John Muir Trail Trip Report: Kearsarge Pass to Mt. Whitney

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JOHN MUIR TRAIL TRIP REPORT, THE FINAL SECTION

(KEARSARGE PASS TO MT. WHITNEY)

The John Muir Trail is 212 mile of pure Sierra goodness. And now, in my final John Muir Trail trip report, we reach the grand finale…summiting Mt. Whitney – the tallest peak in the continental U.S. The beauty of the JMT is that despite having these magnificent peaks, anyone in decent physical shape can do it. There’s nothing even slightly technical or scary. It’s just putting one foot in front of the other while distracting yourself with the alluring landscapes. I had never done anything like this before this trip. I’m just a regular gal who likes to hike. So if you are thinking about doing the JMT but have reservations, I hope these John Muir Trail trip reports encourage you to go for it.

For more information on the John Muir Trail, check out these posts:

 DAY 19 – FLOWER LAKE TO UPPER VIDETTE MEADOW (182.4)

In my previous John Muir Trail trip report (part 4), I talk about how we had to make a detour to pick up our last food drop at Onion Valley. This ended up adding about 14 miles in total and an additional mountain pass to our trip. At the time it seemed like kind of a pain, but we ended up finding a quiet camp on Flower Lake where we were treated to this sunrise on Day 19.

*Side note: I still owe you guys a post about food drops, and that is high on my priority list. But for now, if you are in the process of planning and don’t want to carry more than a week’s worth of food, Onion Valley is a logical place to do your final pickup.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Flower Lake

When we started out that morning, it looked like it was going to be another beautiful day in the Sierras, but the weather quickly turned as we made our way to the top of Kearsarge Pass. Something that we learned is that the weather can turn in an instant up there. While we were very lucky throughout our trip, it’s critical that you have easy access to whatever clothing you need to be comfortable. For me, that was my rain coat and sometimes rain pants. For my friend Brad, he pretty much stayed in his swim suit, no matter what the weather. Men are so lucky 🙂

John Muir Trail Trip Report: The top of Kearsarge Pass

We reconnected with the John Muir Trail at mile 179.4, and the rest of the afternoon we experienced on and off rain as we descended down into Vidette Meadow. The pyramid shaped peak in the picture below is East Vidette Peak. In the cloudy sky that afternoon, it had a menacing look and was one of my favorite peaks along the entire trail.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Hiking down into Vidette Meadow

John Muir Trail Trip Report: East Vidette Peak

During lunch we got caught in a downpour and shortly after we decided to stop and set up shop. We were feeling wet and tired and with Forester Pass just ahead, we didn’t want to risk ascending in the storm. So we found a nice riverside spot for our tent in Upper Vidette Meadow and hid out for a couple of hours while the rain passed. Eventually, the rain subsided, and as we emerged from our tent, we got to watch a dramatic cloudy sunset.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Camping at Upper Vidette Meadow

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Camping at Upper Vidette Meadow

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Camping at Upper Vidette Meadow

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Center Creek Basin Camp

DAY 20 – UPPER VIDETTE MEADOW (MILE 182.4) TO WRIGHT CREEK (MILE 197.9)

I had mixed feelings waking up on Day 20. That day we would be tackling Forester Pass. The biggest and baddest pass of them all…or at least that was the rumor on the trail. I was a little bit nervous, but waking up to those blue skies I had a feeling it was going to be a good day. Day 20 also happened to be my 31st birthday. No better way to spend a birthday, I thought, than being out there on the trail. We had even saved some special treats for dessert that night.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Looking back into Vidette Meadow

The top of Forester Pass sits at 13,110 feet and marks the official border between Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park. Quickly after leaving Upper Vidette Meadow, we emerged above the treeline and slowly made our way up the talus trail. We were surprised to find that yes, Forester Pass was long. But it really wasn’t any harder than any of the other passes we had encountered. Maybe it’s because we were nearly three weeks in and our legs were pretty buff at that point, but the point is…don’t get intimidated by the trail talk. While some of the passes are more difficult than others, all of the passes on the trail are manageable, including Forester.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Forester Pass

