• Activities:

    Camping, Fishing, Photography, Backpacking, Hiking

  • Skill Level:


  • Season:

    Spring, Summer, Autumn

  • Trail Type:


  • RT Distance:

    33.69 Miles

  • Elevation Gain:

    4756 Feet


This beautiful and famous stretch of the John Muir Trail between Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite should be on anyone's short list of must-do backpacking trips. Especially since it can be done in a long 3-day weekend!

Unlike most through hikes that require two cars or hitchhiking, you can accomplish this with only one car by using a YART. Another benefit is that by entering in Mammoth, it is usually much easier to get permits as opposed to starting in Yosemite where permits can be harder to get. Then once you arrive in Tuolumne Meadows, you can take one of the YARTs back to Mammoth and your car. For more information on the YARTs, go to their website at http://yarts.com.

To do the hike in the same direction that I did, get permits for the River Trail Trailhead. If you can't, there are many other options in the Devil's Postpile area that will get you to the same places. To get permits go to recreation.gov and search for Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permits. Also, make sure to read up on the Devil's Postpile Shuttles and carry enough cash to pay for them and the return YART from Tuolumne Meadows to Mammoth Mountain.

Once you exit the Devil's Postpile shuttle at Agnew Meadows, walk towards the campground, and you'll see the trailhead down the road on the left. The Shadow Lake Trail and the River Trail both follow each other for the first 2 miles. The Shadow Lake Trail will branch off to the left in about 2 miles. Keep going straight on the River Trail for another 2.7 miles until you reach another junction. Stay to the left, following signs for Thousand Island Lake. After about 1/2 a mile a faint trail will come in on your left. This is the turnoff for Garnet Lake.

Be prepared for a steep hike up the hill towards Garnett Lake. Over the next 1/2 mile, you will ascend over 500 feet to the junction with the John Muir Trail and Garnet Lake. I don't recommend this section of trail if you are traveling with horses or pack animals.

Once at Garnet Lake start looking for somewhere to camp. When we were there, it was very windy, and so we found a camp behind a natural windbreak that even had a nice little bench to sit on out of the wind. Spend the rest of your day soaking in the beauty of majestic Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter rising out of the far end of Garnet Lake.

Rise and shine on day two next to the beautiful Garnet Lake with the sun reflecting off of Banner Peak. When packing up, make sure you keep your camera readily available for today's hike because you'll be passing some of the most picturesque portions of the John Muir Trail. You'll soon realize why they call this the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Once back on the John Muir Trail, you'll head North towards Thousand Island Lake. The first portion of the hike will climb to the ridge between Thousand Island Lake and Garnett Lake. From here you'll traverse across a bench containing Ruby Lake and Emerald Lake. After Emerald Lake and about 2.6 miles into the day, you'll reach Thousand Island Lake, one of the most popular destinations on the entire JMT. Make sure to stop and soak in the beauty of the lake from multiple vantage points. I recommend the junction with the PCT and then further up the JMT as you start to ascend towards Island Pass and have a great view looking back over the lake and all of its islands.

From Island Pass, you'll hike 1 mile downhill to reach the trail junction towards the Davis Lakes. From here it's an additional mile back uphill to the first Davis Lake. Up until this point, you've probably noticed how popular this stretch of the JMT is but by leaving the JMT and heading towards the Davis Lakes; you will find your first real solitude of the trip. When we camped at Davis Lakes, we were all alone until very late in the day when another group showed up, but they quickly found their privacy among the large spread out basin. We never saw them again until hiking out the next morning.

The Davis Lakes are nothing short of breathtaking no matter which way you look.

Completing this trip in three days and breaking where I did will make for a very long day three. Twenty miles to be exact. The good news is that only the next 4.6 miles are uphill as you continue to head up from Davis Lakes to Donahue Pass.

Once you reach Donahue Pass, you can celebrate because all the uphill is over. However, the hardest part of the hike may be the steep downhill before reaching the more mellow-graded Lyell Canyon floor. The good news is that ice-cold beer is only 15.4 miles away in Tuolumne Meadows. You could easily split this section up and camp in gorgeous Lyell Canyon but I was on a tight schedule and had a YART to catch by 6 pm.

As you descend from Donahue Pass, you'll see a beautiful tarn right below Mt. Lyell and then the descent will get steep in sections. After that, you'll reach the upper end of Lyell Canyon where your knees will be glad to see some flat trail. Don't get too comfortable; there will be one more downhill section that will test your knees before you get to the bottom. Once at the bottom, be sure to stop and let your feet breath and take a quick soak in the river before the last several miles of mellow trail. From here you can stop and look back up the canyon at Mt. Lyell and the Lyell Glacier and realize just how far down you have hiked.

The rest of the hike is seemingly flat through the forest until you reach Tuolumne Meadows. The YART stop is at the General Store, which also happens to serve food and has an excellent selection of ice-cold beer. Perfect to celebrate your accomplishments while waiting for your ride back to Mammoth.

Pack List

  • Backpack
  • Shelter
  • Food
  • Water Purification Method
  • Rain Gear (seasonal)
  • Safety Essentials (Map, Compass, First Aid, etc.)
  • Permits (www.recreation.gov)
  • YART (www.yart.com)
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Breathtaking views the entire way, from Mt. Ritter, to Donahue Pass, to Lyell Canyon. You definitely see it all throughout this trail. It almost desensitizes you to the real world.

over 1 year ago
over 1 year ago

Jeff Driscoll

"The world is big and I want to get a good look at it before it gets dark." -John Muir

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