Boasting some of the world's most breathtaking wilderness, California's Sierra Nevada mountain range continues to draw huge summer crowds.
In its foothills lie lakes and campsites accessible to any weekend warrior with wheels and an inclination for the great outdoors.
Its real majesty, though, is experienced only by those on foot. Up past the paved roads, convenience stores and outhouses is a wilderness so serene and utterly removed from the rest of the world that one can travel for days and not see a single soul.
This vast backcountry is as primitive and quiet as any urbanite could desire.
Venturing into the Sierra Nevada wilderness may be the perfect vacation for those in search of rare beauty, but surviving in it takes strength and skill. It can be an unforgiving environment of treacherous elements. Unless one is physically and mentally prepared, it can defeat even the hardy hikers.
Choosing a route is the first step; even the remotest of places within the Sierra has a trail. To hike each could take a lifetime of vacations, so even though your choices are broad, some simple investigation will uncover the trail that is right for you.
Choosing a Route
There are two factors to consider before choosing a route: the amount of time you wish to spend and the level of difficulty you wish to tackle. Trips lasting three to four days are a good length for those just getting their feet wet, covering 20 to 30 miles comfortably. Hikes for a week to 10 days can involve 80 miles or more, depending on your endurance.
Once you have determined your ability, several resources will assist your route options. The simplest resource to access is another backpacker, most of whom have a favorite spot in the Sierra. Their personal recommendations can provide vivid descriptions and tips on good campsites or fishing holes. If you know no backpackers, you will find that most hiking supply- store employees are eager to recommend a trail that will match your ability.
Trail guides are an excellent resource for choosing a route. Many are available in backpacking supply stores or at a local library. One such guide is "Starr's Guide to the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Region," by Walter A. Starr Jr. This guide provides an accurate description of trails in the Sierra, as well as some intelligent backpacking advice.
An easy way to choose a route is to hike with a group, such as the Sierra Club or the American Hiking Society, which offer a myriad of trips at all levels for a reasonable fee. Announcements can be found in their newsletters or by contacting your local chapter. If you've never hiked or would like some guidance, this is your best bet.
Before entering the trail head, you must obtain a wilderness permit. They are issued by the ranger station nearest your point of entry and are designed to keep areas from being overcrowded. Permits are issued on a first-come, first-serve basis until the daily quota is reached. (You can locate the nearest ranger station on a road map.)
Topographic maps are to a backpacker what a scalpel is to a surgeon--an essential tool. Knowing how to use one is invaluable where you cannot rely on signs, people or even the trail to lead you to your destination. A compass also is helpful. If you can use these two items, you are reasonably sure never to get lost.
Damage to Wilderness
Hiking trails of the Sierra Nevada are a blessing as they provide a means of exploring this awesome land while preserving nature. It is important to stay on the trails while traveling, for continually hiking off-trail damages the wilderness.
You are entering a primitive world with only the supplies you carry on your back. Preparing your backpack can determine whether your experience will be a pleasure or a nightmare. It is important to pack as lightly as possible. Make sure you know what is essential and what is not. This information can be obtained from other backpackers or a guidebook.
It is of the utmost importance that your pack and hiking boots are comfortable; discomfort will drain your energy and crush your spirits. Do not compromise when purchasing a pack, boots, tent or other accessories; they will be the only comforts you can rely on in the wilderness.
One of the exciting discoveries in the wilderness is its wildlife. Remember though, that bears, raccoons and rodents are not polite hosts and will help themselves to your food and other personal items at the first opportunity. As a result, it is important to keep items strung up on a bear cable or tree.
When planning a menu, dehydrated foods are your best bet because they are light, compact and won't spoil.
Backpacking stores usually carry a few brands.
Fishing will supplement your menu. Good lakes and streams are everywhere in the Sierra Nevada, many of which are stocked regularly.
Unfortunately, potable water is not always a luxury in the back country. Fecal contamination of lakes and streams has made it unsafe to drink directly from many water sources.
Giardia is the most common contaminant, and will give you gastrointestinal discomfort more painful than Montezuma's revenge. Purifying your drinking and cooking water is a must. This can be done by boiling the water for 10 minutes, adding chemicals to it or filtering it. You can find purifying tablets and water filters in a backpacking store. This seemingly untouched wilderness can't boast pure water due to man's encroachment.
Hiking the Sierra Nevada is no stroll through the park; it requires considerable planning and preparation to ensure that harm comes to neither the visitor nor the visited. Backpacking through such wilderness gives a sense of self-sufficiency, strength, challenge, accomplishment, great worth and a whole new outlook on civilization as we know it.