John Muir Trail, CA
Three Weeks in the Wilderness
By Sean Jansen
Views from atop Mount Whitney are unforgettable. Always try to summit as early in the day as possible to avoid afternoon lightning storms. The southern terminus of the John Muir Trail is the Mount Whitney summit, but you can enter the trail from other locations. PHOTOS BY SEAN JANSEN
Just take three steps, stop, and breathe.
That’s the anthem I sang to myself while scaling 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States. I started in the Owens Valley, a mere 7,000 vertical feet behind me, my backpack—fully loaded with a week’s worth of food and fly-fishing gear—felt heavier with each step.
The Mount Whitney Trail comes to a T intersection. I could veer right and summit the mountain, or head left and descend to a shimmering wilderness lake perhaps teeming with the Sierra Nevada’s most prized quarry for backpacking anglers: golden trout. But I’d planned this for months. The fish could wait. I swallowed the pain and turned right, heading up to Whitney’s summit. Just take three steps, stop, and breathe. I finally reached the top of my first 14er, the first peak over 14,000 feet I had ever stood upon. From the top, with stunning views all around, I gazed down on guitar-shaped Guitar Lake, and I could see the rise forms made by the resident goldens.