Backpacking the Mokelumne Wilderness in California
Backpacking the Mokelumne Wilderness in California

by Lee Foster

Shortly after midnight the wilderness callers began their song. I was startled awake by a long, plaintive “Aroooohhh” on the slope above our backpack camp. Before the wail had ceased, another caller on a neighboring ridge answered. Soon a half-dozen singers at distant points were calling to each other. For 15 minutes the serenade continued. The entertainers, of course, were coyotes.

For this I had come to the wilderness. In the previous two days I had put one foot patiently in front of the other, climbing through California’s Mokelumne Wilderness, to this wooded shoulder at 8,500 feet, about a thousand feet below Mokelumne Peak. I had entered the wilderness at the Silver Lake Trailhead near Bear Valley Reservoir, on Highway 88 east of Jackson, with a party of six other enthusiasts.

Even without the coyotes, I had already been amply rewarded that night. The stars were bright and clear enough to shock a citified sensibility whose stargazing is usually obscured by urban lights. It was easy to imagine how shepherds and other night vigilants could weave legends about these light points in the sky.

Besides the coyotes or stars, the wildflowers alone were worth this wilderness trip, especially those growing on the bare slope below the rock talus of Mokelumne Peak. Clusters of Indian paintbrush, bush lupine, and tiny gilia carpeted the slope. Deep in the forest the red wildflower called snow plant, actually a mushroom-like saprophyte, brought color to the duff below pine trees. In the moist meadows the corn lily, blue larkspur, and red columbine proliferated.

The botanical richness of Tanglefoot Canyon in the Mokelumne Wilderness was a major treat. In moist Tanglefoot Canyon the bracken fern attained six-foot heights and in neighboring Cole Creek the aspens grew to six-foot diameters. As we gradually climbed the flanks of Mokelumne Peak, our party took much pleasure in keying out the trees, watching as the ponderosa pine gave way to jeffrey pine, the white fir were succeeded by red fir, and the lodgepole pines yielded to silver pines. Stately red fir and mountain hemlock dominated regally the higher slopes. Finally, on the most exposed and windswept locations, struggling and dwarfed whitebark pines clung tenaciously to the rocky soil. (Though a massive fir tree standing straight up is impressive, equally poignant is a dead fir tree on the ground, disintegrating slowly, with the help of fungi, termites, and your own footsteps, to form organic soil.)

This wilderness enticed me with views of the Sierra Nevada in its granite splendor. From the top of Mokelumne Peak I looked north to the Desolation Wilderness and Pyramid Peak near Lake Tahoe, east to the Carson Range in Nevada, south to the High Country of Yosemite, and west to the Mokelumne Gorge, which happens to be the watershed where dams impound the daily drinking water of my East Bay community. When I made the trip, in July, there were scattered snow patches in the mountains. It is easy to imagine how “snowy mountains,” or Sierra Nevada, struck the Franciscan Padre Font as an appropriate name as he looked east from the Central Valley in April 1772. The brief summer growing period here offers only 40-70 frost-free days, so the fecund plant growth is a frenetic race to perpetuate the species between the times of heavy winter snowpacks. In the Mokelumne Wilderness, which lies roughly east of the Golden Gate, the snowpack is heavier than at any other section of the Sierra, due to the climate pattern. Consequently, glaciers during the ice age reached their maximums here, fully 80 by 40 miles at one time.

Everywhere the glacier-scraped granite face of the Sierra was apparent. Granite, spare of trees, and a summer climate with minimal rain are the two most distinguishing characteristics of the Sierra, compared to other mountain ranges. At night, the granite of the Sierras, washed in moonlight, presents an alluring aura that contrasts sharply with the majestic look of the mountains in strong sunlight.

Wilderness backpacking affected me deeply because for four days I saw no people other than our party. We were not misanthropes or even weary of civilized life, as John Muir was when he called on wilderness to help him throw off “the galling harness of civilization.” No, the wilderness was simply an alternative view, a surprising, satisfying solitude. Such landscapes still exist in California, despite some 32 million inhabitants, where you can walk four days in an inviting botanical garden and find images only of nature. The Mokelumne Wilderness happens to be one of the lesser-used wildernesses of California. At the top of Mokelumne Peak there is a small brown notebook where climbers record their thoughts. Though the first entries were from 1977, the notebook was not yet filled. Apparently, macho backpackers bypass the 9,000-foot Mokelumne Wilderness in their rush to stand in line at the trailheads of more rarefied Sierra elevations at 12,000 feet.