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Forester Pass

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Forester Pass

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Forester Pass

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Forester Pass

we were on the final stretch of the pass, Brad scurried off ahead of me. When I finally made it to the top, I was greeted by a group of fellow hikers, some of who we met earlier on the trail. Everyone sang me happy birthday, and one of the guys up there even gave me a birthday swig of his coveted bourbon. What a fabulous way to start 31.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Forester Pass

We hung out on the top and soaked it all in before going down the other side into Sequoia National Park. Once we descended, the trail zig zagged down the barren terrain with expansive views of the Kaweah subrange off in the distance.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Forester Pass

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Forester Pass

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Forester Pass

We remained above the treeline for several miles south of Forester Pass. Just before the junction with the Lake South America trail, we decided to break for lunch.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Sequoia National Park

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Sequoia National Park

Shortly after lunch, we found our first sign indicating the distance to Mt. Whitney. It started to seem very surreal that we only had 2 days left on our trip.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Sequoia National Park

We didn’t have a real plan about where we wanted to camp that night, so we just kept trucking along.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Sequoia National Park

Next we hit Bighorn Plateau, a flat sandy landscape at 11,430 feet. I would have loved to camp on the small pond that is up there, but the clouds looked a little unpredictable, and we agreed that staying up there wasn’t the best idea.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Bighorn Plateau

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Bighorn Plateau

Bighorn Plateau is also where you catch your first glimpse of Mt. Whitney. It was hard to believe we’d soon be standing on top of it.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: View of Mt. Whitney from Bighorn Plateau

By the time we decided to stop for the day at Wright Creek, we’d hiked about 15.5 miles. It’s amazing how far we had come since day 1 in terms of our abilities. I remember struggling to make 8-10 miles a day during our first week in Yosemite. As you go, your muscles, endurance, and confidence grows, and I felt pretty excited about the transformation I was experiencing….Not to say I wasn’t happy to kick off my shoes and feast on that Mountain House Sweet and Sour Pork birthday dinner. In fact, I feel confident saying that was the best birthday dinner of my life.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Wright Creek Camp

DAY 21 – WRIGHT CREEK (MILE 197.9) TO GUITAR LAKE (MILE 206)

After the long day prior, we were excited that we only had to cover 8 miles on Day 21. This was also going to be our last night on the trail, so we really wanted to have some time to relax at camp and enjoy it. So we got an early start and enjoyed another view of the Kaweahs, which seemed so much further away coming down from Forester Pass.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Sequoia National Park

We arrived at the Crabtree Junction around lunch. There is a ranger station there across the river, and we thought it would be a good idea to stop in and inquire about the weather forecast for that night and next day. We were pleased to hear that there was nothing but sun headed our way and that gave us some confidence for Whitney.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Sequoia National Park

Soon we passed Timberline Lake and this meadow would be the last greenery we encountered until we came down from Whitney the next day.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Approaching Guitar Lake

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Approaching Guitar Lake

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Crabtree Meadow

We arrived at Guitar Lake in the mid-afternoon and found all of the campsites were already in the shade. We wanted the sun! According to everything I had read, Guitar Lake was the last source of water before Mt. Whitney, but the Ranger at Crabtree told me otherwise. He said there were a few ponds just up the hill from Guitar Lake where we could also camp. So we decided to keep going in search of those rays.


John Muir Trail Trip Report: Guitar Lake

And this is what we found. Pretty much the most epic campsite of all time. There was one other group of two camped across the small pond, but there was plenty of room that we didn’t bother each other.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Guitar Lake

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Guitar Lake

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Camping Below Mt. Whitney

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Camping below Mt. Whitney

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Guitar Lake

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Guitar Lake

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Alpenglow below Mt. Whitney

We had several hours of hot afternoon sun before it started to set. We were so happy that we continued on past Guitar Lake. Plus, we got to spend our last night watching this sunset. While the evening sky was pretty throughout our whole trip, there weren’t many nights where we had a perfect view of the sun setting over the horizon. We couldn’t have been more thankful to end our last full day on the trail this way.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Sunset over Guitar Lake

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Sunset over Guitar Lake

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Sunset over Guitar Lake

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Sierra Alpenglow

That night we went to bed early with the jitters, and I barely slept at all. In less than 12 hours we’d be standing on top of the tallest mountain in the lower 48 and soon after that, I’d be drinking a cold one back in Lone Pine. It was a very strange feeling.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Sunset over Guitar Lake

DAY 22 – GUITAR LAKE (MILE 206) TO THE END!

