I just finished reading two JMT guidebooks I got for Christmas, which has whet my appetite even more and given me something to think about besides the permit I may not get.
First off: The Cicerone Guide to the JMT by Alan Castle
Castle is a Brit writing for Brits. In addition to the basic information about all stages of the JMT, his guidebook is loaded with tips for foreign travelers and reminders that American hiking is like nothing like “walking” in Britain. If I were a European, this aspect of the Cicerone guide would be invaluable. I’m not, as it happens, but maybe you are.
Even for those of us who use flashlights rather than “torches,” the Cicerone guide is a helpful overview. Castle’s descriptions of each JMT segment are concise yet meaty. While the maps are highly schematic and lack contour lines, they do provide a general idea of the route, and the book also provides daily mileage and elevation summaries. Castle divides the trail into 21 suggested days—more than I or many experienced hikers will opt for, but you can’t please everybody all the time. In his timetable he assumes an ascent of Half Dome, which occupies most of Day 2. If I were flying all the way from the UK to visit Yosemite for the first and perhaps only time in my life, I’d want to climb Half Dome too. But as a native Californian who’s already been to Yosemite four times, I’m planning on saving my quads for the JMT itself, little more and hopefully no less. So Castle’s Day 3, culminating at Tuolumne Meadows, becomes my Day 2, and so on. Castle also is a big fan of Vermilion, which I was thinking of bypassing. Yet while not all of Castle’s days will match mine (or anybody’s), they definitely give the epic haul a bit of structure and help the first time through-hiker visualize what’s doable in one day.
The book is a fast, fun read and could also be useful on the trail if you choose to carry it. Compact with a durable vinyl cover, it’s still not light, but that’s why God invented Xeroxes and compromise, I guess. I probably won’t bring it with, but it really helped me visualize the parts of the route between Red’s Meadow and Muir Trail Ranch that had thus far remained hazy in my mind.
Next up: The Wilderness Press JMT guide by Elizabeth Wenk.
Man oh man, Lizzy Wenk loves her rocks and plants. Granted, John Muir was a naturalist, so perhaps no guide to his namesake trail can be considered complete without a thorough survey of the geological and biological diversity of the trail. However, from a pre-planning perspective, the heavy description feels like filler, especially if the only type of azalea you can picture is Iggy. The heavy, almost academic naturalist-speak reaches a peak, fittingly, as Wenk describes the final ascent to Whitney. “If you’re lucky, you’ll see [granite] embedded with dark, rectangular outlines of minuscule dark minerals, showing where other minerals began to grow but were engulfed by a single, ever-expanding feldspar crystal; this is called a zoned crystal.” No, if I’m lucky I’ll still be on my feet by that point, and probably not thinking about granite.
Yes, it would be at least mildly interesting to know the name of each variety of pine and heather and as I trudged along, but that would require lugging a 283-page book over nearly as many miles. I was not the least bit shocked to learn (from the about the author page) that Wenk wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the effects of rock type on alpine plant distribution and physiology. As you do.
Fortunately, Wenk’s book is also chock full of helpful stats—passable topo maps, detailed mileage breakdowns, elevation profiles, labelled panoramas, escape routes, and invaluable campsite data— all of which are reprinted in her separate JMT Data Book.
Now this is something which I probably will slip into the brain of my pack for reference. Instead of imposing an idealized calendar, Wenk recognizes that timetables are highly subjective and organizes the trail into stages according to the drainages. While I appreciated not having to translate “Day 15” into “Day 14(?)” for every chapter, it was tiring flipping through pages figuring out how to best divvy up her sections into trail days. I’d love to see a book (or website) that outlines JMT through hikes of various lengths. Want a 17-day trip? Here are a couple suggested camp plans. Want 21 days? Try this or that.
Basically, neither of these guidebooks was as helpful as I wanted it to be—as in, I still have to make a lot of decisions about my itinerary—but both were enjoyable and useful, especially taken together. Wenk’s Data Book might be the most indispensable. I also have Eric the Black’s famed JMT Pocket Atlas, which is incredibly lightweight and nothing but excellent map data.
Nobody can say I haven’t done my homework. Now to do the footwork.