On a wilderness adventure in Yosemite's High Sierra, Alan Brown channels his inner Boy Scout.(PLUS) More on national parks, and camping in the lap of luxury

By Alan Brown
January 26, 2011
Brown W. Cannon III The summit at Donohue Pass.

35 There was a time when I could start a fire in the rain, tie a stevedore knot, and chop down a small tree, lash its branches together, and turn it into a table and chair. But sometime in my late twenties, I traded in my wilderness skills for hotel points, and camp became a word that evoked John Waters movies, not the outdoors.

Yet in the past couple of years, my nostalgia for those backpacking trips has grown. Perhaps it's a result of wanting to stay closer to home, coupled with a desire to explore the vastness of America. Or maybe it's simply a matter of keeping up with the Joneses: in my research on-line, I came upon a range of high-end camping options, from luxury trips with symphony orchestras and imported cheeses to upscale campgrounds with resort amenities like four-poster beds and yoga classes (see below). I found outfitters such as Sierra Club, O.A.R.S., and REI that teach campers not only how to kayak but also how to pitch a tent, start a fire, and all the other tricks of the wilderness trade most of us mastered as kids (and forgot as adults).

I realized it was time to relearn the outdoor skills I'd lost along with my youth, and for that I needed a teacher. Rather than forking over a small fortune for a guided camping trip—being more of a do-it-yourselfer—I called my pal Nathan, who has taught backpacking in national parks. He recruitedanother friend, David, a former Outward Bound instructor. I also enlisted my buddy Brown, a photographer who grew up backpacking in Colorado.

The four of us consulted maps and park rangers, then worked out a five-day, 45-mile loop. We'd be hiking in high country through Yosemite National Park and Ansel Adams Wilderness Area, staying close to lakes and streams for water. The route would be difficult and varied enough to satisfy my athletic companions, but not so impossible as to break my spirit.

Before guiding us into the Sierras, Nathan armed us with his essential rules for camping survival: (1) Carefully preplan your route and all meals, to avoid surprises (and starvation). (2) Go light—just one change of clothes (which you can wash out on the trail) and multipurpose gear (a cooking pot that doubles as a dinner bowl, for example). Distribute all shared materials evenly by weight into backpacks. (3) Register with the park ranger's office, and leave a copy of your itinerary with someone back home, including instructions to alert park officials if you haven't made contact within 24 hours of a prearranged calling time. (4) Stay on the trail; stick with the group. (5) Follow the Leave No Trace school of camping, removing everything you've brought with you.

Gear in place, we headed for the hills.

DAY ONE Despite David's ruthless paring down—just one tube of toothpaste for the four of us!—our packs weighed about 35 pounds apiece when we hit the trail. Decked out in Gore-Tex hiking boots, a golf hat (my version of sun protection), and my sweat-wicking, lightweight T-shirt and hiking shorts, I took my first tentative steps along the Tuolumne River. The path meandered through nine miles of meadowland studded with wild marigolds, lilies, and lupine. Even in midsummer, the towering granite peaks were topped with snow and glowed red as the sun dropped.

Before dusk, we settled on a campsite near a fork in the river. David took out his blister kit and directed us through the minor surgery of treating our foot sores, as well as other basic first aid. Nathan and I, meanwhile, were trekking to and from the river. He'd built his own ingenious water-filtering system for the trip; hung from a branch, the device let gravity pull the water down through a tube and a filter, then into a bottle. It was slow but effective. David prepared our first dinner, an Indian curry dish that wasn't half bad but was hell to clean up. (Being low man on the totem pole, I got stuck with the dishes.) Before bedtime, I carried our food, securely locked in bear-proof plastic canisters, a good 20 yards from our site—the bears couldn't open them, but that didn't mean they wouldn't try. Then I crawled into my sleeping bag, packed my clothes into its empty stuff sack to create a pillow, and promptly passed out.

DAY TWO I woke up with a headache from the altitude (8,500 feet), and the bland instant-oatmeal breakfast didn't help my mood. I found myself struggling as we climbed over the 11,000-foot-high Donohue Pass. Irrationally, I blamed my hiking partners for the steepness of the trail, our meager meal, the weight of my pack. At lunch, David's filtering system broke down, and we had to purify our drinking water with iodine tablets. Though convenient—the tablets worked while we were on the move—they gave the water an unpleasant metallic tang.

