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Living and Writing in the Natural World

The Second Rung

We can’t all be frolicking deep in the High Sierra backcountry every summer. That’s heaven, and I’ve done it, but not all can. Perhaps your experience is limited, perhaps your fitness is not adequate, perhaps you’re too darn old to heft 40 pounds of pack mile after mile (here I raise my hand), maybe you’ve got young kids, or maybe you want to work your way up to the Peak experience. These days of late winter I find myself peeking ahead in the calendar to summer, and thinking that it’s time to start making plans and reserving spots in campgrounds and on trails. What’s available to us in terms of this second rung of outdoor adventures?

Though some believe it’s antithetical to the backcountry experience, many seasoned hikers hire pack animals to carry their gear into the high country, and take day hikes from a home base. Some because they’re older and can’t carry as much, some because they have young kids they want to expose to the backcountry, some because they just love drinking wine and grilling steaks in the wilderness, and what the hey, mules carry wine bottles a lot better than people. This is the option I’m considering for the upcoming summer, getting back to my grove of High Sierra giant sequoias far up the middle branch of the Kaweah river (see Sept. 6 entry in the archive blogs).

Another wonderful way to get into the high country easily (though not cheaply) is the ring of High Sierra camps in Yosemite (and Bear Paw Meadow in Sequoia National Park). The camps provide tents, cots, and bedding, and you get delicious dinners and breakfasts (and can order box lunches for the trail). The camps are spaced a day’s hike apart (a longish day in some instances, but you’re carrying a light pack only). Getting reservations in the High Sierra camps is by a lottery system and can be dicey scoring for a particular time. But if you’ve got some flexibility, “open” spots are publicized throughout the summer, and especially in the autumn.

Back east, there are more than 250 “shelters” along the Appalachian Trail, most of them plain 3-sided “lean-to’s.” But hostels and B&B’s occur in towns along the trail. And the “White Mountain Huts” in New Hampshire provide enclosed shelter and meals, analogous to the High Sierra camps. In the Rockies, the thirty 10th Mountain Division huts along 350 miles of Colorado trails provide cabins with cooking stoves for skiers and hikers year-round. The San Juan Hut system runs from Colorado to Moab, Utah, providing cabins stocked with food and sleeping gear for skiers and mountain bikers year-round. A little Google searching will reveal many other possibilities throughout the states and Canada.

My friend Bertha swears by the Coastal Trail walks along the Pacific Coast. There’s a fairly well-defined system of trails, interspersed by beaches and small towns. You can have your walk coordinated by various companies, who transport and provide your tent and food, and cook your meals—for a fee, of course. But again, this frees you up to carry a very light pack and generally have fewer concerns to deal with.

Of course, there are campgrounds galore throughout America’s magnificent national parks (thanks, Mr. Muir). Reserving spots in them is increasingly challenging as more and more people see the great value of time spent outdoors away from cities (hurrah!). This is where advance planning is necessary, and access to a computer very handy, but it can be done. For a string of some half-dozen years a group of friends from our Valley Oaks Village cohousing community got reservation spots in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadow campground, and by showing up early to claim campsites scored heavenly camps along the Lyell branch of the Tuolumne River, with Lembert Dome looming nearby and dozens of hikes radiating into the High Sierra in every direction. These creekside summer campouts among friends were one of the best gifts we’ve given our kids, exposing them to the grandeur and beauty of the high country.

Before this run in Yosemite, our family had a series of summer campouts at Lassen Volcanic National Park north of us, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park west of us. Both these venues were less crowded than Yosemite, of course, and hence easier to get reservations for. Not every national or state park can be a Yosemite, but they all give the gift of outdoors experiences, natural beauty, and starry nights—plenty of reason to go to the trouble of pitching the family tent and cooking over the fire or camp stove.

We don’t just limit our summer outdoor experience to the week or two of camping in a park, of course. Shorter jaunts in the congenial summer days are easier and confer their own rewards—plus you don’t have to be making reservations in the middle of winter! I’m already dreaming of whizzing on my bike through our local municipal park on a hot day, wearing nothing but my swim trunks and my Tevas, and capping my ride with a long, cool dip in the creek that bisects the park. Ahhh. My kids and I load up our kayaks atop the car and drive to the Sacramento River east of town spring and summer, where we explore the bird-rich creeks and sloughs emptying into the river, occasionally spying an otter or beaver, and then gingerly launch onto the river upon occasions.

Heck, I even look forward to taking my wife out to Scotty’s, a burger joint with a deck overlooking the Sacramento river, in the summer and enjoying fries and a burger while we quaff a beer and fight off mosquitoes—all the while enjoying the riparian views and birdlife in front of us. That counts! Yes, it’s time to start dreaming and planning, even in midwinter.

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