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Yosemite's High Sierra trail loop makes hiking accessible

The memories of a High Sierra trip from years ago were once again calling this hiking veteran. But could he and his pals, now in their 60s, still handle the rigors of Yosemite's backcounty? A few tricks of the trail helped lighten the load.

March 21, 2011|By Frank Clifford | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Merced Lake High Sierra Camp, the oldest and most remote of Yosemite's back country camps, established in 1916.
Merced Lake High Sierra Camp, the oldest and most remote of Yosemite's… (Frank Clifford )

Reporting from Yosemite National Park — In 1995, I set off from Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows toward Donahue Pass and the High Sierra country beyond. It was a splendid trip, and its memories, still vivid after 15 years, tugged at me like an old terrier longing for mountain trails that might be too steep for him now. Luckily, Yosemite National Park's High Sierra camps make it possible for old dogs like me to indulge youthful dreams of adventure without risking serious bodily injury.

The five camps provide meals, canvas tents with beds, clean privies and hot showers. Set among lofty pines or beside lakes and waterfalls, the camps are oases of shelter, provisions and camaraderie. Most important, by eliminating the need to carry tents, sleeping bags, stoves and food, they allow hikers to heft about half as much weight, about 20 pounds, as they might carry elsewhere on a weeklong backpacking trek.

The camps are along a 50-mile trail that winds through canyons, over passes and across the park's granite tablelands. From the White Cascade of the Tuolumne River to Mt. Hoffman to the tumbling headwaters of the Merced River, the route leads past some of Yosemite's most stunning scenery.

Each camp has room for about 40 people, two to five persons a tent. The camps operate for about two months every summer, from July to September, though lingering snow sometimes postpones the opening of the higher camps.

Only a tiny percentage of the 2 million visitors who come to the park each year venture into its wild interior. Fewer still seek out the High Sierra camps. Nevertheless, applications for the camps far outnumber the available spaces, with reservations determined by a lottery in the fall.

I had entered the lottery once before, unsuccessfully, but this time my name was drawn, enabling me and four companions to hike the entire 50-mile loop trail, beginning and ending at Tuolumne Meadows, the park's main wilderness gateway, and overnighting at each of the five camps. We didn't have to do it that way. The lottery allows people to put in for shorter trips and visit fewer camps.

We wanted the full experience. A diverse group — Al and Jack, retired businessmen; Davis, a gallery owner; Daniel, an artist, and me, a writer. We were linked by our enjoyment of the outdoors, by our ages — mid- to late-60s — and by a desire to defy frailty of one sort or another. We figured we would be ready for Yosemite after months of hiking in the mountains of northern New Mexico where we all live. By departure time, we had convinced ourselves that we'd overtrained and began studying maps of Yosemite to see how we might extend each day's hike. Our wives listened quietly. If any of them were thinking, "No fools like old fools," they kept it to themselves.

We set off on a cloudless August morning for our first destination, Glen Aulin, a camp nestled beneath White Cascade, one of several waterfalls along the Tuolumne River. The seven-mile hike from Tuolumne Meadows, where we'd left our car, is gently downhill, with the river often in sight. I'd been down this trail several times over the years, but that didn't keep me from getting us briefly lost and calling into question my credentials as trip leader. I assured everyone I knew what I was doing and managed to avoid further embarrassment that day.

Established in 1927, Glen Aulin is one of the park's older camps. In 1916, Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, proposed a network of rustic mountain retreats that would entice park-goers into Yosemite's majestic back country. Today, some of the camps are showing their age. Iron bed springs sag and whine. There are drafty holes in tent skirts. But the hearty meals and enthusiastic service by the camps' young staffers more than compensate for the slightly careworn accommodations. Awaiting us at Glen Aulin were a cake and a cooler of lemonade. Dinner was turkey and dressing; breakfast the next morning was oatmeal, eggs and pancakes. Vegetarian meals were available at all the camps for those who had requested them in advance.

For $5 a pound, you can have your own wine delivered to three of the camps. It arrives on the mule trains that make the daily food deliveries. Our bottles were waiting for us at the May Lake camp, eight miles west of Glen Aulin. The camp is spread along the lakeshore, and it is hard to imagine a more idyllic setting for a makeshift cocktail party — a mirror-smooth lake framed by the soaring battlements of 10,800-foot Mt. Hoffman. We set out three bottles of Pinot Noir and Syrah on a tree stump, and before long we were entertaining several neighbors.

Even without wine, Yosemite's High Sierra camps are congenial places. Strangers eat together at long tables and, if space dictates, find themselves sharing a tent. During our week on the trail, couples and family groups made up the majority of camp visitors. Ages ranged from early 20s to early 80s.

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