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.


| 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

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.