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High Sierra by Horseback

A pack train lightens the load--and the spirits--of family campers exploring the Minarets and the glacier-carved lakes near Mammoth

July 30, 2000|DAN BLACKBURN

THOUSAND ISLAND LAKE, Calif. — The serrated summits of the Minarets jut up on the Sierra skyline like the jagged teeth of a castoff comb. But this, of course, is a destination to treasure, not abandon. For decades it has lured hikers, climbers, backpackers and others into the wilderness west of Mammoth Lakes, rewarding them with scenery, solitude and adventure.

The region was known as the Minarets Wilderness until 1984, when it was renamed the Ansel Adams Wilderness after the photographer, who first came here in 1923 to shoot 12,957-foot Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake.

I've backpacked here and even skied parts in winter. But I wondered what a family affair--on horseback--would be like. My longtime backpacking partner Bob Rosenquist and I decided to plan a family trek in June to a campsite at Thousand Island Lake. On a Monday, horses and mules would take us and our supplies about nine miles and 2,500 feet up to the lake, then carry us back south on Friday. In between, we would be on our own--camping, hiking, fishing and playing in the snow.

The easy part was assembling our group: my two children, Dylan, 11, and Courtney, 9; and family friend Heather Mulford and her 11-year-old-niece, Jalaine, from Sparks, Nev. All of us were experienced campers.

Our next task was packing. Because none of us had ever embarked on a trip like this--one in which horses and mules would do much of the work for us--we started weighing in with luxuries such as large camp stoves, chairs, a large tent, canned goods, ice chests, meats and hot dogs, marshmallows and other goodies. Each of our six mules could carry up to 150 pounds, which added up to a surprising number of extras.

The day of departure finally arrived. My kids and I climbed into our tightly packed SUV in Los Angeles on a Sunday and headed north on Interstate 395 while Bob, Heather and Jalaine drove south from Nevada.

We met in Mammoth Lakes, once primarily a ski town but now a busy, year-round resort. Because we needed room for six people with lots of gear plus groceries we picked up at a local supermarket, we rented a condominium.

After the six-hour drive, we unwound in the condo's pool, sorted our supplies and prepared to start early the next day.

Sunrise stretched its fingers of light over the surrounding mountains in the morning as we hopped into our cars and drove about seven miles down the winding, narrow Reds Meadow Road to Agnew Meadows, on the edge of the Ansel Adams Wilderness and the jumping-off point for our trip.

Our outfitter was Red's Meadow Pack Stations, named after the homesteader who started it in the mid-1920s. In 1960 the Tanner family bought the company, and Bobby Tanner manages much of the operation these days.

Bobby and wrangler Tani Al-Awar sorted the supplies and strapped them onto the backs of mules. They also added two key items: 20-gallon bear-proof metal containers for storing food. Black bears in the area have become so accustomed to campers that they consider the campsites an open invitation to breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Once the mules were loaded, we were introduced to our horses. With Bobby in the lead and Tani accompanying us, we nudged our mounts forward and departed.

The four-hour ride to Thousand Island Lake was a photo album of vistas. We wound along a dusty trail that climbed steadily. Waterfalls raced down mountain slopes, spilling into streams that feed the mighty San Joaquin River as it chisels a canyon through the wilderness. Glacier-carved lakes abound here, and the view of the Minarets, Mt. Ritter and Mt. Banner changed every few miles.

More than 500 million years ago, this region was covered by water. Sediment on the sea floor turned to rock as the earth shifted; in the ages that followed, magma folded into the sediment layers. The resulting metamorphic rock eroded 35 million to 100 million years ago, leaving the Minarets.

The area had been considered for inclusion in what became Yosemite National Park, which borders it on the north. But mining interests blocked the plan. Since the 1870s, mining had brought horse and mule trains, which hauled supplies in and silver ore out.

These days, the land is part of Inyo and Sierra national forests; the area designated as the Ansel Adams Wilderness comprises about 228,600 acres of some of the most spectacular scenery and hiking trails in the Sierra.

For some of us, especially Heather and me, the trip into the wilderness was like a ride into the past. We grew up around horses and rode them throughout much of our youth. My daughter, Courtney, also has done some riding. But for the novices--my friend Bob, Heather's niece Jalaine and my son Dylan--being on horseback mixed great scenery with sore leg muscles.

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