Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Into the Back Country - Sequoia National Park and Bearpaw High Sierra Camp

Sitting on the rocks in the morning

Cushy hotels and fine dining have their charms to be sure, but there's nothing like leaving all that all behind and spending some time outdoors to recharge the old batteries and gain some perspective. Not that we were exactly roughing it on this trip...
Number 3
Earlier this month, we drove up to the Sequoia National Park and hiked out to the Bearpaw High Sierra Camp - 11.5 miles into the back country on the High Sierra Trail. Bearpaw is a six tent-cabin back country camp run by the park service concessionaire that has been there since the 1930s. You'd be hard pressed to find out much about it though if you don't know what you're looking for. It's not included in any of the park literature and there's only one mention of it on the park service's website. I accidentally stumbled on a reference to it while researching a different tent camp in the park. Someone recommended it instead, calling it the "real" one, so off I went to check it out. It was quite a bit less expensive than the other privately owned camp, and I liked the idea of staying at the park service run camp - even though I didn't know a whole lot about it. (The park service also runs similar camps in the Yosemite high country, though they're not quite as nice from what I understand.) What I saw, I liked, and they had a cancellation for three nights in early September. We booked it right away, along with a night on the front and back end at the Wuksachi Lodge in the park, to allow us to prepare for and recuperate from the hike and see the Giant Sequoias.
Where the High Sierra trail hits the ridgeline
The hike out to the camp on the High Sierra Trail is utterly spectacular. Built in the late twenties and early thirties, the trail was carved (or rather, blasted) out of the granite hillside in many places. It was the first trail constructed in the US specifically for recreational purposes, and they clearly maximized the landscape, with its sweeping vistas, vertigo-inducing drop-offs, waterfall-fed streams and shaded forest groves. Anyone with a wilderness permit can hike the trail and stay at the campsites along the way. The first one is about six miles in at Mehrten Creek. It goes all the way to the John Muir trail, and many people use it as a route to Mt. Whitney, making the trip to the summit in about one week.
The Great Western Divide starts to come into view
The hike to Bearpaw follows the trail for about 11.5 miles. Over that distance it gains about 1000 vertical feet - mostly in gentle ups and downs until the last mile and a half, which gains half of that alone. It's not technically difficult - it's amazing how far you can go as long as you just keep going - but it is exhausting. They claim the average time is about 7 hours, and the hike in is a bit more difficult than out - probably because of the vertical gain. It took us 9 hours to get there, but only 6 1/2 to come back.
Mehrten Creek
The creeks are good milestones, and good places to rest. 3 Mile Creek was my favorite - a shady glen with a waterfall-fed stream. Mehrten Creek is about halfway along (six miles) and a good spot for lunch. You'll likely encounter other hikers there. There is also a Nine Mile Creek, then soon after that the trail descends via a diabolical granite staircase - sized for mules rather than humans - to Buck Creek, which is the ten mile mark. Thereafter, about six to eight hours in, the trail climbs straight up - switchback after switchback - to carry you up to the ridge. At the crest of the ridge is the camp; the trail literally runs right through it.
First glimpse of the camp - after a 1.3 mile uphill climb from the creek
At the end of the long uphill hike, the camp feels like an oasis. We stumbled in during dinner (around 6 PM) and opted to shower first, so they saved us plates. After showering and changing, the food was cold but it was still delicious (especially the mushroom pot pie) and even in my exhausted state I was able to appreciate the perfect lemon tart. After supper, the guests congregated on the front porch of the lodge to chat and drink coffee or wine. I'm pretty sure we made polite chit chat for a little while, but my exhaustion was so bone deep that I have no recollection of it.
Inside the cabin
We were feeling much better in the morning, after a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed. Breakfast is served at 7:30, and coffee is available starting at about 6:30. The food is plentiful and really, really good. This breakfast happened to include pancakes, sausages, cantaloupe, scrambled eggs, hashbrowns and some leftover apple pie.
After breakfast, they put out snacks, and sandwiches if you ordered one the night before. Meat sandwiches are $10. and peanut butter and jelly or cheese are $5. (They make a mean pb& j.) Along with the sandwiches they offer their famous enormous brownies, fruit, mixed nuts, raisins and NutriGrain bars - available to everyone. They also have coffee available from breakfast until it runs out and again after dinner, and unlimited water and instant lemonade all day long. The brownies and fruit also stay out all day.
Sandwiches and snacks set out for the day hikers
The fruit bowl
In the lodge in the afternoon
Most people leave on day hikes right after breakfast. From the camp, the High Sierra Trail continues along the ridge down to Lone Pine Creek, before ascending up into the Great Western Divide. Hamilton Lake is above the first pass in the Divide and is a popular destination - but we decided to take it easy and just go down to the creek and back. It's a beautiful spot with waterfalls and pools, and the scenery on the way there was even more spectacular than the day before. We packed a picnic lunch and soaked our still-sore feet in the water.
Lone Pine Creek
Returning mid-afternoon, we had time for a little nap and a shower before dinner. That night's meal included pork loin, roasted crookneck squash, fresh baked french bread and an especially delicious salad with chickpeas, tomatoes and carrots tossed with a peanut vinaigrette. For dessert there was poundcake with whipped cream and berries.
Dinner in the Lodge
Delicious Dinner - Night Two
Poundcake with Berries and Whipped Cream
That night after dinner we were far more sociable. James pulled out a little bottle of scotch we'd brought with us, and we sipped it with our fellow campers while we watched the nearly full moon come up behind the Great Western Divide -  the glow in the lower left of this photo.  It was very nearly magical.
The full moon rise
(Continued here.)


  1. This place sounds unbelievable. I can't wait to go. Will you babysit?

  2. Looks like luxe life in the backcountry to me! I'm used to backpacking (i.e. sleeping in a tent that I carried up there, along with all my food and things), so sleeping in a bed in the backcountry and being served breakfast and dinner sounds like a four star retreat! And an SHOWER. Wow. Looks amazing.

    If you ever want any recommendations of backpacking trips (sans lodge), let me know. See here for inspiration:

  3. Sounds out of this world. I haven't physically exerted myself like that in ages. Which is too bad because the sleep you get after is the best kind. Gorgeous pics.