How a Camp-Shy Family Came to Love the Great Outdoors
Getting to the backcountry of California’s Sierra Nevada is easier than you think. Getting three generations of the family to follow your lead is the hard part.
Quite a trick my mother pulled off, getting all three generations of our family out camping miles in the mountains, far from the nearest road, cabin, or outhouse. My wife, Liz, had spent years quietly undermining my every effort to get her to spend a night outdoors. She was perhaps most effective a couple of years back when we drove to Yosemite for a kids-free getaway, pitched our tent in my favorite campground, drove off to the nearby California mountain town of Mammoth Lakes to buy camping food, and somehow—I honestly don't know how Liz made this happen—ended up sipping wine over sea scallops in a white-tablecloth restaurant and sleeping between high-thread-count sheets at the Westin Monarche Resort. The tent, meanwhile, spent the night empty, in the cold.
Then there were the girls. When we told Audrey, our brown-eyed youngest at age 5, about Grandma's camping plans, she looked up from her stuffed animals before drifting off to sleep and said, "Daddy, I have something I can tell you that you should know about." Even in the darkness, I could tell Audrey had put on her This Is Really Serious face. "Why I'm scared of going to the camping, Daddy, is I'm scared of bears." I can't say that she or her older sister, Hannah, 7, took comfort in my explanation that Sierra bears only want to steal food, not eat children.
Dad was an easier sell; he actually loved the High Sierra. He was the heart and soul of our family mountain trips when I was a kid, but he'd had a bad accident in his late 60s, falling off a rock-climbing wall and breaking two vertebrae. Ever since then, he's had balance problems and lingering nerve pain, and the rehab had been so long and slow that he'd lost a lot of his strength. He hadn't slept on the ground since.
Despite the all-around reluctance, Mom was determined. She loved my father, and she knew he needed the mountains more than he realized. She had an almost instinctual hunger to make sure that her granddaughters grew up into strong Western women, just like she did. And she knew that families too easily allow work and logistics to prevent the precious vacations that can stitch them together.
For our maiden multigenerational camping trip, she picked California's Chickenfoot Lake (named for its curious shape-apparently, the more romantic "finger lakes" was already taken), which sparkles in the John Muir Wilderness, 10,789 feet above sea level. What's unusual about Chickenfoot is that the hike to it is fairly flat, a rarity in the Sierra Nevada. Plus, the Rock Creek Pack Station sits right near the trailhead, meaning Mom could hire professional packers to ride in on horses and mules and carry all our gear and supplies (760/872-8331, rockcreekpackstation.com, spot trips from $395, minimum four people). That part was genius because it meant that nobody had to carry a thing. Liz wouldn't have to live without clean clothing and fluffy pillows, my father could have a comfortable sleeping pad and a folding chair, my daughters would be so busy with all the Wild West excitement they'd forget to complain, and my mother and I could walk down a mountain trail together, just like we'd done when I was young.
California's Sierra Nevada forms a kind of backbone to the state, running north-south along the border with Nevada. We got there from San Francisco by driving due east on Interstate 580, over the dry Coast Range, then up into the rolling Sierra foothills, on California State Route 120. After about three hours on the road, the air turned cool and pine-scented, big evergreens shaded the two-lane highway, and we reached the entrance gate to Yosemite National Park (209/372-0200, nps.gov/yose).
Chickenfoot Lake doesn't lie within Yosemite, but reaching it did require us to drive clear through the park, constantly gaining altitude. We stopped to make sure the girls saw landmarks such as Half Dome and El Capitan (which my father and I had climbed, we told them), and we plied the girls with soft-serve ice cream at the wonderful old Tuolumne Meadows store, a white-canvas building run by the Park Service every summer (Tioga Road Hwy. 120, Tuolomne Meadows, Yosemite National Park, Calif., 209/372-8428, ice cream cone $1.50). By the time we'd reached Yosemite's easternmost gate, at Tioga Pass, we were in true high country, surrounded by wildflowers and giant rocky peaks. From there, Route 120 East dropped down into the high desert on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada, a wide-open realm of sagebrush and big views.
That side of the Sierra rises more abruptly than the western side: Instead of a slow climb through foothills, you shoot straight from desert up into alpine valleys below big granite spires. Near the road's end, we pulled into Rock Creek Lodge, a collection of cabins and campgrounds along the water (Mammoth Lakes, Calif. 93546, 877/935-4170, email@example.com, from $125 a night). Two nights there got everybody rested and acclimated to the thin mountain air—the lodge is at 9,373 feet, so you don't sleep well the first couple nights, and it's easy to get out of breath if you hike too hard. After our pit stop came the point of no return: driving all our food, camping gear, and supplies up to the dusty, high-mountain corral of the old Rock Creek Pack Station.
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