John Muir Trail vs Tahoe Rim Trail: Comparing Two Epic Sierra Thru Hikes

If you’re looking for a short thru hike in the Sierra Nevada, the John Muir Trail is certainly on your list. But have you considered the Tahoe Rim Trail? Both are scenic alpine hikes with stellar views, ample free camping, and a perfect bite-size length of 2-4 weeks.

Which one is better? Both have their advantages, but generally it boils down to this: The John Muir Trail has the edge in scenic beauty and epicness, while the Tahoe Rim Trail has the edge for ease of logistics and prep. I’ve thru hiked both and would gladly hike them both again; they each have a place in my heart.

This post compares my impressions of the Tahoe Rim Trail versus the John Muir Trail across a number of categories, including difficulty, logistics, remoteness, and more. In the end the choice is yours (and maybe the JMT permit lottery’s) and you really can’t go wrong with either of these lovely trails.

My JMT and TRT Hikes

I’ve had the pleasure of thru hiking both these trails under very different circumstances. The John Muir Trail was my first major backpacking trip! I hiked it with my husband and two friends back in 2014 after meticulously researching, planning, gearing up, and packing and mailing an epic amount of homemade dehydrated meals. We took our time – an unrushed but still challenging 18 day itinerary – and soaked it all in. By the time we finished I had fallen in love hard with backpacking… and the rest is history.

A couple stands together at Glen Pass with granite mountains and alpine lakes in the distance
Glen Pass, JMT

My Tahoe Rim Trail hike came a few summers later, partly inspired by our JMT experience. Our limited time off work and an endurance mindset (we were running ultras at the time) led us to set a crazy goal of walking around Tahoe in just seven days. That’s pretty fast, faster than I’d recommend, but we got it done and the feeling of accomplishment was sweet. This trip refined my strategies for lightweight gear and long days on the trail at a whole new level. 

Which trail was better? It’s impossible to say. Even if we’d done them both in the same style, each would have its own unique character. Since those thru hikes I’ve returned to both these areas for shorter backpacking trips, and even some bikepacking on the TRT. I know them both well and I hope this post helps you choose between the John Muir Trail and the Tahoe Rim Trail.

Dick’s Pass, TRT

The Basics

Map showing both Tahoe Rim Trail and John Muir Trail
The TRT and JMT shown on the same map. Not that far apart!
John Muir TrailTahoe Rim Trail
Affectionate nicknameJMTTRT
Distance211 miles170 miles
Route type
point to pointloop
Typical time needed18-22 days10-15 days
Getting permitsDifficult (info)Easy (info)
Food storageBear can required for almost allBear can required for part
Official planning resourcePCTA websiteTRTA website
Lowest elevation4,035 feet6,240 feet
Highest elevation14,505 feet10,338 feet
Dogs allowedMostly noEntire trail
Mountain bikes allowedMostly noSome (info)
Horses allowedMostly yesAlmost all (info)

Summary: Pros and Cons

John Muir Trail: Highlights

  • Incredibly scenic
  • More remote
  • Less crowded with day hikers

John Muir Trail: Drawbacks

  • Permits are hard to get
  • Transportation is harder
  • Resupply is sparser
  • More planning and logistical prep
  • Physically more challenging
  • Higher elevation

Tahoe Rim Trail: Highlights:

  • Easy transportation
  • Easy resupply
  • Permits readily available
  • A bit less physically demanding
  • Easy to bail to civilization if needed
  • Slightly longer hiking season
  • Dogs allowed

Tahoe Rim Trail: Drawbacks:

  • Some sections busy with day hikers and bikers
  • One section with limited camping options
  • Not as remote feeling

Which trail is better? I know you want a black and white answer, but honestly, it depends on what you’re looking for. Here’s more detail on each aspect for both trails.

Physical Difficulty

Harder: JMT

Both trails are physically challenging, but mile for mile the JMT is harder. The average and max elevations are higher, the trail is often rockier, and there is more elevation gain per day. There will be days on the JMT when you climb 3000+ feet before lunch.

The TRT has plenty of climbs and should not be underestimated, but they are usually not as long, steep, or high as on the JMT. Within the 7000 – 8000 foot elevation range where the TRT spends quality time, most hikers won’t have trouble acclimating. The sections above 9000 feet are usually short and manageable.

