John Muir Trail Panoramic Landscapes

In September of 2018 Phoenix commercial photographer Jason Koster backpacked the John Muir Trail with a 50 megapixel camera to create extremely high quality panoramic landscapes.  Read below as he shares the preparations & challenges for this 23 day, 250 mile trek as well as his thoughts on capturing such an expressive landscape.

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Phoenix commercial photographer Jason Koster talks about the logistics of John Muir Trail photography.

John Muir Trail Photography

The John Muir Trail is a 211 mile portion of the Pacific Crest Trail that goes through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The trail starts in Yosemite National Park and goes south to end at the highest peak in continental US, Mt Whitney.  With the climb and decent the John Muir Trail is equivalent to hiking the Grand Canyon from rim to rim to rim ….six times!  This John Muir Trail photography trip was definitely the most strenuous and involved backpacking trip I have ever been on.  My buddy and I were on the trail for a total of 23 days.  With our extended starting point and scheduled resupply detour we ended up hiking closer to 250 miles total.

Permit

Before we can start any John Muir Trail photography, the first challenge is getting a permit.  Even though my buddy and I had our request submitted many months in advance we had to go with plan C.  We changed from a more popular southbound hike to northbound.  We also had to extended our start location to a portal 30 miles south of Mt. Whitney. It was now gonna take us three days of hiking just to reach the start of our 211 mile hike. Adding those three days also meant we no longer have time for any rest days on the trail. There was also no margin for unexpected delays.

The concern with hiking northbound is you start at the higher elevation.  Altitude sickness becomes a very real concern.  Phoenix is at only 1,100ft above sea level.  We were starting at 10,000ft and heading straight to 14,000ft of Mt Whitney in three days.

Jason Koster John Muir Trail Mount Whitney Phoenix commercial photographer portrait photography selfie

Phoenix commercial photographer Jason Koster on top of Mt Whitney

Calories

On a hike of this distance and difficulty your caloric intake becomes very important.  I was gearing towards 3,000 calories a day. Altitude suppresses the appetite so I had to set an alarm to eat.  The good news is you can eat just about anything you want.  Meals were supplemented with junk food just for the extra calories and I still lost weight.    The bad news is you gotta figure out how to carry that much food.   We had three resupplies coordinated so at most we only had to carry 7 days of food at one time.  That doesn’t seem like a big deal until you realize you have to fit 21 meals in a bear canister.  Luckily we did not see or hear of any bears in the area.

Here is a pic of my 23 days of  meals all planned out.

Jason Koster John Muir Trail meals Phoenix commercial photographer portrait photography

John Muir Trail meal planning for 23 days on the trail.

So many logistics to John Muir Trail Photography

A trip like this is a lot of logistics and coordinating. What are the temperatures gonna be? Do I have the right gear? Practice camping with new gear. Strength training.  Getting meals figured out.  Resupply buckets packed and shipped to their destination on time. Hotels reserved for before and after.  Where to leave cars while on the trail.

I was able to leave for California before my buddy so I picked up our permit from the Ranger station. Then I dropped off our first resupply buckets at a motel in Independence which was only one day off the trail.  Our second resupply was going to a Ranch in the middle of the trail so that bucket was mailed two weeks ago to ensure it reaches this remote location before us. Then I drove a couple hours north to Yosemite Valley to stash our last resupply in parking lot bear boxes.  This is were I left my car.

From here I hitch hiked out of Yosemite to a small town where I was able to catch the shuttle back south and meet up with my buddy in Lone Pine.  We dropped his car off at a trailhead so it would be waiting for us on day seven to go get our first resupply in Independence. Once we left my buddies car, I had coordinated a shuttle to meet us at the trailhead to take us further south to our starting destination.  The whole thing went like clock work!  We spent one whole day at the starting campgrounds at 10,000ft just so we could have a little extra time acclimating to the altitude.  Neither of us experienced any altitude sickness.

Safety side of John Muir Trail Photography

There are so many rocks in the trail I must have rolled an ankle 5 times a day.  A good distance into the trail I had a reality check when I saw my buddy take a tumble.  Luckily he was not injured.  We were most likely two days from pavement and that’s if we are healthy.  Then it is several hours drive to a hospital.  New rule: no one gets hurt.  We had hard maps with us, topo maps, GPS and phone apps.  We were never lost.  Always knew were to find water and always knew what kind of climb or decent awaited us that day.   We did have a tracking device so our families could see our progress. We also had the option to call for emergency help but, that was only for life threatening situations.

Here are a couple screen captures I did of the Guthooks app on my phone.  I love the one on top of Mt Whitney.  The other image you can see how informed we were about water, camping, ranger stations or anything in the area.  Having this information is important because sometimes it is nice to know if you should press on or take a break.

Jason Koster John Muir Trail Guthooks screen capture Mount Whitney Phoenix commercial photographer portrait photography combo

Guthooks app screen captures on Mount Whitney and at Rae Lakes

How I came to shooting panoramic images feels like a natural progression to me. I talk about that progression in my Early Landscape gallery.

All of this and we haven’t even gotten to any John Muir Trail Photography

Shortly into my research of the John Muir Trail I knew this was going to be an amazing opportunity to shoot not just landscapes but, high quality panoramas.  Being on the trail with my camera exposed for 23 days was going to pose challenges.  I started looking into the light weight mirrorless cameras which you might think would be great for John Muir Trail photography.  The files are nice but, I wasn’t convinced the cameras were built to withstand the exposure to dust, moisture and extreme temperature swings without the luxury of being cleaned.

50 Megapixel

I ended up renting a 50 megapixel camera that was not mirrorless.  It was going to be heavy but I had given up on the idea of having a light weight pack a long time ago.  A high quality camera is not gonna do me much good if I don’t have a tripod. Luckily the tripod was light but, hard to avoid the bulk.  If I had come this far I might as well go a little further and bring a panorama nodal which is  a tripod head used to ensure image alinement of panoramic files.

After a few practice hikes I figured out how to stow my gear for easy access.  I didn’t have to take my pack off to set up and shoot my panoramas.  By the end I was quite fast at it.  Most of the people I saw on the trail had a hard time justifying a point and shoot camera.  Other hikers admired my dedication but were not envious of the extra weight and bulk.  In the end it was all worth it.

The images in this gallery are mostly the reference photos for the much higher quality photos that I am processing now for my John Muir Trail photography  book and John Muir Trail Photography gallery showings.

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