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Weekend Escape: Sequoia National Park

Altitudinal Adjustment : It's no stroll up to Bearpaw Meadow, but nature puts on a big show near its homey camp

September 21, 1997|VANI RANGACHAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Rangachar is an editor in the Travel section

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — Our first sign that this was no Sunday stroll to Bearpaw Meadow came about two miles up the High Sierra trail, where I had stopped to figure our position on a topo map. (It was in response to an "Are we there yet?" query from my teenage daughter.)

A couple heading in the opposite direction stopped to chat. "Heading up to Bearpaw? You'll love it." And they laughed when asked how much farther it was. We had miles and miles to go before we slept that night: 11.3 to be exact.

In April I read about Bearpaw Meadow in an AAA guidebook. It was a High Sierra back-country camp we could walk to (AAA calls it a day hike), carrying only clothes and toiletries. Bearpaw would provide beds and two meals for $125 per person per night. Mountain wilderness without the heavy load. Jazzed, I called, naively thinking I could easily land a reservation for a couple of nights in August. Sorry, but no, said the agent for the park's concessionaire, Sequoia-Kings Canyon Parks Service Co. They were booked up on weekends for the entire month, and I had to settle for only one night on a Sunday.

Now on the trail, I was wondering whether Bearpaw Meadow was worth the months of planning and the long, long hike. Why was it so popular?

As trails go, this was a beauty. It started near the Giant Forest Lodging complex in the shadows of the towering and ancient Sequoia trees that give the national park its name. Its incline was gentle, with only one small set of switchbacks and an elevation gain of 1,000 feet. The views were spectacular, with the 10,000-to-13,000-foot bald granite peaks of the Great Western Divide to keep us company. Still, the allure of the scenery palled as we trudged onward, heads down, eyes on the trail. One misstep and we could have plunged several hundred feet down sharp granite rock.

Our feet aching and terribly tired, we hobbled into Bearpaw Meadow at about 6 p.m., after six hours of walking, to find half a dozen people gathered, chatting under the canvas awning on the porch of the dining hall. I sank onto a wood bench and learned, gratefully, that we had not missed dinner.

Camp managers Becky and Paul Bishoff welcomed us, offered us much-needed lemonade and gave us a choice of three tent cabins. We chose Tent No. 3, which, when the flap was open, offered a spectacular view of the snow-laced peaks of the Divide.

The camp's six wood-frame tents are strewn among manzanita bushes and pine trees on a bluff at an elevation of about 7,800 feet. The Kaweah River courses in a gorge far below. Campers share a communal outhouse with a flush toilet, a shower stall and a sink. And meals are eaten together in a small dining hall.

Our fellow campers were an eclectic bunch of adventurers, and tales flew of trekking in the Himalayas and China and rafting down the Colorado. But much of the talk centered on what I suspect is a frequently asked question here: how to bag those coveted reservations to Bearpaw.

Most tents for the camp's short season (from late June to Sept. 31), are spoken for by the end of the day on Jan. 2. Five other guests at the camp that Sunday night picked up cancellations as I had. Cancellation penalties are pretty stiff: If you cancel within 30 days of your reservation, you'll be charged for one night. Before 30 days, the penalty is $45. One couple in their 70s, there to celebrate a birthday, had persevered from 8 a.m. on Jan. 2 (when phone lines open for reservations) until they got through. But even then they weren't able to get the dates they wanted. Weekends fill up quickly.

Our conversation was cut short by the dinner gong, and we filed in to see a table groaning under the weight of all the food: homemade bread, pasta with pesto, barbecued chicken, vegetable stew, wild rice, salad. Camp food never tasted so delicious, and I went back for seconds and thirds.

Later that evening I sat with my daughter in the chairs on the "deck," a mound of rock on the very edge of the bluff, and a peace settled over us as we watched the alpenglow of the sun setting on the Divide. Meera went into our tent and lighted the old-fashioned kerosene lamp (having never seen one, she pronounced it cool), and tucked herself into bed at 8:30 p.m. I tried to read a book, but the light of the lamp was too dim, and so I went outside to find a truly wondrous sight. A rising full moon, chased by Jupiter, cast a luminous backlight on the silhouette of the peaks. It was so bright that all the other stars were dimmed beside it. All of us stood there in the crisp thin air and watched, silenced by the beauty. Sleep came very easily that night.

*

Monday morning, breakfast was another stellar production: scrambled eggs, nut-studded pancakes, sausages, potatoes. Stuffed again, I sat on the "deck" again, sunning myself. A marmot had the same idea, and poked its head from among the cracks. Earlier that morning, Meera had sighted a mule doe and her fawn in camp. "This place is full of Disney characters," a guest remarked.

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