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John Muir Wilderness

John Muir Wilderness is one of 26 wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northeastern California, United States. The main feature of the area, named after one of the America’s most famous outdoor person, is that it is contains several of California’s most spectacular snow-capped summits, including the tallest and the most prominent peak in the area and the whole contiguous United States, Mount Whitney (4,421 m / ft and 3,074 m / ft). It is also the largest such area in California. In total, there are 211 named mountains in the John Muir Wilderness.

Mount Whitney, John Muir Wilderness, California

Name: Who Was John Muir

The wilderness area is named after John Muir, who was one of America’s most influential writers, naturalists, and conservationists, and a leading figure in the creation and preservation of California’s most impressive landscapes. Known as the "Father of Our National Parks", Muir was particularly passionate and persuasive when it came to his home mountains of the Sierra Nevada.

There are dozens of California landmarks named after Muir, including the infamous John Muir Trail. But the John Muir Wilderness, which spans 100 miles along the crest of the Sierra, is one of the most scenic of Muir’s namesake landscapes, containing, in addition to Mount Whitney, several other of California’s most spectacular snow-capped summits, glacial valleys, and canyons.

John Muir Wilderness

But before I go on about it, I can't get past the John Muir figure itself, how interesting it is. I asked fellow outdoor writer Ivan Kuznetsov from the Dolomites, Italy, whose relatives live in California, and who has been here himself and is not a stranger, to recount the highlights and accomplishments of one of his favorite nature writers in 10 main facts, although it is obviously 10 times less than it takes to describe all the most beautiful, interesting and important things he has done in his life:

  1. “John Muir was born on April 21, 1838, in Dunbar, a town of East Lothian, one of the 32 council areas of Scotland as the third of eight children in the family. From an early age, he showed a love of nature, arising probably from his long walks along the picturesque shores of his region with his grandfather and later on his own.
  2. At the age of 11, in 1849, Muir and his family emigrated to the United State to the town of Portage, Wisconsin, where they established a farm known as Fountain Lake Farm. Growing up to be able to travel independently, he hiked (and lived, and worked for some periods) in Indiana, Kentucky, Florida, and Southern Ontario in Canada.
  3. After this series of wanderings, John settled in San Francisco and the Bay Area in California, which would become his permanent home for the rest of his life. On one of his very first hikes in a new region, he went to the territory of present-day Yosemite National Park, which would later be created not without his active participation. Falling in love with the Sierra Nevada Mountains, he soon moved out of the city to live in the wilderness.
  4. In particular, in 1869, at the age of 31, John Muir built himself a small cabin right on one of the many creeks in Yosemite Valley, where he stayed for the first two-three years. That was a life-changing experience about which he later wrote one of his books, My First Summer in the Sierra (1911). From the very beginning, literature became one of his main tools for communicating with the public, along with lectures, although the author himself frankly disliked writing and said that “one day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books.”
  5. At the same time, John became even more interested in the study of local nature and ideas for its conservation, and subsequently became one of America’s most famous and influential thinkers and activists. In particular, he explored glaciers, animals, and plants in his native Yosemite Valley as well as in Alaska, where he made a total of four trips. He also co-founded the Sierra Club to organize local nature lovers.
  6. His other best-known works, published during his lifetime and after his death, are The Mountains of California (1894), Stickeen (1909), The Yosemite (1912), and A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916), and others. In total, he has from 10 to 12 major books. He wrote these and other books mostly in the latter part of his life, devoting himself wholly to creativity and the protection of nature.
  7. Before he became famous as a writer, to make a living, he had previously spent ten years—from 1878 to 1888, or between 40 to 50 years old—managing the orchards on the family farm of 2,600 acres in Martinez, California, with his father-in-law.
  8. Perhaps Muir’s three best-known works are Our National Parks (1906) book, the father of which he was nicknamed by the Americans, and two articles on wilderness preservation published in the prestigious The Century Magazine. It was John who led a successful movement that had Congress establish Yosemite Valley and its surrounding areas as a national park in 1890. It was by no means the first national park in the country (Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, is considered the first in the United States as well as in the world), but Yosemite was critical to the development of the national park idea, which helped pave the further way for the entire National Park Service System of the US.
  9. Last but not least, Joh as an activist and writer, is also known for his philosophical views on the very essence of nature, man, and the interaction between them. Frequently, he referred to nature, unspoiled by man, as the primary source for understanding the world, to which we should turn in search of the meaning of our existence and the right way of life on the planet with respect to it. For inspiration, the philosopher himself often turned to another famous thinker, Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, or Life in the Woods, whom he called his teacher.
  10. John Muir left this world on December 24, 1914, at the age of 76, in Los Angeles due to complicated pneumonia. In addition to his scientific and creative labors, he also remained the father of two daughters.”