The John Muir Trail, especially the southern half, averages significantly higher than the Tahoe Rim Trail. A series of 11,000+ foot passes will have even the fittest hikers breathing hard. Fortunately most southbound hikers are able to acclimate as they hike, but the weight of a long food carry south of Muir Trail Ranch doesn’t help.

Steep switchbacks cut into mountain on John Muir Trail
JMT: so many switchbacks!
The TRT, while definitely not easy, does have some faster and easier miles.

Length and Time

Longer: JMT

Which trail will take you longer? All other things being equal, like fitness and gear weight, the John Muir Trail will take more time. At 211 miles the full length is 40+ miles longer than the Tahoe Rim Trail, though starting from alternate trailheads due to permit issues can narrow the gap.

The JMT is a bit harder, mile for mile, than the TRT so you can expect to cover fewer miles per day. You might need a rest day or two to get through the full 211 miles, and many people build in an extra day or two for side trips or peakbagging. There’s also transportation, which easily adds a day or more to both ends of a JMT journey.

If you’re short on time, the TRT is a better bet. Many people can comfortably thru hike the TRT in two weeks, while the JMT often takes three weeks.

The TRT can be hiked a bit faster due to its shorter length and slightly easier terrain.

Permits

Winner: TRT

Permits for the JMT are notoriously hard to get. Even back when I hiked it in 2014 we had to start at an alternate location, Tuolumne Meadows, because we couldn’t get a spot at the official trailhead. Today it’s much harder! You’ll need to enter the lottery 24 weeks in advance (or take your chances with walk-up permits), consider a number of alternate start locations, and there’s still a good chance you won’t get a permit. Try again next year!

Permits for the TRT, on the other hand, are available to all who want them and can be reserved at the last minute. Technically you only need a permit for the Desolation Wilderness section, and all TRT thru hikers are granted one. You do have to request it and pay for it in advance; see the website for details.

If you strike out in the JMT permit lottery, are planning a last-minute trip, or just don’t want to deal with all the fuss, the TRT’s easy permitting is a breath of fresh air.

View of granite basins and lakes on John Muir Trail
JMT permits are hard to get, but the scenery is worth the effort.

Transportation Logistics

Winner: TRT

Thru hiking the John Muir Trail is a project, even before you get to the trailhead. It’s a point to point trail with two remote ends, so a thru hike requires some sort of vehicle shuttle or tricky hitchhiking (or a combination). When we hiked it as a group of 4 we used a combo of hitchhiking, public transit, a park shuttle, and a six hour car shuttle! All this transportation adds to your total trip time and can be a headache some folks just don’t want to deal with.

The Tahoe Rim Trail, by contrast, is a perfect loop with dead-simple logistics. You choose your start point, park a vehicle there, and walk back to it when you finish. The Tahoe area is quite populated and developed, and a bit easier to reach for most people than Yosemite or the eastern Sierra. It’s also not too far from the Reno airport if you’re flying in. 

JMT hiker by trail sign pointing south
Walking south for so long on the JMT leaves you really far from your car.
The TRT is a loop, so you’ll finish where you started (easy logistics!)

Remoteness and Solitude

Winner: JMT (assuming you like remoteness)

You won’t be alone on either trail, but the John Muir Trail has the edge for feelings of remoteness and solitude. On the JMT you’ll traverse areas no normal day hiker would reach. There’s something special about meeting only fellow backpackers on the trail. “We’ve been out here for a week. Do you have a recent weather report?” “Nope, we’ve been out here for a week too.” “Oh well. Beautiful trail huh?”

On the Tahoe Rim Trail you’re never more than a day of hiking from a trailhead, and often just an hour or two. Some parts of the loop are quieter, but some are swarming with day hikers and mountain bikers. It can feel a little odd being in full backcountry mode – hungry, smelly, and disconnected – amongst day-hiking families and locals out walking their dogs.

