My Yosemite (+ Cooking on the Trail)

[Before the knife’s edge, Clouds Rest, August 2012.]

Hard to believe it’s been four weeks now since we woke up before dawn, shouldered our packs sleepily downstairs and set off for the mountains, with a brief detour to pick up a friend and grab a (large) coffee for the road (along with a packet of one-cup instant coffees which, yes, were worth the miniscule extra weight). Back in the city now after 3+ weeks away I’ve been marveling over the weather here – clear blue skies for days, a slight and sweet breeze, true summer in San Francisco at last.

It’s also hard to believe my month off is nearly over. I want to stamp my feet and howl but instead I am trying to content myself with the reality that I’ve had a wonderful stretch of days filled to the brim with good people and good travels and good time spent outdoors. I’ve run in the mornings – a true luxury, and for as long as I pleased – and had all the time in the world to stretch out after; I’ve had coffee dates and leisurely lunches; I’ve spent weekdays at the beach and early evenings, too. Maybe it’s all that time outdoors that’s done it: I am loathe to return to that more traditional life of being sat still in front of a computer for most of the day. And yet …

In Yosemite we woke not with the sun but nearly so – once the light creeps over the mountains it’s hard to sleep in and frankly you don’t really want to waste a precious moment of time up there in sleep. We started out from May Lake and didn’t go too far the first day as we were both feeling the altitude (me: a little lightheaded, hungry, a bit, err, grumpy), but the next two nights camped near Sunrise Lakes in a calm, lovely meadow with lots of flat rocks for cooking-on and easy access to water (for drinking and swimming both). One day we hiked about 11 miles rt to Clouds Rest where I swear I’ve been before but can’t remember exactly when, and came back to camp to drink tea whilst ensconced in our tent waiting out a thunderstorm. That night it rained and rained; I do not mind the rain, but having lightening flash directly overhead with only the ‘protection’ of flimsy nylon is something I might not like to repeat anytime soon. (Still, hearing the eerie boom and crash of thunder across the high mountains was a sort of thrilling experience.)

We ate well but simply, as is the usual. I’ve written about camp cooking before, notably four years ago for NPR (fun item: the ‘friend’ referenced in the story – who, I will mention again, forgot the fuel for the stove; ahem – is now my husband … life is funny that way.) and not much has changed except I think/hope I am better at gauging how much to bring. (Also this time we forgot neither stove nor fuel.) For three nights and two people we had one bear canister and I filled it to the brim (always there ensues the judicious consider and discard at the trailhead – this time noodle soups were sacrificed to the bear bin, but I will eat them another time by g-d and enjoy every slurp) and we consumed nearly every bit of what we brought. For breakfast we had coffee-with-sugar-no-milk and instant oatmeal, lunches were bread and cheese and trail mix, and dinners were (I am rather proud of these so will detail):

First night: risotto (boxed) with steamed broccoli and fried tofu
Second night: chili mac (can of vegetarian chili + Annie’s mac and cheese)
Third night: box of lentil soup, two packets of mostly-cooked grains (Seeds of Change brand), a can of salmon for the husband

We drank a cup of green tea after dinner each night, accompanied by squares of dark chocolate, which always seemed to hit the spot. I was well pleased with all the meals except the last, which, while good, did not wholly fill me up (I probably needed more protein, and we did hike over 10 miles that day with a fairly light lunch). I also brought some hot cocoa, emergenC packets, black tea, and Clif sweet-salty Mojo bars. We threw away a lot of the trash while hiking through Lake Tenaya which was a help – you cannot leave anything with any sort of odor outside of the canister (think toothpaste, lotion, dinner trash, etc. as well as your food) which inevitably results in a nightly frantic cramming-in of all and sundry detritus before retiring to bed.

[Camp cooking, Yosemite, August 2012.]

I have learned a few things over the years, one being that bringing along a little (plastic) bottle of olive oil allows you to expand your culinary horizons beyond the aforementioned noodle soups which, though beloved, are never quite enough to quell my appetite (truth be told I would have made them as a ‘first course’ to one of our meals). You may not think frying up tofu for dinner is the best use of your time, but it’s oddly satisfying.

The most important thing to do is to think carefully about what you will eat each day and plan and decide accordingly. I also try to make something different each night for dinner, mostly so there’s something special to look forward to. This is not so different than what I do on a weekly basis when planning out my meals, but when going into the back country it is infinitely more vital that you know exactly what you are going to eat and when so as to maximize space. Then you hopefully will have room to include a few things that are perhaps not essential to your meals but which make them much more pleasurable.

