Weekend Escape: Yosemite : Babes in the Woods : Waterfalls and Wilderness Beauty More Than Makes Up for Heavy Backpacks and Relentless Mosquitoes on an All-Women Hiking Adventure


When you put men and women together in the wilderness, you sometimes get a sort of Math Class Phenomenon: The women all of a sudden defer.

I see it when my stepdaughter Christa, my husband, Keith, and I camp together. As the most experienced camper among us, Keith always does the more difficult tasks: lights the propane stove, starts the campfire, carries the heavy stuff.

Not that we really mind, most of the time. It’s awfully nice to wake up in the woods to the smell of brewing coffee, and warm your hands on a fire someone else chilled himself to set.


But as Christa, 22, succinctly put it: “Girls need to know this stuff too.” The occasion for such an observation was the last home-cooked meal before Christa and I set out for the Yosemite wilderness with 13 other women.

Back in February we had plunked down $135 each for the early July outing. The first detailed information packet about our adventure came soon after, carrying with it the following admonition: “Backpacking basics will be taught; but you need to prepare yourself adequately in advance for the trip.”

That meant training at the gym and on hiking trails near home.

The Yosemite Assn., a nonprofit organization that sponsors about 70 such trips a year, also sent along an exhaustive equipment list that started with tent and ended with food and along the way included my favorite description: “Sleeping bag: Warm, lightweight; down or synthetic filled. The car-camping kind lined with flannel printed with cowboys or spaceships is not warm enough.” Christa and I together had most of the necessary equipment, save for the backpacks, which we rented from an Adventure 16 store.

Not much needs to be said about the drive to Tuolumne Meadows, where we camped the night before our backpack trip began. Basically you take California 99 north and hang a right at Fresno. The trip runs about 350 miles and takes about seven hours; if you read maps the way I do, add 20 miles and 30 minutes. If you like country music on the radio, you’ll be in good shape.

We drove into the base camp at around 5 p.m. on Thursday night, with enough time to pitch our tents, get used to the breathlessness of 8,600-foot elevations and make the 8 p.m. meeting to get acquainted with our new hiking partners--a group that ranged from a pair of 17-year-old newly minted high school grads named Jessica and Jennifer, to Jaclyn, a grandmother recently retired from the Stanford University library. The highlight of the fire-lit meeting was Jessica’s reason for taking the trip: “My parents won’t let me go backpacking with just Jennifer.”

By 9:30 a.m. Friday, we had strapped on our packs and set off on the trail to the Glen Aulin campsite. The leader of our pack was Suzanne Swedo, who told us she had hiked Yosemite for 42 years. Swedo, who is in her late 40s, walked “point,” while her assistant, Elizabeth Pomeroy, walked “sweep” to look out for stragglers. The Tuolumne River meandered on our left past Cathedral Rock. Soda Springs, where water tinged with sodium bicarbonate bubbled from the ground, was the first stop for a quick equipment check and the first of many natural history lessons from Swedo, who pointed out mule’s ear and deer’s eye gentian, sagebrush and lodgepole pine.


Two hours later we broke for lunch and a map-reading class. By this time we were filthy, slicked with sweat and gritty with dust, coated with a sheen of sunscreen and insect repellent. We could smell ourselves.

“There’s so many things I could have left at home,” Christa moaned, suddenly a much more efficient packer. “My sweats, my jacket, my sandals.” Two days earlier, the only thing she could think of leaving behind was a swimsuit.

Lunch, in a meadow beside the river, was crackers and cheese, Hershey’s chocolate and apples, lots and lots and lots of water. About an hour later, we headed off again, packs increasingly heavy with our growing fatigue.

On we hiked for nearly three more hours, over granite domes, through stands of lodgepole pine, around every corner a revelation: waterfalls and a lava post pile, miniature tiger lilies and waist-high lupine. You cannot see the things we saw unless you walk in--or maybe come on horseback, and there was ample evidence of the latter option all along the trail.

A little after 3 p.m. we found our campsite--any farther and any campsite would have done. We were very, very tired. Up went the tent (everyone pitched their own; there were no Sherpas on this trip), out came the water filter, and we replenished the quarts we had drunk along the way: fresh, cold Tuolumne River water (strained for Giardia lamblia ); you can’t match it anywhere. (Unfortunately, the protozoan that causes giardiasis), a nasty intestinal infection, is rampant in untreated High Sierra water.)

Dinner was quick and hot and dehydrated: Natural High brand chicken stir fry, followed by Backpacker’s Pantry apple cobbler. And chocolate, always chocolate. Not everyone was as perfunctory about food: Candace and her daughter Adrienne brought bags of baby lettuces, low-fat Caesar dressing and an entire English cucumber (“It won’t make you burp,” promised Candace).


After dinner around the campfire, came a fire-lit fauna lesson, specifically what to do about the two most voracious creatures in the wilderness: mosquitoes and bears. There’s not much you can do about mosquitoes; even with strong insect repellent, I ended up with 77 bites by the end of the trip.

The only possibility is revenge: Wait until the mosquito alights on your arm and gets her proboscis (the females do the biting) into your flesh. “Hold your skin really tight,” Swedo instructed. “They can’t withdraw. Your heart pumps blood into them and they explode.”

Bears are a different story. The best bet is keeping a bear-proof campsite, with food stored in bear canisters ($3 a day to rent, about three pounds added to your backpack) or strung up in bear bags high above the ground. We lucked out: no lost food, no bear sightings, only some fresh bear scat in the center of one campsite when we arrived and one tin cup found crushed and punctured.

The highlight of Day Two was an eight-mile round-trip hike--without heavy packs--over glacier-polished granite, through fields of deep ferns to Waterwheel Falls. Waterwheels are a type of falls formed when a river runs over deep grooves in rock that cause the water to be thrown back up in a perfect circle. The recurring drought had taken its toll this year, however, and the waterwheels were merely amazing instead of spectacular.

The hike out on our last day was proof of how groups can work so well. Christa had strained her Achilles tendon scrambling on the rocks. The injury, though relatively slight, was aggravated by the heavy backpack. She struggled mightily to keep up but felt terrible about having to hike slowly. At our first long rest stop, Terry--a nurse and one of three wonderful women who adopted Christa on the trip--suggested that we split up Christa’s gear among us all. “We’re a group,” she lectured Christa. “This could have happened to any one of us. If it had, you’d have taken some of our things, right?”

When we emerged from the woods it was just after noon, and many of the women with whom we had spent the last three days headed home. Although the whole trip could have been easily accomplished in four days, Sunday night Christa and I decided we were too filthy to drive and checked in at the Marriott Tenaya Lodge in Fish Camp.


For a decent tip, someone else carried my backpack. The showers were long and hot, the room service dinner of pizza and Caesar salad was not prepared over a camp stove. We hashed over what we had learned in the last three days.

“I liked being able to do everything without having a man around,” Christa said. Then she laid aside her dinner dishes, reached for the TV remote control and sighed with contentment: “And I like hotels.”

La Ganga writes for The Times’ Metro section.

Budget for Two Yosemite Assn. seminar fee: $270.00 Gas: $44.50 Backpack rental: $32.00 Bear can rental: $9.00 Backpacking food: $43.23 Tenaya Lodge, plus breakfast: $238.71 Room service dinner: $35.25 Lunches on the road: $22.50 FINAL TAB: $695.19 Yosemite Assn.: tel. (209) 379-2321.