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John Muir Trail, California
The hike: For anyone who's ever daydreamed during class (or work), the 211-mile John Muir Trail is license to keep gathering wool. Called an "irregular gent" by his professors, Muir failed to graduate from college but went on to become one of the world's top naturalists and founded the Sierra Club in 1892. His namesake footpath winds through the very best of California wilderness, past misty waterfalls, dizzying passes, and greenery-meets-granite mountains. Each year, about 200 irregular gents and ladies with 30 days to spare negotiate the JMT's full length, from the Yosemite Valley to 14,495-foot Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Park.
Peak experience: Channeling your inner Ansel Adams as you snap photos of glassy lakes and jagged peaks in the 231,500-acre Ansel Adams Wilderness, just south of Yosemite.
Need a shortcut?: Follow the 14-mile (round trip) Shadow Lake Trail to Ediza Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, past waterfalls and over the San Joaquin River to heart-hammering views of the Sierras.
Base camp: The Resort at Red's Meadow Pack Station, located a few minutes from the Shadow Lake Trail, or about five days into a full JMT backpacking trip. It's a favorite among hikers for its natural spring showers, fully stocked store (one of only two right on the trail), horses for hire, and home-cooked meals. The log cabins are rustic, but they're equipped with electricity, kitchenettes, and an outside grill ($150).
When to go: Late August, when many Yosemite families have returned home for the new school year.