We were less than three minutes into our backpacking trip when the first tantrum erupted. Herbie, our eight-year-old, moaned that his pack was too heavy and threw it on to the floor of the car park. Only 112 miles to go, I thought. We might be embarking on a nightmare.
We knew our two-week hike through the Sierra Nevada was ambitious, but we’d been working towards it for some time. My husband, Will, and I are hardy campers, and have gradually won the enthusiasm of the kids (Herbie and his older brother, Artley, 11) when it comes to day hikes of 10 to 15 miles. Backpacking demands a love of camping and the outdoors, a high tolerance of dirt and discomfort, and some advanced organisational skills – including food planning, map reading and a near-obsessive preoccupation with lightweight kit. For this trip, we will be carrying everything our family needs to survive: tent, sleeping stuff, clothes, food (in bear-proof canisters), torches, first aid and water filters. For backpacking with kids, we also bring generous amounts of patience, most of our annual quota of optimism and a determination to enjoy it. And snacks. Lots of snacks.
The gentle, chalky undulations of Sussex will always feel like home to me, but since we moved to California five years ago, we’ve become enthralled by the mountains. The Sierra Nevada range is incomparable in scale and grandeur, and there’s no better way to see it than to earn every spectacular vista with your own hard walking. This was how the Sierras captured the imagination of John Muir, the Scottish-American mountaineer, writer and conservationist: his eponymous trail stretches more than 200 miles from Yosemite down to Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States at about 14,500ft.
At the time of our trip last year, official advice on outdoor recreation in California during the pandemic was contradictory. Some state agencies advised against nonessential travel; others, notably national parks such as Yosemite, were still issuing wilderness permits, while asking hikers to wear masks and socially distance. Most hikers we met were following this guidance, as well as minimising resupply stops in rural communities and not hiking out of state.
Experienced hikers tackle the full John Muir trail in three weeks, but we planned to cover the northern half in two, starting at the halfway point near Florence Lake. The trail snakes along the backbone of the High Sierra, past alpine lakes and over mountain passes, through dusty pine forests and lush wildflower meadows.
We set expectations before we started: this would be tough, but worth it. It was important to hand some control to the kids so they felt empowered, which usually meant they walked at the front. They would have the map, decide when to stop for snacks (often), and choose which lakes to jump into. This tactic also resulted in Herbie nearly standing on a 4ft rattlesnake on our first day, though luckily it was early morning and the snake was half asleep. It was an eye-opener to watch her ooze across our trail, and a healthy reminder to look where you put your feet. As for bears, California killed off its grizzlies a century ago and the remaining black bears are quite shy; there’s also no chance of seeing any when your children are chanting Dumb Ways To Die for hours on end.
Each morning we talked about what was ahead, emphasising swimming holes and letting the kids choose when and what we ate. Hiking food needs to be calorie-rich, but also comforting. We usually started the day with porridge, ate wraps and peanut butter at lunch, and then boiled water to make a large ready meal for dinner. We packed endless granola bars, some raw cake mix for pudding, and countless “surprise” sweets to raise spirits in dark moments. It’s hard to moan when you’re sucking a Werther’s.
Our second day was Artley’s 11th birthday. We gave him small, gift-wrapped pictures of his presents, so he had something to unwrap (they were too heavy to bring with us), and after dinner I wedged a candle into his freeze-dried astronaut’s ice-cream sandwich. We woke up at Senger Creek, an exquisite wildflower meadow on the edge of the forest, and planned rock jumping later that day. (And yes, the activity always leaves me racked with fear, but we have a “system” where they have to thoroughly check the depth of the water and potential obstacles underneath, and we have a very deliberate conversation about it every time.) The Sierra’s lakes are beautiful, ice-cold and often trimmed with snow, but these boys are insulated with joy, so I learned to soften my worries. I liked to call these pit stops “the Sierra Nevada foot spa”, easing off the hiking boots and ecstatically plunging my feet into the ice-cold water. To our delight, our halfway point at Red’s Meadow revealed a natural hot spring, perfect for aching feet and legs.
For two weeks, we didn’t have to worry about managing video game time. Instead, the boys built dams and bridges across streams, climbed and swam, and one lunchtime, spent an hour slapping sleepy flies and feeding them to the wild brown trout. Tantrums were far outweighed by extraordinary bursts of energy and enthusiasm, particularly when we’d been slogging uphill for hours and then got a “summit surge” as a mountain top finally came into view. One night, our planned camp spot turned out to be plagued by mosquitoes, and it was Herbie who decided we needed to push on. He led his astonished parents up another 1,000ft to the idyllic, bug-free Virginia Lake at the top of the hill. I won’t ever underestimate what my children can do again.
By the time we’d finished, we had walked 112 miles, averaging 10 miles a day, with a total of 19,300ft of climbing and 23,000ft of descent. We had crossed five mountain passes, the highest of which was Donohue at 11,066ft, and endured relentless mosquitoes, persistent blisters and terrible sleep. But we were right to be confident about our kids’ abilities. They will, I hope, benefit from some invaluable life skills: understanding what they are truly capable of; how perseverance leads to bigger rewards later on; and what it feels like to be encouraged and supported so that they can achieve something great. As an overwhelmed parent, I’m often tempted to do things for my kids because it’s the quickest way to get things done. But, as ever, the best thing is that I sit with them, and patiently help them to do it. By the end of the trip, they were cooking dinner, putting up the tent and making tea.
The hike ended as it had begun, with Herbie refusing to carry his pack and complaining about his feet hurting. This time he had good reason; we were on the notorious 5,000ft descent into Yosemite valley on an unusually hot day. We were all exhausted and aching, so we just pushed on, one foot in front of the other, promises of all the ice-creams you can eat and a slap-up dinner propelling us to the end.
Our adventure wasn’t quite over once we arrived in the Yosemite valley. As the sun began to fade, Will had managed to find a hotel room at Yosemite Valley Lodge – which meant a three-mile walk to the other end of the valley. The only transport was an abandoned courtesy bike, so we comically loaded it up with our backpacks and a very sleepy Herbie, put our head torches on and wheeled our filthy, exhausted and delirious family through the darkness towards sleep.
Six months later, and all trail travails have been forgotten. It took at least a week to scrub away the persistent Sierra Nevada dust, and the blisters have mostly healed. The intensity of the challenge has faded for the children, and in its place is pride about what they achieved. Herbie says he’d like to do a hike in Australia next, “because there are more dangerous animals there”. And Artley says he’s ready to do the second, southerly half of the John Muir, which means summiting Mount Whitney. Let’s hope we can keep up with him. When we eventually move back to the UK, we’ll come with a renewed sense of appreciation for the places we can explore: the West Highland Way, Hadrian’s Wall, and the South West Coast Path.
Californians will tell you the mountains aren’t only for recreation. If you do it right, even with kids, it’s a spiritual experience. I woke one night for a pee, wrestling out of my sleeping bag while my family snoozed, and stepped outside into a transcendent stillness, a star-filled night so calm and clear and noiseless that my mind tried to invent a background hum to fill it. Exploring these mountains is magical. That’s the real gift we gave our children.