California’s John Muir Trail is one of the most popular backpacking routes in the US, and for good reason. It might be the most stunning continuous stretch of remote mountains that well-maintained trail can access. I had the pleasure of backpacking the JMT a few years ago with my husband and a couple friends, and in this post I’ll share the exact itinerary that we followed.
The remote nature of the JMT makes resupply logistics a bit tricky, which means advance planning is necessary for most hikers. If you’re planning a JMT hike in the 18 day to 3 week range, especially if you’re starting from Lyell Canyon instead of the traditional Happy Isles start, this JMT itinerary will help you plan your hike.
About This JMT Itinerary
This is the itinerary I used to backpack the John Muir Trail southbound in 18 days, with:
- Permits starting from Lyell Canyon / Tuolumne Meadows (as is true for many hikers, we couldn’t get permits for the traditional Little Yosemite Valley start)
- Two on-trail resupply stops: Red’s Meadow and Muir Trail Ranch
- One zero (rest) day
- Three side trips: two short (couple hours) and one medium (most of a day)
I liked this itinerary a lot, and would absolutely recommend it to others looking to backpack the JMT at an average pace of around 12-13 miles per day, which is a pretty typical pace for first-time JMT hikers. It’s also as slow as you can go and still avoid resupplying after Muir Trail Ranch (if you have a big enough bear canister).
At the time, we were decently fit trail runners but not very experienced with backpacking. We could hike slowly all day without too much trouble, but were chronically slow with setting up and breaking down camp. We felt this schedule was a great balance: plenty challenging, but not so hard that we couldn’t enjoy ourselves.
For more detail on pacing, see this post about how to plan your daily mileage on the JMT.
18 Day JMT Itinerary
Here’s a table showing how far we hiked each day, and where we camped.
These daily mileages could be a little off depending on which map or GPS track you’re following, so take them with a grain of salt.
The “JMT Miles” column includes only forward progress made along the JMT, and does not include side trips.
If you are cross-referencing the “total JMT miles” with JMT data tables, our start point at Tuolumne Meadows / Lyell Canyon Trailhead is at mile 24.5 of the full JMT.
|Day||JMT Miles (total JMT miles)||Camp||Notes and Points of Interest|
|1||11 (11)||Just before Donahue Pass||Started from Tuolumne Meadows / Lyell Canyon|
|2||10 (21)||Garnet Lake||Donahue Pass|
|3||3 (24)||Ediza Lake (side trip)||Ediza Lake is 2 miles off the JMT. Side trip to Iceberg and Cecile Lakes|
|4||10 (34)||Red’s Meadow Campground||Red’s Meadow resupply|
|5||15 (49)||Lake Virginia||Short side trip to Southern Red Cone|
|6||14 (63)||Quail Meadows||Silver Pass|
|7||14 (77)||Marie Lake|
|8||0 (77)||Marie Lake||Rest, relax, and scramble around the nearby granite|
|9||10 (87)||Piute Creek Junction||Selden Pass, Muir Trail Ranch resupply|
|10||13 (100)||Evolution Basin|
|11||15 (115)||Big Pete Meadow||Muir Pass|
|12||15 (130)||Upper Palisade Lake|
|13||16 (146)||2 miles past Pinchot Pass||Mather Pass, Pinchot Pass|
|14||13 (159)||Rae Lake|
|15||12 (171)||Bubbs Creek||Glen Pass|
|16||10 (181)||Bighorn Plateau||Forester Pass|
|17||12 (193)||Past Guitar Lake||Tawny Point quick side trip (1.5 hours). Camped at small site on climb up to Mt. Whitney junction. Unless you want to be at the summit for sunrise (beautiful but absurdly cold) I suggest camping at Guitar Lake instead.|
|18||12 (195)||Done!||Whitney summit at sunrise|
To make sense of the final row, note that the official JMT ends at Whitney Summit so I’ve only included the ~2 miles from our last camp to the summit in the “total JMT miles” count. But, unless you’re going to live on Mt. Whitney for the rest of your life (which your permit surely doesn’t allow), you’ll need to hike another 11 miles down to Whitney Portal after that.
Side Trips and Zero Days
The JMT may be the most famous route in the area, but it’s really just a small linear sliver through a spectacular mountain wilderness. While you’re there, I highly recommend trying to make time for a few side trails or relaxing at one of hundreds of lovely alpine lakes.
We chose our side trips and zero day based on timing, proximity to the JMT, and resupply logistics. Most are before the final MTR resupply, at which me maxed out our food capacity and couldn’t afford any extra time.
Ediza / Iceburg / Cecile Lakes
We took this side trip early in the hike, while resupply logistics were still easy, and highly recommend it. On our third day we hiked only three miles on the actual JMT before turning off to peaceful Ediza Lake, eating lunch, and dropping off our packs. Then we hiked and scrambled up to Iceberg Lake and eventually Cecile Lake, both of which felt remote and pristine to an extent that’s hard to find on the JMT these days. Highly recommended!
Southern Red Cone
Short hike up a red volcanic cone, worthwhile for the view and the volcanic scree sliding on the way down.
Near the southern end of the JMT, a quick 2 hour jaunt up from Big Horn Plateau to a summit with amazing 360-degree views. You can even see Mt. Whitney, your target in a few days! Highly recommended.
