The John Muir Trail is a 211-mile footpath through the high country of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. It starts in Yosemite National Park and ends atop the 14,505-foot summit of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 United States.
For many hikers, the JMT, as it’s called, is the adventure of a lifetime, a challenging but rewarding trek through some of America’s most iconic mountain landscapes. Completing all 211 miles usually takes about a month.
My wife and kids and I met our match at mile 135.
It was August 9, 2021. We were on a three-week trek along the southern two thirds of the trail—from south of Yosemite to Mount Whitney.
This trip was my idea. Years ago, I edited a Guideposts story about an Oregon family who’d hiked the JMT when their kids were 11 and 13. At the time, my son and daughter were in kindergarten and third grade. I want to do that when the kids are old enough, I thought.
After seven days along the trail, that seemed like one of my dumbest parenting ideas ever.
We began the day at a rockbound lake above the tree line in Evolution Basin. We hiked up and over 11,955-foot Muir Pass, then descended the tricky, volcanic switchbacks of LeConte Canyon.
We had hiked almost 10 miles, ascending and descending close to 4,000 feet. The sun was disappearing behind the canyon’s western wall, and the air was getting chilly.
The kids were exhausted. Frannie, our 14-year-old, had had a growth spurt right before we left, and her brand-new hiking boots no longer fit. Her feet were covered in bandages and duct tape. She winced with every step.
Benjamin, 11, had started the day buoyant and leading the pack. Now he hung his sweat-streaked head and plodded along. We stopped for water, and I consulted our guidebook. Every campsite we’d passed for the past few miles had been taken by a large horse-packing expedition. The next possible site was close to a mile away.
“No!” the kids cried out. “…….