Two decades have passed since I first made my way up Kaiser Pass Road, and I've spent every summer since in the High Sierra as a back-country cook in a region that stretches from the north end of Sequoia National Park across the Range of Light and up toward Yosemite. Both the great park itself and the adjoining John Muir Wilderness are magical locales where the kid comes out in everyone. Genuine awe is a common occurrence, and if you don't believe in God, these places just might . . . might . . . change your mind.
These roads don't lead so much to a geographical location as they do to places in yourself, ones that seem as inaccessible as the moon and just beyond your grasp until you decide to make the drive. The way we Orange Countians run our lives can be filled with goal setting and punch lists, stuff that needs to get done for whatever reason or maybe just to make ourselves feel better about our place in the universe. But up in the high country, you can experience "big picture" days, in which the sheer volume of life can take your breath away, and if you factor in the tens of thousands of years this cycle has been going on . . . well, that will put you in your place and inspire you at the same time.
The back country is about something bigger and better than our life in the flat, in which the simple solitude of a lazy day in camp consists of nothing more than beers for breakfast, a pot of campfire chili cooking all day and some fine company without the usual modern interruptions. In addition, realizing that one has nothing to do except, well, nothing can be a mind-bending experience for the uninitiated.
I just made my big, annual trip, snaking my way through the Sierra foothills into Yosemite for a quick visit before heading back south, up and over the 9,100-foot Kaiser Pass to my summer home at Lake Edison in the John Muir Wilderness. It's an annual pilgrimage I yearn for, one that covers the best of both worlds up there. You can experience the amenities and vistas of the park and/or head into the wilderness to commune with silence and solitude.
Should you decide to make the trek northbound from here to Yosemite, Fresno is a great place for a pee break, and if you also feel like catching some grub, I'm a fan of The Shepherd's Inn (935 Santa Fe Ave., Fresno, 559-266-2228; shepherdsinnfresno.com)—formerly the Santa Fe Hotel—which houses one of the last old-school Basque restaurants in town. Drop in at noon for a coldie or three and catch the boarders lunch, a venerated tradition that dates back to when shepherds and hotel guests ate the midday meal at a communal table. Plates overflowing with food are passed back and forth along with straw-covered bottles of cheap table red. All you can eat and drink for 14 bucks? Sign me up!
Just before the south entrance to Yosemite National Park is a great place to pop into if you have some kids in tow who dig trains (or a stunted, maladjusted railroad nerd such as myself). The Stauffer family bought some equipment from the defunct West Side Lumber Co. more than 40 years ago and reopened the old Madera Sugar Pine grade as The Yosemite Mountain and Sugar Pine Railroad (56001 Hwy. 41, Fish Camp, 559-683-7273; www.ymsprr.com). It's a quaint stroll back in time to when iron rails and men of steel fueled the California boom during the early part of the 20th century.
Most people are immediately allured by the epic charm of the valley, but for me, the best-kept secret in Yosemite is Wawona. It's tiny, and if you blink or sneeze, you'll miss it. Generally, folks either drive right through or just stop for gas or groceries. The Redwoods In Yosemite (8038 Chilnualna Falls Rd., Wawona, 877-753-8566; www.redwoodsinyosemite.com), located behind the hotel off Highway 41, rents out some of the best private cabins in the area—perfect for families and groups and easily the best stay in the park itself. And, although people usually associate the Ahwahnee, the grand dame of hotels, with Yosemite, the rustic charm and wide verandas of the Wawona Hotel (2005 Wawona Rd., Yosemite National Park, 209-375-6572) are always calling my name. There's a lot of great things about the hotel, including no cell coverage, no in-room phones and no TVs. It might sound like torture, but it's a great way to unplug and get off the grid. (One note: I categorically refuse to engage this litigious nonsense going on between Delaware North Corporation and Aramark, new park concessionaires, and will be referring to the Yosemite locations by their original—and proper—names.)
