A Yosemite That's Far From The Madding Crowd

A ragged band of hikers scrambles to the top of a granite outcrop and pauses to enjoy the view. From atop 11,516-foot Vogelsang Peak, we overlook craggy mountains and deep blue alpine lakes. Visiting California's Yosemite National Park in July doesn't often afford such isolation. In the summer, cars and Winnebagos choke Yosemite Valley's roads and campsites. But on a recent trip, 19 other hikers and I avoided the crowds and saw a pristine expanse of the park that most of Yosemite's 3 million annual visitors miss.

Our one-week trip followed a 52-mile loop passing through the park's five High Sierra camps. The trip appeals to seasoned hikers and backpackers--many past 50--who don't want to rough it. For $595, "loopers" get dramatic scenery, hearty meals, clean sheets, hot showers, and as many miles of hiking as their aching calf muscles can stand.

KITCHEN CREW. Every July and August, groups such as ours set off twice a week from Tuolumne Meadows on Yosemite's eastern edge. But if you want to join one next summer, get ready to act soon: The trips fill up almost as soon as registration opens on Dec. 1. (Write to High Sierra Camps, 5410 E. Home Ave., Fresno, Calif. 93727 or call 209 454-2002. Don't bother applying early: Applications that are received before Dec. 1 are returned.)

Instead of ending the day's trek of eight or nine miles by pitching tents and cooking supper, we arrived late each afternoon to a permanent camp, with time to wash up and relax before a dinner of chicken parmesan, baked potatoes, and salad, for example. Afterward, we watched the sun set and the stars come out while the staff--a congenial crew of mainly college students--washed dishes and set up for breakfast. We slept in Army-style floored tents with four cots and a wood stove.

Because all essentials are hauled up to camp by mule, we had to carry only our clothes, toiletries, water, and the plentiful lunch the staff fixed for us. The trip offered a running lesson in the history, geology, botany, and zoology of the Sierra Nevada. Park ranger Ken Luthy, a science teacher who has spent the past 11 summers at Yosemite, filled us in on glaciers, marmots, Jeffrey pines, and mariposa lilies. Luthy, who started each morning with a poetic quotation from Sierra Club founder John Muir, was equally willing to get down on all fours to identify tiny flowers, clamber with a few hikers up a steep rock face, or lead the group in silly songs.

There were plenty of optional side trips: to see spectacular Waterwheel Falls, climb Mt. Hoffmann, or find a swimming hole. On our one free day, I logged an extra 30 miles beyond the loop, including an extraordinary hike which wound past a series of waterfalls. We lunched in a high meadow beneath Ansel Adams Peak, where we were probably the first visitors of the year.