Sunday, November 14, 2010

"idyllic sites in the backcountry"

It may seem premature to plan next year's diversion, but that's exactly what you must do if you want to stay at Yosemite National Park's coveted High Sierra Camps. The good news is that the deadline for entering the lottery that will determine whether you get your dates has been extended to Nov. 20. It was originally Nov. 1.

Five camps occupy idyllic sites in the backcountry to the north and south of Tioga Pass Road. They consist of dormitory accommodations in basic tent cabins, a hot shower at most locations and family-style dinners and breakfasts.

An online lottery handles requests for stays. Applicants will be told by Jan. 15 whether they have the thumbs up or thumbs down.

Of the 3,300 applications last year, only 850 were assigned dates. One trick is to submit alternative dates or, better still, a range of dates. The 10% to 20% of the dates not claimed by lottery participants become available for first-come, first-served reservations starting Feb. 8.

The odds become smaller as the summer season approaches, except at the end of May, when cancellations occur as families finalize their summer plans, said Dee Dee Smith, a reservation specialist with DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, the lodging concessionaire in the California park.

Lining up camps for the desired dates can be tricky. The opening dates hinge on snow coverage and camp preparations. Last season, late-spring snowstorms caused delayed openings and many cancellations.

Merced Lake tends to be the easiest High Sierra Camp to secure because it has the most tent cabins and the greatest number of beds. But it is also the farthest from a trailhead (about 15 miles to Tenaya Lake or Tuolumne Meadows).

"If people are flexible, we'll get them into something," Smith said.

She recommends keeping a watchful eye on the online availability calendar for cancellations made just outside of the 30-day window, which incur a modest fee. Saddle trips and guided hikes present alternative (although considerably more expensive) options when all independent hiker slots are booked.

I've stayed at the camps, which get many repeat visitors.

In July, I sat down for breakfast at the park's Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, eager to embark on my first High Sierra Camps expedition. The dining hall pulsed with the energy of hiking parties discussing supplies, equipment and routes. Some readied to head north toward Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. Others faced a couple of hundred of miles south on the John Muir Trail before Mt. Whitney. Most would attempt a part of the High Sierra Camps loop. Mine was a modified version, with Yosemite Valley as a destination after two nights at Merced Lake.

Acting on the counsel of a Wawona ranger, who praised the high-country landscape around the Vogelsang camp (shown above), I nabbed a last-minute cancellation after a quick phone call to the reservation office.

Elated at my good fortune, I arrived at the camp, snug at the base of Fletcher Peak, less than three hours later and sat down for a snack with the staff of Vogelsang. Several hiking parties filed in before I set out to explore nearby Townsley and Hanging Basket lakes.

Fred Strauss, 85, said he first came to Vogelsang in 1936. He credits reservation specialist Smith ("Dad's other wife," his son said) for arranging his yearly trips down memory lane. "I'm going to quit when I get old," he said. "Believe it or not, Yosemite hasn't changed all that much."

Barbara Talmadge has been coming to the park for 67 of her 85 years.

"I suppose it gets in your blood, you could say," she said. This year she booked five weeks at Merced Lake, where two of her grandchildren work.

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