The High Sierra Camps, Yosemite National Park

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.

Merced Lake HSC, 7,100 feet

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:

Tuolumne Meadows store and burger place

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!

August snowstorm, Tuolumne Meadows

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.

Setting off for Glen Aulin

The Tuolumne river

Part way to the first camp we bumped into a mule train and passed a very pleasant half hour chatting to the wrangler.

Mule train on the way to Glen Aulin

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.

Glen Aulin HSC, 7,800 feet

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.

May Lake HSC, 9,270 feet

Geoff found some handy sawn up loggy things for sitting and cooking on.

You don't see me cooking very often...

May Lake seen from Mount Hoffmann:

A view of May Lake on one of our day walks

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.

Near Sunrise HSC, 9,400 feet

We went for a wander in the evening and said hello to the mules in their coraal.

Mules from the mule trains

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.

En route to Merced

We lunched by Cathedral River and hunted for leaks in my thermarest.

JAWDIP - Just Another Wonderful day In Paradise

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……

Typical Yosemite bridge

On arriving at Merced Lake, we found a quiet spot in the late afternoon sunshine.

Merced Lake HSC, 7,100 feet

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.

Up and up......

...and up and up...

We didn’t rush, just plodded steadily on.

Crossing a high alp

Vogelsang HSC was definitely a highlight of the trip. The highest camp, superb views and a wonderful fresh feel to the air.

Vogelsang HSC, 10,300ft

Vogelsang Peak in the background (that was saved for our 2003 trip)

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……

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About chrissiedixie

Love being out on the moors and mountains, backpacking, dogs, travelling generally. Favourite place in the world - Yosemite National Park. Retired teacher and ex Mountain Rescue Deputy Team Leader. Married to Geoff, who puts up with all sorts.
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22 Responses to The High Sierra Camps, Yosemite National Park

  1. Great post!

    Never been there, and with so many places on the ‘wish list’ it’s unlikely that I will, so thanks for the virtual visit 🙂

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  2. Thanks! I know what you mean about wish lists. I do have my favourite places that I could keep going back to time and again, but there are also so many more that I still dream about visiting. So much to see, so much to try and do!

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  3. southwestdesertlover says:

    This is absolutely one of the best blog entries I’ve ever read. It was like I was there on the trail. And what would we do without Oreos as comfort food? :^)

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  4. Thank you very much! Yes, those Oreos very much hit the spot after 4 days on the trail. 😀

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  5. Chrissie, great post. A superb area to walk. Those mules are amazingly surefooted. I took at trip down the Grand Canyon riding one of those on very steep trails.

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  6. Thanks Mark. I can’t believe that anyone is brave enough to go down the canyon on one of those mules though! We hiked down and back on the Bright Angel Trail and passed several mule trains with people and I just cringed as I saw how close to the edge those hooves were going… 😯 I don’t think you could pay me enough to get me on that mule trip!

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  7. Chrissie, it did look like they were about to step off a vertical cliff at times, but a fantastic trip all the same. The mule trip was on the Bright Angel Trail and we all agreed as a family it was one of best things we ever did. Not that scary really 🙂

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  8. Oh yeah!! Still, I do agree that the trip down to the river is amazing – however you do it! Did you stay at Phantom Ranch? When we got down to the river we turned round and went half-way back up again and camped overnight at the Indian Garden campground. That’s another story in itself really, with an unbelievable thunderstorm that lasted half the night….

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  9. No we didn’t go to Phantom Ranch. If I remember we went about half way down and then back up again it was about 5-6 hour trip. Enough for someone who had not ridden in about 20 years! I want to do the Rim to Rim sometime. Not enough time when I was in Vegas earlier on this year. Dam work always seems to get the way 🙂

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    • If you went half way, you probably turned round where we camped at the Indian Garden Campground. Actually, the second half of the trail below there has a section of track which is only 3 foot wide and is blasted out of a cliff which it contours around for several hundred yards. I think that bit would be even worse than the top sections on a mule! We did pass one lady there who was supposed to be walking, but was so freaked out by that bit she was crawling instead. And as for work – we need me to start earning again, but even after 12 weeks off so far with my ankle and boredom setting in, I’m not exactly itching to start again! I’m afraid I see it as a necessary evil these days! 🙂

