Woven tufts of gold knit the meadows together, thick pine forests give way to observation towers of granite and sky-scraping peaks, and a river runs through it. That's the setting the John Muir Trail wanders through in the High Sierra of Yosemite National Park.
Running north and south through Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia national parks, the John Muir Trail offers many opportunities and experiences for hikers young and old, novice and long-of-tooth. I jumped on the trail in Tuolumne Meadows for a short hike into the wilderness, an opportunity to stretch my legs between long car rides and hours of meetings.
The beauty of this stretch of the trail, which Ranger Jeff Pappas kindly pointed me to, is that it doesn't take long to get serious about showing off the Sierran mountainscape. Heading south from the trailhead near the Backcountry Wilderness Center, I found myself walking a short way through forest before coming to the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, a mostly sedate stream with a few small cascades and moderate pools where trout lurk.
At one point two bridges perched atop granite outcrops ferry you across the cascading creek, while to the west you have views of Cathedral Peak and to the east beyond the grassy meadows -- now golden in the early fall of October -- looms Mammoth Peak.
I definitely lucked out with my timing -- temperatures were in the mid-60s, perhaps the low 70s, there wasn't a cloud in the sky, insects had departed for the year, and the trail was empty of fellow travelers.
This trail is not unknown. It leads deep into the park's high country, leading not only deep into wilderness but also connecting with trails that run to the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp. Stay on the trail long enough and you'll pass Amelia Earhart Peak, climb up to Donohue Pass at 11,050 feet and, if you're determined enough and have the time, head all the way down to Devils Postpile National Monument and even further south to Mount Whitney on the eastern border of Sequoia National Park.
So popular is this route that from its trailhead near the wilderness center the trail cuts through the meadow in the form of a 6-lane super trail, as backpackers start out hiking side by side by side and chatting before the miles begin to take their toll and single file becomes more common.
This route is excellent for a quick dose of Sierra high country, and not just for well-versed trekkers. Families can easily handle this hike, as the trail is mostly level over the course of the first few miles, the scenery more than satisfying, and there is plenty to delight youngsters, from playing along the stream banks to running through the open meadows to climbing on glacial eratics and granite towers.
There also are countless spots along the Lyell Fork perfect for picnics or just kicking back and soaking in the moment and the surroundings. How far you walk is entirely up to you.
Maps: I relied on the Trails Illustrated Map on Yosemite. For longer treks, though, you might want to pick up more detailed topographic maps.