Three variations on pain-free wilderness trekking... hut-to-hut hiking, mule packing, and base camping.
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HUT 1, HUT 2, HUT 3…
Hut-to-Hut: The DetailsThe Appalachian Mountain Club’s eight White Mountain huts sleep from 36 to 90 in bunk rooms. Most huts are open from June 1 through October 13. Rates, which include breakfast and dinner, are per adult and per child, with lower rates for AMC members. For reservations, contact the Pinkham Notch Visitors Center at 603-466-2727 or www.outdoors.org.
Civilized shelters in the White Mountains take the pack out of backpacking
“I think we’re making a big mistake,” my husband, an authority on worst-case scenarios, announced. “I’ve heard of people being caught in 70-mile-per-hour winds up there—being pelted with rain and sleet.” We were preparing for a hiking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and Robert was obsessing about the notoriously wicked weather on 6,288-foot Mount Washington. “Just consider it part of the challenge,” I told him, stuffing waterproof jackets, pants, and hats into our packs.
I’d done my research, after all, and a staffer at the Appalachian Mountain Club had assured me that our kids—experienced hikers, though just six and ten—could handle the four-day loop, especially if we spent each night in an AMC mountain hut. Sure, we’d be summiting the highest peak in the northeast, but at the end of each day there’d be a bunk bed, pillow, wool blankets, and a restorative dinner—anything from calzones to ham and mashed potatoes. Unencumbered by the heavy packs that are part of a multiday wilderness trip, I was sure we could cover four to seven miles a day. We’d just keep an eye on the weather.
We spent the night at Pinkham Notch, an AMC lodge near the trailhead, outside of Gorham. At breakfast, the lodge crew indoctrinated us in hut etiquette. “Take as much as you want, but eat all that you take.” My children happily heaped their plates with pancakes, fruit, bacon, sausage, and muffins, but the adults had more of an appetite for the latest weather report. “Overcast, with a chance of drizzle in the afternoon.” Harmless enough.
The skies were mostly cloudy when we started up the trail. In true hiking tradition, each of us took a trail name. My son Jesse, our six-year-old, was Thumper; my daughter, Elly, Butterfly; my husband chose Egg Roll; and I became Blaze. With the kids setting the pace, the first of the day’s 3.8 miles went quickly. It was steep, but excitement and energy levels were high: steady breathing, no whining. By noon, we were clambering up granite boulders for the last 600 vertical feet to reach Madison Springs hut, at 4,800 feet, in time for hot vegetable soup and fresh bread, served with views of Madison Gulf, Mount Washington, and the surrounding peaks amid light clouds and fog. We slept well that night, despite the din of snoring fellow campers.
On day two—sunny and clear!—came the big push. We aimed to summit Mount Washington by lunch and reach Lakes of the Clouds hut, at 5,012 feet, before dinner. This hike was longer—seven miles—but the map indicated no steep ascents. Ridge walking, however, presented an unexpected challenge. The rocky, rubble-strewn path (the kids imagined we were walking on the moon) meant every step must be carefully placed. Our feet were taking a beating, and Jesse and Elly were losing steam.
It was well past lunchtime when the trail curved and we sighted a spire emerging from the granite outcrop. “We made it!” Jesse cheered, with a new burst of energy. With the goal in view, our pace quickened, and in slightly more than no time we were biting into hot dogs and wolfing down candy bars at the summit’s cafeteria. After the mandatory photo-ops we forged on, limping into our hut at 4:30. When we checked our map that night, we discovered that the day’s undulations had added up to an impressive 3,500 feet in altitude changes. There were no complaints about our early bedtime—and it wasn’t the first time on the trip I was thankful we didnÕt have to set up camp.
The next day’s four-mile descent to the Mizpah Spring hut was easy. We marched in at noon, commandeered the best bunk room, flung off our shoes, and settled in. Comfortable and content, Robert and I sipped tea and read, while Jesse played chess and Elly worked through a nature activity book AMC provided.
On the final day—a one-hour walk back to the trailhead—we felt the trip’s first raindrops. “We’re melting!” I teased Robert.
We had nearly reached the car when a horn startled the children. We explained that it was the cog railroad, ready to take visitors to the top of Mount Washington. “You mean you can take the train all the way up?” We nodded. “But what,” asked Elly, her cheeks flush with alpine air, “would be the point of that?”
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
Horsepacking: The DetailsGlacier 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!”