We wanted to watch the sunrise from the top of Mt. Whitney. We had just over 3,000 feet to climb in about 4.5 miles, and we weren’t exactly sure how long that would take us. We also weren’t sure if we would be affected by the altitude.  The ranger told us that 2:00 or 2:30am would be a good time to wake up, and sunrise would be about 6:30. To play it safe, we set our alarm for 2:00 and packed up in a hurry. And off we went in the dark, led only by our headlamps.

Hiking up those switchbacks in the dark was invigorating. We couldn’t tell how far we’d gone or how steep the cliff side was. The excitement and the brisk air kept us pushing ahead, while we carefully kept our eye on the time.

When we got to the Trail Crest, the side trail that leads tot he summit, I think it was about 5:30am. We still had 2 miles and 1,000 feet to climb. We started to get nervous that we weren’t going to make it, so we decided to drop our packs at that junction since we would be passing by it again on the way down. I quickly grabbed my small daypack, some water, and an extra layer. Now running 30 pounds lighter, we were able to pick up our pace as we raced the sun to the top.

Dropping our packs ended up being an excellent decision. We arrived just before 6:30, just in time to witness the velvety blue sky light up as the sun rose in the east over Death Valley. It’s was FREEZING cold up there, but the sunrise was everything we wanted it to be. I even felt a little emotional up there. All that planning and all that hiking to get there. We did it. We were proud, excited, sad. Lots of mixed emotions.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Mt. Whitney summit

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Mt. Whitney summit

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Mt. Whitney summit

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Mt. Whitney summit

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Mt. Whitney summit

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Mt. Whitney summit

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Mt. Whitney summit

After the sun came up, we were so cold that we couldn’t really stay up there much longer. We tried to warm up in the hut but eventually decided to sign the register and head back down. My only regret is not getting a picture of the register while we were there.

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Mt. Whitney summit

John Muir Trail Trip Report: Mt. Whitney summit

Here I am at the official end of the John Muir Trail!

Southern Terminus of the John Muir Trail

Overall, the hike down was actually pretty difficult. You lose about 5,500 feet over 8 miles and it’s pretty tough on the knees. Make sure you have enough water and snacks to fuel you till the end.

Mt. Whitney

Descending from Mt. Whitney

And that’s a wrap! We covered about 240 miles (including our food drops) over 22 days. The first week it felt like it was going so slow, but by the end, time was flying by, and I felt like I could’ve stayed out there even longer. Guess I’ll just have to start planning my next long-distance hike. Anyone have suggestions? I think I’m ready for something BIG!

Thanks again for following along on my John Muir Trail trip reports. If you have any questions, just leave a comment below. I’m so excited for everyone who’s headed out there this summer. It was a life-changing experience for me, even now 6 months later. Good luck and happy hiking!

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There are 27 comments on this post.

About the author

Hi! I'm Kristen....blogger, hiker, sunset-watcher, and dance floor shredder. I feel most alive in the outdoors and created this website to help you enjoy the best that the West has to offer.

27 Comments on “John Muir Trail Trip Report: Kearsarge Pass to Mt. Whitney

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  1. Yet again, another awesome write-up, with awesome photos

    I especially loved the gopro shot atop of Whitney. You should submit it to GoPro’s Daily Photo of the Day!
    I’ve had 2 of my photos chosen. They send you some sweet coupons & if they post your photo, there’s some incentive$$.

      Thanks Daniel! I’m going to go submit that photo right now. Thanks for the tip.

    Kristen,

    You’re the bomb! Thank you so very much for your reports. Your trip reports and photos are wonderful and a source of inspiration. Look forward to your next post on food drops… was wondering about Onion Valley myself. Thanks again.

    Patrick

    PS. Got my permit for August 1st out of Tenaya Lake. I’ll be following in your footsteps.

