So the Season Begins: Backcountry Camping

It is that time of year again. Temperatures have reached the triple digits, desert adventures have gone into hibernation mode, the cooler runs non-stop as weekdays take on that lethargic summer pace. But when the weekend comes, we head for the hills seeking the shade of those swaying pines, the cool relief of glacial waters and that rejuvenating alpine air. And so it begins. Our mountain season and backcountry camping.

Mt. Goode and Long Lake

Early summer in the High Sierra doesn’t exactly fit that iconic image of summertime camping. The hot summer season may be in full swing in the valleys below, but those high mountain peaks and passes are still covered in snow. The trails are a soggy, muddy mess. Trees and meadows are dormant and brown and all those beautiful lakes are still frozen over. Yet, it is a life-giving moment to step foot on that muddy trail after months of being away. Breathing in the fresh mountain air, sun at your back, wind on your cheeks…it always feels like coming home.

It was the end of May when we headed out on this first backpacking trip of the season. Several weeks have come and gone since we set up camp on the frozen shores of Long Lake. By now the ice has probably melted and nature’s workers have undoubtedly been busy bringing new life to the brown landscape. That elusive Time…constantly slipping through my grasp! But this trip was one of those pauses where Time stands still just long enough to get your bearings, to reconnect with yourself and commune with nature. I do so enjoy reliving those moments.

For this first trip of the season we decided on a short backpack along the Bishop Pass Trail out of the South Lake area, just southwest of Bishop. We planned to camp at Long Lake, a long-time favorite spot of ours with a classic view of Mt. Goode. Since photography was the focus for this trip, Hubby thought it might be a nice spot for capturing a stellar view of those rugged granite peaks. Being a long weekend for us both, we had three full days and two nights to relax and take it all in. So, with an eager step and a heavy pack, we hit the trail.

Bishop Pass TrailBishop Pass Trail
Mt. Goode from Long Lake

Though the lake was frozen and the landscape still in the brown stages of the late spring thaw, the temperature was comfortable and warm enough to begin melting the ice along the lake shore. We established our camp beneath the pines, then explored the area in that wandering, pondering pace I so adore.

Camping at Long Lake, Sierra Nevada

I always feel so at home in a backcountry camp. I love scouting out that perfect spot, aligning the tent for the best view, locating the perfect hang-out rock, arranging things just so. And, of course, every perfect campsite needs a great backcountry kitchen. Which doesn’t require much, when you think about it. Armed with only a single, little pot/stove, a spoon, a fork and a box of matches with which to create some sort of satisfying and tasty one-pot-wonder…this camp cook really doesn’t need much in the way of kitchen space. But I do always appreciate a great cooking rock.

Backcountry Kitchen, Long Lake, Sierra Nevada

There was a point in time when my husband and I spent nearly every summer weekend in a backcountry camp of some sort. It wasn’t long before the convenience of a pre-packaged, dehydrated backpacker’s meal no longer balanced out the torture of choking it down. In those days, I put quite a bit of time and effort into searching for recipes and hunting down ingredients to prepare my own homemade backcountry meals. We had a few favorites, but over time even those became hard to swallow. These days, time is always scarce and I scramble to find anything in the grocery store that will function in the role of a single-pot-just-add-water meal. Not to mention the fact that healthy food resources are limited in our small town, so we are forced to relax our dietary standards a bit, too.

This trip’s meal was a happy accident. A tasty one. I love it when that happens! I was in a flustered rush to pack and prepare for this trip. Failing to plan ahead, I hit the grocery store aisles with absolutely no idea what to grab for backcountry dinner prep. I found a flavored pre-cooked rice and grain blend, in an easy-open pouch. I grabbed some corn tortillas and shredded cheese. At home, I found a little can of organic chicken in the cupboard that I tossed in at the last minute. I hoped and prayed it would turn into something packable and edible.

Well, it wasn’t pretty (those one-pot wonders never are), but we ended up with a chicken enchilada casserole so tasty and satisfying it really made that first evening at camp feel like home.

