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.
Our May Lake soiree was hardly bacchanalian. Nevertheless, the next morning I was feeling the ill effects of alcohol, altitude, age or all three and was not looking forward to the day's trek, a steep eight miles to Sunrise Camp. Was there an easier way? There was, said the camp manager, who noted my morning pallor.
She recommended that I follow the designated trail to Sunrise for about a mile and a half to a junction with Tioga Road, which bisects the park. There, I could catch a shuttle bus, ride it uphill to the Cathedral Lakes trailhead and hike that less arduous trail to Sunrise. The hardest part would be enduring my companions' mock outrage.
"A bus!.... You're going to take a bus?"
No matter that my route would actually be longer — if less steep — than the one they would take. I was immediately branded the Rosie Ruiz of hiking, Yosemite's version of the New York Marathon runner accused of riding the subway for part of the race.
Even among men our age, the urge to engage in some form of competition endures. During dinner at Sunrise, Al, the oldest and biggest member of our group, announced a point system that he had invented for ranking us based on trail speed and stamina. Thanks to the bus ride, I was in the minus column, alone at the bottom of the rankings, but not for long.
We had a welcome rest day at the Merced Lake camp. Established in 1916 on the grounds of an old cavalry post, Merced is the oldest camp. Surrounded by regal stands of Jeffrey pine and red fir, the tents are pitched in neat rows framing a quadrangle that still resembles a military parade ground. Just below the camp lies Merced Lake, which gathers and releases the headwaters of the river by the same name that races hundreds of feet down into Yosemite Valley. More than any of the camps, Merced has a relaxed aura about it — clothes drying on lines strung between tents, people lazing in camp chairs, a light wind rustling the tree tops. One might be tempted to spend the entire week here, given what lies ahead — a 3,000-foot ascent over seven miles to Vogelsang, the last and highest camp on the loop. There are two trails from the Merced Lake camp to Vogelsang, but there's no way to avoid the steep climb.
"Either way it's a haul," said Sheridan King, who has been leading mule trains in the park for 30 years. It was too late to purchase a ride aboard one of King's mules, nor did she have room for an extra pack. Still, a member of our group came up with a way to lighten his load. Davis hired a Sherpa.
Elizabeth, an elfin camp worker who lives much of the year in the mountains of Ecuador, agreed to carry Davis' pack to Vogelsang for a negotiated fee. Although he insisted that he had sprained an ankle, we saw no signs of a limp as he vaulted up the trail to keep pace with the fleet-footed Elizabeth. Had she captured his heart along with his pack? Could the trip get any more farcical?
The rest of us trudged up the winding stone steps that form much of the trail for the first 1,500 feet. We climbed through granite gaps and along Fletcher Creek as it ricocheted down the mountainside, the peaked roofline of Yosemite's majestic Cathedral Range visible around every corner. The enthralling scenery distracted us from the pain of the endless ascent as well as from the portents of early winter — a roiling gray sky and plummeting temperatures. Atop the alpine knoll where Vogelsang huddles, a fierce wind bent trees and battered the tents.
We cleared the last rise and arrived at the camp, gasping for breath, just as Elizabeth was shedding Davis' pack and preparing to make her way back down to Merced Lake. She had food, a head lamp and extra batteries for a nighttime return trip that could take several hours. Unfazed by the weather, she was excited at the prospect of descending in the dark, alone.
"Isn't this a great trail?" she said.
If any of us could have spoken, we would have agreed.