I came to the wilderness also to see how self-reliant I could be, how well I could survive in a simplified existence with all my life-support systems on my back. With what self-confidence would I emerge? Two backpackers in our group (my son, Bart, and another adult, Larry Lamoreux) were expert, and I benefited from their skills. At the higher altitudes they found two water sources that I had not counted on. Rich with water, we could be luxurious in our consumption. We found our way during two days of bushwhacking in trail-less areas along Cole Creek, navigating around giant boulders and through buckbrush tangles, stopping occasionally to watch the wild trout disport themselves while searching for caddis fly larvae and other foods. When the heat oppressed us, we too swam in the clear mountain pools. After four days on the trail, our party emerged from the wilderness with no incident more serious than a couple of small blisters. However, the severity of this wilderness was such that an inept, reckless, or unlucky hiker could die in a day in the hot sun without water. If you broke a leg in the wilderness, jumping from boulder to boulder with a 40-pound pack, only a helicopter could get you out.

The wilderness has many pleasures, and I wish they were more than vicariously available to all. Enter the Sierra wilderness only if you are in good shape, able to carry yourself and a backpack over distances at high altitude. Gear up adequately with attention to detail. Seek out an experienced fellow backpacker as your initiator into this drama rather than go it alone. And then listen for the serenade of the coyotes high on the slopes, shortly after midnight.


Backpacking in the wilderness is not a casual undertaking. You must gear up properly, observe certain etiquette, and develop adequate skills. (One consistently reputable supplier of gear, which can also be ordered through their catalog, is REI, 1338 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, CA; 415/527-4140.)

Gearing up begins with your boots. Take your time at a competent backpacking store to judge the merits of traditional heavy leather boots vs. the new lightweight boots. If the terrain you’ll cover will be off-trail, you may prefer heavy leather boots, as I do. Regardless, break in your boots thoroughly before going. Wear a thin inner liner sock of polypropylene and a thick outer sock of wool. Carry a spare pair of both socks.

Your backpack must be big enough to carry everything you’ll need, though never carry more than 25 percent of your body weight or you’ll tire. Every pound that you carry will be noticeable as your heart pounds during an ascent, so keep the weight down as much as possible, and forget entirely that it would be pleasant to open a bottle of cabernet with dinner. In practice, carry everything that is essential, but struggle to keep that essential list to the minimum.

My checklist is divided into Clothing, Shelter, Kitchen, Hygiene, and Other.

Clothing: boots, 2 pair liner socks, 2 pair wool socks, 1 pair pants and underwear, long underwear, 1 long-sleeved shirt, 1 heavy flannel shirt, felt sun hat, large poncho (that covers me and pack), bandanna (to wipe sweat), wool knit hat, cotton gloves, and down jacket in stuff bag.

Shelter: plastic groundcloth with grommets (to make shelter in rain), sleeping bag in stuff bag, ensolite sleeping pad, mosquito netting.

Kitchen: stove in nested pots, fuel bottle, matches in waterproof kit, steel Sierra cup, spoon, large stir spoon (for dehydrated food pouches), Swiss pocket knife, plastic quart water canteen, Martec water filter, collapsible water carrier, pot scrubber, vial of detergent, paper towels, food.

Hygiene: plastic bag (with small towel, small soap bar, toothbrush and paste, floss, toilet paper), trowel (to dig hole for human waste, also to prevent fires from spreading), plastic wash basin.

Other: backpack and straps, 50 feet of thin nylon rope (to hang food from tree, make shelter if needed), daypack, first aid kit (aspirin, bandages, Cutter insect repellent, tape, “space blanket” to keep warm in an emergency, sunblock, lip sunblock, safety pin, tweezers for splinters, small scissors), nature book, notebook and pen, camera and film, plastic bags (for trash carryout), large plastic bag (to cover pack in rain), map and compass, small flashlight, whistle (to locate people in emergency), 30 feet of fishline (with float, sinker, and hook). Store all small objects in plastic bags.

Backpacking the Mokelumne Wilderness in California
Backpacking the Mokelumne Wilderness in California

If you haven’t slept in a sleeping bag for some time, practice it before backpacking. You may want to put a sheet or a pair of thin pajamas in your bag if you don’t like sleeping next to nylon. A square of mosquito netting to cover your face will also increase comfort.

A quart plastic water bottle will carry you for a half day or so. Unless your water source is a bonafide spring or a fast-moving stream with no humans above you, filter the water or boil it for five minutes, which takes fuel. I carry a Martec filter that fills my plastic bottle in about 10 minutes, a good pause for some reading. Water boiled in the morning for oatmeal and beverage or in the evening for soup and beverage will prevent dehydration.