The JMT’s remoteness is a lovely thing, but it also means you’ll have a harder time getting out if something goes wrong. Hiking out to civilization can take a day or more and be pretty strenuous. On the TRT, by contrast, you’re rarely more than a few downhill miles from a town or busy road. This makes the Tahoe Rim Trail a great warmup for newer backpackers who might not feel confident on the JMT just yet.

Expansive view over high plateau and river gorge from John Muir Trail
View over Bighorn Plateau on the JMT. That is a LOT of backcountry.
The TRT is beautiful too, but a bit closer to civilization

Resupply and Towns

Winner: TRT

The John Muir Trail’s remoteness is rare even amongst thru hikes, and it comes at the cost of more challenging resupply. There are no towns along the trail, only a few remote mountain lodges that accept resupply packages and a couple small shops with limited inventory. Most people prep and pack ALL their food in advance. On the plus side, you never have to deal with the jarring overwhelm of finding yourself in a bustling town after days in the peaceful wilderness.

Resupply spacing is a challenge on the JMT. The northern half has reasonably spaced intervals, but the southern section between Muir Trail Ranch and Whitney Portal has no resupply for 111 rugged miles. If you’re a slower hiker or just want to take your time and enjoy this world-class section of trail, this means carrying 8 or 9 days of food. That’s going to be heavy. Some people avoid this with a long off-trail hike to Onion Valley or an expensive mule hire, but neither is ideal.

Preparing JMT meals
For most JMT hikers food prep is a big part of the process.

The Tahoe Rim Trail, in contrast to the JMT, has easy well-spaced resupplies especially if you’re willing to hitchhike or walk a few extra miles. You have the option to mail packages to yourself, but you could also buy food along the way for a more flexible and low-prep experience.

The TRT’s interaction with civilization has pros and cons. The resupply is easier and you have more opportunities to enjoy fresh food, ice cream, or whatever you’ve been craving. Town days are an integral part of most thru hiking experiences. But towns can also be a bit much when you’re in full-on backcountry mode, and some people prefer to avoid them.

A hiker sorts food on the lawn at Muir Trail Ranch
Packing mailed resupply food into my bear can at Muir Trail Ranch

Hiking Season and Snowpack

Winner: TRT (usually)

The TRT and JMT have a similar summer hiking season of roughly July through September, with August often being ideal. Exact timing varies depending on how much snow came down during winter, where the snow was heaviest, how warm spring and early summer have been, and how early the autumn storms move in.

Sierra hiking season is growing harder to predict as seasonal swings become more exaggerated. Recent years have seen devastating fire seasons, historically high snowpack, and everything in between. On really high snow years like 2023, the JMT was a no-go for most people until late August due to dangers of lingering snow and high water crossings.

The TRT requires similar considerations, but often has a slightly longer hiking season thanks to its lower average elevation and somewhat less rugged terrain. There are times, either early in summer or later in fall, when it’s safer to attempt a TRT hike than a JMT hike. That said, the Sierra range is long and sometimes one area gets more snow than the other, so it’s important to do your research.

Fires are also a constant and unpredictable concern for both trails. On any given year one might be impacted by smoke or closures while the other is not. The only certainty is that the TRT is easier to bail from if you get unlucky.

Hiker encounters small snow patch on Tahoe Rim Trail in summer
The only bit of snow on the TRT in August. Each year is different though!

Camping

Winner: JMT, by a little

Both the John Muir Trail and Tahoe Rim Trail offer plentiful opportunities to camp where you want, following Leave No Trace of course. This is one of my favorite parts of a thru hike, the gentle rhythm of laying my head in whatever beautiful place I end up at each day. Neither trail has shelters, as is common on east coast thru hikes, or many established campgrounds.

The TRT has one exception: the section in Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park requires hikers to camp at specific established sites. It’s possible to hike a super long day and avoid this section entirely, but most people won’t want to. Because of this, and the JMT’s unrelenting scenic beauty, I have to say the camping is slightly better on the John Muir Trail. But both are great.

Campsite on John Muir Trail
Scenic campsite on the JMT
Two bivy sacks at mountain campsite at sunrise
Scenic bivy site on the TRT

Bears and Food Storage

Winner: neither

Unfortunately both the TRT and JMT have a bear problem. Black bears live in the Sierra, and though usually not threatening to humans they can occasionally develop a taste for hiker food. When that happens they can become a nuisance and even a threat, which sometimes leads to their euthanization.

