperton Morton

6) Virginia Lake (SOBO Mile 72)

We didn’t stay here because we thought it was too early to stop for the day, so we had a nice long lunch, did some swimming, and continued on. As we left the lake, a deep sense of regret started to sink in, and we agreed that we should’ve camped here. On the west side of the lake, there are dozens of flat and private spots to set up shop that provide easy lake access and beautiful views.

Lake Virginia camping on the John Muir Trail

7) Vermillion Valley Resort (SOBO Mile 88)

In 2020 when Mary hiked the JMT, the ferry across Lake Edison wasn’t running so she had to hike 13 miles off-trail to get to and from Vermillion Valley Resort. By sheer luck, she showed up on BBQ night and the delicious hot meal, hot showers, laundry, hiker box resupply, and camaraderie with other hikers made the detour worth every step. VVR’s old-time general store and tent camping area is not wilderness camping, but it will fill your canteen in more ways than one so we had to include it in our favorite JMT campsites.

*Note: As of 2022, the ferry is back in service and typically runs from July to October.

A BBQ grill full of meat and veggies at Vermillion Valley Resort camping and resupply on the John Muir Trail
Photo Credit: Mary Caperton Morton

8) Bear Creek (SOBO Mile 96)

You stumble on Bear Creek after a long hot, dusty hike up and over Bear Ridge, and when you finally reach Bear Creek’s idyllic swimming holes, you’ll be dying for a place to cool off. So take a dip and relax the rest of the day on the big flat granite boulders that are scattered throughout the middle of the cascades.

Bear Creek camping on the John Muir Trail

9) Marie Lakes (SOBO Mile 99)

The campsites at Marie Lakes are smack dab in the middle of one of those iconic granite lake basins created by the long-lost glaciers of the Sierra. During the last glaciation, a huge mass of ice sat in this bowl between 10,898 foot Selden Pass and the 13,075-foot Seven Gables. All that weight gouged out the smattering of depressions that are now the Marie Lakes, Medley Lakes, and Three Thousand Islands Lakes. Surrounded by lakes you’ll be treated to an incredible lightshow on the water and a silvery granite skyline at both sunrise and sunset.

Sunset at Marie Lakes on the JMT
Photo Credit: Mary Caperton Morton

10) McClure Meadow (SOBO Mile 119)

The night we spent in McClure Meadow happened to be a full moon, and watching the moonrise above Evolution Basin was one of the most spectacular things I’ve seen in my life. There is also a lovely meandering creek where you can watch the sunset and soak your sore feet.

McClure Meadow on the John Muir Trail

11) Evolution Basin and Darwin Bench (SOBO Mile 122) 

Evolution Lake is another incredible John Muir Trail campsite, where Mary and her hiking partner caught several Golden trout. After setting up camp and hanging our food they hiked up to Darwin Bench, a hanging lakes basin that overlooks Evolution Basin. This was a spectacular spot to appreciate the ghosts of glaciers past that once overtopped all but the highest peaks in the Sierra. 

A NEMO Hornet 2 backpacking tent set up at Evolution Lake on the John Muir Trail
Photo credit: Mary Caperton Morton

12) Lakes North of Pinchot Pass (SOBO Mile 159)

Unlike other areas on the trail, the mountains around Pinchot Pass are dominated by neon red hues that light up during the alpenglow hour. There are several isolated lakes to choose from, so have your pick and enjoy those gorgeous colors.

7 - Pinchot Pass

13) Middle Rae Lake (SOBO Mile 172)

Middle Rae Lake will likely be one of the busier campsites you encounter on the trail, but it’s for a reason. Awesome swimming, iconic peaks like Fin Dome and the Painted Lady, and some of the most perfect sunrise reflections make it worth putting up with a small crowd.

8 - Rae Lakes

14) Bighorn Plateau (SOBO Mile 196)

Bighorn Plateau offers unparalleled views of the night sky, and it’s also where you get your first glimpse of Mt. Whitney. Being on a flat expanse completely above the treeline, Bighorn Plateau is a great place to practice some night photography. However, you should only camp on the plateau if the sky is clear. Getting caught up there in a thunderstorm is not only unpleasant but can be very dangerous.

Mt. Whitney from Bighorn Plateau on the John Muir Trail
Mt. Whitney from Bighorn Plateau | Photo Credit: Mary Caperton Morton

15) Above Guitar Lake (SOBO Mile 206)

Everything I read leading up to my hike was that Guitar Lake was the last place to get water before heading up to Mt. Whitney. As a result, that’s where most people spend their last night on the trail. Just before Guitar Lake, we ran into a ranger who told us that if we kept going about a 1/2 mile above Guitar Lake there were a series of small unnamed lakes, so we decided to check it out. It ended up being the best decision.