John Muir Wilderness, California

Geography and Landscape

Designated by Congress in 1964, the John Muir Wilderness covers 650,000 acres, making it the largest wilderness area in California.

The area, which lies along the eastern slope of the Sierra, spans both the Inyo and Sierra Nevada National Forests, as well as portions of Kings Canyon National Park and the Monarch Wilderness. The John Muir Wilderness is also bordered by the equally as stunning Ansel Adams Wilderness.

The John Muir Wilderness is known to contain some of the most spectacular landscapes in the Sierra Nevada and is understandably popular for hiking, climbing, biking, and camping. In fact, the region’s remarkable granite peaks, glassy alpine lakes, lush meadows, and sparkling streams draw the most visitors of any wilderness area in California.

Mount Whitney, John Muir Wilderness, California

Ranges and Summits

The illustrious Mount Whitney isn’t the only impressive summit in the John Muir Wilderness.

Of the 211 named peaks in the area, 55+ reach over 13,000 feet in elevation. In fact, rugged and imposing peaks, like Mount Humphreys, Mount Muir, Mount Williamson, Keeler Needle, Bear Creek Spire, and Mount Keith are scattered throughout the region.

John Muir also contains several noteworthy glaciers, including the beloved Palisade Glacier, the southernmost glacier in the states and the largest glacier in the Sierra Nevada.

Mount Whitney, John Muir Wilderness, California

Best Hikes in John Muir Wilderness

There are several major hikes and attractions in the area. The main ones are, in my opinion, three: Mount Whitney itself, Big Pine Lakes, and Duck Pass.

Mount Whitney

Looking to climb the tallest summit in the lower 48? Bagging Mount Whitney isn’t as hard as you might think. The grade of the trail makes it accessible to just about anyone with appropriate conditioning. Though being a seasoned mountaineer isn’t a requirement, there are some things to consider when planning your climb of Mount Whitney:

  1. There are several ways to hike to the top of Mount Whitney, each varying in difficulty. Technical climbers will probably opt for a more direct route to the top, like the Mountaineers route or the East Face. Less experienced hikers will generally ascend via the 22-mile Mt. Whitney trail that begins at Whitney Portal.
  2. Climbing Whitney requires winning the lottery. Though this isn’t the traditional lottery, it can feel a lot like a gamble. The Inyo National Forest operates a lottery system to climb Whitney and it opens every year on February 1st. If your number is selected, you have until May 1st to claim your permit. There is no guarantee that you’ll get a permit.
  3. Altitude sickness is common for hikers that underestimate the ascent of Mount Whitney. It’s recommended that hikers camp at Outpost Camp or Lone Pine Lake to acclimatize to the altitude, prior to attempting the climb.
  4. Weather is notoriously unpredictable. Most hikers will begin their trek early in the morning or before sunrise to reduce the chance of running into inclement weather.

Mount Whitney, John Muir Wilderness, California

Mount Whitney can be attempted as a grueling day hike or as an overnight ascent. That being said, Mt. Whitney trail gains over 6,200 feet in elevation and can take anywhere from 12 to 14 hours to complete. It’s important to plan accordingly and not underestimate the mountain. Though it is accessible, Whitney still requires a fair amount of conditioning and ample hiking experience.

Big Pine Lakes

The Sierra Nevada is known for its awe-inspiring alpine lakes, and hiking to Big Pine Lakes via the North Fork trail is one of the very best ways to get fix of stunning alpine scenery. Beneath the craggy summits of the Palisades lie the turquoise waters of the Big Pine Lakes. The 12.5-mile trek, which climbs over 3000’ of elevation, can be tackled as a challenging day hike or an overnight trip. Extensions also exist along the way, including a trail to the scenic Sam Mack Meadow and the infamous Palisade Glacier.