      Patrick – That’s so awesome to hear! I’m so stoked for you and glad these reports have been helpful. Stay tuned for resupply info. Thanks for your support and if you have any other questions, just let me know! -Kristen

    Kristen.
    great job on this series! really insightful and well written-and your photos are amazing!
    enjoyed every word.

    great resource. will enjoy reading of your next adventures..

    Soo happy to read your final post! Thank you so much for the valuable knowledge. Can’t wait for my JMT this summer! Check out Camino de Santiago in Spain. 500 miles through beautiful historic countryside and cities….absolutely life changing. Thanks again and I’ll shoot you more emails after my trip!!!

      Brielle – I’m so excited for you! Definitely send some pictures, or upload them to the Bearfoot Theory Facebook page when you get back. https://www.facebook.com/bearfoottheory

      And I’ll also be sure to check out the camino de santiago! I’ve never been to Spain but as far as Europe goes, it’s at the top of my list. Thanks and if you have any other questions, just let me know. -Kristen

    wow, so many pictures! Nice scenary. We like to travel with a tent or staying in budget hotel/hostel. It’s all about the experience!

    Kristen, great job! I loved your trip report, or I’d better call it “tale”, as it made me dreaming of being there. I would really like to do it sooner or later, but coming from the other side of the world (italy) makes the organization of these things a bit difficult unfortunately… Looking forward to read about your next adventure!!

      Thanks so much! I’m glad you enjoyed it. If you ever make it over here from Italy, let me know! Cheers, Kristen

    What an adventure for sure. My brother and I plan to do that this August.
    Thank you for the inspiration!

      Awesome Paul! You are going to have the time of your life. Let me know if you have any questions! -Kristen

    Hi Kristen! Thank you for sharing what looks like an epic trip! I plan to summit Mt Whitney beginning from the portal side on August 15th and then continue on the JMT exiting at Onion Valley. I see a lot of posts from people hiking that section from North to South (Keersarge Pass to Whitney). Any advice for my plan to go against the flow? 🙂

      Most people go north to south because it allows them to adjust to the altitude more slowly. If you have the option of camping up in the portal for a night before you start your hike, that will help with that. I would also recommend hiking to the summit for sunrise. It was a really cool experience and you will avoid hiking up there with the bulk of the crowds. Hope that’s helpful and come back and let me know how it goes! -Kristen

    thank you very much for this gift. Your journal was mesmerizing. Curious if you or bRad ever tried fishing for food?

    I am 56 and have not back packed in 35 years, but you have inspired me. One question, is the trail to the top of MT Whitney easily discernible in the dark/early morning Twitter-light?

      Hey Jim – Thank you so much for the compliment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post! We didn’t do any fishing, but we met people who did. Most of the fish were pretty small, so it was a treat rather than something to rely on for your main source of food.

      The trail to the top of Mt. Whitney is very well defined. We used headlamps didn’t have any trouble following the trail. Can’t wait to hear about your next adventure…so come back and tell me about it! -Kristen

        Hi there

        Finished our JMT hike on August 9. For me, the trail from Trail Crest to the top of Whitney, was pretty scary! I agree with your assessment of Glenn Pass and the trail to Whitney Portal. I thought Glenn Pass was the most difficult and that the trail down to Whitney Portal was fairly rough and unmaintained( especially after the switch backs). Loved your journal. It was what helped motivate me. Yes, we did fish and yes, the fish are small.

        Thank you for your inspirational writing!,,

    Hi Kristen,

    I’ve spent the better part of the last couple of days reading the various posts on your site and am more and more excited to begin planning for my trip on the JMT next year. Thank you for breaking down your trip and explaining all the nuances or the permits, food drops and gear selection along with the wonderful write-up and pictures from your trip.

    I’m not a noob when it comes to backpacking having been involved with the Boy Scouts for over 23 years now. I’ve been to Philmont Scout Ranch 4x, where each trip has been an 11-day adventure with large elevation changes and summits of 12k ft all while carrying a 50lb+ backpack, still, I’m a bit nervous and unbelievably excited to step foot on the the JMT.