Zero Day at Marie Lake
We chose to take a rest day at Marie Lake about mid-way through our hike. It was beautiful but also windy, which made it a bit less relaxing than we’d hoped for. There are some nice short hikes and scrambles in the area for those who can’t sit still for a whole day.
For more ideas, here’s a list of common side trips along the JMT.
Plan But Stay Flexible
One of the many wonderful things about the JMT is its abundance of excellent campsites. Because of resupply logistics most hikers do have a strict schedule to keep, so some advance planning is important. It’s definitely good to review the guidebook and map in advance, and make a rough plan (I use Google Sheets) of how many miles you’ll hike each day and where you think you might camp.
Having a solid plan up front is key to knowing the trail well enough to make changes on the fly. Once you’re on the trail, I recommend being flexible from day to day. If you’re willing to give or take just a couple miles each day, you’ll have a lot of leeway and can push farther when you’re feeling strong, stop early after a tough day, or stay at that gorgeous campsite that calls to you but wasn’t on your spreadsheet.
Of course, if you consistently hike too few miles each day you’ll risk running out of food before your resupply or missing scheduled transport home. It’s always a balance.
We used the classic guidebook by Elizabeth Wenk to learn about the trail and plan our segments. Then we brought the Tom Harrison maps on the trail (or shipped in our resupply boxes) for navigation and planning on the fly.
Other John Muir Trail Resources
For more JMT planning resources, see also
- How many days should you spend hiking the JMT?
- John Muir Trail vs. Tahoe Rim Trail
- Most Popular Backpacks on the JMT
- Most Popular Sleeping Pads on the JMT
And if you’re planning a John Muir Trail thru hike, you might also find these helpful:
- How to Choose a Bear Canister (and tips for packing it)
- How to Use Trekking Poles (+ Buyer’s Guide)
- Bearikade Expedition Bear Canister Review
- My Gear Closet: Favorite Lightweight Backpacking Gear
Or check out the full hiking and backpacking resources page.
Excited about backpacking but need help getting started? The Backpacking Trip Planner Workbook will help you start off on the right foot.
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12 thoughts on “18 Day John Muir Trail Itinerary from Lyell Canyon”
Hi there! Why do your total trail miles only increase by 1 mile between day 9 and 10 when you are hiking 10 miles from Piute Creek to Evolution Basin….is that a typo?
Hi Jason, you are absolutely right, thanks for pointing that out! The totals should now be correct.
Hello! I just got an August 13, 2021 SOBO permit out of Lyell Canyon and spent all of today route planning with help from friends who have completed the hike. My route is nearly identical to yours (including the side trip to Ediza!) with a few small exceptions:
(1) 0 day at MTR instead of Marie Lake
(2) Stopping at Lake Marjorie the night before Rae Lakes
(3) Stopping at Crabtree Meadows and having a brutal final day from there to Whitney Portal
Do you think this will work? I’ve read great things about Lake Marjorie and like the idea of doing one big pass per day. Also, I’ve heard it’s tough to get good sleep at guitar lake due to wind/cold, and I don’t think we’re super intent on summiting Whitney for sunrise.
Also, did you do anything to acclimatize before starting the hike? We are hoping to spend 2 full days in Tuolumne Meadows since we’re coming from the east coast.
Would greatly appreciate your suggestions!
Hi Michael, congrats on the permit! It’s hard to say without knowing your hiking experience and style, but I think generally that should be doable. I’d suggest an alpine start (say 3am) for your Whitney summit day, and plan for those miles up above 12k feet to be very slow. Also, once you’re on the trail you’ll have a better sense of your pace and could probably modify #2 and #3 on the fly, if you need to. Enjoy your hike!
Thanks! That sounds good. 3am start even if we just need to reach Whitney Portal before sunset?!
Yes, the plan is to modify as we go, but I at least want to set up an ideal route and then build in 1-2 extra days in case we need them.
I think you’ll have around 17 miles to do on your last day? I’m away from my computer so please check me on that mileage, but you’ll want plenty of time for that day. The miles from Guitar Lake to the summit will likely be your slowest of the whole trail. We slept 4 or 5 miles past Crabtree and started around 2am in order to make sunrise at the summit!
If you struggle at all with long downhills, the rest of the day might not be fast either. You’ll know your own pace best, especially by then, but my point is just to leave plenty of time for Whitney and enjoying your last day.
I wasn’t able to acclimate first, but I would recommend it if you can, especially if you don’t have much experience hiking at elevation. Two days at Tuolumne sounds great, and drink a little extra water while there and on the trail. If you’re not able to spend the extra days first, you’ll likely still be fine, but plan for a leisurely pace and keep the first couple days shorter.
Sounds good, thanks!
If you are doing 21 days from Lyell end of July would you recommend 2 or more rest days or more side trips/hikes?
It’s impossible for me to say without knowing your hiking style, fitness, etc. I’d suggest identifying a few ideas for good rest day spots and side trips, and then deciding as you go. You might find that your body demands a rest day, or that you have extra energy to explore, but it’s hard to know ahead of time.
Thanks for the info my upcoming trip will be very similar. How did you get to the Lyell Canyon start point?? Thats my biggest remaining hurdle. Thanks
Hi Nick, we were a group of 4 and did a car shuttle, so two people parked a car there and the other two parked a car at Whitney Portal and took a combination of public transport to the start (not sure if it’s running this year). You can check Facebook groups and maybe Guthook for local drivers who might be able to drop you off, or of course there’s always hitchhiking. Good luck and enjoy your hike!