These Hooves Were Made for Hiking

Don't ditch the sushi-packed cooler—give it to the mule team to schlep up the Sierra Nevada

Hoofing it across the Sierra Nevadas     Photo: courtesy, Bishop Chamber of Commerce

Horsepacking: The Details

Glacier Pack Trains (760-938-2538) outfits spot trips from mid-June through the end of September, charging $60 per pack animal plus $120 for the person leading them. Call the Bishop Chamber of Commerce (760-873-8405; www.bishopvisitor.com) for other mule-packing options in the eastern Sierra Nevada.

When I was a Boy Scout dragging big packs up steep trails into California's Sierra Nevada, all that kept me plodding was a mantra: "I hate this, I hate this, I hate this!" If it weren't for fishing, s'mores, and starlit snipe hunts at the end of every trail, I'd probably never have hiked into the mountains again, much less become an expedition photographer.

No matter how many loads I've subsequently carried up seemingly infinite slopes, schlepping a third of my body weight has never become fun. What kid wouldn't choose Nintendo over staggering after his tree-hugging parents?

While working for a climbing school in the Sierra Nevada, my wife, Meredith, and I found our solution: pack mules that haul up resupplies of fresh food and equipment for clients. Why not do the same for our kids? This backcountry option, often called a "spot trip," can be utilized anywhere pack animals are allowed, from the Sierra to the Rockies, the Cascades, and even abroad. With a single mule carrying 150 pounds, suddenly there's no need to saw handles off toothbrushes. You can take virtually any toys you want, from rock-climbing hardware to folding kayaks. You can bring decadent food, even beer.

The routine is simple. After making arrangements with an outfitter, you simply drop most of your gear at the pack station and tell the wrangler where you want to camp. Then off you go up the trail, carrying only cameras, raingear, and lunch (anyone who wants to ride instead of walk can negotiate to follow the mules on a horse). The team drops the load at your campsite and heads back to the corral; you won't see them again until it's time to go home.

I think of this as "cheater backpacking"—no heavy loads, plus all the luxury of a pack trip without saddle sores, trampled campsites, or animals to feed. Still, these aren't guided treks, so you'll need the same wilderness skills as if you had carried everything on your back.

Because Meredith and I know the region from our guiding days, our favorite destination is the relatively unheralded Palisades, high in the John Muir Wilderness above Big Pine, California. Here, alpine lakes, gnarled whitebark pines, and meadows filled with wildflowers are overhung by a dozen crags more than 13,000 feet tall, themselves wrapped around America's southernmost glaciers. The region stays quiet by virtue of the strenuousness of the North Fork of the Big Pine Creek Trail, about seven miles long. Hiring Glacier Pack Train to shoulder our burden not only helps us to skip up the path unencumbered, it also grants us one of the packer's allotment of otherwise scarce wilderness permits.

We've made at least half a dozen trips here, beginning before our sons, Ben (now 18) and Nick (14), were old enough to walk. Meredith and I simply traded off carrying them up the trail. The hike is a classic eastern Sierra trek, encompassing radical environmental changes within a few miles. You start in sagebrush desert and then quickly switchback up into ever more verdant settings as you follow Big Pine Creek into a granite-walled basin jeweled with nine lakes, efficiently named First Lake, Second Lake, and so forth. The initial glimpse at Second Lake still causes me to gasp, even after what might be 50 times up the trail. Personally, I'd call it "Lake of the Gods," just for the panorama of 12,999-foot Temple Crag—possibly North America's best-kept wilderness rock-climbing secret—which seems to loom straight out of the turquoise water.

When I was younger I came here mostly to climb, but nowadays mountaineering is only part of the picture. I also relish bushwhacking through willow patches to fish for brook trout in little streams. I loved teaching Ben and Nick to creep through columbines and shooting stars in search of a perfect riffle in which to drop their worms, and I will never forget their squeals when each hooked his first trout and winged it over his head.

There are secluded tarns for swimming, infinite details for photography, and day hikes into places where few ever bother to go. For a longer outing, you can even trek up a primitive track to the edge of North Palisades Glacier.

Sure, a purist might say we're cheating, but I feel like I paid my dues long ago. It's time to give my own kids the mantra "I love this!"

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