It’s a chill, drizzly Friday in May, yet Yosemite Valley is packed. Station wagons and RVs block the one-way road in, the occupants craning to see Bridalveil Fall spill toward the Merced River. Every campground is full, and tourist mobs tromp over meadows and surround hapless chipmunks.
This is spring in Yosemite, 75 years after John Muir’s death. Come summer, when most of the park’s 3.2 million yearly visitors will motor in, the sense of Yosemite as paradise lost will loom even stronger.
But 10 miles away by trail, in the High Sierra backcountry where Yosemite’s famous falls begin as icy creeks, hikers who know where to go will escape the summer onslaught, and without encountering the crowds that streamed into the wilderness in the 1980s.
Path Less Traveled
Backpacking into mountain wilderness is losing popularity throughout the Sierras and the West, leaving many high-country areas less traveled than at any time since the baby boomers left college.
Permits and the irritant of many backpackers--reservations--are still required on popular trails. But aficionados say there is less chance of lugging 40 pounds of food, water and equipment through black bear habitat for a week, only to share a pristine meadow and trout stream with loud radios and beer guzzlers.
More people than ever are visiting the West’s mountain national parks, but they are staying in motel rooms and campgrounds reachable by car. It’s the American pastime of roughing it that has lost its allure for thousands who purchased lightweight tents and down sleeping bags and slogged up to the tree line in the 1970s.
“That is the case not only in the Sierras, but throughout the Pacific Northwest and the Rockies as well,” said Doug Morris, chief ranger at Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. “There’s just fewer backpackers.”
7 People in a Week
Two summers ago, Morris strode out of Kings Canyon and walked for a week along the John Muir Trail, a remote but highly publicized, well-worn route that snakes through the High Sierra. “I only saw about seven people,” he said.
In the late 1970s, he might have heard the footfalls and jangling camp stoves of dozens of backpackers in a week on the trail. But the National Park Service says backcountry use peaked in the 1970s, and the favorite theory to explain the drop in wilderness use points to the cultural force behind so many recent changes in American life.
“We don’t have any hard statistics, but we think it’s the aging of the baby boom,” said John Poimoroo, who keeps track of changing wilderness use for the Yosemite Park & Curry Co., which operates lodging and high-country camps in Yosemite.
Wilderness camping has always been savored by a small, loyal subculture. But backpacking’s surge came when it was taken up, in college and after, by a fair slice of the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. Now they are moving on to less demanding recreations that better accommodate careers and families.
In 1979, about 2.4 million people slept out in National Park wilderness areas, compared to 1.6 million last year. In Yosemite, backcountry use peaked in 1975 at 79,000. Since 1980 no more than 60,000 have trekked into the wilderness except for last year, when a mild winter and warm spring permitted an unusually long high-country season.
At other Western parks, the drop has continued, even as overall visits increase. In Lassen National Park, there was a 4% increase in visitors last year, but a 12% drop in backcountry camping despite dry, warm weather. At Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the backcountry was visited by only about 32,000 people in 1987, fewer than half the number who packed in at the peak.
Backpacker Tied Down
Steve Harder, manager of the REI mountaineering store in Carson, used to backpack regularly, but now is an example of a wilderness hiker who cannot get away as he did before.
“Now I have a 1-year-old and a 5-year-old, and my camping is rather limited,” Harder said.
Some disappearing backpackers may also be choosing their wilderness experiences with more care. Instead of spending two weeks hiking familiar trails in the High Sierra, many are heading off to Nepal and Thailand for more exotic trekking.
“You get all the extraordinary views--you think the Sierras are big until you see the Annapurna range,” said Donna Bojarsky of Los Angeles, who recently returned from trekking in the Himalayas. “The other advantage is you get to see a different culture. You see people farming the same way they have for thousands of years. It’s just an amazing cultural experience.”
At alpine elevations in the High Sierra, the plants are fragile and the growing seasons short, so nature is slow to repair human damage. But with fewer people passing through, some meadows and the ponds formed by glacial moraines are reverting to something like the state Muir may have seen when he hiked the High Sierra in the early 1900s.
In the Yosemite backcountry, away from the valley and the trans-Sierra highway that lets motorist campers drive to Tuolumne Meadows at 8,600 feet, true solitude may still be elusive, but there are fewer annoyances to spoil the days.
“You don’t have as many people doing something irritating like washing their hair in a stream,” Yosemite ranger Mallory Smith said.
Even so, trails that have been longtime favorites remain too crowded for purists. “People say the John Muir is more of a freeway than ever,” said Sandy Sans, an outfitter and guide with Sierra Adventures in Mountain View.
“I get complaints all the time,” said Larry Cash of Eugene, Ore., who has hiked for many years along the Pacific Crest Trail, which follows a 2,400-mile route from Canada to Mexico, much of it in the Sierra and Cascade ranges.
The Mt. Whitney Trail up the east face of the Sierra from Owens Valley is limited to 50 overnight campers a day, and reaches its quota most days from May into October, U.S. Forest Service ranger Charlie Robinson said.
At Grand Canyon National Park, the number of campers packing down into the canyon has begun to rise again in the last two years, perhaps because the park has become immensely popular. The park’s yearly visitor count has grown by 1.4 million since 1985, ranger Chuck Lundy said.
“We don’t know if a new generation has discovered the Grand Canyon or what,” Lundy said.
But magazines and outfitters that enjoyed the benefits of the backpacking boom are adapting to the shrinking hunger for wilderness trips.
Backpacker magazine is carrying more articles about family activities and short camping trips, close to cities, that can be accomplished in a few days. Managing Editor Tom Shealey said fewer readers have the time for 10-day treks into the deep wilderness.
“Back in the 1970s there were more college kids,” Shealey said. “It seems like most of the people reading our magazine are older. They have family obligations, they have grass to cut, cars to wash.”
Fewer retailers are stocking backpacking tents, sleeping bags and packs, leaving the equipment market to specialized outfitters such as REI, the membership co-op based in Kent, Wash., with 20 stores in 10 states.
Even REI has seen its customers change. They are growing older, and taking up new sports. About 75% of the bicycles sold at the Carson REI store are mountain bikes, Harder said. The store still carries hiking boots, he said, but “we also sell a lot of walking shoes.”
Those who still venture into the wilderness are also demanding more services to make outings less strenuous. Guides and horse packers in the Sierras say they are getting more business from hikers, many of them longtime backpackers, who no longer want to lug full packs up into the high country.
“So many hikers want us to carry their stuff up for them,” said Jody Winchester at Cottonwood Pack Station in Lone Pine, below the steep east face of the Sierra.
The ultimate in soft “roughing it” might be the chain of high-country camps in Yosemite, spaced about a day’s walk from each other. The camps provide meals, showers and beds, so hikers do not need to carry heavy packs. They sell out in January every year for the coming summer.
“The High Sierra camps are as popular as ever,” said Poimoroo of the Yosemite Park & Curry Co.