For over 200 miles in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the Pacific Crest Trail runs in unison with another scenic hiking trail: the John Muir Trail, or the JMT. 200+ miles of the best, most beautiful views in the Sierras.
The John Muir Trail starts in the Yosemite Valley, one of the crown jewels of the National Parks, and ends at Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 states.
Hitting the JMT was a bit strange for us PCT hikers, because where there was usually nothing but open trail ahead of us, there were suddenly tons of people, and coming the opposite direction. The JMT is less than a tenth of the length of the Pacific Crest Trail, and so it is much more accessible to hike. We met a startling amount of teachers doing the trail, filling in time during their summer break.
After having done the desert, the Sierras were almost like a promised land for us PCTers. We had suffered through over 700 miles of hot, dry, dusty, stinky hiking and our reward was a steep ascent into a gorgeous paradise full of lush valleys and glacial streams. The JMTers have no experience with this, and so they are a different breed of hiker entirely. They are on a beautiful, remote, physically testing vacation.
Us and Them
After passing numerous groups of JMTers after Mount Whitney, we began to notice the contrasts between them and us. The main one being that they seem almost universally overdressed and overequipped.
Maybe it’s because they didn’t have a chance to shake down their gear after the first 50-100 miles, or that they have no need to acquaint themselves with the ultralight way of hiking for a trip so short, but… I have never seen packs so huge. I hate to get high and mighty because I’ve hiked a lot at this point, but I can say with full confidence they’d be much more comfortable if they left some of that behind.
There were also times when I would be sweating my way down the trail on a sunny day and see a fully clothed JMTer coming up the trail in the opposite direction. Of course they all wear huge hiking boots, but I could not believe the apparent insistence on long pants and sleeves. The Sierras can get cold in the summer, but not when you’re carrying that 75 pound pack up Forrester Pass. Put on some shorts and a short sleeve before you die of heat exhaustion!
I think most of this overpacking probably stems from the anticipation of a good vacation. You want to make sure it’s perfect and that you’ll have the best time, so you buy all the best stuff. In no ways is this more apparent than with their food. Hands down, JMTers pack tons of really good food.
One of our hiker friends who was on his second go of the Pacific Crest Trail for the second year in a row, tipped us off to a way we could score some of the sweet, sweet JMT hiker spoils.
The Hiker Box
In most trail towns, places where hikers stay the night or resupply frequently have what’s called a “hiker box.” It’s when you realize you don’t need something, or don’t want to carry it, and you leave it behind without throwing it away, in the event that another hiker might make good use out of it. These are usually full of food (tons of instant oatmeal) but often of unnecessary gear. In the first several hundred miles of the trail, the hiker boxes are a bounty, as many thruhikers are still trying to get the hang of what and how much to eat.
I suppose JMTers never get a chance to fully master this, because the hiker box at Muir Trail Ranch is definitely the best on the entire trail.
Muir Trail Ranch
Muir Trail Ranch is an available resupply option for both PCTers and JMTers on that part of the trail. The problem is, it’s so remote that packages must be carried in by horseback in and out of a post office miles away from the ranch itself, and receiving a package comes with a $70 price tag. More than any PCT hiker is going to pay on a resupply box, but most JMTers will do it out of convenience. Again, I think they’re just trying to ensure that their hike is perfect.
That being said, their resupplies are enormous, and they end up leaving quite a bit of food behind at the hiker boxes at Muir Trail Ranch. So much is left behind in fact, that there are more than 10 five gallon buckets full of food left behind from resupplying JMTers. Good food too. A lot of Mountain House- the best brand of freeze dried meals you can get.
The buckets are organized by type, so packaged Mountain House, unpackaged Mountain House, oatmeal, trail mix, bars, drink mixes, toiletries, homemade items, etc.
We had no problems walking in first thing in the morning and making a bee line for the hiker buckets. For most PCT hikers this has been the case, but I’ve heard of some not being allowed access. I imagined some of the Muir Trail Ranch people shooing away scruffy PCT hikes like a growing flock of pigeons. Once there we availed ourselves of the spoils while early rising JMTers sorted out their resupply nearby. We’d told a PCT buddy about it and he’d gotten there before us, conveniently getting 3 packaged Mountain House meals right away that some JMTers had no room for. So we waited around, hoping someone would do the same for us.
No one did, I guess we were too vulture-like, but we didn’t need to. We topped off our bear canisters to the point of stuffing with the hiker box freebies and tried not to look too greedy and conspicuous.
As Indiana explored the other amenities of the ranch, I waited by the hiker boxes, stretching and massaging my tired feet. A couple hiking the JMT sat down across from me and began to sort out their enormous resupply bucket. I could tell immediately they had way too much food. As they dropped one stuffed Ziploc bag after another full of snacks onto the picnic table, they noticed my hungry, unbroken stare and tried to turn away awkwardly.
A stack of Starbucks Via instant coffee packets as thick around as a small tree, a freezer bag full of flavored Gel shots, several shooters of Fireball, “for the 4th of July.” They were unwilling to part with their clearly overabundant goodies and I don’t blame them. Hungry or not, that was the good stuff.
Once they had stuffed every last morsel away, they pulled out a thin stack of crisp printed paper with color-coded tables on them and began to work their way through an elaborate, meticulous meal plan, down to every wholesome, delicious and varied snack of each day. One of them ran his finger down the list as he read day by day, item by item, and the other nodded and confirmed, merely listening and not seeming to check that it was all there. They had spent so much time and energy on these detailed food plans, and they were going to make sure I overheard it.
I had no words. Even on long weekend hikes, we never applied this kind of forethought to our meals. We brought enough snacks and food to cook at night and just went.
I wondered what our hike would be like, if we ate that well all the time. But then again, knowing us, we’d blow through the best snacks at once and have nothing to eat by the time we got to our resupply. Maybe that was why they had a friggin excel sheet full of meal plans; to help them exercise some restraint with all of that amazing food.
That night we ate the best meal on the entire trail, straight from the Muir Trail Ranch hiker box. A Mountain House breakfast skillet with bites of homemade, vacuum-sealed flatbread. We fed each other alternating bites of each and once we were done collapsed on our sleeping pads with laughter, unable to believe it was real.