Dinner was another one-pot meal: pasta in a cheese sauce that looked and tasted a bit like papier-mâché, but at least it was food. Brown, thank God, produced an Italian salami from his backpack like a magician. It was greasy and garlicky, and nothing had ever tasted so good.

DAY THREE We had planned our itinerary so that on the third day we'd arrive at our campsite at lunchtime and have the afternoon free. When David, Nathan, and Brown took off to swim in a nearby lake, I stayed behind. Ironically, out in the middle of nowhere, what I needed most was a little privacy. All that quality time with friendswas exhausting.

Deciding to get a (literally) fresh start, I scrubbed myself and my clothes in the nearby creek while the sun was still hot. Following today's environmentally correct method, I washed a good distance from my water source, a process that required a cook pot (used as a bucket) and a lot of patience. Nevertheless, my mood instantly improved.

Breaking Rule No. 4, I headed toward a nearby peak alone. Without my backpack, I felt released from gravity's pull. (I'd also broken Rule No. 1 and filched some trail mix from one of the bear-proof canisters.) I went higher, to the next peak, then on up to the next. I was agile, surefooted, filled with confidence. I'd found my backpacking legs again.

DAY FOUR Turned out I needed those legs, and that confidence, the next day. The morning was easy, with gentle ups and downs through forest and meadow. And we all had more energy, thanks to a breakfast innovation of my own: tossing trail mix into the instant oatmeal.

We gained in elevation and were soon above the tree line. The narrow trail zigzagged up a steep and slippery red-shale slope, devoid of any vegetation, and the sun beat down relentlessly. It must have been in the nineties, and there was no shade to be found. Only Brown seemed impervious to the heat. When the rest of us reached the pass at the top of the peak, he was ready with his camera to take a group picture. To the east and south, the mountains stretched on without a break until they just faded away. Everything, even the sky, was bleached out. Brown set the timer on his camera and joined us. Arms slung over shoulders, we smiled as the shutter clicked. I was proud of myself, and of my companions, for all we'd accomplished.

DAY FIVE Late in the day, we arrived back at the Tuolumne Meadows public campsite tired, dusty, and very hungry. I don't know if I had released my feral self on our wilderness trip, or if it was protein deprivation, but I headed straight for the Tuolumne Meadows Grill and overcame a longtime aversion to red meat with two double cheeseburgers. I felt 10 years younger, and had easily lost five pounds.

After the return drive to San Francisco and the flight home, it was delightful to be back in my own bed. Visions of tomorrow's bagels and lattes dancing in my head, I added one more rule to Nathan's list: "Select your trail partners as wisely as you choose your equipment. You'll be depending on one another for survival." I'd certainly invite Nathan, David, and Brown camping again, but next time we'll hire a porter to carry wine, cheese, and a week's supply of salami.


Before You Head to a National Park...

36 Get expert advice, on-line and over the phone, from these top sources: The National Park Service (202/208-4747; www.nps.gov) provides essential information on America's parks. Gorp (877/440-4677; www.gorp.com) delivers frequent updates on parks and forests, as well as overnight options with detailed reviews. American Park Network (212/581-3380; www.americanparknetwork.com) gives wildlife advisories and advice about hiking trails, local activities, and photography. National Parks (www.nationalparks.com) offers comprehensive guidance on area attractions, permit and fee requirements, and ranger-station contacts.

—Jennifer V. Cole


Luxury Camping

For those who love the great outdoors but not its sometimes irritating inconveniences (say, the lack of running water), a growing number of campsites and wilderness tours are offering amenities ranging from preassembled tents and comfortable beds to gourmet food and spa treatments. Here's a sampling:

37 Santa Barbara, California: El Capitan Canyon

Sleep in one of 26 raised-platform safari tents, outfitted with willow beds, woven rugs, and wood decks. The campground offers surfing lessons and kayak outings in the Pacific; less adventurous visitors can take yoga classes or float in the heated pool.

