GPS: 37°41'N 119°11'W
Every backpacker dreams of someday hiking the John Muir Trail, that 211-mile-long (340-kilometer-long) pageant through the High Sierra from Mount Whitney to Yosemite Valley. Rightly so. The JMT traverses some of the finest alpine scenery in the U.S. But until the ol' vacation account accrues 17 days (that's the length of an average JMT thru-hike), content yourself by sampling one of the trail's best and most accessible sections on a weekend-length, 31-mile (50-kilometer) route into the Ritter Range. Even if you don't know the Ritters by name, you've seen their stony facades on calendars and posters, especially the shark-tooth Minarets. "There's nothing like the Minarets elsewhere in the Sierra. They're dark and intimidating, especially on a cloudy day," says David Roberts, who leads week-long backpacking trips into the Ritters for the Sierra Club. Your tour begins at Reds Meadow near Mammoth Ski Area, where you pick up the JMT northbound to Shadow Lake. Leaving the JMT, walk west to camp at Ediza Lake, which reflects the 17 Minaret spires. At this point you face a no-lose decision. Backpackers with off-trail know-how can proceed south to Cecile Lake, where the trail ends and the ad hoc Sierra High Route takes over. The less experienced should double back at Ediza Lake to rejoin the JMT to the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. Follow the PCT southeast to Agnew Meadows, where you can catch a free shuttle bus to your car.
Vitals: For wilderness permits, visit www.fs.fed.us/r5/sierra.
Originally published in the April 2008 edition of National Geographic Adventure