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, firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
A family operation since 1947, the Rock Creek Pack Station is part of an Old West tradition in which professional horse-and-mule packers ferry big loads and even people to the most remote of mountain sanctuaries. The girls' eyes turned big as dinner plates when Mom showed them the pack station's cowboys loading our duffel bags and groceries into leather saddlebags on the big mules. Soon enough, three blonde, teenage girls—high school equestrians from San Diego, as it turned out, working a healthy summer job—saddled up and led the mules out of the corral. It felt like we had stepped into a John Wayne movie.
I've heard it said that our national parks can be a great equalizer: As long as you're willing to camp out, you've got a beautiful vacation home just waiting for you. I've never felt this more deeply than I did on that trip to Chickenfoot Lake. The five-mile trail starts at almost 10,000 feet, but from the moment we got going, we were already passing trickling brooks, green meadows, and glittering ponds. We didn't see the mules en route—they'd gone ahead—so we felt no pressure to keep up. Even better, the flat trail made the walk so easy it might've been a stroll in a park, except with knotty whitebark pines growing among white granite boulders.
I was surprised by how much I liked seeing my mother and my daughters together in the environment I'd always sought for adventure. We stopped once to let them try climbing, and my father loved showing them how to get started. In a way, they got him started again, too. Dad discovered that he could walk just fine, and because his two little granddaughters puttered along at precisely his pace, he wasn't bothered by the fact that he no longer hiked with the speed and strength of a freight train.
The mules and the teenagers were there two hours later when we arrived, and they waited patiently while we all rooted around for the perfect camping spot. After we dropped our gear, we could see that the lake doesn't really look like a chicken's foot at all. The multiple inlets and peninsulas make it feel more like a Japanese rock garden writ large. Giant granite mountains rise all around, so you have the feeling of camping almost next to the sky.
I'm a novice fisherman, but I'd brought a fly rod to amuse myself, and I spent my days at the edge of the lake, casting for the little brook trout I could spot easily in the clear water. Back in San Francisco, the girls always need some kind of entertainment to keep from going crazy—or from torturing each other. But the wilderness had a curious effect. They calmed down and brightened up at the same time. Their movements became slower and their smiles wider and easier. While I cast flies for hours, Audrey and Hannah sat nearby, dangling their toes in the lake and hardly even talking, much less fighting. Isn't that the whole point of any second home: a place to get away with the family and let the days pass in peaceful relaxation?
Even the accommodations felt homey—certainly better than I remembered as a child. Mom and I set up our camp kitchen among some rocks that made for decent seats, and then we cooked up dinner on a little gas stove and everybody ate under the stars. Mom and Dad had their own tent, and Dad later claimed he was getting the best sleep since his accident. Inside the big tent I'd brought for us and the girls, Liz found enough room to create a clean, comfortable nest. She so liked how the tent kept out the bugs while letting in the breeze that she asked that greatest of questions: "Honey," she said, as we drifted off to sleep on our last night out, "I'm wondering. Don't you think the girls might like camping out for even more nights next year?"
The next day, during the hike out, I let Mom ask the girls themselves. The answer: Yes! Of course! But Hannah had a follow-up question of her own. If she started riding horses and taking lessons at home, was there any chance she could one day become a horse packer herself and spend all summer in the saddle? That's just about the last thing I ever expected my city girl to ask, but it was music to my Western mom's ears.
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