A Trip to the John Muir Trail

Learn how the National Park Service manages the John Muir Trail, one of the longest stretches of wild country in the continental US.

By Kerry Mitchell


September 2016

John Muir Trail

The John Muir trail might appear to be an undeveloped and wild stretch of land, but is actually strictly regulated by the National Park Service and the National Forest.

Photo by Fotolia/mvkazit

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Spirituality and the State: Managing Nature and Experience in America's National Parks (NYU Press, 2016) by Kerry Mitchell analyzes the techniques used by state departments to maintain the "spiritual" aspects of America's national parks. A visit to a national park is a production put on to make visitors feel natural, individual and authentic. In this excerpt from chapter two, "The John Muir Trail: The Properties of Wilderness," two different trail experiences are given. One is the casual weekend hiker and the other is a more serious, seasoned hiker. 

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Running 212 miles from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney, the John Muir Trail, or the “JMT” as it is often called, traverses one of the longest stretches of wild country in the lower forty-eight states. For the most part the trail runs along the height of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and, in one hundred-mile section, hikers never come closer than a day’s journey from any road. This undeveloped character of the JMT does not result from neglect. The National Park Service and the National Forest manage the trail under a variety of legal mandates, the most prominent of which is the official designation “wilderness.” Each of these administrative specifications demands thorough attention on the part of public lands managers. However, while signs at the entry points announce the bureaucratic divisions, there is little to distinguish one administrative regime from another. For the vast majority of the trail, the only recognizable sign of human presence consists of the trail itself.

This muted presence of the government results from a concerted management strategy based in the Wilderness Act of 1964. The act describes wilderness as an area that "generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable." At the base of Mt. Whitney (the southern end of the JMT), not far from the entrance to the wilderness just half a mile up the trail, the presence of humans is unmistakable. A parking lot remains full throughout the summer months. Thirty yards up the road an outdoor café serves hikers half-pound burgers in baskets overflowing with french fries, and inside one can purchase bear canisters, maps, souvenirs, candy, and cold beer.

Moving up off the road from the parking lot, the trail climbs several miles and several thousand feet to reach the crest of the Sierra Nevada, and along this stretch one finds no cafés, roads, vehicles, or permanent dwellings. Still, the "imprint of man's work" is hard to escape. Of course, the trail is always there, but the most obvious sign of human presence is the humans themselves. The vast majority of these are not JMT hikers. As the highest peak in the lower forty-eight states, and just a few hours drive from Los Angeles, Mt. Whitney attracts a full complement of short-term visitors every day of the summer months. The ascent (twenty-one miles round trip) can be made over the course of a long weekend, offering visitors an opportunity to claim a distinctive athletic achievement without an extensive sacrifice of free time. The ascent has become so popular that the Forest Service has limited per day visitation to approximately 200 visitors, each of whom must apply for permits through a lottery opened months in advance. The result is a steady stream of hikers flowing up and down the mountain.

I spoke with no government official who claimed that such a condition was ideal. And as an end point of the JMT, the Mt. Whitney Zone (as the short term permits designate it) can provide something of a shock for long-distance hikers coming off the last, long stretch of their journey. The southbound JMT hikers have just spent two to four weeks in which they may have crossed paths with only a handful of people per day. Most show evidence of the "forces of nature" on their bodies. The sun, high altitude, and several weeks of hiking bring out a deep and even tan. The men (the vast majority are men) usually dispense with shaving gear and display stubble of distinctive length and irregularity. The dirt of the trail smoothes their tans even further, and while not redolent out of doors and beyond a range of a few feet, enclosed spaces often bring out a strong bodily odor.

Signs of the forces of nature can also be seen in their packs: tightly bound, close fitting, balanced, and relatively small. Over the course of three weeks, gravity and the task of walking encourages (through fatigue and pain) certain adjustments and a streamlined form. Such streamlining extends to bodily movement as well: little side-to-side sway, a regular gait, and a slightly bent but stout forward lean. On a more interior level, the journey changes the hikers’ body chemistry: their blood absorbs more oxygen. Their muscles have acquired greater stamina. These factors, along with the acquired habits of regular hydration, affect mood: despite the load they have carried over great distance, JMT hikers speak and smile easily and with little breathlessness.

Such signs contrast sharply with the short-term visitors to Mt. Whitney. Generally clean-shaven and unremarkable in their smell, the majority of Whitney hikers lack the physical conditioning to ascend the peak comfortably. Having driven, most often, from near sea level to 8,000 feet to reach the trailhead, short-term visitors run a greater risk of altitude sickness. Even a night’s sleep in the thinner air does not guarantee that the next day’s climb will avoid dizziness, headache, and nausea. Inexperience in packing compounds the difficulties. Whitney hikers almost always carry a larger, heavier load than their long-distance comrades, and the overnight packs are distinctive for their greater likelihood to swing, sag, or rest slightly askew on their bearers’ shoulders. The forces of nature work differently on these bodies: fatigue causes shoulders to slump against their straps, the pain of seldom-used muscles encourages more lateral swings and shifts of weight (a temporary and ultimately more exhausting relief), and lack of oxygen, rapid loss of fluids, and general physical strain draw faces downward, the ragged breath less welcoming of interruption for greeting or conversation. 

For the JMT hikers, reentry into “civilization” begins with these first encounters in the Mt. Whitney Zone. With the higher social density comes anonymous, unacknowledged crossing of paths, virtually unheard of in the back country. The base camp for the Whitney ascent is a small village, a cluster of tents tethered like brightly colored balloons to a nearby latrine. The trail leading down to the parking lot yields short-term hikers just beginning their ascent, the weight of their misshapen, ponderous packs not yet breaking their unconcerned smiles. This trail also bears their return as they often stomp through an exhaustion created as much by their lack of conditioning and inadequate planning as by the altitude and slope of the mountain. To recall the phrasing of the Wilderness Act, these faces and forms do not necessarily appear “to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature,” and before the JMT hikers reach the bottom of the trail and cross into the parking lot, “the imprint of man’s work” has already caught their attention. The JMT hikers carry wilderness in and on their bodies, in the ways that they move, speak, and interact. For them, wilderness and civilization are ways of seeing the world as much as they are the world that is seen; ways of being in the world and not simply the world that is.


Reprinted with permission from Spirituality and the State: Managing Nature and Experience in America's National Parks by Kerry Mitchell and published by NYU Press, 2016.