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The Sierra Skyway
Yosemite National Park and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. By Jim Gorman

Map: Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, and Death Valley National Parks
Click to Enlarge

With so much sprawling alpine country, the Sierra Nevada seems as open and uncharted today as it did when John Muir set out to explore the landscape in the late 1800s. Granted, the uncharted part may have changed since, but the soaring sense of freedom has not. The flower-studded meadows, granite domes, and oversize trees have inspired everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to Ansel Adams. Now it's your turn.

Any proper tour of the Range of Light begins with Yosemite National Park. By all means do the gawking thing with the crowds in the valley—the 3,000-foot (914-meter) cliffs are stunning—but then retreat to the high country for a taste of isolation. Next, saunter south to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to walk among enormous trees and steep-walled cirques. Finally, if you can manage to squeeze another day into your trip (highly recommended!), do a drive-by of Death Valley National Park for some scenery of the sunbaked variety. It's a big tour, and whether you choose to do it all is a decision for later. Sometimes just knowing the possibilities is the mark of real freedom.

Yosemite National Park, CA
North America's highest waterfall (Yosemite Falls), the world's tallest unbroken cliff (El Capitan), and the largest subalpine meadow in the Sierra (Tuolumne): At Yosemite, size matters.

Do-It-Yourself: Yosemite has not one, but two great valleys. Hetch Hetchy, a eight-mile-long (13-kilometer-long), 2,500-foot-deep (762-meter-deep) gorge, was flooded in 1923, but left above the waterline are a host of trademark domes, cliffs, and waterfalls, like the three-stage, 1,400-foot (427-meter) Wapama Falls. To explore the area, set out on a four-day, 23-mile (37-kilometer) backpacking trip up the meandering Tiltill Valley into the open granite country at Lake Vernon. Probe lake chains and isolated tarns with swim trunks on and fishing pole in hand, then return to the trailhead via Beehive Meadow.

Vitals: The Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station issues free wilderness permits (www.nps.gov/yose/wilderness).

Cush: Everyone is searching for the views in Yosemite, but what do you do when you find them? For a different perspective on the valley and a photography field course rolled into one, sign on for the Yosemite Association's "Moonrise Photography Backpack: North Dome." On the three-day course, you'll trek to North Dome to capture Half Dome in the light of a rising full moon.

Vitals: Yosemite Association ($275 for a three-day field course, June 20-22; www.yosemitestore.com).

Guided: The climb to 13,114-foot (3,997-meter) Mount Lyell, the highest point in the park, is the triathlon of Yosemite excursions. It entails backpacking ten miles (16 kilometers) through lush Lyell Canyon on the famed John Muir Trail, roped travel across a glacier, and even a few rock climbing moves with knee-buckling exposure. Your labor is rewarded with a summit vista of hundreds of square miles of craggy wilderness.

Vitals: Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service ($300 for a three-day Mount Lyell trip; www.yosemitepark.com).

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, CA
Home to the world's largest living thing—Sequoiadendron giganteum—the tallest peak in the lower 48, and huge tracts of wilderness, Sequoia and Kings Canyon is a land of giants.

Do-It-Yourself: Running through the heart of Sequoia and Kings Canyon, the Great Western Divide is a granite battlement that separates the lower-altitude sequoia groves from the High Sierra. To breech the rampart and take in both worlds, set out from the Mineral King Ranger Station on a 29-mile (47-kilometer) backpacking loop that links Sawtooth Pass, Little Five Lakes Basin, Black Rock Pass, and Timber Gap. You can do the trip in three days, but pad the schedule with one more to swim, fish, bag a peak or two, and watch the alpenglow.

Vitals: The parks issue wilderness permits online ($15, reservations recommended; www.nps.gov/seki/resform.htm).

Cush: If you're accustomed to luxury camping African safari-style (or could quickly get used to it) you're in luck. At Bearpaw High Sierra Camp, a tent hotel erected 11.5 miles (19 kilometers) deep in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon backcountry, fresh linens and a hot shower are de rigueur. From there, properly feted on French toast and freshly squeezed orange juice, it's four miles (six and a half kilometers) up a quiet alpine valley to the glacier-hewn Tamarack Lake or five miles (eight kilometers) down to Redwood Meadow grove to walk serenely among forest giants.

Vitals: Bearpaw High Sierra Camp ($350; www.visitsequoia.com).

Guided: You're going to do it someday—climb to the highest point in the continental United States, that is. So do Mount Whitney right. Gain the 14,494-foot (4,418-meter) summit via the unsung Mountaineer's Route, a Class III scramble that's an exhilarating alternative to the more common Whitney Trail. The American Alpine Institute leads four-day expeditions that include a day of rock-climbing instruction and downtime at pretty Iceberg Lake. Depending on your interests, you can gain the summit by mountaineering or by climbing the East Face, a classic 5.6 rock route.

Vitals: American Alpine Institute ($720 for a group of three to five climbers; www.mtnguide.com).

Rock Creek Lakes Resort:
Forget the short stack and the greasy Western omelet; the best breakfast in the Sierra is a slice of freshly baked pie from Rock Creek Lakes Resort (www.rockcreeklake.com), off U.S. Route 395 near Mammoth Lakes. Chef Sue King begins kneading dough at 4:30 a.m., and you'll have to arrive soon after if you want a piece of her popular boysenberry or High Sierra-apricot pies.

To read about all seven great park super trips, pick up the June/July 2005 issue!

Subscribe to Adventure today and save 62 percent off the cover price!

Map by Rodica Prato

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, June/July 2005

• Great Parks 2005: Super Tours, Spectacular Lodges
**Win a Safari: Find out how you could win a safari for two by participating in the Muddy Buddy race or attending the screenings of Emmanuel's Gift.
Steroids on Everest: Some climbers are using them to cope with altitude sickness, but at what price?
Guns 'n' Butter: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Caputo talks about his new novel, Acts of Faith.
Pelton's World: Our man on the scene tells when to fight or take flight.
Croatia By Sea: Contributing Editor Jon Bowermaster's dispatches from sea kayaking along the Dalmatian Coast.
"Life's an Adventure" Reader Photo Album: See readers' photos and submit your own.


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June/July 2005

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