Funny thing about backpacking and camping on the John Muir Trail: you’re not really off the beaten path. The path has been pretty well beaten and shoveled and trampled on for enough decades that you’ll be hard pressed to find any place for you to “make your own path”. Hundreds hike and backpack it each year. Rangers dig channels so water won’t wash away the trail. In populated places like Mount Whitney the trail is carved into the mountain side and big granite blocks make the walkway. In other areas brush and grass give way to a brown, lifeless trenches.
This is where you’ll do most your hiking.
You won’t ever get lost.
You’ll never be alone.
If you’re a little less content with that experience you need not worry. This entire region around the trail is populated with less trodden trails and even trails that aren’t trodden at all. You can camp in solitude and you can backpack where you don’t exactly know what’s next.
A friend of mine met me at one such spot, Bench Lake, on the southern section of the John Muir Trail, about ten miles south of Mather Pass. Less then a hundred yards after the trail junction the path begins to fade. Grass grows on the trail. There’s no boulders to step on. Only a few ducks mark the trail where things get iffy. We camped just off the lake on a flat spot with no mosquitoes and a great view of of Arrow Peak beyond. We saw one person on the lake. (Look at the picture: we only saw one other person and he was on his way out. It was gorgeous.) The climb up to the summit (details for another day) had no trail at all. Just boulders and scree and occasional ducks. The summit registers had less than a couple hundred entries going back a decade.
When I got back my dad gave me a book by Steven Roper, The Sierra High Route, which details a route across the Sierra high country. There’s no trails. No markers. Just a direction, tips, and pass after pass of a big world that few people have ever traversed. When you have the map and you’re walking, it’s tough to not point at a spot or a trail and say, “I wonder what’s there.” A John Muir Trail backpacking trip doesn’t allow for too many spontaneous diversions like that. You’d never make it to the end. But I think my next trip is going to be to a place like that.
Who wants to go camping?
© 2014 Christopher Dart