My conditions were simple: A vacation in the Sierra Nevada back country would be OK, I told my husband, as long as I had absolutely no camp duties.
That meant no cooking and no dishes, no responsibilities other than sitting by the campfire.
We have ventured into the Sierra back country for three summers, each time on a pack trip.
What's a pack trip? It's sort of a catered back country trip complete with cook, wranglers, horses and mules. It's a wonderful way to see the spectacular, glaciated alpine vistas of the Sierra without being burdened by a 60-pound pack on your back.
Most eastern Sierra pack trips originate in the Bishop-Mammoth Lakes area. The Eastern Sierra Packers Assn. lists 18 packers as members, from Kennedy Meadows in the Southern Sierra to Coleville in the north.
Several Pack Trip Options
A pack trip can be as short as three days or as long as two weeks. Routes are arranged in advance, according to the desires of the pack trippers. A trout fishing-oriented group, for example, wouldn't visit the same areas as, say, a group of wildlife photographers.
Your heavy gear--sleeping bags, tents, clothes, food, etc.--are transported in duffel bags on the backs of mules, tended by the wranglers
You can hike during the day or ride a horse. And you need to carry only a small day or fanny pack for such essentials as water bottle, lunch, camera, film, insect repellent and sun lotion. Don't bother to take food, not even snacks. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are supplied as well as hors d'oeuvres each night.
A pack trip group who wants to see a maximum amount of Sierra scenery can be on the move daily, stopping at a different campsite each evening. Or you can lay over two or more nights at the same campsite.
One-Site Trips Available
Spot trips are another alternative. That's where packers escort you to a campsite--perhaps a remote alpine lake where you might not see a soul for a week--and return several days or a week later to take you back to the pack station. They'll supply you with food and cooking equipment, or you can be left with a cook.
A typical five-day pack trip begins early on a Monday morning, with participants gathering at the pack station for a 7 a.m. breakfast of thick French toast, bacon, fried eggs, hot coffee and orange juice.
While pack trippers are eating breakfast, wranglers are loading duffel bags and other gear onto mules. Soon, hikers and riders are on their way, usually separately, with brown bag lunches.
Two Typical Trips
Here are two typical Sierra hiking pack trips, the first relatively easy, the second a toughie:
--A five-day route begins at Agnew Meadows, near Mammoth Lakes. The trail takes hikers along a ridge below 11,600-foot San Joaquin Mountain, gradually gaining altitude until you reach a campsite near spectacular Thousand Island Lake in the Minarets Wilderness. That first day's hike is about six miles, and you have all day to cover the distance.
The second campsite is usually near Shadow Creek, a tributary to the San Joaquin River. Pack trippers who schedule a layover day at Shadow Creek can take an easy hike to nearby Lake Ediza, considered by many to be the most beautiful of all the thousands of glaciated back country Sierra Nevada lakes.
The Thousand Island Lake-Shadow Creek route through the Minarets Wilderness winds up near the Devil's Postpile.
More Rigorous Hike
--A more rigorous five-day route (about 10 to 12 miles a day) begins south of Mammoth Lakes at Rock Creek Pack Station, reached by the Tom's Place exit off U.S. 395. This hike, partly on the Pacific Crest Trail, is more demanding of the hiker, but offers spectacular vistas from three 12,000-foot passes: Mono, Silver and McGee.
There are no layover days on this one, no breather for your blisters. From the Rock Creek Pack Station, hikers and riders go over Mono Pass and head down into Mono Creek Canyon for the first night's camp. On Day Two it's a six-mile hike along splashy Mono Creek, and up to Pocket or Silver Pass Meadow for Campsite II.
Next comes a relatively easy climb over Silver Pass, where hikers can see all the way to Yosemite. It's one of the Sierra's great views. Granite spires tower skyward to your right and left and you look down on mirror-smooth lakes such as Chief, Papoose, Warrior, Squaw and Lake of the Lone Indian.
Campsite III is a meadow that stockmen have called Horse Heaven for at least half a century. Next comes a tough climb over McGee Pass, a final night's camp near Big McGee Lake, near a waterfall, and, at last, a day of all-downhill hiking, from Big McGee down to the McGee Creek trailhead parking lot.
Lunch fixin's are set out each morning so travelers can make their own. There's a variety of cold cuts, cheese and fruit, homemade cookies and candy bars.
First-time pack trippers are usually startled at the dinnertime cuisine that pack station cooks can create with Dutch ovens, campfire grills and frying pans and pots that look as if they've been around since the Gold Rush.
Dinners range from prime rib with fresh corn and macaroni salad to pork chops and apple sauce to T-bone steaks cooked to order. After all that, dessert might be chocolate cake or peach shortcake, with real whipped cream.
Costs vary, according to your type of trip. Our five-day pack trip this summer with a dozen or so friends from the Red's Meadow Pack Station near Mammoth Lakes to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park will cost $575 for riders, $375 for hikers.
A good way to obtain information about Sierra summer pack trips is to contact the Bishop Chamber of Commerce at (619) 873-8405, which maintains a roster of Eastern Sierra pack stations.