    My hiking partner(s) completed the AT last year so I know I’m in good hands, especially as I transition from the Scouting “Be Prepared” ideology to more of a light weight “thru hiker” way of thinking and preparing. I think what makes me most nervous is traveling from Pennsylvania to California, hoping, wishing & praying that we’ve made all the correct travel and permit accommodations. Once we hit the trail, I’m sure we’d be golden!

    One big question I have for you is your recommendation on how much time to take to hike the JMT? Your trip was 22 days with no “zeros” at what reads to be a pretty enjoyable pace. Stopping when you want and hauling when need be. Just looking for your thoughts here…

    Do you have any insight on traveling into the area, where to stay etc? I’m thinking flying in to Reno, NV and catching the ESTA bus to Lee Vinning, CA. Staying overnight in Lee Vinning and then catching the YARTS bus into the park the next morning to start the JMT. Once we finish the trail, staying in Lone Pine overnight then catching the ESTA bus back to Reno Airport?

    Lastly, do you think your hiking partner b-Rad would be interested in sharing his gear list? Your list is great, however, me in yoga pants is just something you could never un-see, ha!

    Thanks again for the wonderful website and all the effort you’ve put into sharing your JMT experience with us.

    Ray
    rgrote@comcast.net

      Hi Ray! That’s awesome you are going to hike the JMT. It’s going to be an incredible experience, unlike any other trail you’ve been on.

      I thought 22 days was perfect. It was still a challenging pace, but left us with some time to hang at camp in the afternoons and we also weren’t rushed in the morning. The problem with taking a zero day is you have to make sure you have food for that zero day. And with limited space in the bear canister, that would have been an issue for us.

      I haven’t looked into transportation too much, but I’m going to write a post on this before the next season. I do know on the tail end, you might also consider LA or Las Vegas.

      Unfortunately bRad is not as organized as me…:) and doesn’t have a gear list. He hiked most days in swim trunks. Then at night switched to long pants. He has a higher tresh hold for cold weather than most people.

      Thanks and let me know if you have any other questions! -Kristen

    Thanks Kristen, loved every minute of your trip. This has been a bucket lister of mine for many years and A couple years ago I became friends with a guy who would do this with me. About two weeks ago we finally got our wilderness permit that Was eluding us. My trip is August 19 and I\’m so excited I can\’t stand it. Still quite nervous about all the planning and food drops and doing the last week by myself as my buddy can\’t take that long off work. But so looking forward to the personal exploration and being away from \”civilization\” for nearly a month. Any suggestions on how to get from Whitney to Lonepine?

      Hey Richard! That’s awesome. And I think by the time you are solo, you’ll be in such a groove that it wont be a big deal. You’ll also probably have made a few trail friends as well.

      I’m working on a post about JMT transportation…so check back and hopefully I’ll have some info for you.

    Another Question Kristen. I am trying to figure out when to book my trip home for.
    If I follow your lead and leave about 4.5 miles to the summit on say Sunday.
    How far far to the Whitney portal from the summit?
    Then I’ve been told “just hitch a ride to lone pine”, seems a bit wish washy for the end of being gone 29 days when Ive never been gone more than a week. Whats the best way to get from portal to Lone Pine?
    So can I in 1 day summit and get to Lone Pine (Sunday)?
    Then sleep, rent a car and drive to Vegas the next day to fly home the next day (Monday)?
    I know Ill be ready to get home but that seems a bit pressured. Can’t wait to hear your answers and thanks so much for the assistance.

    Love all your guides but I had a question. Where did you exit after you climbed down Whitney? Did you exit through Onion Valley junction or did you take a different path?

    Loved reading and seeing the pics. Beautifully done and great idea to be at the top of Mt Whitney before sunrise!

    I took friends to Yosemite and will be doing a food drop for them at Kearsarge pass and Bullfrog lake. Can’t wait to do the trek myself someday!

    What camera did you use on your trip? Just a go pro? Advice on the best lightweight solar or charger? I am doing NOBO in September from cotton wood pass and about half of the trail. I can’t wait! I love your website and it is so helpful.

A little Instamagic