There are many spectacular sections of the John Muir Trail to hike. This spectacular section through the John Muir Wilderness, between Mammoth Lakes/Duck Lake Pass Trailhead and Bear Ridge Trailhead/Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR), crosses over two major passes. Several spectacular lakes lay along the route, including Barney Lake, Duck Lake, Purple Lake, Lake Virginia, Squaw Lake, and Silver Pass Lake.
Most of the hike is within the Sierra National Forest and in the John Muir Wilderness.
The total elevation gain that I recorded on my hike was 8,600 feet. I had to edit the trail route to fix some errors (caused by bad GPS connection during a heavy thunderstorm), so the elevation data was unfortunately lost during the editing process.
Note About Mileage:
The mileage given is approximate, including both the route down to the Edison Ferry Landing and the Bear Ridge Trail (we hiked both routes, ending up at VVR twice). Your route, whichever route you take, or however long you extend your trip on the John Muir Trail, will either lengthen or shorten your distance.
Start from the town of Mammoth Lakes, at the Duck Lake Pass Trailhead at the far end of Coldwater Campground. A shuttle from the town can get you most of the way to the trailhead–dropping you off at Lake Mary Marina (about a hundred feet past the entrance to Coldwater Campground).
From the trailhead, take the Duck Pass Trail, passing several medium-sized lakes as it switchbacks up to Duck Pass. Right from the start, it climbs a series of switchbacks before the grade levels out as it passes by Skelton Lake, Red Lake, and Barney Lake. After Barney Lake, the trail carves its way through steep granite slopes in a series of dramatic switchbacks, eventually reaching Duck Pass. At Duck Pass, take in the majestic view over colossal, alpine Duck Lake.
From Duck Lake, head down the Duck Pass Trail until it comes to the junction with the John Muir Trail (JMT)/Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Turn left, heading south on the JMT. The trail then gently makes its way to Purple Lake, skirting around a mountain.
Past Purple Lake, where there are some campsites, the trail switchbacks up to Lake Virginia. The lake sits on a shelf, surrounded by mountains on almost every side. The view across from the west side is the most spectacular, with several beautiful sites located here.
From Virginia Lake, the trail descends down into Tully Hole in a series of tight switchbacks. From here, the trail follows the north side of Fish Creek for a while before crossing over on a large bridge.
From there, the trail makes a lengthy climb up to Squaw Lake–sometimes on switchbacks. The lake has quite a few campsites, although they can get filled up quick. From there, the trail keeps climbing up some more switchbacks, passing by a few more lakes, and on up to Silver Pass. From the pass, enjoy the view to the north and to the south, before heading down. A short ways down, pass by Silver Pass Lake, set amid rocky alpine terrain and granite mountains. The trail gently makes its way down from here, before diving down into the North Fork Mono Creek canyon in a series of switchbacks. There are two wet water crossings here–one two-thirds of the way down, and one across North Fork Mono Creek at the bottom of the canyon. Enjoy the views of this lesser known, densely-forested Yosemite-esque canyon, surrounded by steep, granite walls, and soaring thousands of feet up in the air. From the crossing, hike along the left bank of North Fork Mono Creek through thick forests before switchbacking down to the junction with the spur trail to the Lake Edison Ferry. (Look for a sign pointing to "Lake Edison Ferry."
Ferry Exit (Opt. #1):
From here, you can hike down to the ferry landing and take the ferry (or hike along the lake) to Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR). VVR is extremely remote, so the shuttle (a.k.a. arranged ride) from here is very long, rough, and might be a bit costly.
Bear Ridge Exit (Opt. #2)
You can also continue along the JMT, skipping the spur to the ferry landing, and exit via the Bear Ridge Trail. From the ferry access trail junction with the JMT, continue south on the JMT, cross over Mono Creek on a large bridge, and climb up Bear Ridge in a series of switchbacks. The climb is fairly long before it levels out at the top of the ridge. Descend down a little bit before reaching the junction with the Bear Ridge Trail on your right. Turn right (westward) on the Bear Ridge Trail and head down to the trailhead. The trail generally follows the center of the broad ridge, but rarely stays at the top. It can get somewhat rough and eroded, as it is heavily used by pack horses. From the trailhead, either set up a shuttle to pick you up, or make your way down to VVR on gravel forest roads.
Driving Out From VVR / Extending Your Trip:
It is a long and extremely rough way out of the Sierras from VVR to the nearest town. The road can get steep and narrow in spots, and drivers uncomfortable with heights and/or inexperienced drivers should consider avoiding this road and JMT exit point. You can also lengthen your trip by continuing along the JMT for as long as you like–there are other exit points along its 260-mile route.