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  10. I think you are right, I don’t remember the trail only being 3ft wide. Sounds like a real drag now with your foot. When I snapped my achilles tendon playing squash nearly 20 years ago I was in a plaster for sometimes after the op, but fortunately(or not) depending on your view point, I got one of my guys to drive me into work each day. I was living in Bath and working in Bristol. Nowadays I split my time between the office, out on the road and home, so would be a lot harder if I was in your situation. I guess you will never now not put your microspikes on:( Rather like me I always warm up before doing any exercise as I don’t want to go through that again!

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    • I am actually wandering around (albeit very slowly) in ordinary footwear now and I’ve no doubt that if I was still in a permanent teaching position I’d have been back in work weeks ago. They’d have found something for me to do sat in a room somewhere with the special needs children or something, but it doesn’t quite work like that now I’m doing supply teaching. The very nature of supply work means I have to be able to go in and take a class fully, including teaching PE, playground duty, being able to evacuate the class if the fire alarm goes off etc! And as for next winter, I’m planning on living in my microspikes from the beginning of October to the end of April!

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  11. Good to hear about you moving about in ordinary footwear. How long before you will back in the hills?

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    • Don’t really know, but I’m hoping to be able to do something by Spring Bank, which is the first 2 weeks in June. We’re trying to be positive and planning a little jaunt away in Northumberland and the Southern Uplands!

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  12. surfnslide says:

    Cracking post Chrissie. I would absolutely love to go backpacking in the US or Canada and this has whetted my appetite. I’ve done the tourist stuff in Yosemite and climbed Half-Dome but that’s about it. More holidays to plan.
    I also did a Grand Canyon walk. We walked down the Kaibib trail (I think) then across the large shelf halfway down and back up again from Indian Gardens. Ferociously hot and boy did we need the water and cool shade when we got there. Loved the deserts and national parks. Also did a cracking walk up Zion Canyon, wading through the river all the way. Great memories

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    • Thanks for that Andy! Actually I remember feeling totally ‘in bits’ with the heat by the time we’d been down to the river and back up to Indian Gardens.I think the Kaibab Trail is the one that they recomend you don’t climb up in the heat of the summer, but only go down at that time of year. We’ve never done Half Dome as I don’t think I’d cope with those cables very well (!), but I have walked up Zion Canyon – although that was with husband no. 1……

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      • surfnslide says:

        Cables on Half Dome are pretty easy (I should really scan and post up a picture I took on the steep part with my wife ahead of me, looking straight at her, ahem, rear end – she hates that picture). Surprised to find a whole army of chipmunks on the top who nicked my sandwich the little blighters.

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  13. I think those chipmunks get everywhere! I look forward to you scanning and posting those pictures though. Have you ever looked on you-tube for people climbing up Half Dome when the cables are down? Now that really does look scary (and idiotic) – and there’s been plenty of nasty accidents too. Once you start slipping on that slope with nothing to hang to, the outcome doesn’t bear thinking about.

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  14. I’ve got a book called ‘Shattered Air’ by a guy called Bob Madgic and it’s the true account of a group of people on the summit of Half Dome in a lightning storm in July 1985. It’s a fascinating – and somewhat tragic and gruesome – read.

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  15. Good read Chrissie 🙂 Must admit I was a wee bit apprehensive about the bears out there when camping on my own.That was until I was told about the mountain lions..!
    Been having trouble leaving comments with this new WordPress sign in thingummy but think it`s sorted now.

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  16. Thanks for that Alex!
    Actually we have got a bit blase over the years about the bears, although did find it a touch more ‘exciting’ when backpacking in Alaska with grizzlies. I will admit to feeling a little apprehensive though when we woke up one morning in the Cascades to find some mountain lion paw prints about 50 yards from the tent. It had obviously been thirsty overnight and gone down to the lake for a drink. I was certainly glad I’d slept through its nocturnal visit!

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