From Track to Trail

From Track to Trail

Adventure comes in many forms. Whether it’s traversing the knife edge of Capitol Peak or exploring the inspiring depths of the Grand Canyon, people will often describe most things and leave out the part of how they got there to begin their adventure. This is our story of how Amtrak made our adventure even more exciting than we could have ever imagined.

We had planned our trek along the John Muir Trail a few months before we stepped off onto the dirt, but we hadn’t quite decided on how we were actually going to California. We had talked about driving which would have been great since we’re not too far from the beginning of the trail, but then there were the logistics of having to leave our vehicle parked for a month, the fees that would rack up, and then having to get back to it once we finished in Yosemite National Park. After realizing the costs incurred with driving we thought about flying, but the cost of flying was merely out of the budget and didn’t seem worthwhile. That left us with my favorite option of all – hop a train! I had travelled via Amtrak to a few adventures in the past and I don’t think I’ll ever choose another travel method if I can help it.

In my opinion, there’s a bit of serenity when travelling by train that cannot be found elsewhere. It can be a lengthy trip depending on where you’re travelling from, and from Salt Lake we spent a total of 23 hours aboard Amtrak, but it’s an amazing experience nonetheless. It allowed us to get our “game faces” on and allowed us to reflect back on all the reasons we began this quest to thru-hike the 240-mile John Muir Trail. It gave us time to rest and put the world of clocks in the back of our minds. This was Justina’s first long hike and I wanted to do everything I could to ensure that she was focused and ready to tackle some of the most grueling mountains found in the Lower 48. At the end of the day, we were just walking through the woods with a pack on our backs, but the time spent aboard Amtrak made it all feel so much more worth it.

We hopped aboard our first leg of the journey in Salt Lake late one evening in August and found it easy to nestle inside of our Superliner Roomette. It was quiet just the way we like it and comfortable enough for us to both fall asleep quickly. We woke up later to check out the stars from the Observation Car. Any photographer who is into shooting the stars will tell you what a joy it is to be able to see the stars without any light pollution coming from nearby towns or cities. Soon after that we were able to catch the first sunrise of many that we’d experience together which no words could ever describe. We realized that some of this amazing countryside could never be viewed the way we were seeing it unless we were on a train.

We arrived in Sacramento with a couple hours to spare before our connecting train to Bakersfield so we decided to take a little stroll through the city and grab something to eat. We had wished that we had more time to explore the city and the California State Railroad Museum that we had heard about on our way into Sacramento. We both love history and this would have been an amazing experience, so it’s definitely on our list for next time. At some point during our leg from Reno to Sacramento, there had been some folks who were giving a history lesson in the Observation Car. They pointed out some known places along the ride for people to view out the window and made mention of the museum. It was like being on a guided tour and was just another one of those things that made this journey that much more enjoyable. How many airplanes have you ever been on that gave you a live guided tour?

The leg from Sacramento to Bakersfield was quick and swift. I have never gotten the chance to see the central valley like this, so needless to say, it was neat to see California this way. One of the things I’m always hearing about is California’s horrendous traffic. It makes me wonder, “Why don’t more people use Amtrak as their preferred method of travel?” For the most part, it took us directly to where we wanted to be and when we wanted to be there without the frustrations of traffic. There are so many great people on the train too which we got to learn a little about too. Some folks we had met had never ridden the train before and were loving the experience; while others were like me and utilize the railroad system every chance they get. It was nice to meet people and get to hear people’s stories. That was something else that we grew to love about traveling the rail.

Our time has finally come and on the morning of August 29th, our trail runners made their first impressions on the dirt in the Eastern Sierras. During our first couple days, we reflected on how great it was to be able to stretch out on the train and not allow our muscles to get tight as they would have in a car or on a plane. The Eastern Sierras know very little forgiveness, if any at all, and being mentally and physically prepared for was key to making it for 25 days on the trail.

For nearly a month, we hiked over some of the most beautiful peaks that kiss the clouds and offer some of the most breathtaking views anyone has ever seen. If you are unfamiliar with who John Muir is; he is one of the most renowned environmentalists that helped pave the way for preservation of wilderness as we know it today. He was an author whose journal entries have been read by millions and his direct involvement with President Theodore Roosevelt helped preserve such areas as the Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park. He co-founded the Sierra Club and later the 211-mile trail was named in his honor. Today, many trek along the John Muir Trail (which is a section of the longer Pacific Crest Trail) finding inspiration, healing, and the pure joy that the wilderness provides.

Our trek was a bit longer than the conventional hike since we began at the Southern Terminus of the trail just south of Mt. Whitney (at 14,505’, Mt. Whitney is the tallest peak of the Lower 48) and for 25 days, we trekked over 50,000’ of elevation gain and loss for nearly 240 miles; not to include the miles we put in to get on and off the trail for resupply purposes. The John Muir Trail is arguably one of the most beautiful trails in the world that many visit every year to either conquer in its entirety or to hike section of. It was everything we could have imagined, and then some. From wildflowers of the Sierras to Black Bears; we got to see it all.

After nearly a month of anywhere from 10-25 miles of hiking each day, a few rest days in between to resupply, fields of wildflowers as far as the eye can see, a couple Black Bears, and one broken trekking pole; we were finally finished and made it to the Northern Terminus of the John Muir Trail in Yosemite National Park. We couldn’t have asked for a better experience. We boarded the YARTS bus from inside Yosemite NP and it took us directly to the Merced Train Station where we’d begin our journey back to Utah. At first, I thought that travelling by train would be a great way to begin this journey, but it turns out it’s an even better way to end an epic adventure too. There is a much-needed time to decompress and Amtrak allowed us to do just that on our ride home. It was just enough time to reflect, relax, and get our minds ready for the “real world.” We made a conscious decision that if we’re able, Amtrak would be the only way we’d travel to our adventures because not only is climbing the mountain part of the adventure, but the way we get there is too.

About the Author: Jason Mihalick writes for The Trek, USA Today’s blog for all things outdoor and hiking-related.