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Indigenous Women Hike founder calls the John Muir Trail by its original name

Jolie Varela talks about her first overnight hike, the healing of native people, and how to respect and honor indigenous lands.

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On Aug. 1, Indigenous Women Hike Founder Jolie Varela and a dozen other indigenous women will take their first steps on the 210-mile-long Nuumu Poyo, more widely known as the John Muir Trail in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas. The three-week journey is unlike anything Varela has done before, but the purpose is to bring healing to her and the other indigenous women. We talked to Varela about the hike in her hometown of Bishop, California, in Payahüünadü—the Paiute name for the Owens Valley.

When did you first start hiking?

Jolie Varela: I only started hiking in the past four years when I was going through a really hard time in my life. It was really hard for me at first. I’d have to stop every five minutes for 15 minutes. But then I kept on going and it got easier and easier. Pretty soon, I just had to go hiking. I noticed the difference that it made in me and my body and my mind. That’s something that I want the indigenous community to feel as well.

Tell us about Indigenous Women Hike and the journey ahead.

JV: Indigenous Women Hike is a vision that I came up with last May, when decided that I was going to solo hike the Nuumu Poyo. From there, it picked up more steam and other indigenous women became interested and then I had this idea of indigenous women reclaiming their ancestral spaces and homes and creating a healing journey for all of us. There’s a specific list of traumas that go along with indigenous women. For us to be able to be out on the trail together for 210 miles in our ancestral homelands will be really powerful. I believe that the healing of communities begins with the healing of women. If we become healthy mentally and physically through this process of healing, then that’s going to radiate throughout our community.

What do you hope to get out of the hike?

JV: Empowerment for all of the women who go and all of the indigenous people who are watching. That is my audience; that is who we’re doing this for. Sometimes I have to check myself because with some of my posts on Instagram, I don’t want to re-traumatize or trigger indigenous women, but also non-indigenous people need to understand what we go through as native women. What I want to come out of this is for them to feel empowered. We’re serving our sovereignty here. We’re going without permits under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 and we’re traveling 210 miles where we’re supposed to have permits. These are ancestral homelands. We should not have to have a piece of paper that tells us whether we can travel through them or not. 

My vision beyond the hike this summer is that we do the Pacific Crest Trail next year in sections, and we stop in indigenous communities and stop and talk to the tribes and build relationships with the people and acknowledge where we’re traveling through. I want to hopefully ignite something in others and maybe they’d want to do this on their own trails that have been colonized and now have names of old white men.

What is the best way for hikers and others who appreciate the outdoors to respect the Paiute and other indigenous communities?

JV: I tell visitors that when they get a chance, there’s an app called Native Land that will tell you the indigenous people of that territory. I also tell them that it’s important to support tribal organizations in the area. Something as simple as getting your gas at the Paiute Palace gas station or going to the cultural center and learning. The Happy Boulders are one of the most popular climbing areas here and right on the trail there’s a grinding stone that people walk on all of the time. But you don’t know the cultural significance unless you’ve been taught. I tell them this and they have a look of concern on their face. To me, that’s erasure of indigenous people in this area. What if that gets stepped on so much and ruined because it’s so heavily trafficked that it’s gone one day? I tell them to go to the cultural center, that way they’ll be able to identify what a grinding stone looks like and when they’re out hiking or climbing, they’ll know what it is and be able to help protect it too. 

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