All Roads Lead to Home Base
Have your Alaskan wilderness and your baked Alaska, too—just bring a couple guides along.
Lodges: The DetailsGreat Alaska (800-544-2261, www.greatalaska.com) schedules seven-day “Safari Camps” June 8 through September 14. Trips depart from Kenai and cost $1,595 per person. Five-day trips cost $1,195. Prices include all meals and activities. Great Alaska offers a group discount—the sixth person in each group travels free.
At first, an Alaska camping trip sounded out of the question for my family. Too much work, too much gear, too much unfamiliar territory. Not to mention too few showers and not enough good food. Yet there we were, camped out on the shore of Skilak Lake on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula: my husband, Jim; our seven-year-old son, Will; and me. What made the journey not only possible but practically posh were the non-family members we brought along, two guides who doted on us every step of the way.
For families who desire an intimate brush with wilderness but shy away from the hard labor and skills required to make it happen, hiring an outfitter that operates out of a base camp brings the best of all worlds. In our case, we chose Great Alaska because of its flexibility and a backcountry-camping option. The seven-day itinerary included two base camps—a tent lodge on the Moose River about a mile and a half up from the confluence of the Moose and Kenai Rivers, and backpacking tents on the shores of Skilak Lake, a 24,000-acre glacier-fed lake surrounded by snowcapped mountains. From both of these sites we could make guided forays without much preparation, or worrying about backwoods risks like hypothermia or hunger.
Our camping base for the last four days’ excursions—paddling kayaks, hiking to view salmon jumping up a waterfall on the Russian River, and cruising Kenai Fjords National Park in an 80-passenger boat—was the tent lodge, which we reached by boat from the Moose River. We bunked in a high-walled tent on a wooden platform, with a front deck and lounging chairs. The camp’s caretakers, Cara and Pete, pampered us with thick white towels for washing, and coffee and hot water delivered with each morning’s wake-up. The camp’s central gathering place, a newly erected wooden lodge with a soaring ceiling and windows, was cabin-basic but had a hint of refinement—upholstered armchairs circling the room atop a braided rug. A chess set was all Will needed to feel at home, and our cook, Cara, whipped up mac and cheese especially for him.
While the Moose River site was a good introduction to far-north luxury camping, the Skilak site, which we visited during the first part of our trip, delivered the grandeur for which Alaska is so revered. Will’s favorite guide, Jim, took us by pontoon boat down the Kenai River, past bald eagles (Will spotted 18 by midday), cormorants, a swimming moose, and fishermen. In Kenai Canyon we ran action-packed Class II rapids triggered by unusually warm temperatures and corresponding snowmelt; when we reached the lake, we hiked a half-mile along the shore to what would be our home for the next two days and nights. But instead of arriving at camp for the exhausting routine of setting up tents, cooking dinner, and keeping a child from bonking, we left such worries to Charlie, the camp’s caretaker, who had everything ready and waiting, including cookies and lemonade.
The rest of the day flew by in a whirlwind of Alaska-style activity. We paddled to a nearby rookery where hundreds of gulls and cormorants treated us to an ear-splitting serenade. At dinnertime, we sat down to a portable table adorned with a wildflower bouquet to sip wine and drink in the view of the edge of Harding Icefield. Then we toasted s’mores over a campfire—an odd experience in the midnight sun.
The next day, Charlie motored us across the lake to a hiking trail that cut through junglelike greenery, alpine tundra, and snowfields as it wended to the top of one of Alaska’s many unnamed peaks. It took a while to get used to the sight of Charlie toting a shotgun, but it was that or fend for ourselves should we encounter a grizzly.
My son kept up well with us adults, sticking to Charlie’s heels, but as we took one last turn to the summit, we faced a mini-crisis. Will decided he was tired and ready to turn around. A quick family powwow produced nothing, until a small bribe (the promise of a souvenir the next day) turned the tide. Up Will scampered, beating the adults to the top.
Not a road or building could be seen from our perch, just lake after lake and mountain after mountain, including a glimpse of Redoubt Volcano across Cook Inlet, some 80 miles away. Will munched on cookies, his exhaustion long gone. We started our descent by sliding down a snowfield and ended back at camp with a hot-water backpacking shower and a sirloin steak dinner.
After a week like this, I’m up for another Alaska camping trip anytime. All I need is my family—and just a couple of experienced guides.