The High Sierra Camps – today one of the most popular ways to explore Yosemite’s magnificent backcountry – date back to the earliest days of the National Park Service (NPS).
In 1916, NPS Director Stephen Mather asked Desmond Park Service Company, the concessioner at the time, to build mountain chalets at Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows and Merced Lake. He believed this type of public service would attract people into the park’s high country, thus supporting NPS management objectives to:
- Relieve congestion in the Valley by enabling outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy Yosemite’s wilderness with relative ease and in some degree of comfort,
- Provide a compatible environment in which visitors could be instructed in the tenets of conservation and the objectives of the National Park Service, and
- Clarify the National Park Services’ conservation objectives to the public.
The Desmond Company already owned many lodges in and around Yosemite Valley, and was enthusiastic about the task set forth by Mather. Construction took place during the summer of 1916, with each camp receiving a combination lounge/dining room/kitchen, framed in wood and roofed with canvas. Guest tents provided sleeping accommodations, and the staff consisted of a manager, cook and fisherman. Unfortunately, the Desmond Company went bankrupt in 1917 and the camps closed the following year.
After a re-organization in 1920, the Desmond Company became the Yosemite National Park Company, and in 1923 Yosemite’s superintendent, W.B. Lewis, requested the camps at Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows be reopened as hiker camps. On July 20, 1923, the first organized hiking party to use them left Yosemite Valley guided by a National Park Service naturalist.
In 1923, Superintendent Lewis asked the concessioner to expand the camp system to include sites not accessible by road. He sent naturalist Carl P. Russell on a Sierra Nevada pack trip to choose sites for five additional camps based on the beauty of their surroundings, spacing from other promising campsites, and the availability of water. The five original high camps were located at Little Yosemite Valley, Merced Lake, Tenaya Lake, Booth Lake, and Tuolumne Meadows. All of the camps would consist of a mess and cook tent, and dormitory tents for men and women. Attendants and cooks would staff each camp, with equipment and supplies brought in by mule train.
Almost immediately, it became apparent that horseback riders and hikers favored the camps, which soon became known simply as the “High Sierra Camps.” In 1927, Glen Aulin was created, though it later moved slightly east of its original location due to a mosquito problem. A few years later, the Booth Lake camp was abandoned in favor of Vogelsang, which was established near the junction of the Rafferty Creek and Lyell Fork Trails. In 1940, Vogelsang moved to its current location along the banks of Fletcher Creek. In 1938, the Tenaya Lake camp was closed, and in its place, another was established at May Lake amidst the mountain hemlocks and in the shadow of Mount Hoffman. White Wolf became a part of the High Sierra Camp system in 1951, with Sunrise gaining distinction as the loop’s youngest camp in 1961.
The High Sierra Camps have been significant as an innovative, interpretive concept, luring visitors into the Yosemite backcountry and representing a successful joint venture by NPS and the Park concessioner to encourage travel off the beaten path. Their establishment also marked an early implementation of the Interior Department’s policy of making remote areas of the Park more accessible to the visiting public. To this day, the High Sierra Loop is considered the highlight of the Park’s interpretive services division, educating thousands of visitors each summer in the importance of conservation.
Merced Lake: Established 1916
Vogelsang: Established 1924
Glen Aulin: Established 1927
May Lake: Established 1938
Sunrise: Established 1961