To avoid this sad chain of events, both trails require hard-sided bear canisters on certain sections. The JMT mandates bear canisters on nearly the entire trail, so there’s really no getting around it. It’s an especially interesting puzzle given the long food carry in the southern half. You’ll need to pack your food very compactly or use a large bear canister, or both. 

The TRT requires bear canisters only within the 25 mile section passing through Desolation Wilderness. This requirement is only a couple years old and was added because of increasing bear issues in the area. Technically you could hike this section in a single day, without camping, to avoid carrying a bear canister on the TRT. But bears are a problem throughout the whole region, and I recommend carrying a bear canister regardless for extra peace of mind. 

Related: Bear Bags versus Bear Canisters

Bear canisters are required on parts of both trails. Though you could technically avoid carrying one on the TRT if you hike a really long day, I recommend a canister for peace of mind on the entire trail.

Side Trips and Peak Bagging

Winner: JMT

If you’re the type who can’t be confined to a straight line, you’ll want to take some side trips during your thru hike. Both hikes cross many other trails and technically have plenty of options, but honestly the options on the JMT are better. 

The John Muir Trail passes through remote and hard-to-reach areas that you can’t reach by day hiking, so many backpackers choose to spend an extra day or two enjoying these special spots. Good candidates are pristine high alpine lakes, nearby peaks with amazing views, or even one of the California 14ers (in addition to Whitney, which you’ll be summiting at the southern end anyway).

Gorgeous Iceberg Lake, one of our side trips from the JMT

Scenic Beauty

Winner: JMT

Mile for mile I doubt there is any trail in the United States that matches the John Muir Trail’s high density of gorgeous scenery. It’s famous and popular for very good reason: the vast granite basins and jagged high-elevation peaks of the southern Sierra are truly world class.

The John Muir Trail passes through three of the most spectacular national parks in California. You’ll spend days above treeline in massive granite amphitheaters, cross sparkling valleys you can barely see the other side of, then repeat, and repeat, and repeat. At the end of it all (if you hike southbound) you’ll find yourself at the summit of the tallest mountain in the lower 48. If your primary goal is to be constantly surrounded by epic alpine scenery, the JMT is your trail.

The Tahoe Rim Trail, however, is not bad! On the TRT you’ll get sweeping views of Lake Tahoe, which no lake on the JMT (or many other places) comes near in terms of size. There’s no shortage of alpine views all around the rim, and the section through Desolation Wilderness is stunning. The TRT may have a slightly higher fraction of unremarkable forested miles, but it’s no slouch in the scenery department overall.

Beautiful mountain on the John Muir Trail
The JMT has so many gorgeous mountain views that you’ll almost
The Tahoe Rim Trail offers some outstanding views of, unsurprisingly, Lake Tahoe

Gear

The same gear list, ideally a lightweight collection of three season mountain backpacking gear, will serve you well on both trails. There are a few considerations for those looking to really optimize:

  • The JMT typically requires longer between resupplies and a bear canister is mandatory, so a larger pack rated for a heavier load might be necessary. I doubt my pack has ever been heavier than when leaving Muir Trail Ranch with nine days of food!
  • The JMT spends more time at higher altitude, which will require warmer clothing and sleep system especially if hiking in late season (September). Don’t get me wrong, you need warm gear for the TRT too! But if you run cold and/or your gear is on the edge of sufficient, the JMT may be a more compelling reason to upgrade a few key items.
  • Since the JMT is a more difficult trail, it will reward a lightweight backpacking setup even more than the TRT will.

Other Considerations

Here are a few other factors that might sway you one direction or the other.

Pacific Crest Trail: While both trails share some tread with the famous PCT, the JMT shares more. If your goal is to section hike some of the PCT, you’ll get more out of hiking the JMT.

Mount Whitney: For southbound JMT hikers, Mt. Whitney’s summit is the prize that marks the start of the (very long) victory lap (down lots and lots of switchbacks). If you’re excited about the two-for-one of summitting the tallest mountain in the contiguous US and also completing a thru-hike, the JMT is your choice. The equivalent on the TRT is Mount Rose, a few thousand feet shorter but still a worthy peak with amazing views.