Guitar Lake gets cold and shady early in the afternoon, but the small lake above it offered solitude, late-day sun, and an incredible view of the sun setting behind Guitar Lake. We couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend our last night on the John Muir Trail.

10 - Above Guitar Lake

>> See our entire John Muir Trail archive

Do you have any questions about camping on the JMT? What are your favorite John Muir Trail campsites? Let us know in the comments!

Hiking the John Muir Trail means 20+ nights of epic camping. Here are the 15 best campsites on the John Muir Trail you won't want to miss.

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15 Comments

  1. Hi Kristen! I am planning a 200-500 mile thru-hike and found your blog researching the John Muir Trail. You have very helpful posts and awesome pictures! I am leaning towards hiking the JMT, but I’m worried about the permit system and the trail being crowded. I am also considering the Colorado Trail. If you have any insights about which trail or any other ideas, they would be greatly appreciated!
    Thank, Autumn

    1. Hey Autumn! That’s awesome you are going to a long-distance hike! I don’t know too much about the Colorado Trail, but I think it’s probably less traveled than the JMT, but probably equally as awesome. I mean the JMT was incredible and I think with the new permit process it should help keep some of the crowds under control. Even last year, we only had to camp near other people a couple of nights and that was mostly by choice. So it’s still remote enough to spread out. But I’m sure for some people its still too many people. You could also look at other sections of the Continental Divide Trail or the PCT. Again don’t know too much about those, but worth looking at. Come back and let me know what you decide! -Kristen

  2. I fount your information on JMT helpful. However I didn’t see any information on car shuttles (how did you get back to your car at Tuolomne Meadows? And secondly did you have a chance to wash your clothes in a real washing machine at either Red Meadow or Muir Trail Ranch? We are plus 50 and sure would like to get to wash clothes somewhere along the way besides washing them out in creeks/lakes–especially our socks!

    1. HI Michelle – I’m working on a post about transportation. So please stay tuned. But on my hike, my car was parked at the bottom and my friends at the top. So when we were done, we took my car and drove back to Tuolumne.

      I didn’t wash my clothes at all. Just used creeks and lakes. I think they have washing machines at reds meadow, but i’m not totally sure. Muir trail ranch I don’t think so. The fact is that your clothes will be dirty pretty much immediately after washing them though, so my best advice is to just embrace it! Have fun out there!

  3. I love your website and detailed posts of your adventures. I would like to do the JMT, but in many many segments. It might take me up to 10 trips to complete it, but that’s ok. I’m going to Tuolonme Meadows next week for 3 nights and 4 days. Any recommndations as to which part of the trail I can do day hikes. I love lakes and peaks. Thanks!

  4. Yes yes yes to Bighorn Plateau! I took pretty much the exact same picture as you, and as I walked by that oasis and in looking back at pics of it, I always tell myself that is one place I wish I had camped. If I ever return, I will make it a point to stay there. It just spoke to me. I wish I saw that info about the lakes above Guitar. I joined the masses and stayed at Guitar my last night, but it was one of my least favorite campsites the entire trip.

  5. Hi Kristen,
    Thanks a lot for all of theses, photos, spots, informations. That’s really nice of you to share that.
    I will go on the jmt next september and will try some of them. Because of permits, I have to do it in l4 days max but like you I think it’s important to preserve such wonderfull places. I have to work with it !
    What about hot waters ? is there some places to observe such volcanic activities on the jmt ?
    And have you also been on the high sierra trail from Mnt Withney and the best campsites too ?
    Again thanks and I hope you will try someday our french trails .

    1. Hi Alain, Kristen has not hiked the High Sierra Trail. I have hiked the Pacific Crest Trail but haven’t put together a piece on the best campsites on that trail. There aren’t really many hot springs or volcanic activity observation points off the JMT.

  6. Kristen,
    When you say that the campsite was a 1/2 mile above guitar lake, can you be more specific? Do you mean that your campsite was 1/2 mile further up the trail or did you leave the trail and hike for 1/2 mile? I have heard that guitar lake is crowded and full of used tp. I would love to find the site you are referring to, can you give more specific information?

    Thanks,
    Carla

    1. Hi Carla,

      You may not need this answer anymore, but I hiked the HST (High Sierra Trail) last year which includes Mt. Whitney and this particular section of the JMT. These lovely camp spots at the tarn above Guitar Lake are right next to the trail. No need to do any extra hiking! Watching the sun set over the Kaweahs with the base of Mt. Whitney behind you, is a spectacular experience. I fully agree that this is a spot not to be missed. (Plus it puts you that much closer to Mt Whitney). Happy Trails!

      Jocey

  7. I’m planning my trip and want to stay at the lakes you recommend by Pinchot Pass. Are they the two lakes due north from the checkpoint on the map? Or are they the cluster more west on a map?