on October 3, 2010
I thru-hiked the JMT a few weeks ago and used this book to supplement trail signs (not all of which point out the JMT), and perhaps to point out interesting side trails (didn't end up taking any, partly for nit #1 below but mostly because it's not really my style).
The book splits its approach into two categories, in accord with its title: day hikes and section hikes. Day hikes "anyone" can do, mostly with little needed in terms of gear or preparation. Section hikes are longer stretches, on the order of tens of miles, from point A to B (distinct, but you could also do there-and-backs for many, if you carried enough food) which cover the various portions of the JMT. By the nature of the JMT the day hikes are mostly at the northern end in Yosemite and Tuolumne Valley, but there's also a hike in Devil's Postpile (around a quarter of the way in) and of course a day hike up Mount Whitney (the book recommends making it a backpacking trip while acknowledging many if not most will nevertheless day-hike it, making it an out-and-back). Each hike is accompanied by a very high-level map (you can't make out switchbacks) of the overall hike plus small zoom-ins on the trailhead areas. (The physically less-prepared will also appreciate the star ratings of the trips for elevation, difficulty, child-friendliness, etc. which thru-hikers would ignore.) The bulk of each trip, then, is a prose description of the trail section (hiking in the north-to-south direction along the JMT, for the section hikes). The level of detail in the prose is reasonable, although some of the "editorializing" on difficulty ["grueling" and so on] is debatable even if you're not approaching it as a thru-hiker. Since the section hikes also include non-JMT approaches and departures, a fair bit of prose is irrelevant for thru-hikers. (This, plus the day hike sections [but the greater detail of a few of them actually does come in handy for thru-hiking, somewhat annoyingly -- I'd advise against ripping out and carrying only the section-hike parts], make it not fully suited for thru-hiking, even if it is suitable for thru-hiking. Also, it gives almost no guidance about absolute overall mileages [maps aren't detailed enough for accurate estimation] -- makes it a little hard to pace yourself if you naturally hike greater distances but have the permit duration and intent to hike shorter distances.)
A few nits which, cumulatively, should add up to a not-quite-five-star review (but for one consideration noted later):
First, the overall maps, which are more intended for guiding than navigation purposes, to be sure, are extremely high-level and indicate almost nothing of side trails (unless those side trails are covered by the book). At least drawing the side trails points out quick diversions to the interested hiker even if he never takes them, and the additions can help with navigation in a pinch if you make a wrong turn. I think the maps should have included them.
Second, the trailhead maps, while helpful, are still too small and under-detailed to really be useful. Case in point: the details surrounding getting off the JMT in Tuolumne Meadows are...a bit inscrutable. You get told how to get to the road with the visitor's center, food, etc. along it, but figuring out how to get to what involves carefully reading some prose (in two different locations, actually, because the section-hike prose is more vague than the relevant day-hike's prose) and staring at two small trailhead maps with different pointers to the relevant facilities. Much better would be a full-size page which included that entire stretch of Tuolumne Valley road, pointing out everything along it exactly. This same also applies to the Devil's Postpile trailhead area, where one paragraph starts with "Signposts along the following segment can be confusing." and then proceeds to detail the handful of options in a dozen lines of prose -- a map would have been far superior. (Indeed, that location had a trail map at it, and I took a picture of it -- and that picture was vastly more helpful to me on the spot than the prose was!)
Third, the map for the last section (Onion Valley to Whitney) has an error in it (one not reflected in the prose) in that it places Wallace Creek north of Tyndall Creek, well away from its actual location near the junction where the JMT turns east and leaves the Pacific Crest Trail for the final time.
Fourth, that last section's description of the trail from that junction to Guitar Lake is strangely confused: it claims the Crabtree Ranger Station is a mile from that junction, when by the signs at the junction (and by my experience in real life) it's several miles from the junction. Various other bits of the prose through that area are equally confused. I don't know why this is the case: the ranger there said the JMT there hadn't changed in decades. But still, it was more than a bit confusing when I was hiking through, and if the trail signs hadn't been reasonably clear (if not quite "JMT this way"-clear), it's likely I would have been even more confused. (On the plus side, this was the only bit where the description didn't match the trail: all the rest was consistent as I recall.)
But one consideration gives this book its extra star: its pointing out of a camping location in the vicinity of the Whitney Trail Junction two miles south of the summit of Mount Whitney, and most of the ascent up Whitney when one heads from JMT-north (geographical west, that is -- opposite direction from Whitney Portal). I would never have found this campsite at around 13400 feet on my own, because I never would have ascended from Guitar Lake or thereabouts with the intent of stopping for the night (unless I intended to stay overnight on Mount Whitney) -- not without knowing a good campsite existed. This campsite is absolutely magical: I got there a little after 18:00, ate dinner to a ridiculously amazing sunset, fell asleep shortly after an epic moonrise, then woke up very early in the morning for a moonlit hike to the summit (no flashlight needed as it was 89% full, or so I'm told) to catch sunrise. The book's providing that foreknowledge of that campsite was worth the entire price of the book for me -- and it redeems that fifth star.
Last, I absolutely must poke fun at the book's disclaimer from which I quote: "Please be aware that hikers have been injured in the John Muir Trail area." Not the stronger "severely injured" or "died", just plain "injured"! Just in case you thought hiking anywhere on the JMT was a guaranteed injury-free activity. :-)