Happy Trails at Yosemite’s High Sierra Camps

Times Staff Writer

As summer winds down, this is the season’s last week for staying in Yosemite National Park’s High Sierra camps, a 70-year-old tradition for thousands who love hiking in the mountains.

“There is nothing quite like it anywhere. It is one of the unique situations in the world,” said Nic Fiore, 64, director of the High Sierra camps the last 22 years.

There are five back-country camps linked by a 50-mile trail loop. The lowest is at Merced Lake at an elevation of 7,150 feet and the highest, Vogelsang, is at 10,300 feet.


The others are Sunrise at 9,400 feet, Glen Aulin at 7,800 feet and May Lake at 9,270. There are no roads leading to any of the remote camps, only foot trails.

Each camp has tents with beds with a fresh change of linen each day, breakfast and dinner served in a canvas-topped dining room, showers and flush toilets.

“Hiking the High Sierra camp loop is living in the lap of luxury,” said veteran hoofer Aileen Hollowell, 59, a Fullerton teacher, on a late summer weeklong trek led by Ann Menderhausen, 42, a Yosemite National History Assn. naturalist-guide. There were 20 hikers in the party staying at all five camps on their 50-mile sojourn.

Hollowell drove to the park with Carolyn Doran, 64, a Whittier teacher. The two have been Sierra Club hikers for years.

Wini Steiner, 72, of Paradise, Calif., was hiking with the group along with her 16-year-old granddaughter, Mary Catherine Blazzard of Palo Alto.

“I started hiking through the back country of Yosemite in 1928 when I was the same age as Mary Catherine,” Steiner observed. “Yosemite is like a magnet. It draws me back each summer.

“In recent years I’ve made the 50-mile, seven-day High Sierra camp loop with a different grandchild each summer. I bring my grandchildren because I want them to appreciate the beauty of this wonderful park and have a desire to protect it.”

Her granddaughter confided: “Best part of the hike is being with my grandmother.”

Tom May, 62, a Camden, N.J., electrical engineer for the Campbell Soup Co., and his daughter, Dana May Blake, 29, a Santa Cruz teacher, were part of the hiking group. May has hiked high mountains all over the world--Europe, South America, Africa, Asia.

“But I love the High Sierra best of all. This is my third time doing it the easy way, staying in the High Sierra camps with all the comforts of home, not having to carry cooking utensils and food or sleeping bag in my backpack,” May said.

Jeff Schufro, 42, was on the hike. A John Muir look-alike with long beard and faded clothes, he’s only a part-time mountain man. Most of his time, he directs an occupational safety committee for New York State and lives in Brooklyn.

For him the experience was “one I will remember all my life. It is exciting, rugged, spectacular, unbelievable, a far cry from the world I’m accustomed to in Brooklyn.”

It was a beautiful morning, the air so clear and fresh you could taste it, and it tasted delicious. The tents were at water’s edge in a hemlock grove in the 9,270-foot-high May Lake High Sierra camp on the slopes of 10,850-foot Mt. Hoffman, the geographic center of Yosemite Park. In 1869 John Muir wrote: “On no other Yosemite mountain are you more likely to linger than Mt. Hoffman.”

Sue Liebeskind, 21, one of the camp helpers, a McGill University student in Montreal whose home is in Stamford, Conn., clanged a triangle and shouted: “Come and get it or we’ll toss it to the bears.”

It was 7:30 a.m., time for a super-omelet prepared by the camp cook, Ron Fry, 26, in his eighth summer at May Lake. And French toast. Bacon. Juice. Milk or coffee. Fry is a chef at San Francisco’s the Ritz Old Poodle Dog the rest of the year.

Each night at 6:30 hikers are served a seven-course dinner concocted by Fry, who co-manages the camp with Stanford student Mark Spahn, 25. The three other camp helpers are Sacramento State students Marianne Sala, 28, and Mike Kallweit, 20, and John Edwards, 19, a UC Santa Cruz student.

They wait on tables, clean the tents and washrooms, make the beds, split wood for tent stoves and nightly campfires. Supplies are brought in twice a week by mule train.

Will Close Saturday

The five High Sierra camps will close Saturday after a 10-week season. Two years ago, the snow was so heavy in the high country they were only open four weeks.

Staying in the High Sierra camps, operated by the Yosemite Park and Curry Co., is so popular, it is strictly by reservation with a total daily limit of 206 people in all five camps. Reservations must be made by mail no earlier than a Dec. 1 postmark for the following summer. Reservations for 85% of the spaces come in the first week in December.

Weeklong group hikes accompanied by a naturalist guide cost $400.

(The camps, of course, are not the only way to visit the Sierra. The thousands who take to the mountains every year range from rugged individualists who come in by foot or pack train to daily visitors who stay in fashionable hotels and comfortable campgrounds nearby.)

Nic Fiore runs the High Sierra camps in summer and directs the ski school in winter. He spends all summer on foot, walking an average of 15 miles a day, 105 miles every seven days visiting each camp twice a week.

“I visit with people I meet on the trail. I keep on top of everything in each camp,” he said.

Few men can match the speed and stamina of this mountain man on the trail. He hikes the 14.4 mile round trip from Tuolumne Meadows (elevation 8,600 feet) to Vogelsang (10,300 feet) and back in four hours when he doesn’t stop to visit. It takes the average person at least that long one way.