John Muir Trail – Reds Meadow to Yosemite Valley

Note This is the first of 3 section hikes to hike the entire John Muir Trail over 3 years. Read the trip reports for Part 2 (Duck Pass to Bishop Pass) and Part 3 (Bishop Pass to Mount Whitney).

Along with my dad and a brother, we backpacked a 56-mile section hike of the John Muir Trail from August 7th to 10th, 2019 starting from Reds Meadow, visiting Devils Postpile National Monument, and traveling through the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Inyo National Forest, and Yosemite National Park.

Day 0

After flying into San Francisco the night before, my dad and I met up with my brother and in the morning drove to Yosemite Valley. We left our car in the backpacker lot near Happy Isles. Ignore and drive around the sign blocking the road saying it’s closed. We took the YARTS from Yosemite to Mammoth, picked up our permit from the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center night box, got dinner, and stayed in a hotel room in Mammoth for the night.

Day 1

Reds Meadow to Garnet Lake. We hired an early morning shuttle to the John Muir Trail North trailhead at the Devils Postpile National Monument (thanks Paul from East Side Sierra Shuttle!). You’re not allowed to drive into the area during hours when the Devils Postpile/Reds Meadow bus is running (typically 7am-7pm), but we got there very early and set off right before sunrise. We wanted to start here to visit the Devils Postpile National Monument. It’s one of the world’s finest examples of columnar basalt – nearly perfectly hexagonal “posts” of basalt. Really cool spot! 

Devils Postpile

Turning back towards the trail, we immediately crossed the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River and were treated to a beautiful morning meadow scene.

Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River

Our only significant water crossing of the trip came at Minaret Creek shortly after exiting Devils Postpile. Apparently the log bridge washed away a few years ago.

Crossing Minaret Creek

Due to the high snow fall year and late melt, mosquitos were out in full force even in August. With long pants, long sleeves, hat, sun gloves, and a mosquito head net, we were fine as long we kept moving. I did once forget I was wearing a headnet and spit a disgusting amount of phlegm right into it. Yuck.

Along the way, we passed several alpine lakes – Rosalie Lake, Shadow Lake, and finally Garnet Lake, where we ended the day. 

On the trail before Garnet Lake
On the trail before Garnet Lake

This was my favorite campsite of the trip, maybe because after today, I got sicker and sicker. 

Camp site at Garnet Lake
Dad and brother at our camp site at Garnet Lake

The campsite was crowded, but the sunrise was spectacular, with Banner Peak and Mount Ritter glowing red and reflecting in the mirror-like still water. 

  Garnet Lake at sunrise

Taking a dip in Garnet Lake
Taking a dip in Garnet Lake

Day 2

Garnet Lake to Ireland Creek. More lakes! Today we passed Ruby Lake and then Thousand Island Lake. So many small islands. Maybe not a thousand, though.

Thousand Island Lake
Thousand Island Lake

We passed the beautiful Rush Creek then began the long, grueling hike towards and over Donahue Pass. 

Walking towards Donahue Pass
Walking towards Donahue Pass

It was a high snow year, but by the time we went in early August, there were only a few short sections of snow remaining.

Crossing Donahue Pass
For the next few miles, we descended into Lyell Canyon, passing the former Lyell Glacier (now just a permanent snowfield) along the way.
Crossing the Lyell Fork. Mount Lyell and the Lyell Snowfield is on the left.
Crossing the Lyell Fork. Mount Lyell and the Lyell Snowfield is on the left.
The views of Lyell Canyon were one of the highlights of the trip.
Looking down into Lyell Canyon
Finally, we crossed Ireland Creek on some fallen logs and camped at a clearing right after the crossing.
Crossing Ireland Creek
After a long day, the All-American Works Burgers in BYO-Tortilla wraps really hit the spot!
Burger in a tortilla wrap. Yum! Really hit the spot.

Day 3

Ireland Creek to Upper Cathedral Lake. We started the day with instant coffee to take the edge off a chilly morning. 

Brrrrrr! 33 degrees.

We broke camp and hustled to make it to Tuolumne Meadows where we were looking forward to some greasy cheeseburgers from the grill. There was frost on the grass along Lyell Canyon that melted as the sun peeked over the mountains.

Lyell Canyon

Along the way, we passed a trail maintenance crew including a mule carrying chainsaws.

Yup. It’s a mule with chainsaws.

By 10am, we had reached Tuolumne Meadows.

Tuolumne Meadows
Tuolumne Meadows
We had some burgers, potato wedges, and ice cream from the grill and charged up our phones in the TM store. 
Ice cream at Tuolumne Meadows
Around noon, we continued up the trail and began the hike up Cathedral Pass, where we came across a second ranger who checked our permits. A few miles later, we had reached our destination for the night – Upper Cathedral Lake. At sunset, I scrambled up a nearby mountainside to get a view of the lake and Cathedral Peak. Little did I know the sunset view had nothing on the sunrise view.
Upper Cathedral Lake and Cathedral Peak at sunset
Upper Cathedral Lake and Cathedral Peak at sunset
By this point, I was very, very sick with a fully developed sinus infection. If there’s a silver lining to not being able to sleep (and there is!), it’s being awake to catch the most spectacular sunrise ever.
Cathedral Peak and Lower Cathedral Lake
Lower Cathedral Lake & Cathedral Peak at dawn

Day 4

Upper Cathedral Lake to Happy Isles. This day was originally supposed to be split into 2 days, with a stop at the Little Yosemite Valley campground. But my sinus infection was getting worse and I had to get off the trail so we pushed through and finished our hike today. Along the way, some black-tailed prairie dogs kept watch as we walked by.

So cute! Black-tailed prairie dogs.
Heading south towards the Valley
Heading south towards the Valley

Most of the trail was relatively unremarkable. One particular section had been burned by a fire several years ago and was blanketed in wildflowers that were reclaiming the forest.

Flowers blooming through burn area
Burn area in Yosemite
I hate to be a downer, but the one low-point of the trip (besides being sick) was between the Half Dome Trail junction and Little Yosemite Valley. My dad spotted a beautiful buck standing behind a boulder. Unfortunately, that buck was eating the toilet paper that someone had left behind. Folks, please practice Leave No Trace Principles. If you packed it in, pack it out.
Buck Eating Toilet Paper 🙁
We eventually reached Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls. I took the Mist Trail down and my brother and dad took the JMT, which is a little longer, but less steep. Nevada Falls
Of course, the waterfalls are a destination in their own right and attract hoards of visitors.
Vernals Falls, the Mist Trail, and crowds!
We reached our car at the parking lot, took much-needed showers, and gorged ourselves on pizza.

More trip photos

Garnet Lake at sunriseTaking a dip in Garnet LakeTaking a dip in Garnet LakeCrossing Minaret CreekDevil’s PostpileTrail crossing at Ireland CreekTuolumne MeadowFlowers blooming through burn areaNevada FallsOn the trail before Garnet LakeLooking down into Lyell CanyonRush CreekGarnet Lake campsite on the JMTMiddle Fork of the San Joaquin RiverSo cute! Black-tailed prairie dogs.Yup. It’s a mule with chainsaws.Crossing Ireland CreekWalking towards Donahue PassWalking towards Donahue PassCamp site at Garnet Lake

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