Backcountry Cooking
Backpacking Meals

Notes to self for next time:

  • The pouch of precooked rice does add some weight to your pack and contains some flavor ingredients that could probably be avoided by using a few simple spices to make your own custom blend at home. Quick-cooking, dehydrated rice would also help to lighten the load.
  • I really try to avoid dairy in my diet, but I must admit that the cheese really made this meal. The shredded cheddar barely made it to dinner time, though. Next time, try those little wax-wrapped cheddar rounds and the cheese will probably hold up a little longer (if it’s not too warm). And this dish should definitely be consumed for dinner on day one.
  • I originally thought I would use the corn tortillas to make a taco of sorts. Hubby said just tear ’em up and throw ’em in! This worked great and was easy to eat right out of the pot.
  • I added some chicken bouillon to the rice for extra flavor. Totally unnecessary and made it a little too salty. The pre-packaged rice had plenty of flavor.
  • Easy clean up for this meal. The pot rinsed easily with no residual dinner odors to flavor tomorrow morning’s coffee. Definitely a plus :)
  • Next time, I think I’ll try to make my own healthier version with dehydrated rice. And some refried black beans, perhaps?

When you are camping, primitive or not, it is essential to bring along something yummy for dessert. Fortunately, I had recently made a chocolate-orange version of our favorite healthy homemade treats, so they happened to be ready and available in my flustered, last minute packing. It just tops off a beautiful day, that little morsel of something sweet to savor as the sun sets on your peaceful outdoor retreat.

Sunset at Long Lake, Sierra Nevada

Once the sun sinks behind that granite ridgeline, we usually head to the tent for a good night’s sleep. It used to be we would rise with the morning sun and hit the trail to climb one of those High Sierra peaks. Lately, our focus has turned to the night sky as the season for capturing that galaxy core is about to come to an end. So, instead of a good night’s sleep, we took a little nap, rising with the stars to wander and wonder in the midnight hours.

The thing I have come to enjoy about these sleepless midnight adventures is coming back to the tent, curling up snug in your sleeping bag and snoozing late into the day. After this sort of leisurely snooze time, we got up the next day and took a short hike to scout out nearby Ruwau Lake as a possible location for the next Milky Way photo shoot. We scouted around, then hiked on to the summit of nearby Chocolate Peak. At about 11,700 feet with an easy class 2 route, it is not an impressively grand Sierra giant, by any means. But we do always enjoy this hike and that feeling of freedom one finds in the view from any of these granite peaks.

Ruwau Lake
Chocolate Peak Summit, Sierra Nevada

Returning to camp we puttered and lazed about, prepared another backcountry dinner (simple soup, this time), then sat together watching the evening clouds until the sun set on another beautiful day.

Camping at Long Lake, Sierra Nevada


Clouds, Sierra Nevada

This night, we rose at 1:00 a.m. and hit the somewhat snowy trail to Ruwau Lake. Not exactly comfortable hiking in the dead of night, it proved to be quite an adventure for me. Once at the lake, I did my best to relax into the rhythm of Hubby’s night sky photography. It was cold and I longed to be in motion, simply to stay warm. But I tell you, to watch the Milky Way rise over a frozen mountain lake surrounded by granite peaks, to watch it slowly move across the sky, then fade into the early morning light…what an experience! I am quite sure I would gladly do it again.

The next morning, we slept late then packed up camp to head back to the daily grind. It is always so hard to say good-bye to a peaceful, cozy backcountry camp. However, that quiet peace of solitude, the cool shade of swaying pines, the meandering pace of a mountain stream, the wonder, the awe, the adventure…it all seems to follow you home. It refreshes, rejuvenates and revitalizes your energy as you move into another busy week.

Bishop Pass Trail, Sierra Nevada

I am so grateful for these adventures. I am so thankful for this season. They say that home is where the heart is…well, in these backcountry camps, my heart is always home.

Milky Way Near Ruwau Lake, Sierra Nevada

Where is your heart most at home? Find it. Live it. Love it :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s