Hiker points to summit of Mt. Whitney in the distance
Pointing to the summit of Mt. Whitney, our goal in a couple of days, during a short side trip up Tawny Point.

Dogs: You can’t bring dogs on much of the JMT. You can bring them on the entire TRT. If you want to share your backcountry adventure with Fido then TRT is your pick.

California – Nevada State Line: The JMT is entirely within California. On the TRT you’ll hike across the state line between California and Nevada not once, but twice. If this sounds like a novelty to you, that’s a plus for the TRT.

So which one is better?

Ugh, you’re going to make me choose huh? Well, the John Muir Trail is popular for a reason. It’s big, epic, and breathtakingly gorgeous. If you’re of the “go big or go home” mindset, you’ll like the JMT. If I had to pick only one of these trails to hike again in my lifetime, the John Muir Trail is it.

But don’t discount the Tahoe Rim Trail. If you have less time, aren’t yet comfortable being really remote, don’t want to deal with intensive resupply or transportation logistics, or can’t get a permit for the JMT, definitely consider a walk around Lake Tahoe for your next thru hike.

You can always do both eventually… :)

More Resources

Both trails have plenty of planning information available, though more has been written about the super-popular John Muir Trail.

Here are a few resources and trail journals for each to get you started.

JMT Resources

Pacific Crest Trail Association – the official planning resource

Trail to Peak: comprehensive journal and guide, plus some lovely JMT photography

Bearfoot Theory has a great collection of information and resources for the JMT

Nice detailed trail journal from 2016 and helpful planning info, including transportation options

A speedy 10-day itinerary for the ultra-ambitious!

TRT Resources

Tahoe Rim Trail Association

Norcalhiker’s trail journal

Detailed guide from backpacker.com

Just for fun… this couple thru-hiked the TRT with their one-year-old baby. Awesome!

Looking for something a little shorter? Check out the Desolation Wilderness Grand Loop.

Fat marmot climbs over rock near Mt. Whitney.
In conclusion, here is Fat Marmot. Beware, he’ll go after your food no matter which trail you choose.

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the US and abroad. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more here.

Excited about backpacking but need help getting started? The Backpacking Trip Planner Workbook will help you start off on the right foot.

Hiking resources in your inbox?

There’s more where this came from! Sign up here for occasional emails full of inspiration and information about backpacking and hiking.


2 thoughts on “John Muir Trail vs Tahoe Rim Trail: Comparing Two Epic Sierra Thru Hikes”

  1. Great article! Exactly what I was looking for. It’s an incredibly high snow year and while I had planned on doing the JMT end of June, I am now rethinking that plan. Wondering if snow and water crossings are also as treacherous on the TRT? Or would it be safe to hike the TRT end of June/early July?

    Reply
    • Thanks, I’m glad it was helpful!

      Both my hikes were during low to average snow years, so unfortunately I don’t have a great sense for snow and water crossings since I barely dealt with either. I think it’s true that the TRT will have fewer issues, but there will probably still be some, and it’s not up to me to guess what’ll be hazardous or safe for any particular hiker.

      For what it’s worth: I saw only two tiny patches of snow on the TRT in early August of an average snow year (2016). These were near Dick’s Pass and on the ridge approaching Mt. Rose (going clockwise), both of which I would expect to have snow for sure this June. I encountered zero true water crossings on the TRT in August of that year, yet on the JMT in September of a tragically low snow year (2014) we did still have to take our shoes off once.

      You may have already found this trail conditions website, which would be good to keep an eye on: https://tahoerimtrail.org/current-trail-conditions/

      Sorry I can’t help with a more definitive answer. One other advantage of the TRT in this case is that it’s easier than the JMT to bypass sections here or there. If it wouldn’t bother you too much to not be a thru-hike purist, you could plan on a TRT hike and build in some backup options for bypassing potential trouble spots. I would think you could hike out to the highway, hitchhike a bit, and get back on the trail without too much hassle.

      Whatever you choose, have fun and good luck! And bring some mosquito repellent… :)

      Reply

Leave a Comment

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00