Top 5 Campsites on the John Muir Trail

Indisputably, one of the biggest lessons that Alex and I learned this summer was that the mountains are in charge. The mountains don’t care what your itinerary is or how good of shape you’re in, weather and trail conditions will trump even the most decorated of thru-hikers. Because we allowed ourselves to be flexible, our itinerary morphed throughout our journey, and a few of these campsites weren’t on our radar at all. The long days leading up to Virginia and Evolution lakes were fueled by pure stubbornness (we knew we wanted to stay in those exact places), but most of our campsites were strategic decisions. The John Muir Trail is abundantly beautiful, and it can be daunting to figure out which of the hundreds of exquisite campsites to schedule into an itinerary. There’s no way to be able to camp at EVERY alpine lake and EVERY intriguing creek crossing. Our recommendation is to pick out your top few, and try to schedule your itinerary around those few favorites, keeping in mind that the mountains will have the final say.

Tangent aside, these were our absolute favorite campsites along the trail!

#1: Marie Lake

Why:

Nestled just below Seldon Pass, camping at Marie Lakes allowed us to knock out the large majority of this climb. After packing up camp here, we only had 300 vertical feet left to get to the top of Seldon Pass! This entire day was very enjoyable, we lunched and hiked along bear creek the large majority of the afternoon, with one decently sized climb up to Marie Lake in the last mile. We got there with plenty of sunlight, so we took advantage of our time to take a dip, sunbathe, and watch the way the sun dipping below the tree line played with the mountains reflecting in the lake.

Location on the JMT: Mile 99 southbound

How to get there via a section hike:

Mono Creek (Vermillion, CA) to Piute Pass Trailhead (Bishop, CA).

3-5 day section

Part of what made this spot SO enjoyable was how secluded and untouched it felt. Which makes it very difficult to access when not completing the whole JMT, but this section along Bear Creek was one of our favorites. The surrounding exit junctions are at Mono Creek and Piute Pass Trail – a 35 mile stint on the JMT (excluding the trail miles to hike in). Looks like if we find ourselves back here someday, it’ll have to be on the JMT or as part of a long section!

What to consider:

Anytime you camp right below a pass, you are more vulnerable to low temperatures, exposure, and an all around tougher time getting a solid night of sleep due to the high elevation. It was also pretty difficult to dig a cat-hole here.

#2: Evolution Lake

Why:

Pure beauty. This was hands down the coldest night that we experienced on the JMT, with temperatures hovering around roughly 15-20 degrees. Even so, this spot still made our top because it was just so dang beautiful. The entire Evolution Basin was simply jaw dropping, with a new sharp peak reflected in an alpine lake with every turn.

Location on the JMT: Mile 121 southbound

How to get there via a section hike:

Lamarack Lakes Trailhead (Bishop, CA) to Bishop Pass Trailhead (Bishop, CA).

3 – 5 day section

This trip from point to point would be 52 total miles, 25 of those following the JMT. From Evolution Lake, the closest exit option (without turning back and going to Muir Trail Ranch) is Bishop Pass. Evolution Basin was one of the most shockingly beautiful stretches of trail. I would do this section again in the second just retrace my footsteps through the magnificent seven mile stretch up to Muir Pass.

What to consider:

The 10ish mile stretch from Evolution Lake, up and over Muir Pass, and back down to the tree line was crazy exposed. If there was any questionable weather rolling in, it could have gotten dicey.

#3: Palisade Lakes

Why:

This spot was special because we had the view of the lake, while still being able to camp closer to the trail in a more secluded and covered spot. The spot we chose at Upper Palisade Lake was a couple of miles before the top of Mather Pass, hanging onto the last bit of tree line.

Location on the JMT: Mile 147 southbound

How to get there via a section hike:

Bishop Pass (Bishop, CA) to Taboose Pass (Big Pine, CA).

3 – 4 day section

This section would be a LOT of elevation gain, but the best views always seem to have this in common. This is already on my radar for a 3-day weekend in the Eastern Sierras – during much of the summer season there is a bus that runs from Big Pine to Bishop! This is 39 miles in total, 20 of which are on the JMT.

What to consider:

The lake is actually a bit of a walk from the campsites, so we didn’t have time to go for a dip before it got too chilly. But, we were still able to wash some clothes and our hair in the stream nearby! Also, if considering this as a section hike look very seriously at the elevation profiles. The ‘Golden Staircase’ was truly some golden bullsh*t.

#4: Shadow Creek (absolute hidden gem!!!)

