Back in the 1920s, the National Park Service at Yosemite decided to build five ‘man-made-tent’ camps out in the high wilderness of the park. These were groups of wood and canvas tent-type ‘chalets’ that people could sleep in and each camp also had a kitchen and dining area were everyone could come together to eat breakfast and dinner. They were an immediate success and still going strong – open each year during the short High Sierra summers – and manned by temporary staff. These are often students and climbers, cooking for the guests twice a day but out in the mountains every spare moment they can get.
These wilderness retreats are now so mega popular, it not only costs an arm and a leg to stay in one of them, it’s not even possible to simply book them. What you have to do is put your name into a lottery at the beginning of each season and hope that it gets pulled out!
The camps were built in a loop, a days hike apart from each other, so that a full circuit takes at least six days. One of the reasons they are so popular of course, is that if you stay in them you don’t have to carry anything other than a day sac. Mule trains are still used today to carry all the food, gas etc into each camp and then carry all the waste and litter out.
Of course this is really a totally sanitised way of experiencing the mountains and the wilderness and didn’t appeal to us at all. But the actual circuit – which is 50 miles long – is a superb route to backpack under your own steam and many people have a go at this every year. Being Yosemite though, the number of people on the route each day is controlled by a permit system and so it is actually very peaceful and quiet. Add to this the fact that you can pitch your tent wherever you like each night ie: nowhere near the High Sierra Camps if you want and take whichever route you feel like from one camp to another, the whole experience can really be whatever you choose it to be.
None of the days between camps are high mileages – although you need to be well acclimatised before setting off, as you never drop below 7,000 feet and the highest point is around 11,000 feet. These altitudes might not be extremely high, but you do find that it slows you down and an average walking speed of around 1 mile an hour while carrying a heavy pack, is perfectly normal. Making sure you go steady and don’t rush is also a very sensible way of making sure you don’t suffer from mild altitude sickness.
We’ve been lucky enough to do this circuit twice – once in 2000 and again in 2003 – but having had a retro feel to the blog for a couple of posts, I thought I’d go ultra retro again and post the piccies from the 2000 trip. Now these photos have been scanned in from slides and I have to say that the quality is even worse than scanning prints in! Still, it’s atmospheric.
So, back in August 2000, we’d done our usual routine in Yosemite and spent the first 10 days camped at the roadside campsite at Tuolumne Meadows. This site is at 8,600 feet and is a good base for doing lots of higher day walks and getting well acclimatised. The site is pretty large, but very spacious and peaceful. It also has a fantastic little shop where you can get all sorts of provisions and a burger bar for when you can’t be bothered to cook! The shop and the burger place are housed in this canvas tent:
August temperatures in the mountains here are usually absolutely perfect for walking, around freezing overnight but in the 70s during the day. There is sometimes the occasional thunderstorm on an afternoon, but certainly not every day and we had had some fantastic walks over the 10 days. We did have one memorable afternoon however when it decided to hail and snow in a decidedly spectacular way!
We did hear afterwards that Yosemite Search and Rescue were really stretched that afternoon with people getting caught out. Just like in the UK, many people go out in shorts and t-shirts etc and totally ill-equipped to deal with bad weather……
Anyway, the day dawned when we were due to set off on the route. We’d already picked our permit up the day before and packed our gear in the morning. Most people start the circuit from Tuolumne Meadows, which makes for a very easy first day – downhill all the way and only 7.6 miles.
This day’s route follows the Tuolumne River and is also part of the John Muir Trail.
Part way to the first camp we bumped into a mule train and passed a very pleasant half hour chatting to the wrangler.
Our destination for this night was Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp at an altitude of 7,800 feet. Notice the two black bear canisters in the photo. We had all our food for the six days in these, plus other ‘smelly’ stuff like soap and toothpaste. You have to put these canisters about 100 yards away from camp overnight, upwind of you. These means that any passing bear following the scent in, gets to them without passing your tent, but of course can’t get into them and steal your food.
Once again the next day dawned warm and sunny and we set off for our next destination, May Lake HSC. This day’s walk was 8.6 miles and quite a hard day. There was lots of up and down with a couple of high ridges to cross and May Lake itself is at 9,270 feet. It’s an idyllic looking lake and we pitched up on the other side from the white tent community, so it was lovely and quiet.
Geoff found some handy sawn up loggy things for sitting and cooking on.
May Lake seen from Mount Hoffmann:
I do remember that at the time it seemed like each day was harder than the last! Our next day’s destination was Sunrise HSC. This one was at a similar altitude to May Lake and was only 8.3 miles away, but the first 4 miles were all steeply downhill to 8,000 feet and the next 4 miles very steeply uphill to 9,400 feet! It was also one of the hottest days and the heat combined with the altitude made for quite a few rests and a long day.
Once again we pitched camp some way away from all the others.
We went for a wander in the evening and said hello to the mules in their coraal.
I didn’t have such a good sleep this night, as my thermarest sprang a leak and I ended up with no cushioning. So the next day we decided that we’d have lunch somewhere watery and see if we could find and repair the offending hole. This day’s journey was actually the longest of the circuit at 10 miles, but all downhill. The destination was Merced HSC and at 7,100 feet, the lowest point of the six days.
Much of the route was through silent, dappled forest and we didn’t see a soul all day.
We lunched by Cathedral River and hunted for leaks in my thermarest.
We discovered that the seams all around my mat seemed to be peppered with holes! Pretty unrepairable – but did anyone offer to share his mat with me for a couple of nights? What do you think……
On arriving at Merced Lake, we found a quiet spot in the late afternoon sunshine.
I have to confess though, that when we went for a wander around in the evening and had a look at the main camp, I went into the dining tent and bought four packets of Oreo cookies! (The High Sierra Camps do carry a very small stock of odd bits and pieces for passing campers to buy.) We ate a packet each that night and then another packet each the next morning! After all, there’s only so many days of dehydrated food you can stand before going crazy…
We got up early the following day as we knew we had a hard climb ahead. We had a walk of 8 miles and had to ascend from 7,100ft to Vogelsang HSC at 10,300ft. It was supposed to be the toughest day of the route but with setting off in the cool and really psyching ourselves up for it, it turned out to be a lot easier than we expected and we made good time. I suppose we were also a bit more accimatised as well by then.
We didn’t rush, just plodded steadily on.
Vogelsang HSC was definitely a highlight of the trip. The highest camp, superb views and a wonderful fresh feel to the air.
And so the next day was the last leg of our trip – 7.2 miles, downhill, back to where we’d left the car. We set off early and fantasised about what we were going to eat when we got to the Tuolumne Meadows Grill – I seem to remember I pigged out on a huge grilled chicken sandwich, a giant portion of fries, an obscenely large cinnamon bun and a quart of raspberry tea……