Spots at Yosemite's High Sierra Camps don't come easy

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That's because the winners of this lottery (which is accepting entry applications through Nov. 20) get the chance to trek into the Yosemite high country and stay in a group of special High Sierra Camps. At the end of a strenuous hike (between six and 11 miles), these camps provide large dormitory-style tents with wood-burning stoves that sleep four people, hearty meals served family style by the friendly staff, along with clean, ecologically correct toilet facilities and, in several camps, hot showers! After dinner most camps offer a nice roaring campfire.

The High Sierra Camps vary in size. The largest, at Merced Lake, has 19 tents and can provide lodging for up to 60 visitors. The smallest are May Lake and Glen Aulin, with eight tents each. All the camps feature spectacular settings, with vistas of towering crags, mountain meadows, glistening lakes and tumbling cascades. You can choose to visit one or more camps. And it's possible, for the avid hiker, to do a complete loop of all five camps, either on your own or on a park ranger-guided tour.

The High Sierra Camps are the ideal way for those who wish to explore the Yosemite backcountry on foot without the necessity of carrying all the traditional backpacking gear: tent, sleeping bag, food, cooking gear, etc. When you're staying at the High Sierra Camps, all you carry is what you need on the trail and in camp.

Even so, as the Boy Scouts say, be prepared. Hikes between camps are long and, depending on the route you select, can be very strenuous with substantial gains in elevation. Between July 15 and Sept. 17 - when the High Sierra Camps are generally in operation - you need to carry adequate clothing, equipment, first aid and enough water to protect you against weather conditions that can include blazing-hot days and shivering-cold nights, thunderstorms and even the possibility of snow.

The year the first High Sierra Camp was founded (1916) at Merced Lake, Woodrow Wilson was in the White House. The National Park Service, which was still in its infancy, thought a hike-in camp from Yosemite Valley might be an excellent way to attract a new crowd of adventurous wilderness lovers.

In 1924, the highest of the camps, Vogelsang (at 10,130 feet), was established. Glen Aulin on the Tuolumne River was added in 1927, followed by May Lake in 1938, and the newest of the camps, Sunrise, which opened its tents for business in 1961.

For many years the camps were run by the Curry Co., which maintained all the guest facilities in the park. The current management is the Delaware North Corp., which maintains and staffs the camps, runs the lottery and makes reservations.

But don't get the idea that these camps are luxury facilities. They are not. Vinyl fabric may have replaced the original canvass. But other than that, these tents have changed very little since they were first designed. The stoves (for which wood is provided) are equally primitive. The single beds are metal framed, piled high with a supply of heavy, old, woolen Army blankets. Pillows are provided, but not sheets. Visitors must carry a sleep sack as a liner.

Rustic or primitive, at the end of a full day on the trail, a bed, a tent, hot food and hot water can feel like pure luxury. And since each camp is supplied by pack train, you can arrange to have any special food items, including beer and wine, packed in for you. And if you're a fisherman, the staff will clean and sizzle up your catch for you.

The big payoff, of course, is the Yosemite high country itself, a realm of monumental granite domes, crystalline azure lakes, wildflower-strewn meadows, with the Milky Way for a nighttime canopy. It's these simple joys that John Muir had in mind when he said, "Another glorious day in which we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom."

Here's how it works.

The first thing you'll need to do is request an official Yosemite High Sierra Camps lottery application form by either calling 559-253-5635 or by submitting an e-mail request. Send your request to yoseres@dncinc.com, and write "High Camp Application Request" in the subject line, and include your name, complete mailing address and e-mail. An official application form, which must be returned on or before Nov. 20, will be e-mailed to you. Do not include date requests until you have received the official form.

Once you have your form in hand, the next phase involves planning your trip. There are various options.


In order to complete the lottery application, you must submit dates for the camps you wish to visit, in which order and for how long. You also have the option of signing up for a five- or seven-day ranger-guided hike. The rates, which include breakfast and dinner, are $125 a day for adults, $93 for children ages 7-12. The rate for the seven-day guided hike is $1,027; five-day guided hikes are $719.50. Be prepared to offer a second choice of dates. A maximum of eight spaces per camp may be requested with each application.