Why:

This campsite was nowhere on our radar – we hadn’t heard of anybody camping here at all! It makes sense, due to the fact that Shadow Creek is in between Thousand Island Lake / Garnet Lake and Rosalie Lake, all very popular campsites. Our original plan was to camp at Garnet Lake, but we decided to push a few extra miles that evening and stumbled upon Shadow Creek. The campsites were established, secluded, low in elevation, and all around simply cozy!

Location on the JMT: Mile 48 southbound

How to get there via a section hike:

Rush Creek Trail (Mammoth, CA) to Red’s Meadow (Mammoth, CA).

2-3 day section

This is definitely an easier spot to get to than some of the secluded alpine lakes that were our favorites. This was our campsite the night before hitting Red’s Meadow in Mammoth, and could be a stop for many different section lengths. To enter at Rush Creek would be one of the shortest point to point options, with Thousand Island Lake being a solid first night camping option. It’s also possible to do an out-and-back from Red’s Meadow, hitting Shadow Creek and Thousand Island Lake before looping back around.

What to consider:

Mosquitoes. A huge plus of doing the JMT in September was the virtual absence of mosquitoes, except for a few strong survivors. Whenever we were at lower elevation with warmer temperatures, we suffered a few bites. I can only imagine the type of swarms that would’ve been here earlier in the season.

#5: Lake Virginia

Why:

The serenity of this expansive, still lake with jagged peaks far in the background. While Evolution Lake was shockingly beautiful and required you to crane your neck to take in every angle, at Lake Virginia we were able to simply pick a rock and allow the allure of the calm waters replace the negative thoughts we were having that day.

Location on the JMT: Mile 72.5 southbound

How to get there via a section hike:

Red’s Meadow (Mammoth, CA) to McGee Creek Trailhead (Mammoth, CA).

2-3 day section

We camped here after leaving Red’s Meadow, so any section hike starting or ending at Red’s has Virginia Lake as a 15 mile marker! After Red’s and Virginia Lake, the closest exit is McGee Pass. This would be 29 total miles, 18 of which are on the JMT. Starting or ending a section at Red’s would be mighty convenient, as the JMT leads you right to the Meadow where you can catch a shuttle into Mammoth, as opposed to a 10+ mile trail to the nearest road.

What to consider:

Our experience here was dampened by 50-60 mph winds. This was the weekend that Mammoth experienced a power-outage due to high winds, so this wasn’t necessarily the lake’s fault, but it was so exposed that we woke up with sand covering EVERYTHING in our tent and ran out of there as fast as we could.

*Bonus Campsite: Kearsarge Lakes

Why:

This is considered a bonus because it’s about a 4 mile round trip detour from the JMT – we stayed here because we had a resupply trek out to Onion Valley. We took our half rest day here, and absolutely fell in love with this little slice of paradise. Also, a major bonus about this campsite is that it’s only 7 miles from a paved road & parking lot, and definitely high on the list for my next weekend backpacking trip!

Location on the JMT: At mile 178 (southbound), it’s about a 2 mile detour.

How to get there via a section hike:

To hike from Onion Valley to Mt. Whitney would be a 3-4 day trip, with Kearsarge Lakes as our #1 first recommended campsite. As an out and back backpacking trip, you could do anywhere from just an overnight at Kearsarge Lakes and then back into Onion Valley, or all sorts of exploration around the area.

What to consider:

If on the JMT, we wouldn’t have made this detour if not for our resupply in Onion Valley. We met two gals who had a friend hike in their resupply from Onion Valley, meeting him at Kearsarge Lakes. That seems like our ideal scenario… who wants to sign up?!


No campsite will be perfect, and I think our time spent camping over the summer allowed us to moderate our expectations. Whether it’s fighting bugs, cold temperatures, or crowds of people, there is a downside at every campsite to be when drawing up a JMT itinerary.

The few days following the JMT, Alex and I were both definitely quick to say our thru-hiking career might be over. But now, three weeks later, we are both missing the trail in a major way. If we DO chose to do the JMT again, these are definitely the top campsites we would try to schedule into our itinerary. The Sierra Nevada is an unmatchable mountain range, but I think our minds are both wandering to countless other possibilities to satisfy this itch for the trail.

Speaking of thru-hikes, we were fortunate enough to hike a small section of the Wonderland Trail in Washington this last summer! It felt like we were walking through a story book – if you like bright green grass, colorful flowers, and views of Mt. Rainier check out our video from the Wonderland Trail here.

If there’s anything in particular you’d like to see or know about the JMT, let us know! I think we’re both elated to be spending our time talking and writing about all that we were so fortunate to experience this summer.

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4 thoughts on “Top 5 Campsites on the John Muir Trail

  1. wonderful! great trip(s) and i look forward to the book (there will be a book, i hope)

    Like

    1. I may or may not be working on it as we speak … thanks for reading 🙂

      Like

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