But the best thing about the Wawona Hotel? That just has to be the one and only Tom Bopp, Yosemite's resident musical historian and piano maestro. In days of yore, before TV, radio and the Internet, people would entertain themselves in rustic lodges by listening to a musician and visiting. The din of large-screen televisions and piped-in music has long since replaced the hum of idle chit-chat, tinkling of piano keys and the clinking of glassware, but not here. In the evenings, Bopp holds court, as it were, in the main parlor. It's a rare treat to enjoy an ice-cold Manhattan and snack on a cheese plate while you listen to someone as talented as him plying his wares. His repertoire encompasses lyrical stylings from the 1950s back to the late 1800s, many of them attached to interesting tales relating to the history of Yosemite. The parlor itself is wonderful, with warm fireplaces, cozy seating and a vibe that relaxes one to the core. The adjoining history center and Sleepy Hollow-esque covered bridge there are worth the short walk.
While Yosemite may be a visitor-friendly, Disney version of the Sierras, the back country certainly isn't. It's a place to prove one's mettle, watch one's ass and truly get away from the matrix. It's a place populated with people as colorful as the landscape. These are self-reliant country folk who seek the summer solace and confines of an area most flatlanders recoil from because of its inaccessibility. In fact, the reason they couldn't find poor Steve Fossett's body after he wrapped his plane around a tree was because the region is so remote, and nobody in their right mind frequents the rugged area that turned into his unlikely and ironic grave. You can say what you want about the scenic vistas, rushing creeks and evening campfires, but I think the denizens of this area are the real treasure here. Just remember to wave when you pass them on the road, uphill traffic has the right of way, and their whiskey of choice is Kessler.
The trip out of Yosemite, down to Bass Lake and back up the hill again can be a relaxing one, as Highway 168 weaves its way through the foothills and up toward Shaver Lake. It's the largest tourist town as you head to the high country, all but a wide spot in the road with a greasy pizza joint, a couple of gas stations/liquor stores and a few places to grab a brew and a burger. I personally like The Shorthorn (41790 Dorabella Rd., Shaver Lake, 559-841-6464); it's a fitting lair for the locals (akin to Cassidy's in Newport), where the bartender doubles as griddle tender, flipping burgers and pouring draft beers. Farther along the way is Huntington Lake and Lakeshore Resort (61953 Huntington Lake Rd., Lakeshore, 559-893-3193; www.lakeshoreresort.com), which has a great old saloon that doubles as a dance hall on the weekends, hosting the Fresno blue bloods after their regattas on the lake.
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Beyond that, Mono Hot Springs (70000 Edison Lake Rd., Lakeshore, 559-325-1710; www.monohotsprings.com) is a must-stop for a cold beer in front of the store or a bite to eat at the café.
If you're feeling brave, there is always time for a dip au natural in one of the hot springs—mind the mud and marsh. Vermilion Valley Resort (70000 Edison Lake Rd., Mono Hot Springs, 559-259-4000; www.edisonlake.com) is a suitable spot with some lodging basics, a well-stocked store, a hearty café and possibly the finest area for alpine hiking anywhere in the world. Drop in and commune with the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail hikers to catch some tales. Farther up the road (actually at the end of it), High Sierra Pack Station (559-285-7225; www.highsierrapackstations.com), with John and Janese Cunningham as your humble hosts, is a perfect spot to kick off a day ride in the wilderness or, if you feel so inclined, a one-of-a-kind, multiday trip into the most remote nooks and crannies of the region. And the coffee at the pack station is always hot in the quiet confines of the cookhouse, so feel free to sit a spell.
In addition, Florence Lake is a perfect spot to soak up the view, grab an ice cream bar and get a line in the water. On the way is Ward Lake, small in comparison to the others but a dream for a picnic, except for the mosquitos. The whole road is a jaw-dropping experience—so much so that there are shirts that read, "I Survived the Road to Lake Edison." So take your time (and possibly a Xanax) and soak it up.
John Muir said it best: "Going to the mountains is going home." And that's why I've been called back year after year. Embrace your time there. It's called a getaway for a reason, and it's as sure as anything that the time and space will do your head good. Slam some brews, take notes, and heed the gentle voice of the mountains.