The High Sierra Camps of Yosemite
August 28, 2006
Vicki, Marlow and I had the time of our lives hiking between five of Yosemite's High Sierra Camps week before last.
The National Park Service sums the camps up nicely:
DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite operates five High Sierra Camps, which are spaced 5.7 to 10 miles apart along a loop trail in Yosemite's beautiful high country.
We started at Tuolumne Meadows (it calls itself a lodge, but it is really a collection of canvas cabins) and walked what's know as the loop: Tuolumne to Glen Aulin (and easy 3.4 mils), May Lake, Sunrise, Merced Lake, Vogelsang and back to Tuolumne. The camps are breathtakingly different-literally, as most are above 8,000 feet, and the thin air makes it harder to catch your breath. In particular, we did a guided loop trip with ranger Jana Walker, as good a ranger as one could possibly hope for. Loop groups can be as large as 14; ours was 10, and shrunk to 8 when one couple had to drop out. When the literature says the trip is strenuous, strenuous, strenuous, it isn't just whistling Dixie. You definitely want to practice with a full pack as much as possible, especially hill climbing, and do a couple of three or four hours hikes. Our longest practice hike was two hours; during the loop you hike about eight hours a day, for a total of 60 miles during the week. We made it, but it was, well, strenuous. Before I get into our personal experiences, here's a few tips:
- It is strenuous. Do a lot of hiking before you go. Be sure your shoes are broken in. If you are wearing wool socks, wear a sock liner. I personally endorse REI's hiking socks that are made of 10% Teflon; I had less foot trouble than Vicki or Marlow. Great shoes make the difference between an enjoyable experience and a truly painful one.
- If you can get a second day at Tuolumne (8,000 feet), do so. If not, spend some time somewhere else as high as you can get.
- Every ounce counts when you are carrying it up and down 4,000 feet. Weigh your pack (don't forget to fill your Camelback and both water bottles). If it is over 20 pounds, toss stuff out until it weighs less. Never has the concept of foot-pounds (a measurement of energy expended) been so vivid to me as on this hike. Once change of everything, no more. Buy the special quick-dry stuff they sell at Tilley, REI and such places. It is worth it. Pack everything they suggest (don't bring sheets; too heavy and too much space. Buy a sleep sack), and not a thing more, except:
- Eye shades and earplugs
- Immodium, Pepto Bismol, lots pain medication and something to help you sleep (Tylenol PM?). The beds are 1,000% more comfortable than the ground, but still hardly what most of us are used to. Of course, exhaustion is a real sleep aid, but sometimes it isn't enough, and you want all the sleep you can get.
- It really is really cold up in the High Sierra. I almost didn't take their advice and bring my long johns. That would have been a big mistake.
- A book (one thick or two thin. Paperback. Something you don't mind tossing before you climb UP to Vogelsang, at 11,000 feet). I brought four books, because it looked like there'd be a couple of hours to read every night and a day to read at Merced Lake. It doesn't work out that way. And you can't read at night unless you bring
- A headset light. Much better than a flashlight because you can easily use it to read in bed.
- Walking sticks, especially the nifty new high tech ones with springs in them. I considered buying them, then rejected the idea, and stumbled close to falling for the first two days, until the world's most sweet, empathetic, kind and wonderful ranger, Ranger Jana. I would never walk in the High Sierra without sticks again.
Frankly, the best way to prepare for this trip is to be between 18 and 25 and no more than 10 or 20 pounds overweight. However, for most of us, this is not an option. Personally, I'm 54 and 100 pounds overweight. I prepared. If I can do it (with what amounted to a 120 pound pack), you can do it. Just remember: it isn't a race. Take it easy, at your own pace. In our group of eight, I was between five and 15 minutes behind the group much of the time; I didn't mind, and neither did anyone else. I just walked, breathed, sipped on my water, and remembered that it wasn't about getting to the next camp at a certain hour, it was about enjoying the experience.
Expect to spend eight hours of every day hiking (average speed between 1-2 miles per hour, depending on terrain; don't count on 2). And for Heaven's Sake, go on a guided hike if you can afford it and can get into one. The peace of mind that comes from knowing you are on the correct trail is worth the premium price of hiring a ranger for your group. Plus, with a ranger along, you learn things and actually know what it is you are looking at. Plus, she knows great places to stop for rest and lunch.
As for my personal impressions: I probably spent more time in the moment during the seven days of this adventure than in most of the rest of my life. You have to be there (because if you're not you could get lost, hurt or both); you want to be there (because the High Sierra is one of the most beautiful places on earth). Thanks to Ranger Jana, I learned about trees, birds and granite (there's a lot of granite up there). I proved to myself that I could do something really difficult. I met interesting people, ate large quantities of pretty good food and lost six pounds. Life was stripped to its bare essentials: cocoa at 7, breakfast at 7:30, hiking at 8:30, break at 10:30, lunch at 1, into camp between 3 and 5, cocoa at 6, dinner at 6:30, sunset at 7:30, in bed no later than 9, to start the whole process over the next day.
You can find lots of details about the camps by Googling them. You have to enter a lottery to be allowed into the High Sierra camps(unless you are planning on backpacking--carrying your own tent and food). Why not enter? We're going to try for May Lake next year.