Big Pine Lakes, John Muir Wilderness, California

Duck Pass

Another popular trek in the John Muir Wilderness, the 10-mile trek over Duck Pass leads to several sparkling, aquamarine alpine lakes and offers stunning vistas of iconic Sierra Nevada peaks. Several lakes along the route are perfect for pitching a tent, though this trail is also a popular destination for day hikers. Duck lake, which is surrounded on three sides by impressive peaks, is generally referred to as the crowned jewel of the ascent. However, a side trail to Pika Lake is also recommended and is the perfect place to take a quick dip or set up camp for the night.

Duck Pass, John Muir Wilderness, California

Regulations and Permits

Though over 590 miles of maintained trails exist in this region, because the area is so heavily trafficked, there are several limitations in place to protect the region. Between May 1st and November 1st, trailhead and camping quotes are in place on all trailheads accessing the wilderness from both the east and west side, and permit requirements exist for popular summits like Mount Whitney.

More than half the permits are reservable ahead of time for just $5/person, while the remaining permits can be obtained for free on a first come-first serve basis. It’s worth noting, however, that a $15/person fee exists for the Whitney Zone and 100% of permits for the Mount Whitney trail are reservable ahead of time.

The John Muir Wilderness is jointly managed by Inyo National Forest, which manages the eastern portion of the wilderness, and Sierra National Forest, which manages the western section of the wilderness. Prior to hiking or camping in this region, check in with the applicable Forest Service to obtain information on permit requirements and quotas.

Accommodation

Most visitors to the John Muir Wilderness will opt to pitch a tent or find a secluded cabin in the woods, in lieu of looking for glamorous lodging. A few resorts and lodges can be found scattered within and along the outskirts of the wilderness. Though, for the most part, ‘resorts’ found within the Sierra Nevada, like the famed Vermillion Valley Resort, are rustic and serve as a reprieve from the backcountry for backpackers attempting the Pacific Crest Trail or John Muir Trail.

John Muir Wilderness, California

Cities and Resorts

In the surrounding of the wilderness area, I would peak at least one major town and one resort:

Bishop, California

Bishop is known as the ‘small town with a big backyard,’ for a reason. The town sits just outside of the Eastern High Sierra and ideal for anyone looking for an epic alpine adventure. Mt. Whitney, Bishop Creek Canyon, and Alabama Hills are all accessible from Bishop. The charming town houses dozens of hotels, cabins, and Inns, as well as a variety of restaurants, shops, and heritage sites.

Bishop

Rock Creek Lakes Resort

The Rock Creek Lakes Resort is surrounded by the John Muir Wilderness and is the perfect destination for visitors looking to escape the hustle bustle of the city. Anglers, hikers, mountaineers, backpackers, and general nature-lovers appreciate Rock Creek’s proximity to stunning Eastern Sierra alpine terrain. Rock Creek has a general store, a grill, boat rentals, and a number of rentable cabins.

Highest Peaks
Mount Whitney
Categories...
4 421 m (prom: 3 074 m)
Mount Williamson
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4 384 m (prom: 518 m)
Keeler Needle
4 359 m (prom: 68 m)
North Palisade
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4 343 m (prom: 893 m)
Crooks Peak
4 340 m (prom: 59 m)
Mount Sill
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4 316 m (prom: 126 m)
Polemonium Peak
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4 309 m (prom: 8 m)
Third Needle
4 297 m (prom: 14 m)
Mount Russell
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4 296 m (prom: 336 m)
Aiguille Extra
4 282 m (prom: 16 m)
Most Prominent Mountains
Mount Whitney
Categories...
4 421 m (prom: 3 074 m)
North Palisade
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4 343 m (prom: 893 m)
Mount Morgan
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4 193 m (prom: 810 m)
Bear Creek Spire
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4 191 m (prom: 800 m)
Mount Humphreys
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4 263 m (prom: 784 m)
Mount Keith
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4 259 m (prom: 595 m)
Mount Tom
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4 150 m (prom: 594 m)
Mount Darwin
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4 216 m (prom: 573 m)
Red Slate Mountain
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4 006 m (prom: 524 m)
Mount Williamson
Categories...
4 384 m (prom: 518 m)
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