When I asked my wife of 32 years what she wanted to do for our anniversary, she said “a backcountry trip.” Men, I know many wives will want to be pampered on this special day, and rightfully so. Rare is the woman who will endure a trip into the wilderness to endure calf burning, boulder scrambling, fending off mosquitoes and chilly nights to celebrate a wedding anniversary with her husband.
Even with a 3 day trip, there is a lot of preparation. I pulled out the gear and checked everything out. The cats love it when I set up the tent in the living room. Five tough miles from your car is not the time to find out your water filter pump doesn’t work. Checklists are always great, but as you will see – not foolproof.
The eastern Sierras offer miles and miles of trails, most with ample supplies of water – even in the terrible drought that California is going through. I’ve heard of Onion Valley, one of the more popular entry/exit routes by PCT thru-hikers. Many will go through Kearsarge Pass to the Onion Valley Campground and hitch a ride into the little town of Independence to pick up a resupply, or catch a ride into Bishop.
The drive from San Diego County is around 4-5 hours through the pain-in-the-butt Riverside/San Bernardino area. Mostly a pain because of the weird road patterns and traffic congestion. Going up, we missed the Hwy 395 turnoff and kept going to take Hwy 58-E to Bakersfield. It was actually better; while longer in mileage, we missed the 395 construction and endless traffic lights in/around Victorville.
Oh, before I forget I’ve learned some tips on getting permits for your trail of choice. Many trails in the California wilderness require backcountry permits issued by the state or feds who manage the areas. After researching the general area you want to hike, you can go to www.recreation.gov and register for an account. Most decent trails have a quota system for overnight stays to minimize the environmental impact. Typically, the recreation.gov website will issue 60% of the permits online, the other 40% for walk-ins at one of many locations-depending on where you want to enter. Here’s the rub: If you reserve online, there is a $5 per person and $6 processing fee. If you do a walk-in it is free. Reserve early, the popular trails fill up quickly. I actually wanted to reserve Kearsarge Pass, but all the permits were issued so I applied for a nearby trail – Golden Trout. Once I paid the $16 fee, I confirmed the day prior and locked in the reservation. On the day of our arrival, I checked in at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center and asked if I could obtain a walk-in for Kearsarge Pass. Sure enough, there were permits available and the Forest Service ranger changed our permit-free of charge.
So, if you want to lock in a trail permit, do it online for a fee. Otherwise, if your plans are flexible, pick out a few trails ahead of time and do a walk-in. The visitor center in Lone Pine handles most of the permits for the Hwy 395 corridor. It is the busiest on Fridays during the summer. Arrive early to get your trail of choice. It’s a nice facility with tons of information and a nice touristy shop. They have decent trail maps, so stock up!
A little more on trip planning. Be prepared for a variety of weather when camping. In our 5th year of hiking, we’ve experienced snow in June. The puffy jacket, knit cap and gloves are worth the extra pack weight. Rain gear is good and will ward off hypothermia while hiking in the wilderness. Bear canisters are often mandatory in much of the Sierras. Sure, you can still hit the trail without one, but I’ve talked to many who have had their campsite visited by the wandering Yogi. You can try hanging your food bag from a tree, but it’s known that mother ursines teach their young how to knock down the yummy treats at an early age. Besides, the trees above 10,000 feet are pretty short.
So, preparation and some common sense backcountry lessons learned are key to an enjoyable trip. Oh, even using a checklist the hiking poles were hanging in the garage where I left them. My knees hate me.
Next: Kearsarge Pass – Mind Over Matter
We were thirty miles away from civilization. The lightning was getting closer and it started to rain. We were climbing out of Thousand Island Lakes, in the middle of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Our 65 mile section hike of the John Muir Trail had been uneventful and amazing thus far. Looking for a level spot to put our rain gear on I could hear the water rushing close by. Leveling out, I noticed a good place to drop our packs on the other side of a cascading creek. The only way across the watery chasm was on a 6 inch wide log.
There must have been a downpour upstream because the creek was running fast with a lot of sediment mixed in. This wasn’t our first water crossing on a log, but the logs seemed to be shrinking in width. It brought back memories as a kid crossing logs in the woods. The first one to fall off would be eaten by “gators”. Only now, we had 40lb. packs and the gator was a rushing current of frothy liquid.
The backcountry is where ones’ phobias can emerge. Acrophobia, aquaphobia, most of the phobias seem to start with “A”. The wilderness is where you go to deal with those fears. So, combining two of those fears – height and water is met by crossing streams on a log. The loud rushing water underneath you, the distance to the water and the dead weight on your back can be a recipe for disaster.
Enough of the melodrama, if you are really afraid of your shadow, then car camping may be a starting point. If all else fails, you can just lock yourself in the car.
In reality, the challenge really becomes mind over matter. The amazing scenery coupled with the experience of accomplishing something you’ve never done before makes it worthwhile. Sure, at the end of the day you will ache in places you didn’t know existed. You may even get wetter than Saturday’s laundry from a cloud burst, but chances are you will emerge unscathed. What I lacked in experience from my early wilderness trips was remedied by common sense. Barring any traumatic experiences of being swept away in a rushing torrent of ice water, you may come away with a love of the outdoors and a desire to share it with someone else.
Thinking back several years ago on my first backcountry trip, I estimated the nearly 25,000 steps I took one day. Picking my way over, under and around obstacles, I was really just putting one foot in front of the other.