Living in Geologic Time: Backpacking through the past, present, and future of fire on the John Muir Trail

I’ve been writing a lot for Eos magazine and last year, I started a new feature column called Living in Geologic Time, “a series of personal accounts that highlight the past, present, and future of famous landmarks on geologic timescales.

The latest feature—Traversing the High Sierra on the People’s Paths—was inspired by my 27 day backpacking trip on the John Muir Trail in August:

Mile for mile, the John Muir Trail is one of the most scenic hikes on Earth. The footpath—never actually hiked by John Muir—starts in Ahwahnee (Yosemite Valley) and follows a series of lush meadows, granite lake basins, and high alpine mountain passes for over 200 miles along the spine of the Sierra Nevada to the top of Tumanguya (Mount Whitney), the highest peak in the lower 48 states.

Construction of the John Muir Trail began in 1915, the year after the conservationist’s death. But Indigenous people had already been traveling throughout the Sierra for thousands of years on a network of trails known as Nüümü Poyo, or People’s Paths. Long before the National Park Service began blasting out trails with dynamite, the Paiute and other tribes etched them out of the wilderness with bare feet and kept them open by setting fires.

Go to to read the rest of the JMT story. I’m delighted that the Living in Geologic Time series was named part of “The Best of Eos in 2020”! Links to my other Living in Geologic Time columns on places like the Grand Canyon, the Cascade Volcanoes and Arches National Park can be found here. Stay tuned for more in 2021!

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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5 Responses to Living in Geologic Time: Backpacking through the past, present, and future of fire on the John Muir Trail

  1. Jim says:

    Fascinating article. More fire more meadows, I never thought of it that way. Indigenous people must have been visionaries to help establish such a beautiful place. It’s a great read but a dog in the photo would have made me smile.

    • Sadly, we didn’t bring the dogs on the JMT. Too many national parks, too many miles between resupplies to carry dog food. We could barely carry enough food for ourselves!

  2. Pit says:

    Hi there! Soooooooooo good to hear/read from you again. Thanks for that article. I’m glad you’re ok.
    A Happy New Year to you, and stay healthy,

    • Thanks, Pit. Nice to hear from you too! All is well in my world. Still hiking everyday. I’m planning to start posting on here more in 2021. Stay tuned! Thanks for being a loyal, longtime reader!

  3. pmdello says:

    Spent many years in Yosemite. Good to see your photos from the back country. Glad TWTBC is still happening. 😎

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