Some of these include:
olive oil (I have a little travel bottle that I fill up from my regular at-home cooking bottle)
SALT (this maybe should be included as ‘essential’)
drinks packets, like EmergenC or Gatorade powder
fresh or dried fruit (to doctor up the oatmeal)
tea (whatever kinds you like)
instant coffee (also ‘essential’?)

Last year we brought peanut butter and jam for sandwiches and this year I had a jar of peanut butter that I left behind at the last minute because a) it was large b) it gets really runny when hot c) the mess factor. This brings me to things that seem like a great idea when you’re packing your pack in your apartment but once 10 miles into your trek you wish you’d left behind.

Some of these include:
nut butters (way too goopy)
jam or honey (delicious, but very impractical)
bread (OK – we brought sliced whole wheat bread along with us and it was barely fine, but I do not really recommend this in good conscience; it can get very crushed in the bear canister. I will have to come up with a better solution for the next time.)
stuff that is encased in a lot of packaging (i.e. boxed things like risotto and the mac + cheese; next time I will consolidate these into baggies which will take up much less room once their contents are cooked)
really heavy things like oranges

Do as much in advance as you possibly can – for example, if you are crazy like me and think steamed broccoli sounds like a fantastic but you usually don’t eat the entire stem of the florets, cut up the broccoli at home, compost the stuff you don’t want, and just bring what you do. (Guess who didn’t do this? Oops.) Speaking of fresh vegetables or any perishables, plan to cook those the first night you’re out so they stay as undamaged as possible. I have a hazy memory of my first Yosemite backpacking trip where we made and ate baked potatoes somewhere near the end of the week we spent on the trail, which seems nuts to me now, but then again there were about 12 people in our group so we probably divided all the food up equally (and those were the pre-bear canister days when you could still hang your food, which provided more space).

Of course, if you decide to go the freeze-dried dinner-packet route you may disregard all of this, but I sincerely like cooking over a little camp stove each night, my appetite especially sharpened by fresh air and the miles hiked. Preparing a meal, simple as it may be, is the perfect cap to a usually perfect day in the back country.

When we came out I immediately reread The Last Season by Eric Blehm, a chronicle of the life and disappearance of ranger Randy Morgensen who spent most of his life in Yosemite National Park and the adjacent Sequoia/King’s Canyon National Parks (he grew up mostly in the valley, which causes me no end of wistful pangs). It’s a fascinating story, but what I particularly love about the book is the details of the history of the Sierra Nevada and the vivid descriptions of life as a back country ranger. Though returned to civilization I wanted to pack up and go back out again; each return is, by necessity, bittersweet and I will never get used to it no matter how often I am lucky enough to go.

I wrote this after last year‘s trip and it still holds true: Yosemite basically puts almost everything to rights. It is clean air and the high mountains — lavender some times, grey-blue at others — rising behind Curry Village nearly close enough to touch and granite warmed by the summer sun. It is childhood and memory and climbing and hiking and sweat in your eyes. It is quiet. It reminds you to breathe even when it takes it away (the altitude gains, the sheer beauty of the place). It is the most gorgeous place on earth to me — magical, yet so solid and real that I only need picture it in my mind to be soothed.

My Yosemite is comforting and wild all at once: I never forget that bears lurk in the woods and fields – though we didn’t see any this trip and they are quite shy for the most part – and the waterfalls, though beautiful, can be treacherous. But no doubt this is why I love it so.

I made a silly little video taken from atop Clouds Rest – the clouds were indeed resting, and some of them were quite dark; we got rained on a bit, enough so that we left pretty quickly once we made it up there – that I will post here. The quality maybe is not the best, there’s a lot of wind rushing about, and a guy up there (wearing the hat) could barely hide his laughter at my foolish little narration (me, too). But for all that I think it captures just a tiny piece of the spirit of the place from the high country looking down into the valley, storm clouds and all. From me to you – Yosemite, now and always.

… the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.
~ John Muir
, My First Summer in the Sierra

Re the name, via wikipedia: Lafayette H. Bunnell, a medical doctor with the Mariposa Battalion, notes that his party named the summit Clouds Rest because they returned to camp to avoid a snow storm after seeing “the clouds rapidly settling down to rest upon that mountain.”

Join the Conversation

  1. Beautiful post….loved the John Muir quote… very true…what a brilliant Scotsman! (You too!)

  2. great photos and post! i just went to yosemite for the first time this summer and can’t wait to return and explore more of the park.

  3. Ok, now you’ve awakened a very strong desire to go up into the (Rocky) Mountains this weekend. I’m so glad you shared the video- what a view!

  4. Okay, fine, I will go backpacking with you.


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