May Lake (9,270 feet, eight cabins, total occupancy 36). May Lake is the ideal way to find out if the High Sierra Camp experience is for you and your family. It is by far the easiest camp to get to via a moderate hike of just longer than a mile from the parking lot. The camp is situated on the piney shore of the lake and looks directly across at the imposing granite edifice of Mount Hoffman, a popular day hike. Notes: The mess hall tent has a wonderful view of the lake. May Lake also has the best hot showers.

Glen Aulin (9,270 feet, eight cabins, total occupancy 32). For breathtaking scenery, you can't beat Glen Aulin. The camp is nestled in pines and cedars at the foot of a massive cataract on the Tuolumne River. The roughly eight-mile hike to Glen Aulin from May Lake is mostly downhill. There are sections where the trail hugs the granite cliffs, offering panoramic views of the surrounding peaks. In mid-August, the woods and creeks the trail follows abound with wildflowers. Glen Aulin is also a popular hike from Tuolumne Meadows, downriver all the way, uphill on the return trip.

If possible, plan to stay an extra night at Glen Aulin so you can make the downriver hike to Waterwheel Falls, where the river rushes into faults in the rock then explodes back on itself, forming the waterwheels. During the spring and early summer runoff, these plumes can rise to heights of 40 feet. Note: Because of its antiquated fresh-water system, Glen Aulin offers no showers or hot water. The staff's advice: "Just go swim in the river." At 48 degrees, it's a bracing experience. Glen Aulin also offers one of the most wonderful sunset-viewing spots, just south of the camp where the river enters the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.

Vogelsang (10,130 feet, 12 cabins, total occupancy 42). This camp is perched at the top of the pass that divides the Tuolumne Meadows high country from Yosemite Valley. If you make the short hike from camp up to Vogelsang Lake you'll enjoy a view that extends from the meadows all the way down to Half Dome. Because of its sparse, isolated nature, there is a spiritual quality to Vogelsang that is unique among the High Sierra Camps.

Merced Lake (7,150 feet, 19 cabins, total occupancy 60). The hike from Vogelsang to Merced Lake is one of the most striking of the entire loop, as it follows the tumbling course of Emeric Creek. There are long sections through meadows and steep descents that follow the creek as it cascades over the polished granite.

Merced Lake is by far the largest of the High Sierra Camps. It feels more like a tented resort and is the only High Sierra Camp linked directly to Yosemite Valley. The hike down to the valley is 13 miles long. It follows the Merced River and eventually joins up with the Mist Trail carved into the cliff face of Nevada and Vernal Falls. Note: Those who are doing the complete loop of High Sierra Camps can expect a very strenuous hike out of Merced Lake either to Sunrise or Vogelsang.

Sunrise (9,400 feet, nine cabins, total occupancy 60). Sunrise (which ironically is more impressive at sunset) is nestled in a field of boulders at the southern end of Long Meadow. Of all the High Sierra Camps, it offers the best star viewing. The hike to Sunrise from Tuolumne Meadows (approximately seven miles) affords wonderful views of Cathedral Peak and the gesticulating promontory of Columbia's Finger. The trail also passes Upper Cathedral Lake. It's an ideal spot for lunch and a well-deserved rest. Note: Those who are heading for May Lake from Sunrise will enjoy a beautiful downhill hike all the way to Tenaya Lake. Unfortunately, from there the trail goes up, regaining nearly all the altitude you've lost on the way down. For 1 1/2 miles the trail is actually the crumbling ruins of old Tioga Road. But when you do arrive at May Lake, and see Mount Hoffman reflected in its shimmering surface, it all seems worth it.


OK. You've submitted your application. The first of the year has rolled around, the drawing has taken place and by Feb. 28 the lucky ones have been notified that their names were chosen. They've sent in the check confirming their reservation. Everything is all set.

But what if you weren't chosen? Don't lose heart. There are several alternatives. There actually is a second lottery where any canceled spaces are filled by using the applications that were not awarded during the first round.

Once the lottery is completed, on or about April 1, any spaces left are available on a first come, first served basis and can be reserved by calling the seasonal High Sierra Camp reservation line (559-253-5674). A last, though admittedly riskier, alternative is to try to secure a reservation at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge or White Wolf Lodge and then consult the chart that is posted every day showing the availability at each of the High Sierra Camps.

No matter how you arrange to visit the Yosemite High Sierra Camps, you'll feel like a winner. You can also visit the camps by mule train. But, to my mind, that's like taking the bus.

Jim Farber is a freelance travel writer.

© Copley News Service

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