On a Yosemite saddle trip where the mule knew best

My six-day saddle trip in Yosemite National Park came very close to being a dream come true, but there were discrepancies. I had thought of myself swinging easily into the saddle of a spirited horse, pacing along forested trails, galloping across meadows, and dismounting -- with ease -- at the end of the day at a primitive camp, where I would sleep under the stars and eat food cooked over a campfire.

It wasn't quite like that. In the first place we rode mules, not horses, and in the second place, you don't ride a mule, you sit on it. My mule was named Emily, and like other Emilys I have known, she always knew best. Every morning we had to settle the question of who was boss. As soon as I agreed it was emily , we got along fine.

We did indeed pace along forested trails, with emily grabbing a mouthful of grass at every opportunity until she looked like a British colonel just back from India. We didn't gallop across meadows, because meadows in the high country are fragile and must be preserved. As for that elegant dismounting -- well, I fell from my saddle. The camps where we stayed were primitive only by comparison with a first-rate hotel. We didn't eat crouched around a campfire but in a comfortable dining tent.

It wasn't like my dream, but it was easily the most interesting and satisfying vacation I have ever enjoyed.

Six days in a saddle sounds strenuous, and in a way it is, but the beauty of the rides and the comfort of the camps more than make up for any slight discomfort you may feel.

The park service has established six camps in the high country of Yosemite National Park. They are connected by well-maintained trails, which are used primarily by hikers. The camps are 6 to 10 miles apart, which may not seem far to walk in a day, but considering that the elevation ranges from more than 7,000 feet above sea level to 11,000 feet, and the terrain is mountainous, it's quite far enough. It was far enough for me, even on a mule.

There are no roads to these camps, so everything they contain must be packed in. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a remarkable degree of comfort. Each day after we had fallen from opur mounts and collected our allotted 10 pounds of duffel, we went to the camp office, where we were assigned to a tent cabin. These were equipped with comfortable beds, shelves for our belongings, a table and chair, soap, towel, and candles. After a hot shower, we read or walked until it was time for hikers and riders alike to pour into the dining tent for a sumptuous dinner cooked and prepared by the camp crew of college students. In the evenings around the campfire, we sang or swapped tales of our occupations in the real world.

Even allowing for mountain appetites, the meals were excellent and bountiful. A typical breakfast featured orange-and-walnut pancakes with orange syrup, juice , hot cereal, a ham-and-cheese omelet, and hot beverage. At dinner there was soup, salad, an entree with potatoes an vegetables, and some special item such as zucchini bread, and a desert -- often served with shipped cream. Even the sack lunches we carried to eat along the trail contained delights such as raisins and peanuts, as well as the more prosaic sandwich and apple.

The camps offer food for the soul, as well. At Glen Aulin there is a giant waterfall, where the morning sun makes rainbows in the mist. The incredible blue of May Lake is surrounded by dark pines. Sunrise Camp sits high over a green meadow and is backed by a slope of white rock, while the lowest camp, at Merced Lake, is a true forest retreat with a river pool for swimming. My favorite, however, is Vogelsang, meaning birdsong. It sits on a high green meadow cut by a sparkling stream and ringed with mountains.

The camps abound in comfort and beauty. The discomfort of the trail is mitigated by immense vistas and small delights. Imagine a river rushing miles and miles downhill over sheer, white rocks, or a natural rock garden of blue lupin and yellow buttercups set off by a stunted juniper. There are shadowed lakes like blue mirrors, while at the top of every rise you look out to see the sun glancing off snowy peaks. Even the forest is varied with lodgepole pine, yellow ponderosa pine, spruce, hemlock, and silvery quaking aspen.

Most wonderful of all is the clarity of the light. Each tree and rock seems distinct and separate. The sunlight is yellow; the shadows blue. I felt as if I wore a pair of magic spectacles that intensified color and sharpened outlines.

Since wildlife is protected in the park, the woods are full of creatures. In the meadow below Sunrise Camp, squirrels are everywhere and the air is full of birdsong. In every crystal-clear stream I saw trout swimming lazily and occasionally darting to the surface for a meal.

We saw one bear, a cuddly-looking blond one that ambled up the trail to within a few feet of us before deciding that there were too many mules and people for its liking. After taking a small detour up the rocks it went on its way down the trail. Bears in the park are unafraid, which is not the same as being tame. No one feeds them. They are quite clever enough at feeding themselves from your supplies. Campers regularly lose their food to the bears, even when they have taken the precaution of hoisting it high over a limb.

The variety of wildlife is matched by the variety of people. The smaller camps will accommodate about 20 people, the larger as many as 50. Since there were only 10 of us on the mule ride, we met a great many backpackers, ranging in age from an infant, who rode in comfort on his father's back, to great-grandparents. A number of people hiked alone, some of them women. It's as safe as mountain hiking can be. If you should have an emergency, the odds are that another hiker will be along in a few minutes. If you don't show up at a camp where you are expected, the crew first checks by telephone with the other camps, then sends out a search party.

Whether you ride or hike, the camps hold a limited number and reservations must be made early. If you want to hike, but not alone, there are trips guided by park naturalists. These are in great demand and fill up early. Reservations are made by writing to the High Sierra Desk, yosemite Park & Curry Company, Yosemite Park, CA 95389.

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