TWO-PERSON TENTS $135; 866/352-2729; www.elcapitancanyon.com

38 Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina: Wind Dancers Lodge & Llama Treks

Gale and Donna Livengood use a team of llamas to shuttle provisions to a stream-straddling dining pavilion on their 270-acre wilderness preserve. After a four-course meal, guests can retire to a suite at the lodge or continue up the mountain for a night under the stars.

DINNER AND LUNCH EXCURSIONS $40, OVERNIGHT TRIPS $150 A PERSON; 877/627-3330; www.winddancersnc.com

39 Bryson City, North Carolina: Falling Waters Resort

This hillside camp occupies another tranquil spot from which you can raft, bird-watch, hike, and explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Each of the eight yurts—Mongolian-style cabins—brings B&B character to the wilderness, with four-poster or sleigh beds, hardwood floors, and a mini-fridge.

TWO-PERSON YURTS $72; 800/451-9972; www.fallingwatersresort.com

40 Glen Rose, Texas: Buck's on the Brazos

At this site some 65 miles southwest of Dallas, the two-room canvas tents come with queen-sized beds and a prepared campfire; camp cooks can be hired to cater meals. Swim in the Brazos River, ride horseback at the adjacent Broken O Ranch, or rent a set of clubs at the Squaw Valley Golf Course—one of the best public courses in Texas.

DOUBLES $100; 254/898-2825; www.buckbrazos.com

41 Winchester Bay, Oregon: Umpqua Lighthouse State Park

The six recently erected yurts at this seaside park sleep up to seven people each and have kitchens, bathrooms with hot showers, and covered decks with private grills. Out the door: Lake Marie and 500-foot-high sand dunes.

SEVEN-PERSON YURTS $65; 800/452-5687; www.oregonstateparks.org/yurts_deluxe.php

42 Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and more: TCS Expeditions

Why spend the summer behind the wheel when you can visit nine of the West's national parks in two weeks, all by private jet?On board TCS Expeditions' customized 757,geology lectures are presented instead of in-flight movies.

14-DAY EXCURSION $22,950 A PERSON; 800/727-7477; www.tcs-expeditions.com

43 Baldwinville, Massachusetts: Otter River State Forest

Each of the four spacious yurts in this wooded campground along the banks of Beaman Pond in north central Massachusetts sleep four to six and has electricity. Otherwise, this is a typical campground, with tent sites, and visitors need to pack in (and pack out) their own supplies.

SIX-PERSON YURT $30 A NIGHT; 877/422-6762; www.reserveamerica.com

44 Green River, Utah: Dvorak's Kayak & Rafting Expeditions

On Bill Dvorak's Classical Music Journey, an eight-day float down the Green River in eastern Utah, the emphasis isn't on the accommodations or the cuisine, it's on the music: nightly concerts performed by a variety of string quartets in sandstone grottoes and amphitheaters with near-perfect acoustics.

JULY 26-AUGUST 2, $1,874 PER PERSON; 800/824-3795; www.dvorakexpeditions.com

—Gayle Forman and Ted Katauskas


45 GOOD-NATURED Diptyque's hair and body wash, $26; Super Nova tent for three, $369, by Sierra Designs; Garmin's iQue 3600 GPS-PDA combo, $589; iodine-filled cotton swabs, $5, by Swabplus; a multifunction lantern with TV and radio from RedEnvelope, $99; Louis Vuitton's goose-feather sleeping bag, $1,400.

The Umpqua Lighthouse Yurt

Buck's on the Brazos

Falling Waters Resort

El Capitan Canyon

These comfortable cedar cabins—outfitted with Wi-Fi and other 21st-century amenities—are near El Capitan State Beach, a 17-mile drive from Santa Barbara. This elegant camping spot is set in a 2,500-acre nature preserve. The 96 tin-roofed cedar cabins have private bathrooms, jacuzzis, sleeping lofts, fire pits, and kitchenettes, while the 26 canvas-walled safari tents on wooden decks with handcrafted twig furniture and woven rugs share common facilities. After exploring tidal pools on the stony Pacific shore, unwind during an in-room Barefoot Deep Massage. The campground offers surfing lessons and kayak outings in the Pacific; less adventurous visitors can take yoga classes or float in the heated pool