For food, nothing equals the prepackaged, dehydrated foods. Typically, try a breakfast of oatmeal and hot cocoa and a dinner of pouched food (soup, beef stroganoff, berry cobbler). For lunch, eat trail mixes of nuts and dried fruit. Little boxes of raisins are handy. Your body will crave calories in the form of sugar or fats more readily than at lower altitudes in more sedentary activities. Sugared soft drinks and margarine on crackers will appeal to you in the wilderness. A can of sardines, oysters, or squid packed in oil is a most welcome hors d’oeuvre on crackers in the wilderness. If you desire something green and fresh after a few days, pack in bell peppers.

While backpacking, don’t plan to cook elaborately. Focus your energy just on boiling water and then hydrating packaged food or soups.

Four main matters of etiquette govern travel in the wilderness. First, pack out all your trash, including the non-burnable foil pouches. A generation ago, burying was thought to be the proper style, but now you carry out everything that you can’t burn. No-trace camping is the goal, leaving the campsite looking as if no one ever stopped there. Second, be careful with fires. Tips for preventing fires will be handed to you in brochures as you register for a camping and fire permit for a wilderness area. Third, dig a hole for your human waste at least 100 feet from a water source so that you don’t contaminate the water. Fourth, never wash yourself or your dishes with soap in a stream or lake. Take the water out with a plastic bucket, wash with soap, and dump the soapy water in soil at least 50 feet from the stream. If everyone observes these simple matters of etiquette, the wilderness will remain pristine.

The skills you need in the wilderness extend beyond common sense. You need to ease yourself into good enough physical shape to make the trip comfortably. Then pace yourself and never overextend yourself. Plenty of rest stops while hiking give you an opportunity to contemplate the flora and fauna. Always travel in parties of two or more in the wilderness so that someone can get help in an emergency. Learn to read the landscape to find water and decipher a map with a compass, absorbing such details as “the contour marks on a typical topographical map are spaced at 80-foot intervals.” Most importantly, if the weather turns nasty, you must know how to keep dry and warm.

If you prepare for a backpacking trip carefully, your memories of the outing will focus on the aesthetic pleasures of the outdoors.


Wilderness areas in four of California’s National Parks (Lassen, Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon) and in several National Forests offer good backpacking opportunities. The Mokelumne Wilderness, for example, is part of the Eldorado National Forest. Additionally, there are good non-wilderness backpacking possibilities in State Parks, especially those with special backpacking or “environmental camping” units.

Here are addresses and phone numbers where you can get information on specific backpacking areas:

National Parks: An overall information sources is:

National Park Service
Fort Mason, Bldg. 201
Bay and Franklin Streets
San Francisco, CA 94102

The individual parks are:

Lassen Volcanic National Park
P.O. Box 100
Mineral, CA 96063-0100

Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks
Three Rivers, CA 93271

Yosemite National Park
P.O. Box 577
Yosemite National Park, CA 95389

National Forests: The National Forests include 22 of the 51 areas in California designated as wilderness. In acreage, this amounts to 2.1 million of the 3.1 million-acre total. Maps of a given National Forest can be sent to you for a fee if you write the appropriate office.

The overall National Forest information source is:

U.S. Forest Service
630 Sansome St., Room 807
San Francisco, CA 94111

Here are National Forests with wilderness areas:

Cleveland National Forest (Agua Tibia wilderness area)
10845 Rancho Bernardo Rd., Suite 200
San Diego, CA 92127-2107

El Dorado National Forest (Mokelumne, Desolation)
3070 Camino Heights Dr.
Camino, CA 95709

Inyo National Forest Wilderness (Golden Trout, Hoover, John
Muir and Minarets)
P.O. Box 430
Big Pine, CA 93513

Klamath National Forest (Marble Mountain, Salmon-Trinity Alps)
1312 Fairlane Rd.
Yreka, CA 96097

Lassen National Forest (Caribou, Thousand Lakes)
55 S. Sacramento St.
Susanville, CA 96130

Los Padres National Forest (Ventana, Santa Lucia, San Rafael)
6144 Calle Real
Goleta, CA 93117

Mendocino National Forest (Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel)
420 E. Laurel St.
Willows, CA 95988
Modoc National Forest (South Warner)
800 W. 12th St.
Alturas, CA 96101

San Bernardino National Forest (Cucamonga, San Gorgonio, San
1824 S. Commercenter Circle
San Bernardino, CA 92408-3430

Sequoia National Forest (Domeland, Golden Trout)
900 W. Grand Ave.
Porterville, CA 93257-2035

Shasta-Trinity National Forests (Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel,
Salmon-Trinity Alps)
2400 Washington Ave.
Redding, CA 96001

Sierra National Forest (John Muir, Kaiser, Minarets)
1600 Tollhourse Rd.
Clovis, CA 93611

Stanislaus National Forest (Emigrant, Mokelumne)
19777 Greenley Rd.
Sonora, CA 95370

For State Parks information, contact:

California State Parks System
P.O. Box 942896
Sacramento, CA 94296-0001



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